Pharmacy Lets Robots Count Pills

Imagine a robot the size of a warehouse, full of 100 different gumball machine-like canisters dispensing pills of Claritin, Prozac, and other prescription drugs

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

February 15, 2002

4 Min Read

Imagine a robot the size of a warehouse, full of 100 different gumball machine-like canisters dispensing pills of Claritin, Prozac, and other prescription drugs. A mechanical arm moves among the canisters, counting out pills, then heads to a label printer before placing vials onto a conveyor belt. A pharmacist verifies that the orders are correct, and then the vials are capped and put in a tote to be shipped to a store.

If you live in Northern California and shop at a Longs Drug Store, this could be how your prescription gets filled.

The country's sixth-largest drugstore chain, with more than $4 billion in annual sales, put OptiFill, a joint venture with drug wholesaler Amerisource Bergen Corp., to work last summer. OptiFill runs 12 hours a day, filling about 7,000 prescriptions--it could handle 3,000 more--for 175 stores within a five-hour drive from its Sacramento, Calif., location. Getting prescriptions to pharmacies isn't a problem: Amerisource Bergen operates its own distribution center down the street from OptiFill, and drivers pick up prescriptions daily on the same trucks the wholesaler uses for its other Longs deliveries.

"If a pharmacist has two tasks to do--count pills and talk to you about your prescription--let the robot do the grunt work," says Brian Kilcourse, CIO of the Walnut Creek, Calif., drug chain. Giving pharmacists more time for customers is vital as Longs competes with powerful discounters such as Wal-Mart Inc. or grocers such as Safeway Inc. that offer pharmacy service as an add-on. "We're seeking to use technology to make that emotional equity stronger for the consumer, to create a better experience they can't get in some general retailer that runs a pharmacy as a second business," Kilcourse says.

The pharmacist's workload is a concern for the entire industry, which is facing a tsunami of prescriptions for aging, drug-happy baby boomers at the same time there's a lack of qualified professionals. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores estimates prescription volume will jump by 50% from 2000 to 2005, while the number of pharmacists available will grow just 6%. Last year, bigger national chains CVS Corp. and Walgreens Co. both attributed lower-than-expected earnings to the shortage.

That's what makes OptiFill such a game-saver. Filling thousands of prescriptions a day at a central location lightens the load for individual stores. Plus, there are cost savings. "Drugs can now be purchased from distributors in the largest package sizes, and costs per prescription, as well as waste, are cut dramatically," Jim Wells, a senior research analyst at consulting firm Information Clearinghouse, wrote in an August report.

In addition to OptiFill, Longs operates two other robotic filling systems, as do other chains, in stores and in small regional refill centers. OptiFill is the most visible part of Longs' "IP everywhere" strategy, begun four years ago. Kilcourse calls the strategy a "wall-to-wall replacement of old technologies with new ones." Out went proprietary systems, and in their place came open server technology that lets the company's business units acquire new systems much faster than in the past. Longs completed much of the process last year. To make integrating the pieces easier, Longs uses enterprise-application integration tools from webMethods Inc. and is using XML, first for internal initiatives such as a central customer database, and then to work with vendors and suppliers.

Two of the most important components, Kilcourse says, have been WebLogic, an integration server from BEA Systems Inc. that links back-end customer data with the Web site, and messaging tools for stores from webMethods. Both help as Longs builds a unified profile of customers who may shop at more than one store or on the Web. E.piphany Inc. provides the customer-contact center for customers calling in via phone or the Web, and BroadVision Inc.'s interface lets customers access their personal information online. "We've become largely an integration shop," Kilcourse says, adding that his IT staff still builds in-store pharmacy applications. Now, orders from repeat customers require no data entry. Longs began hooking up the first stores to the new database late last year and will need two years to train employees and convert data from old systems in 430 stores.

Longs continues to innovate, but Kilcourse knows full well that its rivals won't sit still. "The guys at Walgreens would probably snicker if I said we're ahead of the curve."

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