IBM, teams with Tagsys on RFID for pharmaceuticals

IBM is teaming up with Tagsys SA to offer pharmaceutical companies a chance to test radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to see if it will help them meet a legal mandate in California to uniquely identify all of their medications by 2009.

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IBM is teaming up with Tagsys SA to offer pharmaceutical companies a chance to test radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to see if it will help them meet a California legal mandate to uniquely identify all of their medications by 2009.

The two companies have agreed to jointly create what they're calling a Serialisation Pilot Kit, which would allow pharmaceutical companies to give RFID technology a try without making a commitment to buying all the equipment and related technology needed to meet the mandate, according to John Del Pizzo, global solutions executive for the Sensor & Actuator Solutions division at IBM. The kit, which is slated to be available by mid-December, will include loaned products from both companies that customers must purchase if they decide to commit to using the RFID technology.

"It gives [companies] an opportunity to test out [high-frequency] RFID and see if it's right for them without spending months and multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars doing a tagging pilot," said Del Pizzo. "Instead of buying all the equipment upfront and then going in a different direction and getting stuck with all of it, we'll go in and install the equipment they need, and if they go in a different direction, we'll go in and take all of that back."

Del Pizzo noted that the test kit, which costs $125,000, (£60,000) can be deployed in four weeks. It includes 50,000 high-frequency tags and HF reader stations from France-based Tagsys, along with IBM WebSphere server software to manage the capturing of data and to generate reports. The package also includes IBM services to install and configure the system. The system takes bout four weeks to deploy, IBM said.

Despite the $125,000 price tag for a trial run, the pilot kit might be the best way to quickly get a pilot program up and running, said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata.

"RFID has taken a lot longer to take off than people thought it would," he added. "Five or six years ago, people thought it would be pervasive by now. The cost and complexity is a big part of that. If someone can offer a less painful entry point, they might have more RFID sales down the road."

Pharmaceutical companies might be looking to see how painful that entry point really is going to be. The California law requires drug companies, wholesalers and hospitals to deploy tools for electronically tracing medications by Jan. 1, 2009, in order to make sure that counterfeit medications do not make their way into patients' hands.

There is no specific call for companies to use RFID to mark and trace their pharmaceuticals. Some companies are also considering bar codes, which they may be more familiar with, but that could be a slower process.

The pilot kit will not make companies compliant with the California law. It will provide a way to mark their product packaging and document the related information. However, it will not share that information with business partners and clients, which is another major step in the compliance process.

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