Original article published by Claire Swedberg via RFID Journal.
A hybrid solution from tech startup TrueGreen and RFID company Identiv enables UHF and NFC tracking from a single label to provide authentication, supply chain management and tamper-evident content for consumers who buy products at dispensaries.
Cannabis smart packaging company TrueGreen is partnering with RFID technology firm Identiv to provide a solution that can track cannabis products from the point of packaging to dispensaries, while providing consumers with content, product authentication and tamper detection regarding products even after they have taken them home. The solution consists of TrueGreen’s cloud-based software and application, as well as Identiv’s hybrid ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) and Near Field Communication (NFC) tag and custom HF-NFC readers. In effect the companies say, the system digitizes cannabis packaging.
The hybrid RFID tag can be attached to product packaging as the units are sealed, with fixed readers capturing tag reads on conveyors, and dispensaries using handheld readers to keep inventory up to date. “Budtenders” and their customers can then access data and confirm products are authentic and have not been tampered with. The solution has been three years in the making, though TrueGreen was launched in Delaware more than 18 months ago, and it is designed to solve some of the unique challenges facing the cannabis industry.
At least one large cannabis company is now in the process of adopting the solution, says Tim Daly, TrueGreen’s president and cofounder. TrueGreen was launched after Daly spent several years working with Identiv to build a digital solution for the growing cannabis industry, first in Canada and then in the United States. Together, Daly and Identiv built NFC-enabled Canadian cannabis excise stamps. Before that, he had a long history in the RFID industry as an NFC evangelist for NXP Semiconductors, and he was a cofounder of NFC technology company Thinaire.
The cannabis industry is poised to gain from NFC and RFID tracking solutions, Daly explains, but it also provides unique challenges for the technology. The highly regulated environment in which cannabis is produced and sold, as well as its high risk for theft or counterfeiting, makes automatic supply chain and dispensary tracking worthwhile. However, he adds, the high volume of product moving through a complex and segmented supply chain makes a standard RFID system insufficient.
“People see cannabis as commodity [raw material] because they look at the volume of production,” says Amir Khoshniyati, the VP and general manager of Identiv’s transponder business, “but there’s actually a great deal of complexity behind it.” Regulators and producers require secure, accurate data regarding the product from seed to store. “They’re looking for supply chain transfer currency, and they want to understand product provenance.” This can include information about a product’s seed, along with how it was grown, treated, transported through the supply chain and then dispensed.
Concern about grey- and black-market sales is high, Daly says, and tamper protection ensures that a consumer doesn’t buy a product that has been altered or counterfeited. With an RFID system in place to track and trace products, he explains, “You’re synergizing many different value props into one.” There are three stakeholders that the technology needs to serve, he says—producers, consumers and regulators—and the solution is aimed at all three. To begin with, he notes, the software stores the unique ID number of each product unit and all related data behind it. “We’re digitizing each and every package with its seed to sale data provenance nested in the cloud.”
The solution consists of Identiv’s and TrueGreen’s custom-designed hybrid labels with built-in NXP NFC and UHF chips, integrated into the banknote grade, safety and security seal that is placed on every cannabis package. The tag’s NFC chip comes with a physical and digital tamper-evidence function, which not only confirms whether a product has been opened in the supply chain, but also prevents the UHF functionality from being accessed once a consumer opens that package, for privacy purposes.
Typically, a security seal tag is applied to each single-unit package of cannabis that is filled at the producer’s site, as part of the packaging seal. It is then read by Identiv’s custom-designed 13.56 MHz HF-NFC RFID conveyor reader. The products are next packed in cartons for shipping. The tags can be interrogated again using a handheld HF-NFC reader, without employees having to open the carton at the point of shipping, then when the product is received at the dispensary, and at any other time it is in the dispensary prior to sale.
For instance, Daly says, when product is received at the dispensary, a handheld reader can capture data indicating what has been received, without requiring a barcode scan of each item within the carton. That data is then updated in the TrueGreen software platform. That process alone, he adds, saves a significant amount of time for dispensary workers and reduces the incidence of human error or out-of-stock events.
The second value the UHF RFID tag provides within the dispensary is the ability for fast inventory counts. The stores’ “bud tenders” typically spend a significant amount of their work shift checking inventory in order to prevent loss or theft. That could involve as much as three or four hours every day just performing physical inventory counts, Daly says. With barcodes, he states, “You’ve got to move stuff around on the shelves. You’ve got to physically line up the barcode and scanner.” With RFID, on the other hand, this can be accomplished within a matter of minutes rather than hours. “If there’s something missing, the system will spit out an exception report to the right people.”
Consumers at the dispensary could access the NFC tag data before making a purchase. “It also takes friction out of the dispensary experience,” Daly says, because customers could learn about products by tapping their phone against labels. The information they could gain could include how a particular plant was grown, its cannabidiol (CBD) or tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels, and how the product should be used. Because products are usually secured out of the hands of customers until they make their purchase, stores could put one product on display so shoppers could access the digital information as well.
When an individual purchases a product, its NFC tag can be interrogated via a smartphone. TrueGreen’s software links to most point-of-sale systems via an application programming interface. In that way, the product’s status can be updated as having been sold, while the NFC tag read also confirms the product’s authenticity. The UHF RFID tag is rendered inoperable once the package seal is broken. That feature, the companies explain, not only confirms that a product has not been tampered with, but also provides a privacy function by ensuring that no one has a product that could be detected with an HF-NFC reader after they make a purchase and open the packaging.
The NFC tag continues to provide content for consumers when they take items home. Users could access a digital ecosystem that provides information about a myriad of genetic strains available, as well as the health effects of using those products. This data could appeal to a new demographic of cannabis users as well, such as those sampling it for healthcare purposes. Such users, Daly says, are especially interested in information about products’ relative health benefits or effects.
Identiv readers used for this solution can be tuned strategically, Khoshniyati says, so that they will work on a company’s specific manufacturing lines. Readers are adjusted to accommodate the throughput levels that each manufacturing site uses. The reader is designed to operate in multi-conveyor environments, he explains, at high speed and volume and with unpredictable tag orientation. Ultimately, the system is intended to create business efficiencies by tracking work-in-process, providing real-time digital inventories at storage sites and at dispensaries, along with transparency through to end users (consumers) so that they know their product is safe.
The collected data can help regulators ensure that products are being safely handled, tracked and sold, and that they are not being diverted into the black market. “This has been a significant engineering exercise, both digitally and physically,” Daly states. “It’s incredibly exciting to be moving forward with Identiv in this industry after three years of development.” TrueGreen says it intends to roll out the solution for the large U.S.-based cannabis company within the next 90 days.