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Canadian Retailer, Suppliers Begin RFID Trial

The project will track products shipped by Maple Leaf Foods, General Mills, Scott Paper and Unilever, and arriving at Loblaw DCs and stores.
By Claire Swedberg
Jul 19, 2006A coalition of Canadian food manufacturers, grocery associations and a retailer have begun a trial tagging select food products. Running, now through the end of this year, the pilot is being led by the Canadian RFID Centre, a group of industry companies and associations. The pilot is a more collaborative RFID study than most that have preceded it in North America and Europe, according to David Wilkes, senior vice president at the retailers association Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors (CCGD), and chairman of the Canadian RFID Centre Steering Committee. The study brings together retailers and manufacturers in contrast to other studies spearheaded by a specific retailer or manufacturer, he says, and the results should benefit a greater percentage of the industry.

In September, 2005, the RFID Centre was established to research RFID use by retailers and manufacturers (see Canadian RFID Center Debuts). "The RFID Centre was launched as a place to learn about RFID in Canada," explains Shai Verma, IBM Business Services' RFID practice leader in Canada. The center is located at IBM Canada's headquarters in Markham, Ontario. "We [IBM Canada] feel that RFID and other sensor technologies have huge promise and potential. We knew RFID was going to come to Canada, so we thought by building the RFID Centre [in collaboration with the grocery industry], we could provide testing opportunities for various companies—not just of the technology, but the business process, as well."

Center members came to the conclusion this year that a food product pilot would help CCGD members and Canadian food manufacturers and retailers, both small and large, assess the costs and benefits of an RFID implementation by providing details about how well different technologies function with different products and environments. It would also allow companies to assess the cost of implementing an RFID system. Both GS1 and Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC), which represents product manufacturers, will provide the results of the pilot to their members.

This collaborative pilot, Wilkes says, "has been designed and developed by all the participants." Those include grocery retailer Loblaw Companies Ltd., providing its distribution centers and stores for testing. Four product manufacturers will also participate: Maple Leaf Foods, General Mills Canada, Scott Paper and Unilever Canada.

These manufacturers are applying Gen 2 UHF tags on cases and pallets of select product lines prior to shipping. The goods are then shipped to Loblaw distribution centers and on to the back rooms of its Toronto-area stores. Stationary and handheld readers will be used at the manufacturing sites and distribution centers, as well as at the store's back rooms. The products will include paper goods, dry goods, frozen food, meat and canned goods.

For the pilot, IBM has offered the use of both its Markham facility—built for RFID technology testing and meetings—and its WebSphere-based RFID middleware. Intermec and Symbol Technologies are contributing stationary RFID readers, antennas, portals, handheld readers and some tags. The pilot will also include several other unnamed tag manufacturers. The RFID user interface and RFID event management application have been supplied by an unnamed third party and are being run on a hosted basis. "Each participant in the pilot will be able to access, by secure network connection, all RFID activities from supplier through distribution center through to the store environment," he says.

The four participating product manufacturers will tag specific stock-keeping units (SKUs) of frozen foods, dry goods, meats and other commodities. There will be several thousand RFID tag and reading "events," according to Verma.

"Once the pilot is complete, we will share the results with the industry," says Elaine Smith, the FCPC's senior vice president of industrial affairs. "Everyone understands RFID would be a wonderful thing to implement, but there are costs to assess, as well." The pilot will provide information, not only about costs and the reliability of reads, but also about which products—such as those containing liquids or frozen—could create RFID transmission problems, Smith says.

"My real hope is to come out of this pilot with the facts," says Wilkes. Armed with a report containing those facts, he explains, the groups' retailer and manufacturer members can determine the viability of RFID technology and make logical decisions about implementing RFID tagging in manufacturing sites, distribution centers and stores.
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