Utilizing RFID enhanced barcode labels brings a few things to the table barcodes on their own can’t, including:
- Improved consumable maintenance
- Authenticity verification
- Increased automation efficiency
- Sensed data
Let’s take a look at how RFID supports each of these improvements in your closed loop analyzing system.
1. Improved Consumable Maintenance:
Barcodes store information. Usually, that information is related to the identification of a product, but sometimes it can include additional information. In the case of reagent packs and cartridges, it’s not uncommon for a barcode to include an expiration date alongside identification information.
The catch here is that barcodes can only store a very limited amount of information and since that information is printed directly on the label it remains static.
This is where RFID comes in handy, with much larger data storage capacities than barcodes, RFID can store a lot more information—and that information can be updated. This allows you to not only track the expiration date, but automatically update the amount of remaining life in the pack or cartridge and “kill” packs that are no longer useable.
By including a writing module on the analyzer device itself, you can write an incrementing variable to the tag and use the variable in the user interface (UI) to display the amount of useful life or the number of tests remaining.
Additionally, if the useful life remaining information is coupled with a read step prior to using the reagent pack, the cartridge can be “killed” once the approved number of tests for the pack is reached.
For example, if one reagent pack allows for 100 tests, that variable can be written into the tag. From there, each time the tagged pack is scanned by the analyzer device the number of remaining uses will drop by one. Once the remaining uses on the pack reaches zero the user will be notified by the UI on the analyzer device that the pack is no longer useable.
But what if a pack expires before it reaches the maximum allowed amount of tests? In addition to the ability to “kill” tags after reaching incrementing variables, you can also incorporate automatic “killing” of tags upon expiration. If in addition to the number of uses, you encode and track expiration dates, you can also set up your system to notify users when a pack is no longer suitable for use. Additionally, you can add a color coding system to the interface that allows users to view remaining life visually.
Both of these life tracking systems can simplify inventory tracking as well. Tying the data collected from the tags as they are scanned into a centralized inventory management system can allow for automated reordering when packs are running low.
Lastly, some closed loop systems enable the lab to assign reagent cartridges or packs to specific technicians. In these cases, using NFC enabled labels would allow the technician to actually see how many uses are left on their cartridges by scanning with their phone! Furthermore, automatic reordering can be enabled here as well, making one less step for each technician and keeping them in the loop on their consumable status.
2. Verifying Authenticity:
RFID can also be used to verify the authenticity of a reagent pack. For proper testing and to ensure results are reproducible, it’s critical reagents are authentic. This is why it’s not only important labs purchase reagents from authorized suppliers, but to verify their validity prior to testing.
To instill the importance of sourcing reagents from reputable or authorized suppliers, a representative of a top supplier of research tools was recently quoted stating, “All reputable producers of biological reagents perform some type of quality control before their products ship.” Abcam (Cambridge, UK) in an article from Lab Manager. And this is true, yet labs sometimes get their hands on packs that aren’t quite what they say they are.
In an effort to provide a sense of security to your customers you can encode proof of quality control processes and authenticity within your RFID enabled labels.
You probably aren’t too keen on the idea that details about your processes might be stored directly on your products, so to protect information it can be encoded into an encrypted string only you and your devices will have access to. The encryption will then be picked up by the device as proof of authenticity. If the encryption is incorrect or absent the device will notify the test operator through the UI to prevent use. Variables can be included in the encryption algorithm and can be customized to the application through the front-end software during label printing/encoding.
3. Increased Automation Efficiency:
One of the most appealing differentiating features of RFID is its ability to be read without line of sight.
Although scanners are strategically placed within testing devices, barcodes don’t always read as easily as they should upon insertion. This can be because the scanners aren’t properly aligned or because the barcodes on the reagent cartridge have grown difficult to read due to wear from repeated use.
RFID solves this issue by only requiring the pack or cartridge to be within read distance of the reader/antenna. Damage from repeated use won’t affect readability with RFID enabled tags either. As long as all parts of the interlay remain intact, the tag will remain readable and the interlay itself will be protected within the layers of the label.
Additionally, as we mentioned before, RFID labels can store more information than standard barcode labels, and that information can be variable. This means that by integrating RFID readers into your equipment and pairing them with RFID tags and software, you allow for more accurate record keeping, automatically.
Including RFID in devices this way increases process efficiencies overall by reducing the likelihood of misreads. Analysts no longer have to worry about time or samples going to waste because the cartridge couldn’t be picked up by the scanner. Additionally, by integrating a system that records more details automatically, time and effort can be saved during record keeping as well.
4. Sensed Data:
Where the need applies, RFID tags can be coupled with sensors for application that require environmental monitoring, such as temperature sensing. To learn more about the inner-workings of sensor monitoring RFID tags, check out this article from RFID Insider.
An example being temperature sensitive reagent packs. Say a lab wants to prevent reagent packs from being used if they have been exposed to certain temperatures outside of a given range. Tags with added sensors can be applied to the packs and a kill code can be written into the label to be activated when a certain temperature is reached. If the packs are exposed to temperatures outside of the written range, the code will be activated. Once the kill code is activated, if the reagent is loaded into an analyzer or scanned an error alert will appear in the UI to notify operators that the reagent has been compromised and is no longer usable.
Just like inauthentic reagents, otherwise compromised reagents can alter test results in ways that might lead to unusable results. In most cases, this type of technology is simply unnecessary, however, in cases where samples hold a very high value investing in sensed data capabilities can be justified.
These are just a few ways RFID can be leveraged in closed loop reagent packs. The applications list is constantly growing as the needs for lab automation expand and the sophistication of analyzer devices increases. Adding RFID to your closed loop systems not only helps you stand out in terms of technology, but by offering your customers increased accuracy and efficiency where it’s most critical.
If you have any comments or questions about this article please leave them below! Or, if you have any specific questions about our RFID solutions for reagent packs feel free to reach out.