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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.
By Rhea Wessel
In the second part of the test, the partners placed the same BAP RFID-sensor tags within 40 ice cream display cabinets at select stores, programming the tags to record temperatures every 15 minutes. Unilever hoped to learn more about temperature changes at the point of sale. Most of the 40 tags were placed in freezers at hypermarkets, with the remaining tags put in freezers at small shops, which were opened frequently by patrons and store personnel.

The tags were read when they were activated at the time they were placed in the freezers and their temperature data was downloaded after the tags were taken out and interrogated. Unilever discovered wide temperature variations—in some stores, the readings indicated the temperature rose too much during the freezers' defrosting cycles, but in most situations, it was difficult to determine the reason for such changes. To get usable data, Buzinkay says, the partners would need to expand the application with more interrogation points.

Looking forward, Buzinkay says, Unilever Hungary plans to conduct specific trials with end customers next year. In addition, Unilever Europe is considering employing RFID to identify up to 1 million freezer cabinets that it lends to retail shops throughout Europe. At present, all identification of freezer cabinets is based on removable printed labels. "If we could couple freezer tracking with temperature monitoring, we could achieve physical inventory monitoring and quality monitoring in one," Buzinkay states.

According to Buzinkay, the partners do not want to reveal the exact costs of the hardware. "We believe this is now affordable to companies that have trouble with the supply chain—even in Hungary," he says. "We believe it's viable and affordable for representative test purposes. The technology has matured in the past two years."

Separately and unrelated, Unilever North America ran a data-sharing trial in 2006, using the Electronic Product Code Information System, or EPCIS (see Unilever Expects Big Gains From Its RFID Data-Sharing Trial).

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