We've learned of the impact that a single contaminated ingredient can have on a global food supply chain. One small mistake at the outset can resonate throughout hundreds of products, posing a serious threat to public health.
Yet each year brings fresh reports of illnesses and deaths caused by products containing ingredients that either were misidentified or weren't supposed to be there in the first place. Damage to items in transit can have also a serious impact. So how can companies put a stop to this seemingly intractable problem?
From a logistics standpoint, visibility is key. That means having access to critical data at the right time. With the recent spate of supply-chain disruptions, including natural disasters in Japan and Thailand, and congestion at West Coast ports, companies are beginning to realize the value of knowing exactly where their products are at any given moment.
There are any number of systems available for keeping track of items in transit. Carriers and shippers are boosting their reliance on devices such as data loggers for pharmaceutical products, temperature monitors for containerized shipments, and satellite communications.
That same level of concern needs to be extended to the condition of the products themselves. Andy Souders, senior vice president of products and strategy with Savi Technology, notes a recent spike in the loss of product when moving over land and sea. Temperature variations, for example, can quickly ruin a truck full of ice cream or cause food spoilage. Even worse, they can seriously compromise the safety and effectiveness of pharmaceuticals.
Souders says there's a need to move from traditional status data, which is typically delivered in a batch mode, to real-time visibility. Shippers must be aware of problems at the earliest possible moment, so that they can take immediate action.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is proving to be a valuable tool for monitoring product quality. The use of active RFID by the U.S. Department of Defense involves tags with sensors that collect information on location, temperature, humidity, shock, tilt and vibration of items during shipment.
In the most basic application of RFID, data can be accessed by a reader when a shipment reaches destination, producing a detailed history and audit trail. It becomes a real-time reporting system with the addition of satellite or Wi-Fi communications. In that manner, says Souders, key status information can be immediately conveyed to the shipper.
For a shipment of Department of Homeland Security goods moving from Atlanta to Los Angeles, Savi's tags relayed temperature, humidity and location data every fifteen minutes via a cellular network. Satellite communications took over when it was transferred to a ship bound for Hawaii, providing twice-daily updates on the vessel's location. Upon the shipment's arrival in Hawaii, the cellular network kicked back in for the final legs of the journey.
DOD has invested billions of dollars in RFID. Any piece of material related to certain defense programs must have a Savi active tag. At the same time, says Souders, the price of sensor technology, especially as it relates to wearable devices, is coming down. A tag that does nothing but relay its location can be obtained for between $35 and $75. No reader is required because it’s communicating actively to a network.
Active RFID means the tag possesses some level of intelligence that allows it to transmit data in near-real time. Passive tags, by contrast, must be lit up by a reader and don’t contain their own power source.
Souders expects active RFID technology to continue falling in price, much as the cost of cell phones, bandwidth and supporting software has plummeted over the past decades. As recently as 2004, he says, active RFID was too expensive for many logistics applications. Today, nearly every major carrier equips its trucks with telematics devices, which closely monitor driver behavior and schedule adherence. Expect the same trend to affect real-time shipment tracking in the years ahead.
At the same time, the technology will grow in sophistication, as shippers embrace spectrum-active RFID with cellular and GPS capabilities. The popularity of such systems depends, of course, on the value of the product being monitored. The most expensive shipments will always justify the highest-price technology
Increasingly, though, shippers are turning to real-time tracking systems in order to ensure product integrity – a vital concern in a time of record-breaking recalls. Think of RFID as just one more page in the ever-growing risk-management manual.