RFID on your package: No pain, no gain?
Here are the critical considerations before implementing this technology ... and some available outside help.
“But other factors affect the readability,” Emond continues, “such as forklift handling, vibrations and impacts during transport and retailers’ warehouse practices. So, achieving consistent, reliable tag readability is really a product-by-product puzzle, requiring custom solutions.”
Emond emphasizes, “We have to give credit to Tanimura & Antle, Fresh Express, and Beaver Street Fisheries for their RFID initiatives. All three of these companies have given significant amounts of their time to developing the knowledge required to achieve successful RFID. And the two-way partnerships we have with these companies provide us with valuable input.”
Rockwell has established its own RFID test lab at its headquarters in Milwaukee. It creates a simulated factory environment to allow accurate testing and evaluation of a wide variety of RFID products. Products from Alien Technology, ConnecTerra, FKI Logistex, SAMSys Technologies and Zebra Technologies already are installed there.
Many food companies are hoping to realize a good return on investment by taking a cautious, minimalist approach to RFID implementation. The prevailing mood seems to be: “First, let’s make sure it works.”Adhering to standards
RFID technology is in the process of emerging and evolving, and so are the standards surrounding its use. Consequently, many food companies feel as if they are trying to hit a moving target.
Wal-Mart is spearheading this technology. The large supermarket chain Albertson’s also recently came on board the RFID technology train. Mass adoption across the retailer universe is inevitable at some point. As a result, food companies realize they can’t afford to fall behind the curve.
“Your company wants to maintain mega-retailer business by participating in their RFID program â€“ coding pallets and cases for data collection and tracking,” says a spokesman for Omron Electronics LLC (www.omron.com/oei
), Schaumburg, Ill. “But other compelling business growth issues make RFID much more useful than just meeting mandates from large retailers.” He listed these collateral benefits as improving your agility to manufacture a wider variety of products; delivering seasonal and regional product cost-effectively and on-time; and reducing waste from misdirected shipments.
Food manufacturers fully understand the product traceability and inventory control benefits that RFID can offer. But compliance has significant cost implications for the food industry. So, food processors/packagers are taking a cautious approach, especially in the face of continually changing and developing standards.
Dean explains that EPCglobal (www.epcglobalinc.org
), a joint venture between EAN International and the Uniform Code Council Inc., is charged with setting the standards for tags, which will control what and how much data is in each tag. “The U.S. Dept. of Defense (DoD) has been very aggressive in its use of RFID and recently finalized its policy, as have some major retailers like Wal-Mart,” he says. “We believe the Dept. of Agriculture could and maybe should be involved from a traceability and food safety perspective while these standards are in the development cycle.”
As mentioned before, Tanimura & Antle has been working with CFDR on testing of tags and readers. According to Tom Casas, vice president of information technology, T&A is prepared to go active with RFID this month (thereby meeting Wal-Mart’s supplier implementation deadline), for wrapped head lettuce packed in returnable plastic containers. The wrapped lettuce heads are packed 24 per container, 40 containers per pallet.
“We are starting off small. We will add cauliflower, broccoli and celery after the lettuce launch,” Casas says. “RFID is costly, but it gives us more sophisticated traceability. We manually apply the tags in the field at the case level. So, when cases get shifted from one pallet to another, we can still track them very closely.”
Based on tests done at CFDR, T&A chose two reading systems — from Matrics (www.matrics.com
), Rockville, Md., and from Alien Technology (www.alientechnology.com
), Morgan Hill, Calif. Both systems incorporate chips and antennae and execute good reads on tagged products with water content.
“RFID is costing us about 50 cents per case tag. That quickly adds up for high volumes of relatively low-cost items like heads of lettuce,” Casas comments. “But we believe the benefits in terms of food safety and traceability and market access will offset that cost in the long run. To some degree, implementing RFID is a leap of faith. We have to trust our marketing instincts and our technology partners.”
Franwell’s Dean adds, “We as an industry must use partnering and collaboration as the means to solve the many issues facing the wide-spread adoption of RFID. It’s a big job requiring cooperative efforts to get it done right.”
Active vs passive RFID tags
|Mantis active RFID tags with easily replaceable tag batteries send data pulses every 2 seconds. (Photo courtesy of RF Code)
One of the first decisions for any food processor is deciding between passive or active RFID tagging. The choice is affected by both functional requirements of particular food products (for example, close real-time temperature monitoring) and budgetary realties confronting the food companies.