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Keeping track of food as packing crates get smart


Rising concern over food quality is pushing the industry to create ever more advanced systems to ensure food safety. A smart packing crate that uses Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags for easy tracking and tracing of meat is a case in point.

The Info-box System (iBoS) uses a special packing crate, the info-box, produced by project partner Bekuplast GmbH. The iBoS team developed a transponder, or beacon, and state-of-the-art RFID tags that could be moulded into the box during its manufacture. This means retailers, wholesalers and producers can track meat from the warehouse to the supermarket accompanied by the Internet-accessible supply chain management system also developed under the IST-funded iBoS project.

For example, iBoS identifies meat by a sample code, so if there is a problem with a product it can be quickly traced back to the point of origin. "It enables the transparency of meat products logistics by electronic identification, in order to close the currently existing information-gap between slaughterhouse and supermarket," says Wilco van de Vosse, project coordinator, and services and product manager at ACR Logistics, one of the project partners. "Transparency improves food safety by more reliable and secure logistical processes, easy tracking and tracing, and also considerably improves logistics efficiency," says van de Vosse.

What’s more, it could ultimately be used to enable an ’automatic checkout’, where a computer reads the contents of a shopping basket and simply presents customers with a bill, saving considerable time.

It works like this. RFID gives off a unique signal that can be read by appropriate receiver. It’s the radio frequency equivalent of a bar code. Currently RFID is used primarily in the warehouse, but some manufacturers are beginning to include the chips in their retail products, again for logistics control.

The iBoS RFID transponder can be read in difficult conditions, independent of orientation, light, temperature, humidity. "It’s the first RFID transponder suitable for use in meat logistics," says van de Vosse.

Up to 250 transponders can be read simultaneously, which dramatically speeds up processing time. iBoS is also ISO (International Standards Organisation) compliant to ensure compatibility with other products, unlike most proprietary devices currently on the market.
In addition to signalling to an RFID reader, the transponder can store up to 18 Blocks of 32 Bits (8 Char. each) of data and it can be used in combination with bar codes, all integrated into one label, which means it can adapt seamlessly to existing supply chain systems.

It’s also a read/write chip, unlike the majority of chips now available which are read-only. So, links in the supply chain can add data. For example the slaughterhouse will be able to add data to the transponder about the type of product, like article, weight and price.

The team trialled the system and are pleased with its success. In trials the Supply Chain Management System offered better quality control; information could be read with simple readers, without the need to connect to the back office. Since there is no manual scanning of bar codes, no weighing of each individual crate and no counting is required, there are no errors, and the process is faster and more efficient.

Furthermore, it’s easier to improve the supply process because information is readily available. Over time, it will mean new, more efficient working methods. The system includes an optional temperature sensor and logger that provides evidence of compliance with required transport temperatures.

Currently RFID technology is below five per cent market share in the packing identification market in mainly express logistics because of the relative high cost. It costs €1 while bar code labels cost less than 1 cent. However, iBoS adds considerable value to the tracking process and should promote the rapid adoption of RFID technology. Meat product logistics is expensive, very critical, has a large scale of economy and can have direct impact on human health.

The system can be applied to other products too, and the project team believes that as business adopts the technology prices will come down, further accelerating the introduction of RFID.

"Until the introduction of the new ISO transponder no reliable RFID technology at suited wavelength was available to be used in combination with liquid products (like food and, in particular, meat). Therefore transponders have never been used in the perishable food logistics chain before."

The project finished last year but since then the partners continued to improve the system. "There have been advances in the software, the transponder and the box, every element is undergoing continuous improvement," says van de Vosse.

Currently the partners are demonstrating the product to potential users and establishing commercial partnerships to produce the system on a large scale.

"There are a lot of elements to this system. It’s not just a box, or a chip, but you also have gate readers that can receive the transponder signal, you have the back office software and other elements like the optional temperature sensor. Developing commercial partnerships for the whole system is complex, but there are many companies who are interested in being involved," concludes van de Vosse.

Tara Morris | alfa
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