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University Takes a Fresh Approach to RFID

The University of Florida's Center for Food Distribution and Retailing is finding ways to make RFID tags work on produce shipments and keep perishable food from spoiling.
By Jonathan Collins
Onsite, the center has access to refrigerated trucks, eight special rooms where the temperature and humidity can be controlled, five cold rooms like those used by the food industry to keep food fresh, two freezers and an on-site packing laboratory developed for courses offered by IFAS. Its research projects also benefit from the use of a Boeing 727 freight airliner, given to a local community college by Federal Express. But when it comes to carrying out real-world experiments, CFDR relies on companies to support it. These firms open the doors to their facilities, and those of their customers—some of the largest retailers in the country. "We have access to supply chains and stores across the U.S.," says Emond.

A number of fresh food suppliers have contracted testing services from CFDR, which charges a fee (generally ranging from $30,000 to $400,000) based on the project’s level of difficulty. For CFDR's first project, produce grower Tanimura & Antle (T & A), located in Salinas, Calif., asked the center to help develop a way to tag lettuce shipments to Wal-Mart. "We started in August and finished in November. T&A and CFDR found for the first time a real answer about how they can tag their shipments effectively," says Emond.

The center has five cold rooms like those used by the food industry to keep food fresh.

By doing tests in the lab rather than in the real world, Emond maintains, CFDR can isolate and control the many parameters that can affect an RFID system's operation. "The company used our results as a benchmark of the best possible performance because we identified each parameter that could be a problem, such as humidity, condensation and temperature, and isolated it," Emond explains.

CFDR tested RFID labels embedded with one of three different EPC Class 1 inlays—from either Alien Technology, Symbol or Rafsec—and studied where those labels should best be placed on each plastic crate or cardboard box to maximize performance of the RFID system. In addition to encountering the problems that come from tagging fresh produce, the tests found a wide disparity in performance among the different inlays. The read rates ranged from 92 to 25 percent, depending on inlay design and placement on the product being tagged.

The center determined that the position of the tag attached to a box had a major impact on read rate. First, 30 boxes of lettuce were each fitted with a tag on each of five faces. The goal was to see if it were possible to detect a tag regardless of its position on the box and orientation to the reader when the boxes were stacked on a pallet. CFDR chose to test five faces simultaneously to see which locations were better for tags to be detected. The top face of each box was not tagged because the tops of reusable plastic containers normally used to transport produce have no lids and, therefore, would not be taggable.

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