RFID Implementation – The Operator’s Point of View

However – do other foodservice customers have their sights on RFID technology use?

ID Access recently brought that question to the operator community. The short answer to our question is that it is definitely on the radar screen of the chain operators. However, as one might expect given the pace of the rollout in the retail community, there are caveats to take into account that temper operator enthusiasm and influence rollout speed.

Distributors should be ready for the day when their customers want them to tag cases prior to delivery and track product temperature before they get are delivered to their customer's operation.
On the positive side of the picture, one of the largest hurdles for RFID technology implementation – cost – appears to be coming down. Further, the fear of overburdened systems, a noted concern, also appears to have been defused. DC Velocity, one of many online newsletters reporting on RFID technology progress, ran an article on Oct. 5 noting prices for RFID tags and other equipment are falling. The article also highlights that other obstacles are being removed, like the availability of Gen 2 equipment, which is now becoming available on a wide-scale basis. Plus, more sophisticated RFID readers and advanced middleware applications are available to manage the data, thus removing the speed bump of system overloads. In general, all of this bodes well for RFID adoption.

In a presentation at the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM) show Michael Beedles, ceo of Fibergrations, a leading provider of supply chain and RFID execution solutions specifically designed for the food industry, conducted a workshop entitled "On Track with RFID." His comments reinforced the audience's pro-RFID vision by speaking to the benefits of RFID deployment throughout the foodservice supply chain.

RFID use, either through passive tags to track cases and/or active tags to provide a temperature control trail, has the ability to address food safety issues; to make theft of product more difficult and to address traceability challenges. Beedles' presentation alluded to RFID pilots currently being carried out by protein suppliers with the objective of putting into place a system that protects their brand through rapid, pinpoint identification of product location in the supply chain if a recall is needed.

His comments noted FDA's on-going interest in RFID deployment to protect the supply chain. Attendees left the session with the knowledge that many large food suppliers were paying attention to RFID technology, not solely due to the Wal-Mart mandate, but because it made product management and quality control sense.

In a subsequent interview, Beedles shared with ID Access his company's present work with a large chain restaurant, stating his company, Fibergrations, is sharing the costs involved in this multi-phased test.

CHAIN OPERATORS ARE PART OF PILOT MODE TEST The chain restaurant is in pilot mode testing RFID technology from an operations perspective using RFID technology in the back of the house. The pilot uses passive tags for inventory control and for theft deterrence. The tags report – item, quantity, product description, product origin and product destination, (i.e. which store the case is meant to be shipped). The tags are read as the product is delivered at the establishment, as it goes into the cooler/freezer or back room and as it is pulled out of the cooler or freezer. This is the pilot's first phase, ultimately the restaurant is scheduled to test the use of active tags to log temperature.

ID's interview with Bob Doyle, director of quality assurance & food safety for Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, revealed that the operator has its sights on RFID, noting that the technology has the potential to make the organization more efficient. Doyle spoke to the fact that RFID use can positively impact inventory management by tracking in-coming shipments and–ensuring that product is automatically reordered as needed. He is a proponent of using RFID technology throughout the supply chain to address tracking, traceability and food safety issues.

Doyle's organization, like most of the operator community, sees RFID use on a large-scale basis as being a bit down the road. He believes the foodservice community will benefit from the retail food implementations and the investment made by food suppliers complying with retail demand.

When asked what advise would he give foodservice distributors as it relates to RFID planning, Doyle stated that savvy distributors have their sights on this technology. However, he'd advise them to be ready for the day when their customers want them to tag cases prior to delivery and track product temperature before they get into their customer's operation.

Dusty Williams, cio, Outback Steakhouse, Inc. concurs with Doyle's timeline. His organization has RFID use on their radar screen, but does not currently see immediate implementation. He explained that because there is no giant customer like Wal-Mart among foodservice operators, he believes the foodservice supply chain will lag some behind the retail channel. In his own operation, he is convinced that within the next couple of years the company will begin some level of implementation.

Waiting to pull the trigger may be beneficial. Williams does see advantages in being able to leverage some of the retail channel's experience. Further, he feels that the RFID experienced suppliers will serve as catalysts to the foodservice channel.

RFID CAN ADDRESS FOOD SAFETY ISSUES Noting that being able to employ RFID to address food safety issues as being a huge priority, Williams also adds RFID technology has the potential to "take some of the heat off" administrative supply chain tasks, thus enabling the supply chain to operate with greater efficiency. He looks forward to RFID use to reduce proprietor's time-consuming administrative efforts.

Williams stated a desire for the foodservice channel to think about putting an effort against case identification through the use of RFID tags. Given the apparent path being set for the use of RFID in the foodservice channel, he questioned the need to put any more energy into industry bar coding.

His message to foodservice distributors states in essence that RFID is a better technology; it is not a matter of "if" but a question of "when" it will be employed.

At the moment, the push from customers for foodservice distributors' deployment of RFID is a gentle heads up. With RFID costs coming down, suppliers obtaining baseline experience and operators dipping their toe in the water through internal operations piloting –one might conclude as Bob Doyle—savvy distributors are already assessing how RFID might give them an edge.

Hence—ID's question to you…what's your timeline?


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