RFID spreads with feds

BALTIMORE — Defense Department officials envision using radio frequency identification technology to harvest information about the durability of parts used by forces in the field. Meanwhile, Food and Drug Administration officials can see the day when even small doses of drugs will come marked with RFID tags.

Speaking today at a conference, top DOD officials said they would like to eventually use RFID systems to not only manage the department's supply chain but also gather precise information about the deterioration of parts such as Humvee tires in sustained combat operations.

Alan Estevez, DOD's assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for supply chain integration, said tracking the wear on armored Humvee tires, which have a short-life span in combat operations in Iraq, would help the military better manage tire supplies. The collection of such fine-tuned information is a long-term goal. For now, he said he is content to use the technology to track the movement of supplies through DOD's logistics system, Estevez said, speaking at an RFID conference sponsored by EPCglobal Inc., the standards-setting body for RFID users and suppliers.

Suppliers of a limited number of items, including combat rations, that sign new contracts after Oct. 1 will have to tag cases and pallets delivered to the two main DOD distribution depots as of the first day of 2005.

Although the military often sets standards incompatible with commercial users, Esteves said, the department is in sync with the standards used by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has mandated that its top 100 suppliers use RFID tags on cases and pallets starting in January. Because Wal-Mart and the military share many of the same suppliers, such as Procter and Gamble Co. and Michelin, Estevez said it made sense for DOD to use the same standards as Wal-Mart.

FDA officials called on pharmaceutical manufacturers in February to apply RFID tags on bulk packages of drugs, which usually contain 500 to 1,000 pills, in an effort to combat drug counterfeiting. But now they think tags can support more of the drug supply chain, such as individual "unit of use packaging" for patients, said Paul Rudolf, senior advisor for medical and healthcare policy at the FDA.

The FDA has a conflict with the frequency standards set by EPCglobal for tags and readers used by both the commercial and DOD supply chain, Rudolf said. DOD, Wal-Mart and other major retailers, such as the Albertsons Inc. grocery chain, plan to use tags and readers which operate in the 902-928 Mhz frequency band.

Use of that frequency won't work in hospital settings, Rudolf said, because it is also used for telemetry from medical devices. To avoid a conflict between medical telemetry systems and tags used to track drugs, Rudolf said, FDA officials are pushing the use of tags and readers that operate in the 13.56 Mhz range.

Rudolf said multifrequency RFID readers and tags could help resolve frequency conflicts, such as the different bands that FDA officials and DOD officials and retailers plan to use. Officials at Toppan Forms HK of Japan have developed an RFID tag that operates in a wide range of frequencies, including 902-928 Mhz and 13.56Mhz.

Officials in the aerospace industry also expect the ubiquitous use of RFID technology to track parts used on commercial and military aircraft, according to a top official from the Boeing Co., who said he anticipated an Federal Aviation Administration certification later this year to allow the use of RFID tags on operational aircraft.

Boeing and Europe's Airbus SAS plan to jointly develop RFID standards to track aircraft parts, said Kenneth Porad, Boeing's automated identification program manager. The plan is good for business, Porad said, because 70 percent of their suppliers work for both companies.

Porad said Boeing and FedEx Corp. have recently finished a test using RFID tags that operate in the 13.56Mhz range to track parts. Porad added he expected certification of 13.56 tags by the FAA by year end.

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