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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
When the boxes were loaded onto a pallet and placed in a portal equipped with RFID readers, the rate of successful reads ranged from 31 to 25 percent of the total tags. Next, CFDR placed tags on just the exposed faces of each box on the pallet. The resulting read rates varied from 92 to 76 percent. The low read rates for tags not directly facing the antennas highlighted the difficulty of receiving a signal transmitted through produce.

Because water is known to reduce the readability of RFID tags, the research center devised a way to measure the effect of condensation on read rate. For these tests, the center caused condensation to form on the surface of a pallet loaded with tagged boxes. The idea was to check if a small layer of water droplets could decrease the tags' readability. Even with a very significant amount of condensation on the surface of a tag, a reduction in readability was not observed. The research center also caused condensation to form on the plastic stretch wrap covering a pallet (condensation formed on the inner side of the plastic film) but that, too, had no effect on RFID reads.

The packaging laboratory lets the center study how stretch wrap might affect how RFID tags are read.

Another test examined the relationship between read rate and the speed of the pallet as it moved through the portal. The study found that the faster the pallet moved, the lower the read rate, which ranged from 90 percent at 1 mph to 79 percent at 4 mph.

In line with CFDR's efforts to determine how RFID can best be used by businesses and not just in a lab setting, the tests took into account some of the financial restrictions companies deploying RFID will likely face. Due to lettuce’s light weight, pallets of the vegetable come stacked 9 feet high—far higher than most loaded pallets—so the CFDR initially believed six antennas would have to be used to ensure the tags were read efficiently. CFDR's relationship with RFID systems integrator Franwell helped ensure it developed a solution that was economically feasible. "Franwell pointed out that no one would pay to install six reader antennas on a single portal, so we devised a way of angling the antennas," says Emond.

Despite all the complexity, Emond maintains that at the end of the testing, the center was able to team up with T&A, which replicated the CFDR tests on site in their Salinas distribution center, and find exactly which tags and readers would best suit the company's tagging requirements.

While the CFDR has worked on similar projects to determine best practices for tagging, Emond believes the main benefit from deploying RFID in the perishable-food supply chain will come through developing systems able to use RFID tags equipped with sensors to limit spoilage and waste.

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