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Unilever Hungary Looks for Weak Links in Ice Cream's Cold Chain
Last summer, the company used temperature-sensing battery-assisted RFID tags to monitor storage and handling conditions at the factory, distribution centers and stores.
Jan 21, 2008—Behind every ice cream cone we eat is a logistics cold chain of mammoth proportions. If the cold chain is broken, the breach can have a severe effect on the ice cream's quality.
Unilever Hungary, a manufacturer of ice cream and other products, such as Dove soap and Lipton tea, explains that if ice cream warms above -18 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit), its quality may suffer. And if temperatures rise further, the ice cream can deteriorate even more significantly. Since the product can change hands up to 10 times between production and consumption, ice-cream makers need a method for tracking storage and handling conditions.
Unilever Hungary has made a first stab at solving this problem. The company has completed a proof-of-concept test employing RFID tags and temperature sensors on cases of ice cream produced in the city of Veszprem. During the trial, it gained experience using RFID and temperature-sensor technology, and found occasional breaks in the cold chain—particularly when goods were loaded on and off trucks.
Given the test experience and results, which are still under analysis, Unilever Hungary says it hopes to conduct additional, more extensive trials using RFID to trace products as they move from factories to freezer cabinets in stores. "We are looking at how to integrate RFID into the continuous quality-control cycle," says Andras Buzinkay, the warehouse and distribution manager for all of Unilever Hungary's business lines.
Each year, Unilever Europe conducts supply-chain checks as part of the company's quality-improvement initiative. Samples of ice cream are rated on 35 different criteria, such as taste and packaging condition. In 2007, Unilever Hungary decided to expand the process by examining various elements of the supply chain with RFID. "We wanted to check the total supply chain and find out where the cold chain could break down," Buzinkay says.
Buzinkay conceived the idea of using RFID and spoke with Rácz László, a project manager for Hungarian systems integrator and security printing house Allami Nyomda, explaining the quality test he needed to perform. The two men, in partnership with Italian RFID tag and temperature sensor maker Montalbano Technology, agreed to collaborate on the project. Each company carried its own costs during the test, which lasted seven weeks during the peak ice cream season in July and August.
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