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Northern Foods Seeks to Integrate RFID Data Into Enterprise–wide Apps

In 2007, the U.K. supplier of baked, refrigerated and frozen goods plans to use its RFID system to generate shipment documentation for drivers and, eventually, to create electronic advance shipping notices for retailers.
By Laurie Sullivan
Nov 20, 2006Britain's Northern Foods, located in Wakefield, Yorkshire, is mapping out a strategy to build and bring on line an application early next year, supported by radio frequency identification data, that automates product-delivery documentation for Goodfella's pizzas, Fox's biscuits, Pork Farms pies and other Northern Foods products bound for retail stores.

Passive high-frequency (HF) RFID tags on product trays will transmit data to integrators deployed on the manufacturing plant's dock doors. IBM's WebSphere middleware software will filter the RFID data and store it on a IBM server. That data will be linked with product details stored in Northern Foods' mySAP supply-chain management platform.

The system will generate paper delivery documentation for drivers delivering goods. Eventually, European retailers ASDA, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Tesco and others will receive the RFID-generated information electronically. About five top U.K.-based retailers account for more than half of Northern Foods' retail sales.

"We've had our RFID project for a couple of years, but we're looking for benefits that enable you to integrate real-time data from manufacturing systems into your enterprise–wide applications," says Alan Bowling, IS director for business solutions at Northern Foods. "It's about the ability to have a clear view of events in your supply chain, especially in your own plants."

Northern Foods' first RFID deployment was implemented in response to requests from retailers. That program tracks the status of raw materials and finished goods by tagging totes—plastic containers that hold items being manufactured as they make their way around the facility. The company installed RFID interrogators on its manufacturing floor and at dock doors. Later that year, it began putting tags on product trays used to ship food to retail stores.

Now, Northern Foods tags more than 100,000 product trays daily at 11 of its 40 manufacturing facilities in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The company utilizes high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz passive RFID tags to meet the tagging mandates of its retail customers.

Bowling says HF tags work best in challenging wet, cold and chilled environments for frozen foods. As products come off conveyer belts and are placed on trays, interrogators scan the trays' RFID tags. The system matches each tag's ID number with product descriptions, sell-by dates and other data in a mySAP supply-chain-management application before storing it in on the server.

RFID and bar-code technology provide a method to verify quantities shipped from Northern Foods' manufacturing facilities to retail stores. Bowling says he doesn't "see the death of the bar code through RFID," but rather foresees the two technologies working together to verify orders and shipments. The system ensures that the company is able to keep product-shipment information up-to-date and easily accessible to customers. The company uses Siemens' RFID interrogators for dock doors, while Psion Teklogix provides handheld RFID interrogators for mobile computing and wireless data collection. Employees use handheld interrogators to recheck pallets of food-filled trays as they leave the manufacturing facility and are loaded on trucks bound for stores.

But challenges still exist. Many of Northern Foods' products, such as biscuits, are packed in metal tins. Some metallic materials are reflective, causing too much RF signal to return to the interrogator, and drowning out the data signal. What's more, the speed that data reads and writes to tags remains slow, a problem not quite solved yet, Bowling says. "You can read 40 tags on a pallet at one time, but it could take a minute or two to read, write and then read again to verify the information," he explains. "All that takes time. If you're reading batches of tags passing through, that time can be too long for a fast-moving volume business."

Bowling says the IT executives working on Northern Foods' RFID projects also have experience in engineering. The four-person team is currently working to increase read rates, as well as more tightly integrate real-time RFID data with enterprise software applications. Details regarding how the group hopes to resolve such problems have not yet been disclosed.
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