By Claire Swedberg
Nov. 30, 2011—Following a six-week pilot of RFID
tags to track blackberries from Mexican farms through its packing plant in Los Reyes, Mexico, and on to its U.S. distribution centers, an American berry company is now deploying the solution throughout all of its facilities. That deployment, provided by Santa Clara, Ca., visibility solutions company Intelleflex
, uses software from Proware Services
(a division of Florida-based RFID technology firm Franwell
). Intelleflex reports that it will now equip all of the berry company's four Mexican packinghouses and three U.S. DCs with RFID technology, and provide temperature-tracking tags to more than 1,000 growers. This rollout is expected to be completed by the end of 2011.
The berry company, which has declined to be interviewed or named for this article, conducted a six-week pilot this past spring, in an effort to improve the quality of product arriving at stores, as well as reduce shrinkage resulting from fruit spoilage. The pilot, conducted on blackberries only (though the full deployment will include multiple berry varieties), allowed the company to track the temperatures within berry-filled containers loaded on pallets from the time the fruit was harvested until it was delivered to the DCs. Based on the results, says Peter Mehring, Intelleflex's CEO, the firm could expect to realize a return on investment
within one harvest season (which typically lasts six months). The money-saving benefits include enabling staff members to know when berry temperatures have risen too high, and either to address those high temperatures in real time (such as in the precooling room—a forced-air refrigeration system—at the packing facility), or to route crates according to the temperatures to which the fruit had been exposed and, consequently, according to its remaining shelf life. In so doing, the berry grower will be able to reduce the likelihood that it would need to discard fruit before it could be sold or distributed.
The system used by the berry company included specially modified Motorola MC9090-G handheld readers, Intelleflex TMT 8500 temperature sensor RFID tags and a portable printer for generating adhesive labels.
The pilot was divided into two closed loops, during which RFID tags were used to track berry temperatures. During the first loop—known as the grower loop—an RFID sensor tag was placed on one or more cartons loaded onto each pallet in the field during harvest, and through the quality-control testing performed at the company's packinghouse. For the second distribution loop, an RFID sensor tag was placed in at least one carton loaded onto a repacked pallet, in order to track the temperatures during the cooling and cold-storage stages, and as the carton travels by truck to a U.S. distribution center. During the pilot, berry temperature data culled during the first loop was not linked to the information collected during the second loop. In the future, however, the two sets of data could be linked, so that the fruit company would be able to track a product's temperature history from farm to store.
Intelleflex's battery-assisted passive (BAP) ultrahigh-frequency
) RFID tags support the ISO 18000
-6:2010 Class 3 standard for BAP RFID tags, as well as the EPC Gen 2
standard for passive UHF RFID. Each tag's built-in temperature sensor measures temperatures at preset intervals. When interrogated by an RFID reader
, the tag transmits the temperature data, along with its own unique ID number. With its battery-power boost, Mehring says, the tag can be read from within a box of berries, toward the center of a packed pallet—something often impossible using a passive UHF tag. The data is being stored on FreshAware Windows-based RFID software provided by ProWare Services. Intelleflex installed a combination of its own fixed interrogators and Motorola Solutions
MC9090-G handheld readers, modified by Intelleflex to read its BAP tags.
The berry company earns $1.5 billion in revenue annually from berries and grapes grown in Mexico, Argentina and Chile, and sold in the United States. It operates four packinghouses in Mexico, each supplied by 200 to 400 growers in its vicinity. When produce is delivered by farmers, packinghouse workers receive and visually examine the fruit. The workers have no way of knowing the amount of shelf life remaining for each pallet, however, since they do not know the time that the fruit was picked, its temperature at the time of picking or the temperature within the truck that transported it from the farm. Due to the variety of conditions that the berries have already undergone before arriving at the packinghouse, the cartons of fruit have widely differing shelf lives. Knowing what a particular pallet's shelf life may be, based on temperature readings transmitted via RFID
, will help the company manage the cooling process, as well as route product to the appropriate distribution center. For instance, a pallet of berries that had already been warm before reaching the packinghouse may require additional time in the precooling room, and may need to be shipped sooner, and to a closer DC, than berries stored at a very low temperature.
