In the not-so-distant future, RFID and sensor technology could revolutionize the produce supply chain, making it possible for, say, a bag of lettuce to emit a signal if it becomes contaminated during its journey. More immediately, RFID is helping suppliers get fruits and vegetables to store shelves more quickly and efficiently.
In a pilot that began late last year, thousands of reusable containers equipped with multi-cycle RFID tags are being used in grower fields in Washington and California. During the trial, testers are monitoring the tags to see how well they stand up to abuse, beginning with exposure to mud, a range of weather conditions, and rough handling in the field.
From there, produce in the containers is shipped to Wal- Mart distribution centers, where it's cleaned. At the DCs, the containers and tags undergo washing, additional handling, refrigeration, and storage before being sent on to retail stores. Eventually, the containers in the pilot test are collapsed and sent back through the supply chain for more cleaning, handling, and storage. Each container is going through a minimum of three cycles of use.At the end of each cycle, the RFID tags are tested for viability and then re-encoded for the next cycle. The six-month field trial should end this spring.
"There has never been an RFID-related field trial of this magnitude in the United States with so many key supply chain partners," says Fred Heptinstall, senior vice president and general manager of IFCO Systems' Reusable Plastic Container Division and president of the Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition (RPCC). "The level of cooperation within the industry is truly remarkable. And if the field trial results mirror the data from the laboratory testing, we will prove unequivocally that reusables are the enabler to the cost-effective use of RFID technology."
Lab tests of 230 reusable containers conducted over the last year revealed 100 percent read rates, something that has never before been achieved in the industry. The research, which was conducted at Michigan State University, included more than 160 hours of testing and more than 14,000 tests. The three tags that performed best during the tests are being used in the field trial.
"The durability and readability of the RFID tags during the lab tests were superb," says Pat Kennedy of the Kennedy Group, who is the project leader for the RPCC. "The information gathered from these studies will help businesses make data-driven decisions about the cost effectiveness and feasibility of incorporating reusable containers into their supply chains from an enhanced track and trace perspective."
Everyone talks about the need for RFID tag prices to drop before industry fully embraces the technology. But consumer acceptance of the technology may turn out to be just as crucial in order for RFID to go mainstream.
With that in mind, EPCglobal in November launched a new Web site (www.discoverrfid.org) that's designed to explain to consumers how they can benefit from RFID. It's the second major initiative on the educational front, following AIM Global's announcement earlier in November that it was embarking on an aggressive RFID consumer awareness campaign.
Rob Thibault, director of external affairs for GS1 US, the U.S. branch of the international standards-setting organization that includes EPCglobal, says that the site is already receiving thousands of hits each day.
"The move toward consumer-facing applications of RFID has come faster and more extensively than anybody really thought, including EPCglobal," he says. "We saw a gap in the amount of information that was tailored to consumers to help them understand the technology. Unless the consumer accepts the technology, RFID is not going to achieve the level of success that it should."
Thibault reports that the site is designed to highlight a range of RFID applications, not just those related to compliance with EPCglobal standards. It is intended to offer a broad look at RFID in user-friendly, non-technical terms.