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Tracking Down Improvements: an introduction to Radio Tagging Technology in Life Sciences RTLS

By Kristin Baker, marketing manager, healthcare and life sciences at Schneider Electric.
So what, exactly, is RFID and RTLS technology? RFID stands for “radio frequency identification”. RTLS, or “Real Time Identification System”, is a sister technology, and they both do more or less exactly what their names suggest they do. The technologies are used to track the physical location of objects or people, not unlike the location services on your smartphone.

So where do these technologies fit into the life sciences specifically – and life science facilities? The short answer: in a lot of places. They have a part to play in improving manufacturing productivity. But there’s new ground to be broken with radio frequency technology, too, and there are a host of other areas of the life sciences where RFID technology could potentially be applied to great effect. We’re exploring some of these in more detail below.

RTLS and Product Security
Industry estimates tell us that between two and seven per cent of drug supplies worldwide are counterfeit. While this might not sound like a huge percentage, it does have huge impacts. It’s expensive for the pharmaceutical industry, costing drug companies about thirty billion dollars annually.

But counterfeit drugs and other lapses in product security can do damage beyond the financial. They can harm companies’ reputations, casting them as unreliable and worse – they can put patient safety in serious danger. RFID and RTLS technology can help combat these risks by supporting serialisation of products, which allows pharmaceutical companies to track drugs from their manufacturing all the way through the rest of the supply chain: this makes it easier for companies to detect and deter potential counterfeiting, and improves companies’ ability to manage inventory, reducing the risk that products will get lost or stolen and literally saving pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars. It also makes it easier to conduct drug recalls, an important benefit for patient safety.

RTLS and Manufacturing Quality and Productivity
Quality control is a hugely important part of the life sciences industry, and it’s an area where RFID and RTLS can be put to great use. Radio frequency technology can be an effective and reliable method of tracking and verifying both manufacturing processes and finished products in pharmaceuticals. Its biggest benefit comes from its ability to store a lot of information. A radio frequency tag can be encoded with product numbers, date stamps, physical attributes, and many other pieces of information which can be used to collect data and improve product quality. It also makes it easy to track inventory and manage assets; for example, when a forklift is needed to get products moving on to the next stage of the supply chain, RFID tagging makes sure that its location and availability are visible.

RTLS and Research and Development Productivity
The world of pharmaceuticals is full of constant improvements – and the more productive research and development is, the more of those innovations are made. Though it may not seem an intuitive connection, radio frequency technology can be used in a number of ways to increase R&D productivity.

Monitoring space usage can help ensure that research groups have an appropriate amount of space to conduct their work, and allows building management to increase or decrease that amount as necessary. Radio tagging allows measurement of collaboration between R&D groups, to allow problems between groups to be addressed as early as possible and help building management figure out what spaces are the most effective at promoting groups’ working together. Last, but certainly not least, RFID technology makes it easier to manage both assets and consumables. Research equipment and the components used to conduct that research are often expensive, and radio tagging reduces the risk that those things will be lost or taken, and makes it easier for research teams to track availability.

Radio Tagging and Energy Efficiency
Increasing energy efficiency is one of the biggest concerns for building management in all industries, both for reasons of environmental sustainability and cost reducing. Life science facilities have particularly high rates of energy consumption, making an increase in efficiency a necessity both financially and environmentally. Radio frequency identification technology can help with this in a number of ways.

In particular, RFID technology has a lot of promise for improving HVAC systems -heating, ventilating, and air conditioning – which are already integrated into building management systems in most life science facilities. For example, it could allow automatic shut-off of HVAC utilities when radio tagging technology detects that a space is unoccupied. For high-population areas, these automatic controls can prevent use of an area until there are enough people in a building to make the energy use worth it, or they can prevent systems from operating at 100 per cent output if they’re not at full occupancy. They also have the potential to sense the type of occupants in a room – so HVAC systems might turn on for office workers who will stay in the same place for a while, but not for passers-through like care-takers or security staff. It also has the possibility to establish more accurate time schedules for HVAC operation and highlight over- or under-populated areas.

Radio Tagging, Safety, and Security
Radio frequency identification technology also has big promise in an important area for the life sciences – safety and security. We talked some about the impacts that RFID technology can have on product security on our last blog. They can also benefit the security of equipment in life science facilities, through raising an alarm if tagged pieces of equipment are removed from designated areas.

Sometimes, these benefits are also for individual personal security; radio tags can provide alerts for lone workers in potentially hazardous areas, include distress alarms, and even detect some incidents independently – for example, if a worker falls and is unconscious, a tag will be at ground level and not registering movement for an extended period of time, and help can be dispatched. They can also allow for easy location of the closest first aid responder to an incident.

In addition to the personal-level improvements in safety, RFID and RTLS technology also have wider structural security and safety benefits. For example, if there is a fire in a building, radio tags could allow location of anyone trapped inside after evacuation; they also have the potential to automatically activate security footage tracking if, for example, a personal distress alarm is triggered. They could also prevent people from accidentally entering dangerous areas of a building, by linking specific tags to door access controls.

This is an impressive host of benefits, but like any technology, the price of RFID and RTLS is a potential stumbling block for many facilities. It’s hard to argue that RFID and RTLS could easily have a place in the life sciences and could provide a lot of benefits to life science companies. However, they remain a largely-unexplored area of technology. More research and conversation about radio tagging technologies, however, could prove to have a big impact on the life science industry, and though further development is still needed to perfect strategies, the potential benefits of the technologies make them more than worth looking into, to make life science facilities more comfortable, more cost and energy efficient and safer.

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