Pros and Cons of RFID on Packaging

Here are the critical considerations before implementing this technology ... and some available outside help.

By Judy Rice, Contributing Editor

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Implementation of radio frequency identification technology isn’t as simple as just slapping an RFID tag on a shipping case or pallet. Several variables come into play. First you should make a list.

For example, how much data do you want to include in the tag? Do you want active (battery-operated) or passive (unpowered) tags? Do you want basic electronic product codes (EPCs) that facilitate inventory tracking? Or do you also want higher-cost, sensor-embedded technology that monitors temperature and humidity and signals tampering when a case or pallet is breached by an unauthorized person?

What is the density of your product? How much metal or water is contained in the product or package? These factors can affect tag readability. Finally, how much are you willing/able to pay for this technology, and how much time and staff are you prepared to dedicate to its implementation?

Counting the cost

“RFID will fundamentally change supply chain management and the way industry tracks, traces and manages the products that are delivered to retailers and consumers,” says Sujeet Chand, chief technology officer of Rockwell Automation (www.rockwellautomation.com/rfid), Milwaukee. But it won’t come easily or cheaply … at least not yet.

According to some estimates, it can cost conservatively in the $75,000 range to set up an RFID tagging system for one low-capacity casing line that meets minimal RFID mandates. Then you have to add in the cost of the tags themselves — approximately 40-50 cents per passive tag, depending on volume purchased and the amount of information embedded in the tags. For active tags integrated with truck-transport GPS, the cost might run around $10 per tag.

Obviously, RFID can be an expensive proposition. But on the upside, you can give your products an added market-access advantage, decrease the opportunity for theft, enhance product inventory tracking, and quickly retrieve problem products or block their distribution, avoiding recalls.

“The general cost of the technology will not be any different for the food industry, but the issues of unfriendly items [containing metal or water] could prove more costly,” says Steve Dean, director of business development at Franwell Inc. (www.franwell.com), a Plant City, Fla., engineering firm specializing in software for manufacturing, shipping, distribution and logistics. The company has formed an R&D alliance with the Center for Food Distribution & Retailing to study RFID. “Part of our work with CFDR is to help solve this cost issue for current and future food industry users.”

The University of Florida (Gainesville) is home to the Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, an academic-industry collaboration that has 25 faculty members working on all aspects of food distribution from fields to store shelves. RFID is the hot research topic now, with the center focusing on requirements for the use and reading of RFID tags in the food supply chain.

The primary R&D objective is to explore and evaluate the software and hardware designs needed by the food industry to achieve optimum implementation and effectiveness of RFID systems.

Especially for perishable food products, “RFID tags can enhance temperature management and quality control, optimizing food distribution and food safety conditions and averting potential product losses and the associated costs,” says Jean Pierre Emond, co-director of the center and associate professor of packaging science at the university. “In the near future, equipment interacting with these tagged products will become even smarter, responding to highly specific product safety needs. The CFDR already is working with equipment manufacturers to accomplish that goal.”

CFDR has an advisory board with presidents or vice presidents of retail, foodservice and restaurant chains from around the world. These members have helped the center conduct RFID tests on their operations.

Also, the center has projects under way with fresh produce packagers Tanimura & Antle and Fresh Express, both based in Salinas, Calif., and Beaver Street Fisheries, a frozen seafood company headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla.

Franwell has helped the CFDR establish a state-of-the-art RFID laboratory — one of the largest in the country focusing on RFID issues related to food distribution. Franwell is particularly involved with integrating RFID into packaging and is using research at the center to address “issues related to products that are not RFID-friendly, especially products containing water and metal. Water and metal play a major role in all fresh food and beverage products. But it becomes a challenge to read an entire pallet of [such] products without scanning each case one by one.”

Says Emond, “We can work around the problem of product density and composition by changing the package shape, changing the air space in the package, or changing the tag position and orientation. Product temperature also is an important factor. The colder the product, the easier tag reading becomes. Frozen products absorb less radio waves.

“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.”

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