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Redefining Track and Trace Technology

Track and trace technology such as radio frequency identification can give food and beverage companies the capabilities needed to take their operations to the next level.

The food and beverage industry faces an ever-increasing customer demand. The pressure is high for companies to achieve greater efficiency and more transparency, creating an immediate need for advanced technology and innovation. Track and trace technology such as radio frequency identification (RFID) can give food and beverage companies the capabilities needed to take their operations to the next level.

More supply chains are leveraging RFID technology to collect data and insights that reveal pertinent details about their supply chains in real time. However, new technology requires equipment that is capable of supporting RFID. As the technology becomes more common, reusable packaging manufacturers are finding ways to more reliably adhere chips to plastic packaging, such as pallets, for improved asset tracking.

RFID tags can be molded in or welded on — a retrofit option — to a plastic pallet. The purpose of the tag is to track the plastic pallet throughout its lifetime. Why is this beneficial for supply chains? By tracking packaging throughout its lifetime, comprehensive data can be collected for real-time and future decision-making. Analyzing this data leads to well-rounded insights that are often more difficult to gather from one-time-use packaging.

For the food and beverage industry specifically, RFID is becoming more popular for higher-turn items, offering customers more data points to identify areas of improvement within their supply chains. For customers shipping large quantities and seeking supply chain improvements, implementing this new and advanced technology is crucial for their business.  

How RFID works: RFID tags can be attached to almost any asset, including pallets, cases, containers, individual parts, products and finished goods. Tags come in many forms: labels, riveted plaques and, in some cases, they can be molded into packaging products.

The microchip within the RFID tag carries information that identifies the product, and potentially tells users where it was made and where it has been (all depending on how the user has implemented the technology). RFID technology uses radio frequency waves to transfer data between the RFID tag and a reader. These waves are picked up by a small antenna that accompanies the microchip on the RFID tag. The power received is enough to turn on the microchip, which sends information back to the reader via radio waves. The reader then converts the radio waves returned from the RFID tag to data, which is relayed to computers for analyzation.

This technology might seem complex, but it is not much different from bar code scanning — just more advanced and user-friendly. RFID provides more immediate data, requires less manpower and, above all, increases operational efficiency.

Why companies consider RFID: Industries are looking to RFID technology with intrigue — ultimately, those implementing the technology are looking to improve asset and product visibility and increase their operation’s deployment efficiencies. The volume of their operation’s assets and the speed in which they move may make other track-and-trace methods too inefficient for some supply chains.

Benefits of RFID technology: For those integrating RFID technology within supply chains, powerful insights can be leveraged into everyday business operations. Some of the benefits garnered from integrating RFID-based information across the supply chain include:

  • Improved visibility of assets and product
  • Reduced inventories, out-of-stocks, shrinkage from theft or misinformation, and labor costs
  • Increased labor efficiency
  • Improved logistics and fulfillment

How to implement RFID: Some reusable packaging manufacturers are now designing plastic pallets with RFID in mind. As mentioned, customers can either purchase plastic pallets with RFID tags already molded in, or they can have RFID tags welded on to existing pallet fleets. When molding an RFID tag in a plastic pallet, it can be done through automation. Whichever method is chosen, the RFID tag is securely adhered to a plastic pallet and can be placed anywhere on the pallet. Even when the RFID tag is hidden, RFID sensors can still read and comprehend the data.

When comparing RFID tags with more traditional track and trace technology such as bar codes, there is less risk with this advanced technology. For example, bar codes must be placed on the outside of the packaging so material handlers may scan the data into their system. With the bar code being exposed and more vulnerable, damage during transit could cause the tag to fall off or become illegible. RFID significantly reduces these risks that are common within high-paced supply chains.

Maximize RFID investment: Although RFID tags can be a considerable investment for operations, they are a worthwhile investment for the food and beverage industry, especially when supply chain and productivity improvements are top of mind. Important to note: an RFID tag will last only as long as the pallet it is adhered to. What is the difference in lifetime for pallet options?

The Virginia Tech Center for Packaging and Unity Load Design recently conducted a comparison study — plastic pallets versus wood pallets. The study revealed that plastic pallets completed more than 200 cycles without failure, compared with wood pallets that completed only 11 cycles before failure. Industries can rely on plastic pallets for an environmental and efficient alternative to wood pallets to achieve their desired return on investment. Investing in RFID technology is more economical when the pallets have a longer service life and more versatility in their role throughout the supply chain.

For the food and beverage industry, knowing where products are along the supply chain, their status, where they came from and where they are going is imperative to operational efficiency and future supply chain improvements. To surpass heightened customer demands, will you be leveraging technology for your business?

Ryan Roessler is Plastic Pallets Product Manager at ORBIS Corporation.