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Fishery reels in RFID label compliance

Beaver Street Fisheries, Inc., Jacksonville, FL, is a big fish in a big pond. As one of the nation's top importers of frozen seafood, Beaver Street imports nearly 1,000 containers of seafood and meat annually from more than 50 countries. The products include shrimp, lobster tails, fish fillets, whole fish and other seafood. With warehouses and a seafood-processing plant that occupies two city blocks, Beaver Street, a Wal-Mart supplier for many years, currently ships about 270,000 cases of frozen lobster tails, snow crab, breaded jumbo shrimp and more to Wal-Mart each month.

While Beaver Street isn't one of Wal-Mart's "Top 100" suppliers, and doesn't have to comply with Wal-Mart's requirement to put radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on pallets and cases it ships to the retailer's distribution centers until January 2006 (the Top 100 suppliers began tagging shipments in January 2005), Beaver Street challenged itself to exceed expectations and become part of the "first wave" anyway.

The seafood supplier, which has relied on bar coding for some time, met Wal-Mart's mandate more than one year ahead of schedule.

While Beaver Street sees bar coding as coexisting with RFID for the immediate future, a driving force behind the company's move to RFID technology early on was its desire to improve operating efficiencies. Integrating RFID tags into its system and business processes as of November 2004, the fishery began tagging cases of products in three different lines that are bound for Wal-Mart's Perishable Foods Distribution Center in Cleburne, TX. Although the products represent only about 5 percent of the stockkeeping units it ships to Wal-Mart, Beaver Street remains optimistic about its early move to deploy RFID technology.

For the initial project, however, the company evaluated different types of tags, antennas, readers and printers that could be used to meet Wal-Mart's mandate. It began working with Zebra Technologies (www.rfid.zebra.com) and its premier equipment partner and authorized RFID specialist, The Danby Group (www.danbygroup.com), which also coordinated with RFID software solutions provider Franwell Inc. (www.franwell.com) in implementing the project. Soon, it set up an RFID lab and conducted several pilots to test label and tag options before incorporating RFID into exiting business processes. After it completed the tests, it began to establish an implementation phase, which included setting up compliance stations to encode tags using Zebra's R110Xi III smart label printer/encoder.

The tags are applied to cases of frozen jumbo breaded shrimp, catfish nuggets and frozen snow crab clusters. These items sent to the Wal-Mart DC currently comprise about 5,000 cases per month out of a possible 400,000 cases a month, the company reports. The amount of cases tagged has remained the same since the implementation of the project, Beaver Street tells PD, but the mix of products shipped can change from time to time.

With the help of its suppliers and packaging team, Beaver Street developed portable and mostly manual tagging stations for Phase One. Zebra recommended its R110Xi III printing/encoding system for its flexibility. The system prints 4x6-in. labels, which the fishery uses, as well as other sizes, including a 4 x 2 1/2- and a 4 x 10-in., freezer-grade label. Helping to cut costs, Framwell and Danby devised a concept of mounting the compact tagging system, along with a reader and antennas, on a cart that could be easily moved around the warehouse.

"The cart we built is designed for companies that require a heavy-duty, moisture-resistant enclosure," says Beaver Street's chief information officer Howard Stockdale. "It runs with two printers at one time and can be connected to any network."

With tags in place, the cases are then validated through two Symbol DC-200 and DC-400 RFID portals from Symbol Technologies (www.symbol.com). Currrently, Beaver Street has two sets of portals that it has configured so they can be moved around the building and can be used to test in different areas. The DC200 portal units each contain an RFID reader, two 3-ft-tall antennas, status indicators and motion sensors.

So far, Beaver Street has obtained four of the Zebra standalone systems and one R1110Xi III PAX 4 print engine. Beaver Street also followed Wal-Mart's guidelines to get started. "They have the best guidelines and follow EPCglobal specifications," Stockdale says.

We see RFID as an automation-enabling technology that will allow us to further automate...business processes and bring a much higher level of efficiency and overhead reduction.

Along with the smart label printer/encoder, Franwell, whose specialty is implementing RFID systems, provided its rfid>Genesis(TM) software, which was brought in to merge the label printing/encoding operations with Beaver Street's existing warehouse-management system data to encode the tags and send instructions to the tag printer/encoders.

