RFID Trials Showing Mixed—Although Generally Upbeat—Results

Recent RFID trials are showing mixed results for RFID, with UK retail leader Marks & Spencer declaring its 42-store test a success and preparing to add 80 more test stores next year while Cardinal Health said RFID has "real promise" but a "great deal of additional work needs to be undertaken" before it's practical.

The Marks & Spencer trial is interesting because of the $14-billion M&S chain's history as a longtime RFID proponent. The chain's trial used "throwaway paper labels attached to, but not embedded in, a variety of men's and women's clothing items in stores," according to a report in Silicon.com. "M&S uses mobile scanners to scan garment tags on the shop floor, and portals at distribution centres and the loading bays of stores allow rails of hanging garments to be pushed through and read at speed."

The story quoted an M&S representative as saying that the item-level RFID tagging will hit an additional 80 stories in the spring of 2007 and will be limited to apparel that has an especially wide variety of sizes, with the possibility of "extending RFID tagging to other clothing departments from the autumn of next year."

The trial results for Cardinal Health were somewhat different. The $81-billion Dublin, Ohio-headquartered health-care company tested whether UHF RFID tags "could be applied, encoded and read at normal production speeds during packaging and distribution of pharmaceuticals," according to a statement Cardinal issued Tuesday. On the plus side, the company said that the trial "under real-world conditions has demonstrated that the technology has real promise to provide an added layer of safety" but Renard Jackson?Cardinal's VP/General Manager of global packaging services?was quick to add some serious concerns.

"While our pilot demonstrated that using UHF RFID technology at the unit, case and pallet level is feasible for track and trace purposes, a great deal of additional work needs to be undertaken by stakeholders across the industry to address significant challenges including global standards, privacy concerns and the safe handling of biologics," Jackson said. "Until those challenges are addressed, direct distribution of medicine continues to be the best near-term approach to maintain the highest levels of security and efficiency in the pharmaceutical supply chain."

Cardinal said the trial's online encoding yields 95-97 percent but that the company hoped a process fine-tuning would "produce yields that approach 100 percent."

"Highly reliable unit-level read rates in excess of 96 percent were found when reading individual cases one at a time and when reading units mixed with other products in tote containers prepared for delivery to a pharmacy. However, as expected, unit- level read rates were not found to be reliable when attempting to read units within a full pallet of product," the company said. "While not 100 percent in all situations, case-level data were found to be more reliable during full pallet reads. The combination of business process changes, and further hardware tuning is expected to improve the reliability of case tag reads to 100 percent. But further tests are needed to prove this hypothesis."

Cardinal's read rates varied, but the specific process they used had a strong impact, the company said. "In preparation for delivery to the pharmacy, individual bottles are picked and placed in tote containers with other products that do not have RFID tags. The unit-level read rates from the tote containers being read during the quality control phase were acceptable for track and trace," the statement said. "Additional unit-level read rates while the product was in the tote containers were not found to be reliable during subsequent reading stations at the shipping dock of the distribution center and the receiving doors at the pharmacy."