With A Trace
by Lynn Petrak
RFID, track-and-trace technology enable processors to make sure everything is in its place.
These days, it’s not enough for dairy manufacturers to ship products from Point A to Point B — they pretty much need to follow their perishable goods through to Point Z.
With the specter of recalls and concerns about inefficiencies and waste looming large, more manufacturers are taking advantage of improving technology to keep tabs on the entire chain from farm to fork (or cup, as it may be). The ability to trace raw ingredients and finished products backward and forward helps processors become both proactive and reactive and can provide them with a wealth of strategic information.
To be sure, there are many types of tracking tools available. Dairy manufacturers employ a variety of track-and-trace systems, utilizing specialized software and hardware that allows them to monitor internal production and connect with suppliers and customers. Some processors have pursued radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, through which tiny transmitter tags that store data are affixed to a pallet or case.
Wells’ Dairy Inc., the LeMars, Iowa-based manufacturer of frozen and cultured dairy products, is among the companies that have invested heavily in traceback and RFID. “From the outset, we viewed the implementation of this technology as a catalyst for making process changes that improve business performance,” says Wells process control manager Brad Galles, who points to several tangible benefits of its state-of-the-art RFID capability. “Once the data is collected, we’ll use it to improve inventory tracking, automate many of our quality control and inventory processes and simplify our data collecting processes.”
Those who supply tracking services and equipment agree that many factors are converging to cause dairies to take a closer look at the technology. “Track and trace is important due to concerns about shelf life, inventory management, recall and legislation concerning the Bioterrorism Act,” notes Chuck Ravetto, director of marketing for Wood Dale, Ill.-based Videojet Technologies Inc., a supplier of coding, printing and laser marketing products that is part of Danaher Corp.’s Product Identification Strategic Platform. “Shelf life is important as it relates to customer satisfaction, inventory management and health concerns, and the Bioterrorism Act is leading to more traceability to the ingredient level.”
Such trends are underscored by Eamonn O’Mahony, director of product development for Softtrace Ltd., an Irish firm specializing in software and solutions. “The ability to minimize exposure on product recalls, through internal quality checks and system alerts when problems occur, is becoming increasingly important. And EU and FDA directives on food safety and traceability have increased focus on this area of food production over the last number of years,” O’Mahony says. “In the current environment, any procedures and systems which provide solutions to these problems will give a company a competitive advantage.”
When competitive advantage is at stake, it’s no surprise that those whose business is perishable products are gung-ho about traceability. “The milk from one cow, in principle, could be used to make milk, cheese and ice cream and end up in processed foods all over the place. That’s why it’s so important, if you have [potentially] contaminated food like dairy, to find out not just what caused it, but how it all ended up,” says Stein Onsrud, chief executive officer of the Americas group for TraceTracker USA Inc., a Norwegian firm with U.S. offices in San Rafael, Calif.
What’s New
Track-and-trace systems, which include software programs and hardware like hand-held computers, are available in broad range of forms today.
According to Onsrud, TraceTracker has continually updated its whole system solutions that allow dairy manufacturers to trace products internally and link in real time with key partners. “In one way, you can see we are the ‘Google’ of traceability,” he says of the company’s cold-chain capability that works from both RFID and bar codes. “If it’s a big dairy farm wondering what happened to a bad batch of milk that went through, they will then, via the host server, check with different chain members like retailers, processors and everywhere else as it moves forward in the supply chain.”
Onsrud says TraceTracker’s service is different for several reasons. For one thing, it doesn’t feature a large database, which was done for security. “In a closed environment, you have chain members who agree on what and how to share information,’ he says, adding that the systems’ graphic interface is also unique in that it allows a user to move easily from internal to global traceability views. In addition, he notes, the system allows temperature to be logged throughout distribution.
Meanwhile, Videojet continues to upgrade its offerings, including inkjet, laser marking, labeling and thermal transfer overprinting (TTO) technologies that can carry information on lot, batch, date, time, production line, shift and other relevant data. In the past year, Videojet developed a new 1310 inkjet printer that maximizes uptime by starting and stopping without the need for cleaning and that was designed with an automated backflushing nozzle, and also introduced a new DataFlex® Plus TTO that provides on-line printing of variable and real-time data, such as expiration dates, batch/lot codes, ingredients/parts listings, bar codes and logos.
