RFID Developments Open Doors For VARs
One RFID (radio frequency identification) integrator gained the interest of the meat processing industry by overcoming the technology's archenemy - metal.
The worldwide meat processing industry came under scrutiny in recent years when tainted beef found its way onto consumers' plates. Tens of billions of dollars were lost in the United Kingdom alone, and now governments are stepping in to better regulate the tracking and processing of livestock. "We believe that in three years, every country will pass legislation for total traceability of livestock from the time an animal is born until it is consumed," said Colin F. McLernon, president and CEO of integrator Syscan International, Inc. (Montreal). "Food safety is the biggest concern of any live animal slaughterhouse in the world today. Not only are governments and consumers trying to find a solution to this problem, but so are large companies like McDonald's and Wal-Mart."
Unfortunately, the industry had trouble finding an accurate and automatic solution that could withstand the harsh environment of a slaughterhouse. Most meat processing plants use bar codes and stamps to track their meat, but bar codes fall off or become unreadable, and stamps don't stay with the meat when it is divided into cuts. The industry needed a rugged solution that would automatically track the meat as well as trace it back to its origin.
RFID Laughs In The Face Of Metal
Those of you familiar with AIDC (automatic identification and data collection) technology are probably thinking RFID (radio frequency identification) sounds like a viable solution for this worldwide meat-tracking problem. However, the technology has been found not to work well in environments with a lot of metal, because metal can disrupt the RFID signal. From meat hooks to machinery, slaughterhouses are full of metal. Enter Syscan International.
Syscan International first became involved in the search for a viable meat-tracking solution by accident. In the fall of 2001, Syscan was discussing a fleet maintenance solution with its longtime customer Les Salaisons Brochu (Laval, Québec), a Canadian meat processor, when someone mentioned that Syscan uses RFID chips to track tires. "Brochu asked, 'If you embed RFID chips in tires that have steel belting, what would happen if you put a chip on a meat hook inside the plant?'" McLernon said. "We weren't looking to put RFID chips in the slaughterhouse, but when we tested the concept, it worked, and Brochu decided to adopt an RFID solution in all five of its processing plants."
The RFID chips Syscan installs in its solutions come from a partnership with AEG ID of Germany, a 114-year-old electronics company that was once owned by Mercedes Benz. Years ago, the company developed RFID chips to attach to the chassis of Mercedes automobiles. These chips needed to withstand high temperatures, paint, and chemicals, as well as to operate through the steel car body. "Syscan has a 5-year agreement as the sole distributor of the AEG ID chips in North and South America," McLernon said. "Once we realized it was developed to work on steel, we began to look for other applications."
Brochu wanted Syscan to embed RFID chips in the meat hooks because the hooks stay with the meat throughout the processing plant. "The meat hooks are attached to the carcasses when they are exposed to extreme heat and cold, but the RFID tags can withstand temperatures of -45 C to 220 C [-49 F to 428 F]," McLernon said. "Once the meat is shipped, the hooks are then chemically sanitized and reused, so they need to be tough."
Wireless Handhelds Increase Automation, Accuracy
Once Syscan embedded the RFID chips in the metal meat hooks, it needed to find a scanner that could read in the harsh slaughterhouse environment. "The reader had to be wireless, waterproof, and be able to withstand freezing temperatures. That is a demanding operation," McLernon said.
Syscan purchased Psion Teklogix (Mississauga, Ontario) 7035 handheld computers and modified them with a pistol grip. Then the company built an RFID reader that transmits to Psion wireless access points on the end of the scanning device. "Through this solution, we have created a paperless workplace," McLernon said. "Before, the employees walked around with clipboards and took notes that would eventually be entered into a computer by a data entry employee. Now, everything is transmitted in real time."
To make the solution even more accurate, Syscan teamed with Viewtrak (Edmonton, Alberta), a company that maintains a database of all Canadian livestock, and Merit-Trax Technologies (Ville Mont-Royal, Québec), a software developer that handles meat tracking from plants to consumers. "Between the three of us, we have come up with a total solution for the industry," McLernon said. "We have given slaughterhouses recall accountability and traceability." Farmers used to ship their cattle with no identification, so the plant didn't know if they were sick, on drugs, or healthy. In Canada, tests are currently being performed in which farmers begin the RFID process by tagging their livestock with an RFID ear tag. Slaughterhouses using the Syscan system can then cross-reference the information on the ear tag with the tagged meat hook and continue tracking the carcass through the plant. If meat becomes spoiled, it can be traced back to a specific farm.
Metallic Markets In Need Of AIDC Solution
Brochu has completed the RFID installation in its largest plant and plans to install it in its other four facilities in the near future. And although McLernon said the solution will cost the slaughterhouse more than $1 million, the company can expect to see a payback in two years or less. Since Syscan has installed its solution at Brochu, it has garnered the attention of seven other processing plants, as well as the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency. The integrator will work with Canadian farmers and slaughterhouses to automate the industry and ensure the meat remains safe. But Syscan is not limiting itself to the meat packing industry. "We are negotiating with a large truck body manufacturer to install the same tag in the steel frames of tractor trailers," McLernon said. And it won't stop there. This development in RFID will take the AIDC technology into areas it couldn't go before.