DB Schenker uses temperature-logging tags to monitor drug shipments

Essen Germany: DB Schenker, the German logistics services provider, is using radio frequency identification to track the conditions under which sensitive pharmaceuticals and reagents are transported to the United States.

Schenker is employing RFID tags being rolled out for temperature-tracking applications involving products forwarded by air, sea, land and rail.

The temperature-tracking project for airfreight began with an initial pilot in January 2010. Testing of the technology now uses 350 battery-assisted passive, reusable tags, says Eleftherios Skountridakis, who leads DB Schenker’s RFID implementation efforts in Germany.

The pilot was run from Schenker’s warehouse in Mannheim where products are stored at between 2 and 8 and between 5 and 25 degrees Celsius depending on the product.

Schenker uses temperature-logging RFID tags that Siemens originally designed for blood-monitoring applications. “Our research showed that the solution was the best one from a pricing, calibration and battery-life perspective,” says Skountridakis.

Only the tags’ software was modified, in order to make it compatible with the company’s database, as well as provide greater detail for the Schenker application. The tags include a small LED light that blinks red multiple times if temperatures fall outside of a pre-designated range. If temperatures have remained within the defined range, the light blinks green every six seconds.

The 13.56MHz high-frequency (HF) Schweizer Electronic in Germany manufactures tags, known as SensoTags. These tags contain 60 kilobytes of memory, and comply with the ISO 15693 RFID standard. Each tag is encoded with a 16-digit alphanumerical unique ID number, which is also printed on the tag’s exterior as a bar code.

Each week, Schenker and its pharmaceutical company client decide which goods are to be monitored in two temperature-controlled shipments to the United States. The selected goods are often reagents, liquid solutions transported in small jars, and used to identify illnesses.

The client is using RFID tags to monitor shipping temperatures as part of its quality-control measures, and to comply with regulations of the US Food and Drug Administration.

Schenker is using the application to demonstrate to customers its ability to manage the cold chain. “The proof will be in the RFID tags,” says Skountridakis. “It’s a door-opener with new customers.”

Tags may be attached in a variety of positions on a number of different carriers, such as on the wooden Euro pallets or the boxes themselves. “It does not matter so much where we place the tags,” Skountridakis says, “because we’re testing the temperature outside of the boxes.”

DB Schenker has invested more than €100,000 in the project, including payments to consultants, as well as spending on training and computer systems. At present, the company’s management is considering a global rollout of the RFID application.

At its warehouse, DB Schenker employs a desktop RFID reader using OBID i-scan HF proximity technology, manufactured by Feig Electronic, to read the tag IDs, and then applies the tags to pallets or transport boxes. The goods are transferred by truck to Luxembourg, to be loaded onto airfreight pallets and then onto an airplane. The tags record a temperature reading every 15 minutes. Goods are unloaded at a Schenker warehouse in the US and removed from the pallets before shipping to one of the five customers.

Siemens-software on the tags controls the temperature-measurement function, and can operate in standalone mode so that a user can configure, start and stop measurements, as well as view data stored on the SensoTag and export it to a file system, without access to the customer’s network and database server.

In tests of the tags conducted for monitoring temperatures during sea transport, Schenker has applied three tags to the inside walls of sea-freight containers. The company has also tested three tags on the inside walls of truck trailers and rail wagons.

As the tags’ use continues, Skountridakis says, the positioning of the tag-either on the container walls, or on individual items-will depend on the client’s requirements, government regulations, and DB Schenker’s assessment of the cool and hot spots within each shipping environment. Some customers do not want their logistics partners to touch goods after they have been shipped so the only option is to place the tags on container walls.