Integrating RFID into Food Manufacturing

Wells' Dairy may have been the first food company to integrate RFID into its existing control architecture, thereby improving its processes.

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Once the raw ingredients are mixed into the proper recipe and, in this particular line, packaged into family pails, the ice cream packages are brought by conveyor to the wrapper machine where two buckets at a time are bound together with plastic wrap (considered a case by Wal-Mart).

As the case exits the wrapping machine, an RFID tag embedded in the barcode label is placed on the plastic wrapper by one of two applicators that are in communication with each other so that if the first one misses the second one will apply the tag.

As the cases begin their ascent into the freezer, the RFID tag is read. If the reader does not recognize the tag, the case is diverted to a reject line and manually reviewed by the line attendant to identify the error. According to Galles, the most common error for the pilot program was misreads between the tag and the reader.

This portion of the pilot line is monitored through strategically positioned operator interface terminals. When exiting the freezer, the ice cream tubs are read again to verify the tag adhered during the quick-freeze process and to track each one as it is palletized.

As the ice cream travels from room-temperature production lines to below freezing and then to storage in -20°F warehouses, the dramatic change in temperature often caused the labels to peel off. Another challenge was finding readers to decipher individual ice cream tubs speeding by on the conveyer or capable of reading stacks of ice cream buckets entering storage on a pallet. Ultimately, through the review process, Wells' Dairy has the readability and reliability necessary from the selected readers and tags.

After 75 gallons of ice cream move onto an automatic palletizer, the pallet is taken by forklift to a wrap machine. Once it is wrapped, another RFID tag is affixed to the pallet and confirmed by an RFID reader. The new tag contains the information gathered on the individual ice cream buckets throughout the production process. The pallet is then stored in the warehouse before it is ready to be shipped to a Wal-Mart distribution center.

"We refined the process with our largest line of ice cream," says Galles. "And I'm glad we did, because we now don't anticipate any major issues during the rollout. If the pilot had been smaller or set up remotely, we would not have identified many problems — like having tags fall off in the quick-freeze portion of the process — we've now solved and moved beyond."

Throughout the 18 months of the project, Galles and his team developed a solution that enabled the company to both comply with Wal-Mart's RFID mandate and position Wells' Dairy to take advantage of the information gathered by RFID. Improvements included increased quality control, information gathering, safety and productivity for induction of products into storage. Additionally, the solution has freed up personnel, helped increase accuracy of freezer counts, decreased the number of misshipped pallets and minimized the need for manual reconciliation.

"With the implementation of the RFID pilot, we found many opportunities for RFID technology," adds Galles. "In addition to the opportunities that we defined in the business case of this project, we realized other areas where this technology brings added value to Wells' Dairy."

For more information, contact Rockwell Automation at (440) 636-3105 or see

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