Wegmans Food Markets
Chain Goes a Cut Above With RFID for Supermarkets
Supermarket chain Wegmans successfully piloted tracking meat products with EPC Gen 2 RFID so cuts could be tracked to individual stores to improve traceability and inventory management. Carefully matching smart label media and printers to usage environments helped led to outstanding read rates and convenient processes.
Wegmans Food Markets became one of the first supermarket chains to get involved with RFID, and continues to be one of the most innovative. The Mid-Atlantic chain with more than 70 stores ran an ambitious pilot to determine if RFID could help get fresh meat to customers faster.
Because meat is expensive and perishable, there is a strong business case for improved tracking. There are many challenges to using RFID to identify meats, including the metal tables, knives and equipment used in preparation; damp air and low temperatures; absorbent packaging materials; and the high moisture content of the product itself.
Wegmans wanted to test RFID's ability to overcome these challenges and designed a proof-of-concept pilot to assess the viability of using EPCglobal Gen 2 RFID technology in meat processing and distribution operations.Wegmans' meat labels are a size that is not widely used and the company did not want to change legacy processes, so finding RFID smart label media that was consistent with its current label formats was a potential concern.
Wegmans selected its Meat Manufacturing Centre and Meat Distribution Centre for use in the pilot since both environments are completely controlled by Wegmans. Large pieces of meat from suppliers are received at the Meat Manufacturing Centre, where they are cut and wrapped into retail-ready packages. Six to 12 of these packages are placed into plastic totes, which are later loaded on a pallet. Pallets are shipped to the Meat Distribution Centre, and individual totes are sent off to various store locations. The pilot was designed to determine if RFID could reliably identify both totes and pallets at each facility, from the time totes were loaded at production until totes and cases left the distribution centre bound for retail stores.
Wegmans goals and challenging environments produced numerous variables to test. An extensive facility analysis was conducted to determine where RFID reading points should be established; multiple models of RFID readers from different manufacturers were considered; and various Gen 2-standard RFID inlays were evaluated. Smart label printing/encoding was one variable that Wegmans did not worry about. The company saw no need to evaluate multiple vendors because of the reliability and performance it had experienced from Zebra® barcode label printers throughout the years.
"We've never had problems with our Zebra printers," explains Kristen Andersen,Wegmans EPC project manager. "We felt good about using Zebra again for the RFID encoding." Wegmans selected VeriSign to design and oversee the six-week pilot, and Zebra served as the labelling and printing specialist.
"The success of a pilot depends on the knowledge of many people," says Tom Zarley, project manager for VeriSign. "Ensuring that key stakeholders have the opportunity to contribute to planning and design of the pilot and leveraging the experience of technical experts significantly contributed to the breadth of learnings realized in this project."
One of the first issues they addressed was selecting a label. Most labels with RFID inlays are 4-by-6 inches, but Wegmans wanted smart labels to fit the 3-inch-by-5-inch format that it already used for including text and barcodes on meat packaging. The uncommon size wasn't all that set Wegmans' smart label needs apart. Meat contains a lot of moisture and is packaged with absorbent material, creating challenging RFID reading conditions. The label material and adhesive also have to withstand cold storage and condensation. Zebra engineers considered all these factors when developing media recommendations.
Wegmans considered eight different inlays from five manufacturers. Based on its experience and testing, Zebra ultimately recommended smart labels featuring inlays from Alien Technology and Omron Electronics.
"Test labs only do so much," says Andersen. "Zebra came to the site and saw what was needed. They helped us solve our inlay and label problems and helped the pilot get off the ground."
During the trial Wegmans used a Zebra R110Xi™ printer/encoder to produce more than 30,000 smart labels, which were applied to totes and pallets at its production facility. Because Wegmans already used Zebra printers for barcode labelling, legacy label formats were easily converted to support RFID by adding a command line, saving the company the time and expense of developing new RFID label formats from scratch. No unencoded or weak smart labels were applied to totes or pallets because they are automatically checked by the printer/encoder and marked as void to prevent their use.
Test labs only do so much, Zebra came to the site and saw what was needed. They helped us solve our inlay and label problems and helped the pilot get off the ground.
The combination of carefully chosen media and a Zebra R110Xi printer/encoder produced a successful production rate of about 98 percent. Read rates ranged from 95 to 98 percent, depending on the reader and the operation. During the trial Wegmans uploaded new software to some readers to update the firmware, which improved read rates 2 to 3 percent. Firmware for the Zebra R110Xi can also be updated remotely, but adjustments were not necessary because of the strong performance the printer/encoder provided.
Wegmans designed the pilot to gain experience with RFID and to see if it could be used in meat processing environments. The pilot was successful in meeting those goals.Wegmans gained a lot of experience with the technology and knowledge on selecting equipment, where it should be placed, and the importance of matching smart label media to the application.
"The technology does work and the pilot fulfilled all our expectations," says Andersen.
The pilot was later expanded so Wegmans could test RFID reading on other types of products. Read rates varied significantly by product and packaging. The testing showed meat is not the hardest product to identify with RFID, and a one-tag-fits-all approach to product labelling will not be successful.