By Renee Boucher Ferguson  |  Posted 2007-06-15 Print this article Print

To keep the project within acceptable boundaries, Williams and SAP Labs are focusing on the pharmaceutical industry, which is in the midst of state and federal legislation mandating an electronic pedigree for every drug manufactured and sent to retailers via wholesalers and distributors. About 1.5 million drugs pass through the pharmaceutical supply chain daily. The idea with ePedigree is to protect patients from counterfeit drugs by tracking them from inception through distribution. Currently, a number of states have passed ePedigree mandates, and the Food and Drug Administration is weighing whether to implement one. While neither the states nor the federal government have mandated RFID specifically as a track-and-trace mechanism, Cardinal Health Systems, one of the worlds largest pharmaceutical manufacturers in a triumvirate of top-tier suppliers, has standardized on RFID in its California distribution center—a signal to the industry that RFID will be the standard technology for ePedigree.
The confluence of events in the pharmaceutical industry has led to a perfect-use-case scenario for the joint EPC data project.
"ePedigree is an interesting example because it affects multiple people in a supply chain at once—manufacturer, retailer, wholesaler. Everyone has to worry about the problem, as opposed to other [situations] which would be attributable to one aspect of the supply chain," said Krish Mantripragada, director of RFID, SCM (supply chain management) and solution management at SAP Labs, in Palo Alto, Calif. "The project is looking at a much bigger problem, but ePedigree keeps the project grounded." In addition to offering best practices for RFID implementations and the pharmaceutical industry, SAP Labs is contributing an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system to Auto-ID Labs. Running at MIT, in Cambridge, the software incorporates SAP data and business processes. Actual customer input will come in the projects later stages. "Basically our question is, How do we connect an ERP system to the concept of EPCglobal?" said Paul Hofmann, director of external relations at SAP Labs. "The [tagged items] amount to a huge amount of data, and the question is, How do you identify it [and] bring it together, and which system can you ask a meaningful question of? Now there is no system you can ask a question to that concerns more than one company." The National Institute of Standards and Technology has offered guidelines on how to mitigate some of RFIDs potential risks to data security and privacy. Click here to read more. For the simulation, the teams have taken a two-pronged approach, asking both concrete questions that speak to SAPs line of business—RFID and supply chain applications—and more visionary questions about an Internet-based world, or the "Internet of Things," as Auto-ID Labs describes the coming electronic age. Concrete questions explore the basics of supply chain automation. The research, or visionary, questions are more philosophical in nature—how best to connect companies and identify people in an RFID-­supported supply chain—given there arent any EPC-based networks in operation. The Auto-ID Labs simulator can replicate as many as 100,000 facilities, with 10 million items traveling through the combined facilities on a given day. "Each facility is a state machine that runs through its own multithread," said Williams, who is simulating the flow of goods and purchase orders up and down the supply chain. "Our goal is to simulate the pharmaceutical supply chain. Having formed that, we believe we can get enough information to simulate other verticals, [such as] auto and aerospace." To do the simulation, Williams has built a model of a generic facility—a manufacturer, distributor, wholesaler or retailer—and then multiplied the generic model to simulate 100,000 facilities. Each facility has two inputs: purchase orders and physical goods. Purchase orders flow from retailer to manufacturer, and physical goods flow from manufacturer to retailer, with distributors and wholesalers getting in the mix at different points of the process. The simulation environment changes the amount of purchase orders and physical goods flowing between facilities at any given time to determine network capabilities. "I can take all the POs for Viagra from all the CVS stores [and aggregate them] so that a wholesaler will say, Today, I have orders for 5,000 cases of Viagra, and then send that PO up to a distributor," he said. "So what we have is a state machine. The systems have certain states they can be in that are well-defined and change depending on input—POs coming in or goods coming in. Thats what were simulating." SAP Labs and Auto-ID Labs are working toward a better understanding of which architectural models might work to facilitate global communications about tagged items, as well as an understanding of how those findings can influence not only the companys product strategy but also the RFID industry itself. "We have firsthand insight into this new technology, and we will understand better how to develop innovative products for our customers," Hofmann said. "We will understand better what the market needs, the real problems, and what type of technology we have to develop and buy to realize this solution." At the same time, SAP and MIT presenting a joint "profound concept" for collaboration and data exchange over the Internet will carry weight with the RFID industry in general, Hofmann said. Next Page: Competing architectures.


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