The Road to RFID
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
Both challenges and benefits await companies that integrate radio-frequency identification into their operations.
Wal-Mart got the ball rolling. Then Target, Albertsons, and other retailers joined in. The push for processors and manufacturers to incorporate radio frequency identification (RFID) technology into their shipping operations is continuing. Many companies have seen or are starting to see its benefits, and meat and poultry processors are not exempt.
While the technology is new to some processors, Cargill Meat Solutions, Wichita, KS, has been using RFID in its plants for almost 20 years. Then under the name of Excel Corp., Cargill Meat Solutions partnered with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Decatur County Feed Yard in the Strategic Alliance Field study in 1986. That study was designed to track cattle by using RFID tags attached to their ears from the ranch through the feed yard and packing plants to show the value of the information that producers would get once the production and carcass data could be tied to each animal.
Cargill Meat Solutions’ use of RFID technology has expanded over the years to many facets of the production process, says Marcine Moldenhauer, strategic supply chain manager. “In the last three or four years, we have used improved RFID technology in trolley tracking, where we’re able to read not just the tag on the animal, but marry it to a trolley that’s being read through RFID technology as well.” That information is recorded until the carcass reaches the fabrication floor, and she says that Cargill uses the resulting data for many of its business decisions concerning supply, sorting, sales, and more.
The value is also passed down to the company’s suppliers who use the ear tags. “One of the biggest benefits is to show the data to those producers who are trying to make improvements in their herd, whether it’s genetic or management,” she says. That data can include valuable information about hot weight, yield grade, and quality grade. “It only enhances their ability to move forward quicker with their genetics, and it also provides some pretty good insight on past studies, feed trials, and implant trials. It’s a much more seamless and efficient process, and I think that’s one thing the packing industry can do to help facilitate more of a partnership between segments of the industry to help improve the product.” She adds that the other goal is to help the company’s customers meet their needs by using RFID and other technologies.
Testing for compliance
The need to meet retailer mandates has resulted in new opportunities for some businesses. In 2004, Richmond Cold Storage, a provider of supply chain solutions for manufacturers and distributors, partnered with CapTech Ventures Inc. to open an RFID Center in one of its Richmond, VA, facilities. RCS can now provide RFID testing services to companies wishing to comply with all compliance initiatives. CapTech Ventures provides the engineering and systems integration services, along with the Tags Ware software that tracks the RFID data.
“In the center, we test customers’ box configurations to determine suitability of tags and the tag placement on them,” Pat Hughes, director of operations, explains. “Various RFID tags are placed on the product, and their read rates are tested as they travel on a conveyor at six hundred feet per minute.  RFID antennas and readers are mounted on the sides and above the conveyor to determine these reads, and we determine the suitability of tags for each SKU. It takes different types of tags for different types of products, and different positioning of the tags on boxes.” The company also has a warehouse dock setting to measure tag reads for pallets being loaded or unloaded on trucks.
With the technology in its relative infancy, the primary advantage to adopting RFID technology is to be able to support manufacturers and customers as they move to comply with the mandates Wal-Mart and other retailers are setting, Hughes says. But as the technology gains in popularity and use, he sees the benefits extending to all parts of the supply chain.
“For warehouse logisticians, having the ability for information technology to shoulder the burden of counting and tracking inventory during various stages of in-house processes – is certainly an opportunity for labor savings, efficiency savings, and an inventory savings,” he adds.
RFID meets meat
While a pallet of T-shirt boxes has a high possibility of passing down a conveyor with 100-percent readability of its RFID tags, water-based products like meat and poultry can cause a few extra complications, says Jack Cox, CapTech’s chief RFID engineer. “Water absorbs RF energy, so as the reader is emitting the energy to power the tag and also the signal, the water that’s around the tag absorbs so much of it that the tag can’t get enough power to energize and to send a signal back. And even if it did manage to get enough power to send a signal back, the water is fighting against that even weaker return signal.”
There are ways to work around those problems, including putting larger antennas on tags and designing tags that use the water as part of the antenna. However, those solutions still require careful placement of the RFID tag. In addition, the tag has to be able to withstand wet and cold environments without falling off.
Part of RCS’ testing is to determine proper packaging, as well as proper tag placement. “If you were to apply an RFID tag to a turkey, there’s a pretty good chance that when it goes by the antennas, they just won’t see the tag,” Hughes says. “Now, let’s put that same turkey inside of a box, and inside the box there’s air space between the box and the actual turkey. The RFID tag on the outside of that box has a much better opportunity to be read.”
One of the challenges is to correctly place tags for all of a manufacturer’s products, and it may not be on the same location for every box. A box containing a whole turkey, for example, will need to be tagged differently than a box containing turkey legs.
“We’re going to work with different tags on different places on the box to determine what is the best tag for that product box,” Hughes says, “and where is the most suitable location on that box to give you the most read success.”
Reading multiple tags on a pallet of frozen meat may also cause problems. When a pallet of T-shirts is scanned, a reader can not only scan the tag on the pallet but also each individual box of shirts in that pallet. The water found in frozen meat, however would make that impossible, unless the pallet is arranged in a specific manner. Cox advises that the tags on the boxes be placed facing outward on the pallet, so the signal from the RFID readers can get to the tag without being absorbed by all the water.
Another option, one that Wal-Mart has chosen to take, is to do the scanning process in two stages. “Wal-Mart is saying ‘We don’t need one-hundred percent read rate of items on the pallet, just the pallet tag,’” Cox says. “Then when they take items off the pallet, they want one hundred percent read rate on each individual case.”
Cargill’s Moldenhauer says that incorporating RFID technology into an operation requires tenacity and a strong commitment. “It needs to be a routine, it needs to become a habit that every box, every pallet, every steer, every hog that goes through the system has the technology,” she adds. “Then it becomes such an integral part of the business that it is a priority if it should not work.” NP