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Blommer Tracking Chocolate with RFID

The cocoa-processing company has launched a warehouse management system and an RFID tracking system to improve inventory control and visibility.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 06, 2006Blommer Chocolate needed more control over (and visibility into) its inventory. The Chicago-based, family-run business has been manufacturing chocolate since 1939 and is now, according to the company, the largest cocoa-bean processor in North America. When President Bush signed the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, Blommer knew deploying a warehouse management system (WMS) and RFID-tracking system would help the company comply with the new law. The act requires food suppliers to track the custody and quality of its raw materials and finished products closely—and to do so in real-time. Toward that goal, and to make its warehouse operations more accurate and efficient, Blommer has contracted with AGI Worldwide, a provider of supply chain software and systems integration services, to deploy both an RFID tracking system and a warehouse management system for the company.

"The Bioterrorism Act clearly defined the chain of information we need to maintain on our records," says Ernie Redfern, Blommer's CIO. This means tracking raw materials as they arrive at Blommer's manufacturing plants, ensuring that samples of each shipment of raw materials are tested, and tracking the ingredients that go into each finished product, such as cocoa powder. It also requires the tracking of each shipment of finished product leaving Blommer's plants, bound for Nabisco and other Blommer customers that use the chocolate for consumer products, or for small, specialty chocolate makers. Though it doesn't brand its own products for distribution through resellers, Blommer also makes confections that it sells directly to consumers through an outlet store at its Chicago plant.

So far, the WMS and RFID systems are up and running at Blommer's Chicago plant. Redfern says the company's other manufacturing facilities in Union City, Calif., and East Greenville, Pa., will deploy the system, as will third-party logistics providers Blommer uses.

Redfern believes the food industry will embrace RFID as companies attempt to improve the tracking of products from suppliers, through transportation systems and on to end users. Still, he says, the use of RFID will come hand in hand with the development of standards-based information exchange. "We don't have standards on how data is shared in the food industry," Redfern states.

Before contracting AGI, Blommer used Microsoft's Business Dynamics enterprise resource planning (ERP) software application to track its inventory. By using RFID tags attached to pallets of goods, Blommer can now update its inventory in real time, which its ERP is not configured to do. What's more, the ERP platform does not interface with the quality-control software—known as a laboratory information management system (LIMS)—Blommer uses to track test samples of its raw ingredients and finished products. Thus, Blommer has had to identify manually, through stickers affixed to pallets of goods, the raw ingredients and finished products being tested by Blommer's quality-control department. Doing so prevent untested ingredients from being pulled into the manufacturing process, and untested products from being shipped to customers.

AGI's WMS platform now automates this process, using an interface between the WMS and the LIMS platform that flags raw materials and finished goods during testing, then removes the flag once they've have been tested and have passed safety regulations. AGI also ties this into the RFID system at the Chicago plant via a middleware layer developed by AGI.

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