Blueberry Program Moving Along

December 8, 2005
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GRAND JUNCTION — The momentum from the RFID Technology Center's successful blueberry pilot project appears to be slowing as the group struggles to overcome corporate upheaval and hardware difficulties in efforts to expand the project.

Led by MBG Marketing in Grand Junction, the Perishable Products Group of the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology Center at Kalamazoo Valley Community College has worked with Western Michigan University to test RFID tags on blueberry cases for the better part of two years.

Originally conceived in spring 2004, a pilot project last March and April analyzed shipments of berries from a packing facility in rural Chile to Hellman Perishable Logistics in Miami. Three thermographic readers each were placed in 30-pound cases, nine per pallet, as they were frozen. The truncated supply chain included a trip from rural Santiago, Chile, to Miami, followed by a shorter shuttle from the airport to a Hellman distribution center.

Through this, the group was able to track the temperature of the berries throughout the supply chain. On the airplanes, where there are no refrigeration units, the group was surprised to find that the cases remained consistently frozen. It also discovered that the fruit was being kept too cold at the Chilean packing facility.

According to MBG Marketing director of information technology John Conner, RFID technology allows for breaks in the refrigeration "cold chain" to be identified in real time and addressed before a quality issue arises. In the past, blame for quality issues was split throughout the supply chain.

"We're seeing how this can be used for freezing blueberries, and what we learn here can also be applied to other products," Conner said, citing a shopping list of perishable foods that could benefit from an RFID cold chain.

Plus, the commonly understood benefits of RFID — namely its ability to provide real-time, per-unit tracking — is especially useful for perishable goods.

"Blueberries have a shelf life of about 10 days," Conner explained. "If it gets bogged down in distribution, our product might be sitting on the shelf for only a few days."

MBG Marketing is the marketing and technology arm for Michigan Blueberry Growers Association, Global Berry Farms and the Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers. Along with the Michigan growers and Hellman Perishable Logistics, the group consisted of Chilean berry grower Hortifruit and Michigan's Hanson Logistics, each at a $10,000 buy-in. Technology firm BlueGranite, of Kalamazoo, and Cold Links LLC, of Miami, also participated.

Originally, the RFID Technology Center had hoped the pilot would lead to a joint venture between WMU and the University of Florida, but that plan never materialized.

After the initial success, the project was expanded to include a similar test in Southwest Michigan. The group is also using basic, non-temperature tracking RFID tags in greenhouses.

"We continue on the track we laid out, tagging products and using RFID to track the cold chain," Conner said. "Everything continues to move forward with those products … but there are other issues and it's hard to say what will happen."

Two key goals of the initiative are currently in flux. The group had intended to extend the cold chain project among retailers in the coming months with a pilot involving the Idaho-based Albertson's Inc., parent company of Albertson's, Acme, Jewel-Osco and other stores. The company, however, has put itself up for sale, and Conner is uncertain if the new management will continue the RFID initiative.

The group also was disappointed by efforts to find more reliable and cost-effective tags. It had hoped to upgrade to the newer Generation 2 tags, but quickly discovered that the new tags didn't work well with the current hardware, the tag readers. The group was stuck with using tags from their original vendor, Alien Technology.

"We're pretty much back to using the same tags," Conner said. "This has proved to be a lot bigger issue than we expected."

The group is currently working with Grand Rapids tag manufacturer RFIDentics to find or design a usable tag upgrade.    

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