Prior to the RFID project, when the company depended on bar codes to identify its products, its operation involved workers with hand-held bar-code readers manually scanning shipments to be sent out or received.

"Now, we're the only frozen seafood company that volunteered to meet Wal-Mart's compliance requirements by January 2005," says Stockdale. "We made a decision to be proactive with RFID. We knew we had to start early to get a firm grasp on the technology. We have a small staff, but RFID is just one project in many that we have. We see RFID as an automation-enabling technology that will allow us to further automate our business processes and bring a much higher level of efficiency and overhead reduction to our company."

To say Beaver Street has grown is an understatement. Owned by the Frisch family since 1950, the fishery started out as a fresh-fish store, named for its original Jacksonville location on West Beaver Street. It has developed into a $350-million operation and has experienced an explosive expansion in a short amount of time, from packing 600 cases of seafood a day to 3,300 a day in just three years (see PD, July 2005, p. 24). The company also has an impressive set of tray-wrapping lines that output a whopping 2,400 trays of case-ready fish/hr.

Another of the company's first steps in Phase One of its three-phase RFID initiative was to find the right tags and labels for the products and to learn how to reliably encode and apply them onto corrugated shipping cases and pallets—a basic slap-and-ship approach. Having no previous experience with RFID, the company contacted Zebra, which also recommended the help of The Danby Group, which has experience with both RFID and compliance-labeling systems. The Danby Group, in turn, contacted Franwell, which helped Beaver Street develop an order-confirmation application to validate orders and compare the read data from the RFID portal with the customer's order.

While the project sounds like it runs swimmingly, it wasn't without a few challenges. Beaver Street's IT department was already involved in two other top-priority projects, and the packaging team faced the task of how to properly label the products while overcoming inconsistent read rates, due to the density and moisture differences of each package. And since the facility is a fishery, moisture is omnipresent; the company wasn't sure how moisture would affect the tagging process.

But it wasn't long before Beaver Street discovered that moisture was only an issue in the loading of trucks. "It's not that bad because the facility is designed to handle [issues with moisture]," Stockdale explains. "We have had no problems with tag reliability in our freezers. We are still in a pilot mode, and are continuing to learn every day. Some challenges early on were about tag quality, but that has improved immensely, as well as printer firmware improvements that have started to give us more successful tag encoding yields at print time. There were a host of other challenges, such as reading the tags on certain products, depending on pallet configurations, and working with the metal on forklift trucks, which can deter RFID tag reading."

As the cases arrive at the warehouse from the processing area, they're palletized, and the palletized loads are then separated according to destination. Pallets bound for Wal-Mart are further separated according to those to be tagged with RFID labels before the loads are sent to freezer storage.

We are still in pilot mode and are continuing to learn every day.

During the RFID tag-printing/encoding tests, Beaver Street evaluated various label-placement options and types of electronic product code (EPC) technologies (the company uses tags from local supplier, Donnick Label Systems [www.donnick.com]). The EPC/RFID tags were applied by hand to the cases, and the pallets were issued an RFID tag. For the EPC tags to be applied to the subset of cases and pallets of frozen seafood for Wal-Mart, the R110Xi printers encode RFID inlays embedded within the label material.

In addition to providing multiprotocol printing, the R110Xi IIIs each combine two key functions for complying with RFID mandates: printing standard bar-code labels and encoding data into a passive RFID transponder embedded in the label. The R110Xi III incorporates the strengths of Zebra's Xi printing/label-application platform with a ThingMagic RFID reader module, which offers the flexibility needed for a simple upgrade path to EPC Global's Gen 2 protocols, to which Stockdale points out his company will be converting soon. It also conforms to protocols such as EPC Class 1, EPC Class 0, Matrics 0+, ISO18000-06, and Philips UCODE 1.19. A software download allows the system to be field-upgradable to encode the new Gen 2 tags.