Videojet’s latest model, which launched in April, is its 3320 laser coder, designed for high-speed production lines. According to Ravetto, the coder can be integrated into any application that requires permanent marking of variable data on substrates like plastic, glass, rubber, cardboard and labels.
For its part, Softrace offers the latest integrated software solutions that provide data capture, total quality visualization throughout the chain, yield management at specified points in the cycle and product value optimization. According to O’Mahony, much of the company’s recent work has centered on customization. “We have developed customized solutions for different aspects of the dairy industry, like Softtrace Cheese and Softtrace Liquid Milk,” he says. “This has allowed us to provide better and more automated solutions, which are tailored to specific needs.”
Innovations aside, there are some challenges in track-and-trace applications in the dairy industry. Ravetto, for his part, points out that wet dairy-production environments meant that Videojet’s inkjet printers had to be designed to withstand harsher conditions. “Bar codes are challenging because of the moisture on the products and curvature of the products, and RFID applications in dairy can be more challenging as liquids impair the signal transmissions,” he says. “The other issue is limited space to print all the information on small products.”
Playing Tag
Bar codes are more commonly used for tracking of dairy pallets and cases than RFID tags, mainly due to difficulties in reading tags on or near liquid products. “The frequency being used right now is in the 900 megahertz (MHz) range, and it is sensitive to any type of moisture,” explains Rick Fox, president and CEO of Fox IV Technologies Inc., a Pittsburgh-based provider of equipment and systems for printing and automatically applying RFID and bar-code labels.
That said, manufacturers have had to find ways to get around such technical glitches, following the mandate from major retailers like Wal-Mart, Albertsons and Target that their top suppliers comply with certain electronic product code (EPC) requirements and use RFID tags. More stringent traceability requirements from foodservice titans like McDonald’s, too, have spurred new RFID solutions. “You’ll find a lot of creativity going on out there at the tag level,” Fox says, “with tag and antennae design, and the location of the tag.”
In the dairy industry, Fox was involved with the incorporation of RFID into Wells’ Dairy, where the technology was applied to ice cream, which has less of a concern with moisture. “What is interesting on that application is that there are two five-quart ice cream containers nested against each other and shrink-wrapped,” he says of the location of the RFID tag.
According to Galles, Wells’ Dairy wanted to integrate RFID into the plant’s existing Rockwell Automation infrastructure for a maximum return on investment. The system they settled on is based on Rockwell Automation Integrated Architecture, using Allen-Bradley® ControlLogix® controllers, NetLinx™ networking technology and the ViewAnyWare™ visualization platform to improve integration and exchange of information throughout the facility.
Currently, on the Wells’ Dairy ice cream line, an RFID tag is embedded in the bar-code label placed on the plastic wrap by an applicator, and the tag is read as cases begin to move into the freezer. If the reader doesn’t recognize the tag, the case is rerouted to another line and manually reviewed by a line employee. After gallons are placed into a pallet covered in plastic wrap, another RFID tag is placed on the pallet, containing information gathered on the individual ice cream buckets as they moved throughout the production process.
After working out the bugs in the system, Galles says other benefits of RFID have come to light. “In addition to the opportunities that we defined in the business case of this project, we realized other areas where this technology brings added value to Wells’ Dairy,” he says, citing freed-up personnel, increased safety and quality control, enhanced productivity, improved shipping accuracy and improved insight into inventory.
Companies that offer RFID systems to food manufacturers continue to develop new applications and educate processors about the technology. The Kennedy Group, a Willoughby, Ohio-based developer and manufacturer of labeling, packaging, promotional labels and identification systems, recently partnered with Alien Technology to purchase large volumes of inlays and other products for production of Smart Therm™ labels and smart cards. Such labels make it easier to read tags.
Meanwhile, Telford Park, Pa.-based Accu-Sort Systems Inc. (whose sister company is Videojet) offers an integrated RFID and bar code system called Fast Tag® that is used by top suppliers of Wal-Mart. In recent months, Accu-Sort launched Fast Tag® Start, an entry-level kit for those looking to experiment with RFID technology or to do an initial pilot.
In another development, the U.K.-based data collection company and consultant group IDTechEx has put 500 case studies online to help food executives learn from the best and worst in the industry. The online database includes 1,600 cases of RFID in action, of which 500 focus on food and livestock tagging.  
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.