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Manufacturer Adopts RFID to Satisfy Customers

Sonoco integrates tags in its packaging products so companies can track goods through the supply chain, thereby improving inventory management.
By Jill Gambon
Jul 26, 2010—Some businesses pursue radio frequency identification to slash costs or streamline operations, but Sonoco, a $4 billion global manufacturer of packaging products, invested in the technology at the request of some of its customers. Those customers had clients of their own in the European décor paper industry—including makers of laminate flooring and countertops—that wanted better visibility into their supply chain. If the paper cores around which flooring and other products are rolled came RFID-ready, both Sonoco's customers and their clients could improve inventory management and keep tabs on their goods in real time. That would help the firm to reduce the number of lost shipments, decrease the amount of waste and save money, says Jeff Stacy, a segment manager in Sonoco's industrial carriers division, which manufactures tubes and cores for the paper industry. "If you track a roll of paper in real time, you get a really granular level of information," he says. "RFID enables that."

To deliver on its customers' request, Sonoco, based in Hartsville, S.C., had to figure out how to embed passive RFID tags in its fiber-based cores. The cores, Stacy says, are made up of multiple layers of adhesive-coated paper and "are in the range of 30 inches in diameter" when they come off the production line. While it is possible to attach tags to pallets of finished cores, or to each core's exterior, those options were fraught with potential problems—namely, that the tags could be damaged or lost during manufacturing or shipping.

Sonoco integrates RFID tags into its paper cores during manufacturing. It has dubbed these tagged paper cores "Intellicores."

To eliminate those risks and maximize the tags' reliability, the company wanted to integrate the tags into the paper cores during the manufacturing process at its plant in Lauda, Germany. That way, Stacy explains, the tags would be secured and not subject to damage as they moved through the supply chain. And by testing each core while it is still on the production line, Sonoco could guarantee its customers that the tags were fully functioning. "That's what we promise customers—100 percent defect-free," tagged cores, he says.

Testing, Testing, Testing
A first step in the project, which got underway in 2008, was to find the tags best suited for the application. Sonoco had experience with RFID, with some divisions already conducting item-level tagging. In addition, the company had been working with an RFID technology firm to develop a system for tracking paper cores with dual-frequency tags. That project was put on hold when the economy faltered, Stacy notes, but the companies continue to work together on several other RFID applications.

With price a consideration, Sonoco wanted to use standard, off-the-shelf passive tags—a less-expensive alternative than active or dual-frequency tags. An initial challenge, according to Stacy, was to find a passive tag that could withstand the harsh conditions involved in paper core manufacturing, as the cores undergo significant pressure during production, and the tags are often bent in the process. In addition, the moisture content present in the adhesive coating the layers of paper in the core could affect tag performance. After weeks of research and testing, Sonoco selected UPM Raflatac's ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) DogBone tags, used by other businesses in a variety of retail, apparel and supply-chain-management applications. Named for their bone shape, the tags employ Impinj's Monza 3 chips and are EPC Gen 2-compliant.
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