To help improve a multitude of results, the pharmaceutical industry the past few years has increasingly looked at and tapped into wireless technologies that automate production, process controls, security, safety, logistics, product authentication and other aspects of the overall business. Notably, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has advocated use of wireless technologies such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to help verify the pedigree of pharmaceutical supplies as they are transported throughout the supply chain.
A recent Gartner Research report, entitled, “RFID is the Limit,” stated that “industries with the greatest opportunities to use RFID include retail, aerospace and defense, while the healthcare, logistics and pharmaceutical industries will adopt RFID the fastest.”
Wireless Here To Stay And Growing
Wireless is here to stay and growing steadily. Zigbee . . . Wi-Fi . . . Wi-Max . . . 802.11 . . . Sensors . . . Passive and Active RFID . . . VoIP . . . Bluetooth . . . Mesh Networks, and so on – each technology can be leveraged and applied for specific beneficial purposes.
With this added emphasis on wireless systems has come a certain amount of immediate success, as well as great promise for even better results down the road. However, this success has also brought with it a new realization: Better ways are needed to help manage the overall growth of often disparate wireless systems that can interfere with each other or compete for bandwidth in limited spectrum allocations.
The need for an overall management platform for different wireless systems has become even more critical as use spreads to different departments and different locations. Users may begin experiencing increased interference on the links. Transmission may be interrupted. There may be availability problems, data loss and performance degradation. If ad hoc growth continues unmanaged, the technology that would potentially offer a way to improve productivity, efficiency and cut costs, could also add uncertainty, cost and regulatory vulnerability.
The Pharmaceutical Industry’s Challenge
Clearly, the most significant challenge to pharmaceutical companies wishing to take advantage of the benefits, however, is managing the limited available bandwidth when integrating multiple communication protocols and standards, and maintaining and supporting the ongoing security requirements wireless networks must have. Unlike wired networks, each enterprise has only a finite amount of radio bandwidth that must be shared across multiple departments that typically haven’t needed to coordinate activities in the past. Also unlike wired networks, where access can be physically restricted, wireless frequencies can be accessible with even the most basic wireless communications devices. This means that today - and likely for many years to come - managing wireless communications will pose a greater challenge than technology performance.
The consequences of unmanaged wireless systems are already becoming evident. For years, the medical device industry has been using wireless technology in such applications as intravenous pumps, pacemakers, wheelchairs, and more recently for metering insulin injections via a patch that calculates sugar intake and sends a wireless signal to the patch for dosing, with very good results. In September 2000, the CDRH (Center for Devices and Radiological Health) issued a guidance for industry, entitled Wireless Medical Telemetry Risks and Recommendations.
As a result, the FDA has been examining the use of telemetry and electromagnetic interference in medical devices – especially since the FCC opened up radio frequency usage in December 2005 for a previously restricted medical device radio spectrum and has advised switching frequencies on some devices to avoid interference. Applications are just beginning to emerge.
Solving these problems requires resource planning, performance management, and a common wireless systems management platform across the extended enterprise. The same general principles of wired network systems management also apply to wireless networks, but since the radio spectrum is finite and most wireless devices operate in unlicensed frequencies there are new and unique challenges. As with wired networks, it is essential now to apply enterprise-level management practices for the operation of wireless networks.
Where To Start
In order for these wireless systems to truly improve productivity, security and efficiency while reducing costs, managers must address at least the following elements to be successful:
• Manage and Scale the System Architecture
• Prioritize Business Value at the Enterprise Level
• Integrate Security Measures and Policies System-Wide
Optimum execution of any enterprise-wide policy requires a communications architecture that can accommodate the technology of the best categorical network technologies and vendors, emerging standards and wireless integration practices. Architecture must be based on a well developed security model that includes functions like authentication and role-based access control.
Eventually, your network management center should treat your wireless systems the same way it would any another network, by focusing on managing enterprise-wide communications - not the individual technology. Because there will never be a single wireless protocol and frequency, and therefore the appropriate technology must be matched with the right application, the best approach for system-wide growth is to have an integrated yet flexible management strategy that can deliver immediate benefits, but also can be “future proofed” to adapt to business and technology changes.
Few companies have the resources to maintain staff necessary to manage a complete wireless infrastructure, especially because demand for specialists with relevant skills is very high and supply is limited. As a result, outsourcing to one of the emerging specialist firms is currently the most cost effective strategy to maximize benefits and minimize risks.
Like wired networks, wireless networks link and deliver data between different points. However, the potential for far more granular data and detailed measurements in areas such as “process variables” exist with wireless because they have the advantage of being implemented more cost-effectively, and there’s none of the cost of running wires between multiple points. As a result, it is possible to set up measures for virtually any point or process of the enterprise and receive this information in real time.
Each department undoubtedly can make a strong case for deploying wireless networks within its internal operations, but issues of scalability, security and investment protection make it imperative that these decisions be coordinated at the enterprise level, where priorities such as process controls, security or logistics needs can best be evaluated and executed.
For example, a company competing in a mature marketplace on a strategy of being the low-cost provider might deploy wireless vibration sensors that tell when any asset is not operating optimally, and see savings on maintenance show up immediately in the bottom-line. In contrast, a company competing on fast, reliable delivery might find the added cost of an RFID product tracking system would improve its competitive position.
Pitfalls To Avoid
Sloppy networking practices, rather than intentional malicious interference, are the greatest threats to wireless security. These can include seemingly innocuous practices such as not changing passwords according to policy, using obvious passwords, adding or deleting devices improperly, etc. Interferences also can come from environmental or accidental RF noise, broken RF equipment, dynamic changes in the characterization of the RF s