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RFID Snuffs Out Inefficiencies at Tobacco Plant

At its cigarette factory in Calcutta, ITC passive RFID tags help monitor tobacco moisture content at each stage of production.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 19, 2007Indian cigarette manufacturer ITC markets several cigarette brands. To ensure the quality of its products, the company must monitor the tobacco's moisture content at each stage of production, from raw material to the finished product. Traditionally, workers at ITC's Calcutta plant had to weigh tobacco samples and manually mark paper dockets (tickets) accompanying the samples during processing. Eight months ago, the company deployed an RFID system to streamline the moisture-monitoring operation. As a result, says Durga M. Dash, ITC's quality control manager, the manufacturer has reduced operator man-hours on the production floor by 40 percent.

Determining the moisture content in tobacco is a priority for cigarette manufacturers, because the tobacco leaves must reach a specific low moisture level to be considered cigarette-quality. To ensure the tobacco reaches that moisture level, the product must be heated and weighed several times. The moisture level is generally documented by taking a sample of tobacco leaves, manually weighing it and then writing the weight on the docket. The paper ticket then accompanies that sample throughout the production process.

Abhijit Ghosh
At the end of each day, approximately 400 dockets are manually input into an Excel spreadsheet that analyzes the data. The resulting information, available the following day, is used not only to ensure the tobacco's quality but also to catch problems involving any machines that might allow the moisture content to get too high.

However, the company explains, the manual system of recording and inputting data was too slow, time-consuming and prone to errors. Sometimes, the paper tickets got lost or personnel wrote in the wrong weight or other data, and keyed the incorrect information into the spreadsheet.

The RFID system now in place was designed, developed and integrated by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). With this system, a tobacco test sample is collected and placed in a palm-sized plastic cylindrical container shortly after the tobacco arrives in the warehouse. The container comes with an RFID label provided by TCS, embedded with a passive 13.56 MHz Texas Instrument RFID tag complying with the ISO 15693 standard and providing 1 kilobyte of read/write memory. The tag and label are temperature-resistant and wash-proof.

Warehouse staff members use a handheld RFID interrogator provided by Psion Teklogix, with a Tagsys reader module, to encode data onto the plastic container's RFID tag. The worker follows drop-down menus on the reader to select the tobacco's location within the plant, as well as the original source of the tobacco, the machines it will be sent to, and the time and date. That data is written onto the RFID tag, says Abhijit Ghosh, TCS' RFID practice manager, and data regarding the sample's movements and weight are stored on it as well.

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