RFID For the Cold Chain
By David Vaczek
As companies assess their cold-chain practices, RFID-based temperature-monitoring
systems offer inherent advantages when compared with standard
RFID-enabled data loggers have yet to be widely deployed, yet
the need to protect high-value, temperature-sensitive drugs will
focus increasing attention on RFID cold-chain solutions, says
Gene Fedors, vice president, education programs, RFID Technical
Institute Inc. (Hatboro, PA).
“RFID is shaping up to be a very effective solution to
an acute problem—the protection of high-value substances
that can go bad in a relatively short period of time and at a
very high cost,” Fedors says.
“RFID-enabled sensors, working with a wireless communications
infrastructure, give you something we never had before. You can
act on negative events and prevent product from going bad. The
more relevant sensory information you receive in real time and
the quicker your ability to respond to adverse conditions, the
more potential value these solutions will have,” he adds.
Solutions will emerge that incorporate infrastructures for temperature
monitoring with capabilities for the tracking of product and
supply-chain ownership, promoting RFID’s cost-effectiveness
in the cold chain.
“Temperature sensors add another dimension of value to
RFID. Having one solution for temperature tracking and one for
supply-chain tracking will be too expensive. Over time, there
will be one infrastructure that is dynamic and flexible enough
to handle multiple tracking metrics,” says Fedors.
In semipassive solutions, tags are programmed to wake up and
record events at intervals, providing periodic snap shots of
a shipment’s status. A tag LED light signals deviations
from programmed temperature ranges. RFID readers wirelessly access
the tag data—typically at the end of a shipment—for
downloading to analysis software.
“These systems use much lower-cost, simpler tags. The
chips can be programmed using RFID, and RFID is used to extract
the information noninvasively. You can track temperature in relation
to time and location, but you have to manually engage the tags
and download the data,” Fedors says.
Semipassive systems impose “greater responsibility on
training, policy, procedures, and enforcement to ensure proper
execution,” he adds.
Information Mediary Corp (Ottawa) introduced this year a semipassive
tag solution with its credit card-sized Log-ic ECM tags.
(Memphis, TN) is distributing the tags and also offers its ThermAssureRF
wireless temperature recorder with programmable chip and transponder
Henry Ames, director of strategic marketing, Sensitech Inc.
(Beverly, MA), agrees.
“One of the strongest value propositions for RFID in the
pharmaceutical industry will be in the cold chain, because high-value
biologics are the future of medicine. The rate of adoption will
be driven by the intersection of the regulatory environment and
opportunities for return on investment.”
Fedors says that cold-chain RF solutions are falling into two
categories: solutions using active tags with wireless communication
components and stand-alone solutions employing low-cost, battery-assisted
“Active tag solutions provide real-time monitoring and
reporting through the supply chain, but you have the cost and
complexity that goes along with implementing the systems infrastructure.
Semipassive tags provide a similar degree of sensory data and
do not require the extensive infrastructure. But the real-time
response capability is limited. How valuable timely information
is to protecting your cold-chain assets is the dividing line
as to whether you go with one or the other,” Fedors says.
Sensitech offers an active system in its ColdStream Plant-to-Shelf
product. Monitor data is automatically uploaded to remote servers
and on to a Web-based central repository. Users receive views
of time, temperature, and location data that are segmented for
the graphic illustration of events. Users can monitor processes
and temperature patterns in near to real time and receive automatic
alerts via cell phone or pager messaging, such as a temperature
drifting out of range. Segmented data can be analyzed for tracing
deviations from standard operating procedures arising in supply-chain
handling, says Ames.
“When an excursion occurs with a [standard] data monitor,
you are getting the information after the fact. You have to go
back and look at the logistics information to recreate the shipment,” Ames
Fedors says that both types of solutions have their place and
will gain adoption “until such time as active RFID components
come down in price. We will see parallel development, providing
a dual range of solutions. Active-tag continuous-monitoring systems
will be favored for high-value, critical supply items, but there
are plenty of processes where a full infrastructure would not
How will the RFID cold-chain infrastructures develop?
“We are seeing a number of companies that provide real-time
tracking solutions adding sensors to move into the cold-chain
market. I think we will see third-party logistics providers drive
the bulk of the infrastructure build out,” Fedors says.
“3PLs can sell an RFID-tracking solutions as a specialized
service in their global networks, as a very attractive value
proposition. They can then advise their partners as to what pieces
they have to add to complete the solution.”
RFID use in the cold-chain still faces the hurdle of FDA approval,
as the impact of RFs electromagnetic energy on sensitive biologics
has yet to be conclusively demonstrated. Sensitech has launched
a pilot with two drug companies to gauge the impact of its Class
4 tags and readers on biologics.
“We have demonstrated a negligible impact on the temperature
in preliminary tests where we bombarded the product at extreme
proximity and extreme frequency. We now need to test the impact
on the products’ molecular structure,” Ames says.
RFID-enabled temperature systems provide the visibility into
cold-chain processes that shippers require as they seek to meet
regulations emerging worldwide. Both active and passive solutions
make data more accessible by eliminating the need to remove a
data monitor from the package. Through the continuous close-to-real-time
tracking of supply processes enabled by active tag solutions,
quality managers can more quickly identify deviations from standard
package handling procedures and pinpoint the supply-chain mishandling
that is a major cause of shipment-temperature excursions.