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Consortium Tests Cold Storage Tagging
A group of logistics providers and hardware and software vendors are working on strategies for RFID tagging in cold storage facilities.
Aug 22, 2005—Frozen foods and RFID tags do not work well together. Water absorbs RF signals, so it's often difficult to read a tag placed, for example, on a case of ice cream because of moisture inside of the case and any condensation or frost on the case's exterior. Still, manufacturers of frozen foods, as well as makers of other goods (such as pharmaceuticals) kept in cold storage, are coming under mandates from Wal-Mart and other retailers requiring RFID tags on cases and pallets of goods. To help provide RFID testing and value-added tagging services to these manufacturers, Headwater Technology Solutions, a logistics software and professional services firm based in Markham, Ontario, has assembled an RFID research and development consortium.
The consortium includes four logistics providers specializing in cold storage: Confederation Freezers in Brampton, Ontario; Hopewell Cold Storage, also in Brampton; P&O Cold Logistics, an Australian firm with a facility in Dominguez Hills, Calif.; and Richmond Cold Storage in Richmond, Va. Both Confederation Freezers and Richmond Cold Storage have devoted space inside their cold storage facilities as RFID testing labs, which all consortium members can use.
Headwater initiated the consortium as a means of preparing its clients for RFID tagging. The company sells a warehouse management system called SmartEnterprise 2, which the logistics providers in the consortium use to receive, pick and ship orders at their facilities. Once RFID tagging becomes more common, these logistics providers will need to integrate RFID tag data into this WMS.
Dale Castle, director of product strategy at Headwater, says these companies have joined together because they all need to gain an understanding of how RFID works. They each hope to offer RFID tagging services, at a premium, to customers who use their services to ship food and pharmaceuticals that will soon require RFID tags to meet mandates.
CapTech Ventures, an RFID software developer, is providing consortium members with middleware to filter and aggregate tag reads collected by interrogators in the labs. RFID hardware vendors Intermec and LXE joined the consortium in June and have donated RFID readers to the labs. Intermec makes a wide range of readers and tags, while LXE specializes in mobile RFID interrogators designed to withstand harsh environments such as those in cold storage facilities. Castle says the readers in the two labs will be upgraded to read EPC Gen 2 tags very soon, and the consortium will receive samples of Gen 2 tags. All consortium members meet periodically to share knowledge gained from the testing done so far.
The consortium's work, says Castle, is being done in two phases. During the first phase, currently underway, the focus is on helping manufacturers of goods requiring cold storage to comply with RFID tagging mandates. To do this, the consortium’s logistic providers are testing various RFID UHF EPC tags and tag placements on products inside and outside of cold storage.
One of the biggest hurdles in the cold storage testing is the condensation that tends to coat the tags as goods are taken out of cold storage. "If I take my bare hand and wipe that condensation off the tag, it'll read," says Pat Hughes, director of operations at Richmond Cold Storage. Since such a manual step is not an option, he says, the consortium is working to find tags and readers that work best in these moist environments. It is also looking at how processes can be adjusted to accommodate condensation and other issues. This might mean changing where and when the tags are read.
Once this initial phase of compliance testing is complete, the consortium will focus on using RFID to streamline and improve the processes within a cold storage facility by utilizing EPC tag data. During this phase, the companies will establish process flows for receiving, storing and shipping RFID-enabled goods in cold storage. They will also look at how tag data could be used to provide better inventory information and more accurate order picking.
CapTech principal Steve Holdych says his firm and Headwater have already developed an integration application that will be used to push tag data into the SmartEnterprise 2 WMS.
The Richmond facility has been offering RFID testing services since last year, having banded together with CapTech Ventures (see Frozen-Food Distributor Tests RFID). When it debuted in August 2004, the 97,000-square-foot center included a shipping bay and RFID portal, smart shelving, and a conveyor and a forklift equipped with RFID readers. Recently, the Richmond facility began using CapTech’s newly developed RFID testing software. The software generates images of tagged cases moving through interrogation zones on the conveyor, as well as of pallets full of tagged cases moving through the portal readers. The software uses text and color—green for a strong read, yellow for poor signal strength, red for no read—to show which cases are successfully interrogated as they move down the conveyor at Wal-Mart's required speed of 600 feet per minute, or through the portal. The software can be used to test the effectiveness of various tags and tag placements on the cases.
CapTech's RFID testing software is currently being installed in the Confederation facility in Ontario. Holdych says his firm will be training the staff in that lab on how to use the software and how to set up the conveyor and portal tagging tests.
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