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Northwest Food Industry Examines RFID's Potential
Oregon State University, the state's agriculture department and the Northwest Food Processors Association are working to help the food industry deploy RFID successfully.
Jan 26, 2009—Oregon State University (OSU) and the Oregon Department of Agriculture, together with the Northwest Food Processors Association (NWFPA), are attempting to bring radio frequency identification to the U.S. Northwest's food industry. The effort was launched last week with an RFID workshop and pavilion held at the NWFPA's annual exposition in Portland, as well as the opening of a new RFID lab that is part of OSU's Food Innovation Center. For the first time in its history, the annual NW Food Manufacturing & Packaging Expo included a workshop that described food-related RFID deployments in other regions of the country, in addition to a pavilion featuring exhibits from suppliers of RFID products and services.
"RFID is still new to the food industry," says Connie Kirby, NWFPA's VP of scientific technical affairs, "and our members don't have a lot of experience with it." As a result, she states, "there was quite a bit of curiosity about RFID among our members."
Among the NWFPA's 450 members are 86 food-processor companies that operate in Washington, Idaho or Oregon. These include Birdseye Foods, ConAgra, Kraft Foods and Willamette Valley Fruit Co.. Some NWFPA members have carried out pilots and tests of RFID technology (see New RFID Technology Helps Kraft, P&G, Kimberly-Clark Go the Distance), but most have had limited access to RFID educational or testing opportunities.
At the workshop, Qingyue Ling, an OSU professor of food technology, told a group of approximately 40 attendees that his vision was to educate the food industry regarding RFID. "The more I understand this technology," Ling said, "the more I realize the need for the food industry to have education about it. What I have wanted to do is provide more interaction between the food industry and RFID suppliers." Ling spearheaded the creation of both the Food Innovation Center's RFID Food Application Lab, and the NWFPA Expo's RFID workshop. The Northwest has had no university-based RFID food labs, Ling explains. The RFID Food Application Lab is equipped with a handheld interrogator, one fixed case reader mounted over a variable speed conveyor and a fixed portal interrogator for reading pallet tags. The lab also includes EPC Hotspot, a system used to help determine the optimal location for tags on a specific case, and EPC Solutions' TagManager software to allow label printing and encoding.
At the lab, the food industry can employ RFID technology, including different kinds of readers, testing tag placement on cartons and pallets, and read performance based on conveyor speed and the type of product being tracked. Approximately 16 NWFPA members toured the 1,000-square-foot lab on Monday, Jan. 19—its opening day for educational purposes. "They got excited to see what we have set up, and what kind of service we can provide," Ling says. "Through lab demos, it helped them to better understand what actual basic RFID components are."
Lab demos included presentations explaining the basic components of an RFID system, how tags are read at the case, pallet and item levels, and how RFID labels are printed and encoded, as well as how a case tag can be associated with a pallet tag. Although no company has yet signed up for lab research, Ling says several companies are currently discussing the possibility with him. "Our initial service will be case- and pallet-tag placement optimization," he notes, "and will be fee-based." The university will utilize the lab for independent RFID tests, and starting in March, companies will also be able to use it for testing.
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