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RFID to Boost Quality and Yield at Fish-Processing Plants

Marel's automated ProCon Flowline system enables companies to track each individual basket of fish and its weight as fillets are trimmed and inspected for quality, prior to being packaged and shipped to customers.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 31, 2014

Food-processing technology company Marel has released an RFID-enabled system that moves fish through weighing, trimming and quality-control processes, while tracking data and identifying product for inspection, based on information collected by RFID readers and antennas. The solution, known as Production Control Flowline for Filleting and Trimming (or ProCon Flowline), consists of a modular unit with a conveyor, stations for employees to conduct trimming, another station for inspection and two weight scales—all with built-in ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID reader antennas to interrogate tags built into baskets containing the fish.

Most fish processing is performed manually. The fish, often already cut into fillets, are delivered to trimmers who remove the animals' fins, skins and other refuse, and then forward the trimmed meat so it can be packaged and shipped to customers. The companies that conduct this business range in size from relatively small, with a weekly production of 20,000 pounds of fish , to very large operations that process 6 million pounds daily, using a vast array of trimmers working in multiple, long production lines. No matter an operation's size, Marel reports, companies can find it nearly impossible to track who is trimming which fish, how well this is being done and what should be inspected, in order to ensure high quality. As a result, processors have indicated to Marel that their work might proceed more slowly than necessary, and that trimmers might be wasting product by overly cutting the fillets.

Marel's ProCon Flowline system, shown here in this rendering, includes Impinj Speedway Revolution RFID readers and antennas at workers' stations to track work-in-progress.
Marel, the largest global supplier of technology for processing fish and meat, is headquartered in Iceland, with offices worldwide and a research-and-development division in Seattle. The company had received requests from fish-processing customers around the world, including some very large operations in Alaska, for a system that would help track work-in-progress, as well as product movements throughout their facilities. Marel already provides customers with its Innova software to manage data related to the receipt, processing and shipping of fish products. In recent years, the firm had also provided some customers with a system that employs passive high-frequency (HF) RFID tags to identify when a particular basket of fish was at a specific location. An HF tag is placed loose in a basket of fish and read by the operator to link that basket with that workstation. However, the company notes, the tags' short read range have proved problematic.

Approximately eight months ago, Marel's Seattle R&D division began working on the ProCon Flowline system, which consists of the modular unit of weight scales and fish-trimming and -inspection stations, but also includes at least one Impinj Speedway Revolution four-port reader and antennas at each worker's station and scale. The system also comes with touchscreens, installed at each station, that display Innova software data regarding the production underway at that site, according to Arnar Olgeirsson, Marel's service and innovation director.

Workers first fill baskets with fish fillets ready to be trimmed. Each basket has a built-in passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tag, the unique ID number of which is stored in the Innova software. The production manager enters product information, such as the fish's species, source and supplier. Once placed on the conveyor, the basket is automatically moved to a scale that weighs the fillets and links that weight with the basket's tag ID.

The basket is then moved to the available fish trimmer, and the antenna at that reader captures its tag ID and forwards that information to the software, which determines the station at which the basket is located. Upon beginning a shift, a worker inputs his or her own employee ID, which the Innova software links to that specific station, so that all baskets of product dwelling at that station will be attributed to that employee.

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