RFID and the promise of real-time monitoring of perishable cargoes have existed for more than a decade. But although an appealing idea, costs and technical application problems have kept radio-frequency identification technology out of reach for most companies.
New communication and technical applications are helping to make the monitoring technology feasible, and a number of companies have jumped into the hardware, software and service arena.
Intelleflex, a high-tech company in Northern California, says it has combined enhanced RFID — which features a much stronger signal to penetrate the high-water content of produce — reusable tags that have built-in battery-assisted passive RFID, GPS technology, cellular communications and cloud computing into a service product that can help produce companies eliminate waste and sell fresh fruits and vegetables for a higher price.
“Today, companies can monitor temperature compliance of a container, but not the product itself,” Intelleflex CEO Peter Mehring said. “That’s a big step up from what could be done a decade ago, but temperatures can vary by 30 percent on different pallets in this same container.”
A new system developed by Intelleflex allows shippers to know the temperature and other physical attributes on each pallet throughout transit. That can make a big difference on where a pallet of fruit is sent, Mehring said. “Intelleflex at its core tries to collect supply chain data that is actionable,” he said.
Bar codes and passive RFID didn’t allow decisions to be made mid-shipment, he said. “If a grower knows that some pallets have eight days of shelf life and others 12, they match remaining shelf life to destination,” Mehring said. “Maybe it’s only a two- or three-day trip to Oxnard, but four- or five- to Philadelphia.”
Having the information on a pallet level is critical to those decisions, because visual inspections don’t tell the whole story. “People believe shelf life is the same if items are harvested the same day and put on the same truck. That’s not true. But by the time you can tell the difference visually, it’s too late,” Mehring said.
Pre-cooling before shipment is usually where the problem lies; some produce may not have been cooled sufficiently. “Using this system, you can tell if something is ready to put on the truck or if it still needs to be pre-cooled,” he said.
The battery-assisted RFID smart tags have been available for more than a year, he said. What the company has developed most recently is a system that allows data to be collected at more points along the shipment and at a lower cost by using cellular communications technology, and coupling that with a Web-based data system that allows every participant along the way to share the information.
Growers, packers, trucking, rail and ocean carriers, distribution centers and retail outlets can be connected by placing the information in the cloud, rather than having it sit in a proprietary computer.
“Having temperature and condition information available later for forensic purposes doesn’t help growers or others make decisions,” Mehring said. “All this is actionable.” And because growers, buyers, carriers and even insurance companies have access to the same data, it can reduce insurance claims, he said.
The reusable tags can last up to 27 months, Mehring said. Intelleflex is still setting up pricing for the data collection system, scheduled to be launched commercially later this year, but said growers will receive credit for sharing data with others along the line, bringing down costs.
Intelleflex and other companies are now embedding RFID tags into reusable plastic crates and pallets.
U.S. flexible packaging supplier Bemis this month announced a deal with printed electronics specialist Thin Film Electronics of Norway to develop a platform for producing “intelligent” packaging. The platform, which involves the fitting of printed electronics to packaging, is expected to be commercially available in 2014. Thin Film will provide the printed electronics in the form of sensor labels that can collect and wirelessly communicate information such as physical properties and environmental data in packaged perishable products.
Southwest Airlines Cargo recently unveiled a new tracking service that gives its customers visibility on the location and environmental status of high-value and time- and temperature-sensitive shipments. The service features wireless asset-tracking devices that monitor the location, shock, light, temperature, pressure and humidity of cargo during transit. Those shipments can be tracked using the waybill numbers on the carrier’s Web site.
Despite the technical advances and new products offered by myriad companies, real-time RFID monitoring is rare in the perishables industry, according to Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for the United Fresh Produce Association.
“Prices have come down, but it is still a matter of cost,” he said. “It’s not just the tags themselves, but readers that have to be installed wherever you want to collect the data — and that is still too costly for a lot of growers and shippers.”
But he said the tipping point for use is within sight. “Companies are starting to think about it. I see the more progressive companies looking at their supply chain and realizing that there is still money on the table. They want to know how they can squeeze extra revenue or cost reduction out of the supply chain.”
Companies such as Intelleflex that offer actionable service options are speeding the trend, Vache said. “I think they are getting very close to real-time monitoring,” he said. “It is doable, and the industry should be using it. If costs come down a little more, I think people will jump on board.”
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