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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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 – 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

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.

Current passive tag technology has some limitations in terms of readability and durability. But active tags are more expensive.

So why not a little of both? One company championing hybrid implementation of passive tags, active tags and other forms of auto-ID is RF Code Inc. (www.rfcode.com), Mesa, Ariz. The company is the developer and supplier of Tavis data management software platforms and Mantis active RFID tags and readers.

“Cumulatively measured, passive RFID is quite limited in its physical durability,” says president Armando Viteri. “To get effective range, these tags are quite large, thus making them a very big target for the tines of a fork lift. Passive labels are better suited for case-level applications.”

RF Code has been pioneering the integration of tracking technologies to optimize their combined performance in the supply chain. One successful project involved placing active RFID tags on intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) filled with products such as industrial food ingredients, and then reinforcing that tracking method with global positioning systems (GPS) on transport trucks. UK-based IBC rental company pH Europe began using this system to transport and track an array of products in the summer of 2004, and has been honored with several European supply chain and information management awards for the innovation.

“There are four key elements of RFID: the tags themselves, tag readers, data monitoring/collection systems, and business applications software,” says Royanna Chappell, vice president of emerging applications at RedPrairie Corp. (www.redprairie.com), a Waukesha, Wis., RFID system architect. “To successfully implement RFID, users need to evaluate how all these technology elements integrate and operate across their entire corporate network and information sharing systems. It’s a mistake to get too focused on one element at the expense of the other three.”

RedPrairie works with food and beverage companies building custom RFID solutions to meet the needs of a range of clients, including processors of breakfast cereals, snack foods, spreads and drink products. The integrator then works with various wireless data collection system suppliers (such as RF Code) and labeling systems suppliers (such as Avery Dennison).

Chappell also points out users need to determine what and how much data they want to encode on the tags, in addition to EPC elements. “Right now, the options are 64-bit or 96-bit tags, but in the future 256-bit tags will be available,” she says. “Regardless of the tagging solution selected, for the foreseeable future, bar codes will continue to play a significant role, working in tandem with RFID tags.

“The industry is on a learning curve about RFID technology,” she continues. “Companies are still seeking greater understanding regarding the benefits and pitfalls. This learning curve is going to continue through 2005 and 2006. Widespread, real-world knowledge about the application of RFID in the food industry and other industries probably won’t mature and solidify until 2007 or 2008. New technologies do not come without certain complications.”

Click the "Download Now" button below to download a diagram (PDF format) detailing how RFID works.

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