For the pilot, the company installed FreshAware software on its own back-end system and on the handheld readers provided to the packinghouse, as well as to each of the three DCs, and to some growers. The company also installed fixed RFID readers at its packinghouse and DCs. Approximately 250 blackberry growers located in Central Mexico used the system during the six-week pilot last spring throughout the harvesting
season. Farm laborers filled cardboard cartons with freshly picked berries, placed an Intelleflex TMT 8500 temperature tag
inside at least one carton to be loaded onto a pallet, and then pressed a button on the tag to activate it. The tag recorded the temperature reading every 15 minutes. Once all of the cartons were packed onto pallets, the grower's staff utilized the handheld device to read the ID number encoded to each pallet's RFID tags, and to scan that pallet's bar code
. This data was uploaded to the FreshAware software, thereby linking that pallet's bar-coded serial number with the tag IDs. The laborers then loaded pallets into vans or trucks that transported the berries to the packinghouse, located a one- to five-hour drive away.
When the pallets arrived at the Los Reyes packinghouse, employees used the handheld MC9090-G readers, modified by Intelleflex, to scan the pallet's bar code, in order to collect an ID number specific to that pallet, and then download the ID numbers and temperature logs stored on the UHF
BAP tag or tags (there were often more than one on a single pallet). Because the tag IDs were associated with the bar-coded number, the company could ensure that only the tag data for that particular pallet was collected and stored on the FreshAware software. This process was developed as a method for filtering out stray tag reads resulting from the TMT 8500 tags' long read range
, which can extend to 100 meters (328 feet) in open air. If the reader captured the ID number of a pallet located nearby, the software would disregard that reading since its bar code had not been scanned.
In the event that a temperature reading was too high, the staff would receive an alert on the handheld's screen, and an alert would also be triggered in the software for company managers tracking the temperatures via a PC. In the meantime, workers used a small printer
, worn around a belt and linked via a Wi-Fi
connection to the handheld unit, to print an adhesive label indicating the product's quality upon receipt, based on the RFID read data. That label was then attached to the stretch-wrapped pallet.
Next, quality-control employees inspected the cartons. While in the past, they did so simply by visually inspecting the berries, they used the handheld readers during the pilot, to again capture the latest temperature data, and then determine the fruit's quality. Management could use the temperature history data to determine how long the berries would need to remain in the precooling room. The RFID tags were then removed, and could be returned to the grower for another load of berries.
The pallets were then repacked for shipment to the company's U.S. distribution centers. A TMT 8500 RFID tag
was placed in one of the cartons on each pallet, and workers read
that new tag, thereby initiating the pilot's second loop. The precooling room accommodates about 36 pallets, and is cooled via forced air to about 33 degrees Fahrenheit (0.6 degree Celsius), to quickly cool the berries. Berries that had been picked in very warm temperatures, or transported on unrefrigerated trucks, would require a greater amount of time in the precooling room than other berries. Intelleflex installed one of its readers in the precooling room, with antennas mounted on the roof to capture the ID numbers and temperature readings of tags packed in boxes on each pallet. Management could use that information to remove pallets that have cooled faster than others (possibly because the fruit they contained had been picked when it was cool outside, or had been transported to the packinghouse in a truck that was properly refrigerated), while those that were warmer remained in the room for a longer duration.
The pallets were then placed in cold storage until being shipped to a distribution center. The company installed the Intelleflex fixed readers at three U.S. DCs—one in Texas, one in Southern California and another in Pennsylvania. All three locations also utilized the FreshAware software to interpret and store data from the RFID
reads, and to alert users if a temperature threshold had been exceeded. The Intelleflex readers were installed at the dock doors of all three facilities, in order to read the tag
ID and temperature data as the vehicles were unloaded. What's more, workers used the Motorola handhelds to scan the pallet bar codes, and then read the tags packed in the boxes on the pallets to capture temperature data at the time that the pallets were being inspected. With that data, each DC could access details about every pallet in the FreshAware software, and determine each pallet's remaining shelf life. In that way, the DC's staff could route the products to stores based on shelf life, and determine how far they could safely travel, and how long they could wait in storage.
During the pilot, the company deployed 700 tags, which were reused upon completing their cycle with a carton on a pallet.
The greatest value that the company received, Intelleflex reports, was in knowing the optimum temperatures for storing berries prior to repacking, in order to determine how long they should be kept in the precooling room, as well as the amount of time remaining before the fruit needed to be moved from the DC to the store shelf. By using the technology, the company found that it could reduce product loss due to spoilage.