What happens when hundreds of people fall ill after eating a particular brand of meat? Most likely, the manufacturer will take the precaution of pulling every single product—whether or not that product is affected—from the shelves of every store to prevent further incidents. While this is just a hypothetical situation, food recalls are all too common and seem to happen nearly every day. And, their effects are detrimental.
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In addition to potentially harming consumers, the average recall costs a company $10 million, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. To mitigate risks, keep consumers safe, comply with increasingly strict industry regulations, and assuage (if not prevent) recalls, more food and beverage manufacturers are investigating innovative technologies. One of these technologies is radio frequency identification (RFID).
Although RFID has been around for decades, it has quickly gained traction in recent years due to improved read rates, new industry standards, lower system costs, and greater solution reliability. In fact, IDTechEx predicts that the RFID market will reach $18.68 billion by 2026. That growth is across all industries, including food and beverage manufacturing and processing.
In the most basic sense, RFID is a data collection method that utilizes low-power radio waves to send and receive information between tags and readers. As opposed to using barcode scanning (or even the traditional “pen and paper”) for collecting data, RFID does not require user-initiated, line-of-sight efforts and can simultaneously read and write to hundreds of tags within a read field. While barcodes and manual processes aren’t going away anytime soon, RFID, when properly deployed, provides the added benefit of allowing enterprises to acquire data without adding labor or other resources.
For those new to RFID, it is important to distinguish between the two chief types of tags, each offering their own set of advantages. Passive, ultra-high frequency (UHF) tags, also known as RAIN RFID, are the most commonly used. Requiring a powered reader to reflect/transmit their signal, these tags are ideal for tracking large volumes of low-cost items with a continuous flow throughout a specific area. For example, food manufacturers can use passive tags to tracks pallets, bins, or returnable transport items (RTIs) containing ingredients or products as they move through the facility. Furthermore, passive tags are becoming more and more cost effective, with tag prices dropping below 10 cents apiece.
The other key type of RFID tags are active, or Wi-Fi-based, tags. Unlike passive tags, active tags draw from their own internal power supply to transmit signals to standard wireless access points. This provides real-time location information for tracking high-value, high-impact, mobile assets. A good use case for active RFID tags is tracking large machines or pieces of equipment. While active tags are more costly than passive tags, they have a much greater read range—up to 300 feet.
Traceability with RFID
So, how does RFID help with food safety efforts? A central piece of complying with industry regulations like Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, is data collection—food and beverage companies must collect, access, and utilize the necessary data to track and trace products throughout the supply chain. RFID provides these capabilities, and then some.
For instance, manufacturers can attach passive (or RAIN) RFID tags to bins holding a product associated with a lot number. Every time a bin passes through an RFID portal, its tag is read, and data is collected and sent to a database, thus creating an audit trail or chain-of-custody. The audit trail contains valuable information about that product—which line produced it and when? Which machines were used? With this information readily available, manufacturers can quickly and efficiently mitigate a recall. Now, instead of pulling every single product from store shelves, it is possible to pinpoint and pull just the batch that contains the affected products.
Also attributing to traceability initiatives, RFID technology is now used to monitor temperatures. Specialty RFID tags equipped with battery-powered sensors allow manufacturers to collect temperature data from pallets, bins, and totes. By reading the RFID tag, manufacturers can make sure a pallet maintains a certain temperature. And, if the pallet has hit a temperature above or below a certain threshold at any point in its lifecycle, the manufacturer can discard the product or adjust the expiration data as appropriate. Similarly, RFID tags now exist that can monitor humidity, pressure, and event movement, arming users with even more data to ensure food safety.
Notably, data collected via RFID is non-duplicable, as it results from a machine-to-machine transaction. Therefore, food manufacturers can authenticate processes, as well as sufficiently meet audit requirements with confidence in their data’s integrity.
RFID Trends—What’s Next?
As the RFID market continues to grow, there are several trends and technologies poised to make an impact. As they explore the potential benefits of RFID, food and beverage manufacturers should keep the following in mind.
Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) tags. As aforementioned, active/Wi-Fi RFID tags run on the costly side, especially in comparison to passive tags. There is finally a more cost-effective alternative: BLE tags. A technology within the ever-evolving Internet of Things, or IoT, BLE tags are not only less expensive than active tags, but they are even easier to deploy—requiring a simple connection to a Bluetooth-enabled device, like a smartphone or a mobile computer. A food manufacturer can track assets by placing a BLE tag to each item and mounting a single reader, or “Cloud Node,” in the center of its facility. The manufacturer obtains the same real-time location information as it would with a Wi-Fi/active tag, but without the need for new infrastructure or multiple access points.
Temperature, humidity, and motion sensing. Passive and active RFID tags are becoming more intelligent—tags with built-in sensors that can be read via RFID readers are available to help monitor more than location events. Temperature monitoring of food products is a useful tool, without the need for returnable tracking devices. In addition, each carrier is equipped with its own sensor, so it is easy to monitor variations in pallet position and pallets that are re-built by freight organizations. Other sensors, like humidity and motion, can determine different characteristics about the products as they move through the supply chain.
Hybrid RFID systems. Systems that combine active and passive RFID technology are ideal for food manufacturers tracking both high-volume/low-cost and low-volume/high-cost assets. Yet, in the past, users had to rely on two different software interfaces to obtain tracking information from each type of tag. New hybrid systems provide a unified visibility solution for tracking all types of assets. As assets are tracked, operators can view real-time data from a software interface. It is even possible to use BLE tags in these systems, so hybrid solutions offer even more flexibility and affordability.
Memory space. Many of today’s RFID tags have additional space for storing information beyond a simple identifier. These tags serve as tiny note pads, figuratively speaking, or flash drives. This is especially useful for food manufacturers, who can now store expiration dates, lot numbers, and more, thereby enhancing the audit trail to alleviate recalls.
Pre-printed tags. Although it is convenient to print RFID labels on demand at a manufacturer’s site, doing so requires time and internal resources for managing printers—performing calibrations, fixing jams, etc. A growing trend across industries, many enterprises are purchasing pre-printed/pre-encoded labels from reputable consumables vendors. By ordering thousands of pre-printed tags, manufacturers no longer have to worry about printing onsite and can focus on more important tasks at hand (like ensuring food safety).
RFID is a powerful tool with many great tracking and tracing applications in the food and beverage industry. However, before diving into a complete system deployment, take a step back. Here are a few key considerations for a successful RFID implementation.
Define the use case. While it is easy to get wrapped up in the technology itself, it is most important to first clearly define your use case and identify exactly what you want to achieve and why.
Match the technology to the use case. Always match the technology to the use case, not the other way around. “Force fitting” a technology because it sounds promising or is the “latest and greatest” is never a good idea. If another technology, like a barcode scanning system, would be a better fit, don’t be afraid to take a different path.
Understand that there may not be a cookie-cutter solution. A single type of technology isn’t always the answer. Often, manufacturers require a blend of these solutions—RFID, barcodes—to attain their required results.
Get people involved. Any implementation will go much smoother with buy-in across the organization. And, it is not only important to have the right internal team, but also the right vendors or systems integrators on board to ensure that the technology aligns with the businesses’ goals.
Looking forward, RFID technology shows no sign of a slowdown. The same goes for the food industry’s emphasis on consumer safety, as regulations continue to increase and manufacturers seek viable options for proving compliance, improving data collection efforts, and enabling traceability. This makes for an ideal time to investigate RFID and see how it can drive safety efforts and make enterprises more efficient, accurate, and connected.
Boyle is director of RFID at Barcoding, Inc. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.