RFID, Reusable Packaging Put to the Test
By Michael Fechter, former RPCC vice president;
and vice president, sales and marketing, Tosca Limited
RPCC lab and field trials address obstacles to adoption of RFID and reusable transport packaging in the meat industry.
It is anticipated that a widely supported industry field test of RFID technology that is under way has the potential to pave the way for greater adoption of reusable transport packaging and RFID technology in the meat industry. Tosca Limited, a leader in pooling for returnable containers and bulk bins for case-ready meat, has already seen an increase in the adoption of reusables in the meat industry due to changes in the supply chain, including the transition to case-ready meat plants. Also in 2003, the Reusable Pallet and Container Coalition (RPCC) issued recommended guidelines to make it more economical and easier for the meat industry to integrate reusable containers into the supply chain.
The current field trial, also underwritten by the RPCC, is supported by a broad group of RPCC members and industry leaders who collectively represent every facet of the produce supply chain. Because perishables are shipped under the most demanding conditions, a successful field test with produce will possibly provide convincing evidence of the feasibility of using RFID technology with reusable transport packaging in the meat industry. The participants include Tanimura and Antle, Stemilt, Wal-Mart, Frontera Produce, The Kennedy Group, Tosca Ltd., Avery Dennison, Alien, UPM Raflatac, Impinj, IFCO Systems, Georgia-Pacific and ORBIS.
Currently, thousands of reusable containers with affixed RFID tags are being tested throughout the supply chain, from the wet and cold conditions of grower fields, to the rugged and repeated handling of distribution centers, and on to the retail environment. This large-scale field trial comes on the heels of rigorous laboratory testing at Michigan State University (MSU) School of Packaging.
To date, there have been several obstacles to the widespread adoption of RFID technology in the meat industry. One is the cost of the technology. In the field trial, the RPCC is testing the one-way paper labels that are currently being used for bar codes in the meat industry. If these labels and the inlaid RFID tag stand up to the repeated washing and handling during the field trial — as they successfully did in the lab trial — then the repeated use of the tags and containers could provide a strong return on the investment in reusables and RFID technology. For those already employing reusable containers, the tracking and traceability enhancements of RFID will be a superior add-on value.
A second obstacle has been questions about the readability and accuracy of some RFID tags. However, the lab tests conducted at MSU demonstrated that it is possible to get 100 percent read rates 100 percent of the time. Three tags that achieved 100 percent read rates are being used in the field trial. Containers with these tags are going through a minimum of three cycles of use. At the end of each cycle, the RFID tags are being tested for viability, then re-encoded for the next cycle. The six-month field trial is expected to end in spring 2008.
A third challenge is to put in place the proper infrastructure so that containers filled with meat products can be read as they move through the supply chain. Because an RFID infrastructure is different than a bar-code system, this field trial should provide some valuable lessons for the meat industry to follow. For example, a bar-code reader requires a “line of sight” to read the bar code, like a single beam from a flashlight hitting the bar code. In contrast, RFID systems can read an area ranging up to 300 feet or more. This provides much more flexibility in the positioning of containers and ensures the likelihood of accurate read data. In addition, the RFID readers can read multiple items simultaneously.
It is expected that the field trial will provide further insight on how to address these three obstacles and possibly lay the groundwork for increased adoption of reusable containers within the case-ready, retail area of the meat industry. Although retailers are the ones who will ultimately drive the demand for reusable containers and the accompanying RFID technology; all members of the meat-industry supply chain could benefit from the reduced costs and increased product safety promised by RFID technology.
For more information about the field trial, visit www.rpcc.us or call the RPCC at (202) 625-4899.