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Finnish Dairy Company Tracks Products Via Carts With RFID-tagged Wheel

Valio is testing trolleys with RFID-tagged wheels, as well as reader antennas built into the floor, to track products as they move through packing and shipping processes.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 13, 2013

Valio, a Finnish company that manufactures dairy consumer products, as well as powdered milk and other ingredients for the food industry, is piloting an automated solution for monitoring products as they move through packing and shipping processes, via RFID-enabled wheels on carts, also known as trolleys, that transport the goods. Aksulit supplied the RFID solution, which features Tagwheel—a plastic wheel with a passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tag built into it. The wheel, developed for this deployment by RFID tag and services provider Wisteq, fits onto a trolley on which goods are transported. The solution also includes software developed by Aksulit, as well as readers provided by Impinj, according to Asko Puoliväli, Aksulit's CEO.

Valio is a market leader for dairy products within its own country, but the company exports its goods to more than 60 other nations worldwide. It typically takes the firm 48 hours or less to move its milk and cream products from farm to store. To transport that large volume of goods efficiently, Valio maintains a highly automated facility that employs up to 500,000 rolling carts loaded with products at any given time. Those trolleys are shared with other dairy companies operating in Finland.

Wisteq's Tagwheels are made of plastic and have built-in passive UHF tags.
At Valio's site in Jyväskylä, milk is chilled, pasteurized, containerized and placed on trolleys to fill specific orders. The loaded trolleys then pass down conveyors and are placed on trucks destined for stores throughout Finland. Most of this process is accomplished via robotics. Orders for goods are automatically picked by cranes and stacked on trolleys, which move down conveyors to staging areas where employees push the carts to the appropriate dock doors and onto trucks. Due to the large volume of trolleys, as well as trucks picking them up, the company has a daunting task in ensuring that the correct product is loaded for each order.

Two years ago, Valio began piloting the use of an RFID system to identify carts being removed from conveyors at a staging area, when they pass through a dock door to be loaded, and when they return through another dock door, says Aki Liukko, Valio's development manager of warehouse logistics.

To prevent RFID reader antennas from being damaged during loading processes, Valio embedded the antennas in the cement floors of its warehouse.
The solution was custom-made for Valio, says Ari Pesonen, Wisteq's CEO, since simply attaching RFID tags to trolleys and installing readers at dock doors would be ineffective. The dairy facility provides unique challenges for UHF RFID transmissions, Pesonen reports, since the environment is largely metallic and contains liquid milk, both of which can thwart UHF signals. In addition, exposed reader antennas could be damaged during the fast-moving loading processes, so Valio and Wisteq developed a system by which the antennas were installed in the floors. This also required that an RFID tag be positioned close to the floor. Simply attaching a tag to each cart's exterior, or to its wheels, created several problems as well, says Pesonen: The tags would have trouble transmitting when applied directly to metal, and they would likely be frequently knocked or scraped during the shipping and cleaning processes. Therefore, Wisteq developed a tag that was incorporated directly into a specialized wheel.

The Tagwheel's built-in passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tag (Pesonen declines to identify the tag's make and model) is separated by plastic from any metal, and is protected from any impacts, as well as from the washing process. It provides a wide reading area and offers a long read range, he says. However, Valio needed a short read range to ensure that the system would not pick up stray reads of other trolleys within the staging area. That shorter read range was accomplished via adjustments to the reader and antennas.


Rajat Ratra 2013-12-04 07:21:07 AM
Really impressive installation, really takes away a lot of headaches.
Crystal Nguyen 2013-12-05 05:52:45 PM
Wow, this is really impressive. I've heard of RFID being implemented in general manufacturing facilities that create more than one product, but not in facilities that are a part of such a niche market. Regardless, RFID tagging is, for lack of a better word, great. As Rajat Ratra said in one of the earlier comments, it "really takes away a lot of headaches." He is absolutely correct. There are many other benefits to RFID as well, such as error alleviation, increased productivity, shrink reduction (by the pallet), and a more detailed report of where the batch is located, and which product was associated with which batch. However, I am a little bit concerned because this article does not state the type of RFID they are currently using (passive vs. active). Depending on the type, there are many potential problems that could arise. For example, if it is a passive tag, the likelihood of it being jammed is fairly high. That is not to say that someone will, but perhaps one of their competitors has a serious mean streak and wants to mess them up (childish and unlikely, I know). If it is an active tag, there is also a risk of the battery running down and messing up all of the data, causing a jam in the system. However, those problems could be easily resolved with certain security measures and constant quality checks. Thus, by combining both the material and information flows, this risk management tool, while a bit pricey, should save the firm a lot of money, problems, and horrible headaches in the long run. RFID is an excellent risk management tool, and I see it becoming more frequently used in the future.

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