Stockdale says the inlays currently used by Beaver Street employ UHF Class 1 EPC technology. The printer encodes the inlays embedded within the label material and prints the label in a single pass. The printer also validates that the tags are readable before they're encoded. If a tag is unreadable, the system will automatically imprint the word "void" on the unreadable tag, and a new label is encoded and produced (Wal-Mart will soon require EPC Class 1, Gen 2 RFID technology when specifications are in place and compliant products become more readily available).

"The R110 printers are great because they can encode both Class 0+ and Class 1 tags," notes Stockdale. "We're in the process of firing up our first [Zebra R110] PAX 4 in-line print engine." The company will use it as part of its next phase of tag implementation, in its in-line printing/encoding system that will automatically apply 4x10-in. corner-wrap labels to shipping cases.

To ensure the printed, encoded tags are still readable after they are applied to the cases, Beaver Street's staff passes the tags through one of the portal readers. This process is also done before the tag is applied. If the tag responds to signals from the shelf antennas on the portable system, and is valid, it can then be applied to a case. Stockdale says the company continues to test different pallet configurations and tag placements on the cases. The pallet configurations currently shipped to Wal-Mart with RFID tags can also differ, he says.

The density and moisture content of each package of frozen fish aren't identical, and this has made read performance inconsistent and occasionally resulting in unreadable cases. So Danby worked with Beaver Street to develop an order-confirmation application with the rfid>Genesis software to process data from the portal readers and compare the items with the order, which was held in an SQL server database. "Danby and Franwell helped us early on and did an outstanding job," Stockdale adds. "And Donnick produces some of the best RFID tags in the industry."

Meeting its compliance requirements ahead of time, Beaver Street is positioned to expand its tagging processes as necessary and can move to Class 1, Gen 2 technology without an investment in additional printing equipment.

Says Rich Bruce of The Danby Group, "Beaver Street has gone from managing shipping with a clipboard to employing cutting-edge RFID technology."

The company's second phase of the project is designed to make RFID tagging more efficient and cost-effective by moving it in-line.

The third phase, which is expected to get under way some time in the next two years, is where the company expects to begin using the data generated from a full implementation of RFID throughout its product lines.

"Our second phase of in-line processing is getting off the ground now," Stockdale tells PD. "There will be much more to follow on this soon. Phase Two [involves tagging] in-line, which will bring much more efficiency and will allow us to apply RFID tags to cases and pallets without handling the products twice, which is what we did in Phase One.

Phase Three will involve integrating our warehouse-management system [WMS], and that is where we expect to see a return on our investment. In this phase, we will also be working with RFID in business process re-engineering, receiving, shipping, some inventory control and traceability capabilities. It's a journey, not a destination at this point."

Stockdale adds that he is also looking beyond compliance to find ways to improve Beaver Street's internal operations with RFID. Options include the use of shipment data collected via RFID to automatically create a bill of lading and advance-ship notices for electronic data interchange (EDI) transmission.

"There is not a whole lot of efficiency to be gained by just doing slap and ship," Stockdale admits. "And there's no real slam dunk ROI that is served up on a silver platter with RFID. We're exploring how we can apply RFID to different areas. We're extremely excited about its potential. It just takes time to get there."

He goes on to say that Beaver Street will explore the use of RFID to track cases and pallets at its seafood-processing and packing plants to improve inventory management. In addition, the company may explore the involvement of its network of suppliers to apply RFID tags at the source, leveraging information on the tags to meet legal data requirements, such as method of catch, country of origin and date codes. Stockdale says the company has implemented a test with its Nassau subsidiary to tag products shipped from the Bahamas to Jacksonville. He also plans to use a ZebraNet remote printer monitoring and control capability to generate smart labels for the job. If the test proves successful, the same approach could be tried with other partners in overseas packaging facilities so that the products could be labeled on-site. This would allow Beaver Street to track all product received, inventoried, converted and shipped from the corporate facility using RFID.

"We have a lot of visions about what we can do with the technology," Stockdale sums up. "It's very powerful, but requires changes to business processes and software engineering. We like to be proactive, not reactive especially when we are talking about business-critical requirements. To a degree, we expect internal benefits later. Our goal is to achieve compliance up front and lay the groundwork for ROI. We hope that this helps our case with Wal-Mart, but we have accomplished the goals we set [for ourselves]."

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