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RFID’s trial by freezer

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AUSTRALIAN pie manufacturer Patties Foods is confronting industry hesitation about radio frequency identification (RFID) technology head on, with the first Australian trial in frozen foods.

Patties are conducting the trial with key players involved in food manufacturing and supply chains.

Governing body GS1 Australia will oversee the trial, while coding and labelling specialist Matthews Intelligent Identification , IT vendors VeriSign Australia , and cold storage company Montague Cold Storage will provide support and expertise.

RFID is said to offer manufacturers increased visibility and traceability of their products - benefits vital to food manufacturers concerned with food safety and efficiency in a competitive global market.

Patties general manager (purchasing and supply) Joe Rettino says RFID is the next natural step in improving the company’s inventory control, having spent previous years improving its bar-coding standards and e-messaging systems.

“Even though bar-coding technology gives us transparency of our inventory, RFID goes one step further in achieving better visibility of products,” he said.

“It helps the whole supply chain become more consumer-driven, rather than reacting to warehouse movements and supply chain inefficiencies.

“With this better visibility, manufacturers will be able to see the true consumer demand for their product.”

While these benefits of RFID have been spruiked for some time, the implementation of RFID amongst local food manufacturers has been slow.

According to Matthews Intelligent Identification national sales and marketing manager Phil Biggs, this is one of the key areas the trial can help to address.

“The trial will be good because it will demonstrate to the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector the tangible benefits of RFID technology for supply-chain efficiency improvement,” he said.

Patties’ Joe Rettino says that while hesitation towards new technologies is natural, another factor limiting RFID uptake is questions over its suitability to the situations faced by food manufacturers.

“The potential problem is the construction of most food manufacturing premises involving cold storages with insulated panels,” he said.

“Traditionally, insulated panels are not great for radio communications.”

Rettino says finding out which RFID equipment can handle freezer conditions is a key objective of the trial.

“With a freezing environment you can be talking about -40 degrees Celsius in some areas - but so far we haven’t seen a lot of information about what works or doesn’t work in the freezer.”

The trial will also assess the durability of RFID equipment.

“We’ll be looking at how robust the readers and technology will be in our environment,” Rettino said.

“At the warehouse level it’s got to cope with plenty of handling and movement.”

While RFID can offer many benefits in managing the supply chain, it’s important that equipment does not introduce problems that lead to valuable product losses. The trial will also test such scenarios.

“Matthews will use a label printer applicator which has the ability to verify if tags that are ‘dead on arrival’ and automatically rewind and print a new tag,” Matthews’ Phil Biggs said.

“That’s quite important on the production line, because it means product isn’t wasted simply because of a labelling problem.”

According to Biggs, this is also one of the first trials globally to use high-frequency Gen2 RFID tags.

Patties’ Rettino says the excitement about such groundbreaking technology made it easier to obtain collaboration from the necessary trial partners.

“There’s a real eagerness to find out what this RFID technology can do,” he said.

While the current cost of RFID equipment may be somewhat dampening this excitement, Rettino believes this will change.

“The cost of the tags is still fairly significant, but as more users come on board the volumes will drive prices down to the level it needs to be at for consumer-level RFID tagging,” he said.

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