Wells’ Dairy is one of the world’s largest ice cream manufacturers and sells its products under the Blue Bunny name. As one of Wal-Mart’s top-100 suppliers, Wells’ Dairy faced the retailer’s January 2005 RFID compliance deadline. Rather than resort to the slap-and-ship methods of compliance many Wal-Mart suppliers used, Wells’ Dairy decided to integrate RFID within its production processes. This way, when Wal-Mart expanded its RFID requirements beyond the basic compliance mandate (which only required a small percentage of products to be RFID-ready), Wells’ Dairy could scale its solution accordingly.
Wells’ Dairy had standardized on Rockwell Automation products in its production environment to enable information exchange throughout the facility. The Rockwell products included Allen-Bradley ControlLogix controllers, RSLINX networking technology, and ViewAnyWare visualization platform. “In order to achieve maximum value for our investment in RFID, it was important for us to design an RFID solution based on the same control platform used in our existing processes,” says Brad Galles, process controls manager for Wells’ Dairy. “Since these were controlled by ControlLogix controllers, it made sense to build our RFID solution on that platform as well.”
To develop an RFID based on that platform, Wells’ Dairy first researched all of the components of an RFID solution and then began talking to suppliers. “The only way to get good, accurate information as to whether RFID components would achieve this was to get the equipment and test it in our own facility, on the ControlLogix platform” says Galles. “As a result, we learned a lot about the technology’s capabilities and drawbacks through trial and error.” Wells tested what it deemed the top three vendors in each category (e.g. middleware, reader, printer/labeler, tags) in its facility.
After the testing, Wells selected the products for its solution, which included Alien Technology RFID tags and readers, Printronix RFID printer/applicators, and MPI labels (into which the Alien tags are imbedded). For six months, Wells’ Dairy’s team worked with Rockwell Automation to develop these products into a solution that could be replicated across the manufacturer’s production lines. The linchpin in the solution is the Allen-Bradley module for ControlLogix that ties the data received from the RFID tags back into the company’s existing information architecture, where it can be shared throughout the enterprise.
Once the solution components were in place, Wells’ Dairy ran a pilot project for its largest line of ice cream. Once raw ice cream ingredients are mixed and, for this particular line, packaged into family pails, the pails are brought to a wrapper machine where two buckets at a time are bound together (considered a case by Wal-Mart). As the case exits the wrapping machine, an RFID label (that also includes a bar code) is placed on the plastic wrapper. As the cases travel on a conveyor into a freezer for a quick-freeze process, the RFID tag is read. If the reader does not recognize the tag, the case is diverted to a reject line and is manually reviewed by the line attendant to identify the error. When exiting the freezer, the tubs are read again to verify the tag and to track each case as it is palletized. After 75 gallons of ice cream are placed on an automatic palletizer, the pallets are wrapped, and another RFID tag is applied to the pallet and read by an RFID reader. The pallet is then stored in the warehouse before it is ready to be shipped to a Wal-Mart distribution center.
RFID PILOT PROJECT UNCOVERS READ RATE PROBLEMS
During the pilot project, Wells’ Dairy had problems with the tags, largely due to issues with the quick-freeze process, such as the tags peeling off or becoming unreadable. “We spent a lot of time on this issue,” says Galles. “We put interference blankets behind the tags, and we tried turning up the power on readers — while still not reading the tag on the case next to the one we were trying to read.” Wells’ Dairy was able to reduce this problem by upgrading its tags, which improved the read rate from 70% to 95%. “We’re looking forward to Gen 2 to give us another big jump in read rates and get to the 99.9% accuracy we need,” says Galles. “With Gen 2, we can become more of a shopper for tags than we are now. We haven’t converted all of our software to Gen 2 yet, but we’re starting the process.”
Wells’ Dairy has not expanded its RFID project beyond Wal-Mart’s minimal SKU (stock keeping unit) requirements yet, but is ready to. The main benefits the company is experiencing now is compliance and improved visibility of product; the company anticipates it will also free up personnel, increase the accuracy of freezer pallets, increase quality control, and decrease the number of misshipped pallets.