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RFID "Smart Boxes" Help Manufacturer Meet Mandate

Pet product manufacturer Normerica has deployed RFID-embedded "smart boxes" and a mobile reader solution to meet Wal-Mart Canada's RFID requirements.
Oct 28, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

October 28, 2008—Private label cat litter and pet product manufacturer Normerica Inc. is using "smart boxes" with embedded RFID tags and a mobile reader solution to comply with Wal-Mart Canada's RFID initiative. Because the system did not require the installation of fixed RFID reader/encoders or printers, Normerica was able to rapidly deploy a compliance solution with no significant retooling of its packing or shipping lines.

The reader/encoder is part of a mobile cart system from Ship2Save equipped with Impinj Speedway RFID readers, a PC, an adjustable antenna, a Symbol Technologies (Motorola) hand-held bar code scanner, a three-color light stack and horn, a motion/proximity sensor, and an LCD screen. An uninterrupted power supply allows moving the station between conveyor lines with minimum downtime.

The HIDE-Pack smart boxes are supplied by Normerica's packaging partner, Krupack, a business unit of Kruger Inc. HIDE-Pack is a separate business unit of Kruger, established last year in partnership with Domino Integrated Solutions Group (see New Smart Boxes Provide Alternative to RFID Labels).

According to Krupack, RFID smart boxes can provide a 35 percent cost savings over print/apply solutions.

"If you compare the print-and-apply process at consumer goods manufacturing with eight packaging lines, you'd have to have eight applicators and printers," said Paul de Blois, HIDE-Pack vice president and general manager. "We can produce the boxes on flexo-folder-gluer at a speed of 300 per minute, which is much faster than the throughput of a typical print-apply system."

An EPC Gen2 RFID inlay is inserted in each box during the manufacturing process, then verified prior to shipment to the customer. By using pre-tagged boxes, Normerica was able to avoid the expense of installing print and apply equipment on each of its packing lines. Because Normerica manufacturers cat litter, maintaining the label printers would have also been challenging because of the tremendous amount of dust present in the plant.

"We would have to have a printer on every single line," said Simon Than, IT director at Normerica. "We supply every major grocery chain, and we have a separate line for each box format. If we were to expand RFID to other formats, we'd have to have applicators on each line, but we'd only use them maybe ten percent of the time. With the mobile cart system, we can move the encoder where we need it to be."

"They have several conveyor belts, and they could never be certain which product was going to move down which line," said Amninder Singh, vice president of products and services at Ship2Save. "Instead of investing in a full infrastructure, they wanted a system that could be moved from one conveyor line to another."

Normerica is using three of the mobile carts at its Brantford, Ontario, and Lethbridge, Alberta, facilities. After the HIDE-Pack boxes (which arrive at the plants with no encoding) are filled with containers of cat littler, they pass by the Ship2Save mobile cart, which encodes and verifies the tags as they roll down a conveyor system. The encoding process is initiated after an employee uses the bar code scanner on the cart to scan the first of the tagged boxes. If there is an encoding error, an audible alarm sounds and the box is removed from the conveyor.

"We're seeing less than half a percent error rate from failures," Than said.

Normerica began testing the system over the summer. Wal-Mart Canada only requires RFID tags at the shipper case level, and so far Normerica has only shipped a few thousand tagged boxes to the retailer's Ontario distribution center. Eventually, the system will be expanded to include Western Canada.

"The trial started in June and has been running extremely well," said Rob Latter, group vice president at Krupack. "We believe we're going to see demand for the boxes explode over the next nine months as retailers push these requirements back to their suppliers."

Normerica also supplies pet treats to Wal-Mart, but these products won't be tagged for the time being because those products are made in China and shipped in whole cases. Than says that Normerica is looking for a vendor in China that can provide RFID tagging at the point of manufacture in order to avoid costly repackaging in Canada.

According to Than, the primary benefit of the system is that Normerica was able to meet Wal-Mart's requirements with minimal disruption to its shipping operations.

"In terms of the overall process, this system really doesn't have much impact on us," Than says. "We just move the cart to the line where the RFID boxes are going to be shipped, and it's up and running with very little start-up time. If we had to label the boxes ourselves, we would have a lot more downtime."

"There are no mechanical processes involved, so there is less chance of the system breaking down," Singh added.

And even though Latter says that the RFID inlays increase the cost of HIDE-pack boxes by an average of 13 to 16 cents, Normerica is still saving money on the application.

"The tags in the boxes are actually cheaper than what we would be paying if we bought rolls of labels," Than says. "So not only is there a productivity benefit, but a cost benefit as well."
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