Supply chain processes are complex environments that have little time for error. Yet disruptions do occur—the wrong product gets distributed, produce is tampered with in transit or a shipment gets delivered to the wrong retail location—and supply chain executives must deal with the repercussions, which often costs them additional time and energy that could have been utilized elsewhere.
With the development of technology that produces actionable data, environments that handle perishable items such as food or pharmaceutical drugs are able to more effectively monitor the data of goods at all levels of the supply chain—which ultimately improves operations to reduce cost and boost profitability.
“In the food industry, the problem has been that a lot of the data that is captured was sporadic and at a very high level—such as at the trailer or warehouse level,” said Kevin Payne, Senior Director of Marketing, Intelleflex, Santa Clara, Calif., which provides on-demand data visibility solutions for cold chain and asset management. “What research has found is that there are tremendous variations at a much more granular level—such as at the pallet or container level. If you have a refrigerated warehouse, pallets of product in one corner of a warehouse may react and age differently then pallets located in another corner of the warehouse. And if you don’t have access to that data in a way that you can make decisions on it, you end up losing product and all that’s left is a historical record of something that had gone wrong,” he explained.
And while solutions such as fixed readers, which plug into a Local Area Network (LAN), are evident in the market, an expanded focus on traceability has caused solutions providers to develop technologies that track even more data in real time and at all levels of the process—including packaging warehouse processes, dock loading, shipments in transit, receivable goods and inventory shelf life. And the 2011 passage of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)—which shifted focus from just responding to contamination in the U.S. food supply chain to preventing it—makes the need more necessary than ever.
Developments on the market
The CMR-6100, a fully-integrated, cellular and GPS-equipped multi-protocol RFID reader, and the ZEST data services cloud platform from Intelleflex are designed to make data more available for supply chain managers so they can help reduce the loss of perishables; and improve supply chain operations and data sharing.
“What we found in the food supply chain is that there are a number of areas that you may want to capture the data from but there may not be a network infrastructure available to do so or the IT support on hand,” said Payne. “With a cellular reader, it’s easier to locate, mount, power and it can collect data automatically as it comes from the field.”
Data collected by condition-monitoring readers and tags—while current when it is collected—is not always immediately available for review and analysis to assess and ensure relative remaining shelf life, quality or efficacy of products at the end of the supply chain.
For example, in placing the cellular RFID reader at a receiving dock, data can be easily exported from the temperature tag of a product through the cellular network even if no LAN or Ethernet cable is present.
And while deploying the cellular RFID reader is to enable remote unattended capture of data automatically without human intervention, it does raise the question of where the data is automatically stored.
“One of the challenges associated with the cold chain has been sharing information across trading partners or even within a company,” added Payne. “And this has traditionally also been a limitation of RFID—it’s good at capturing information but it keeps that information siloed at a location and not easily shared.”