Groundbreaking Field Study Confirms Feasibility of RFID for Reusable Container Tracking

July 1, 2009
ARLINGTON, Va.—The Reusable Packaging Association has released the results of a groundbreaking, independent study of the feasibility of using RFID tags to track reusable containers as they make multiple trips throughout the supply chain. The development was first reported by MHM.

The study involved extensive field trials lasting more than a year. Tests were supported by RPA members and industry leaders including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Frontera Produce, Stemilt, Tanimura and Antle, Georgia-Pacific, IFCO Systems, ORBIS, Alien Technology, Avery Dennison, Impinj, UPM Raflatac, Michigan State University School of Packaging, the Kennedy Group, California State Polytechnic University, QLM Consulting and the RPA.

The study consisted of two phases of laboratory testing during which 230 reusable containers with nine different EPC-compliant, Gen 2 RFID tags were tested at Michigan State University School of Packaging. A California State Polytechnic scientist at a second laboratory conducted readability tests, and third-party advisors verified results. The project team performed more than 160 hours of testing and more than 14,000 tests. The three tags that performed optimally during the testing were used in Phase 3, the field trial.
During the field trial, produce was packed in reusable plastic containers directly in the field under many different field conditions. The produce was then sent to cooling facilities where product temperatures were dropped to an optimum level to ensure freshness and transportability. Following the cooling operation, the product was loaded on trucks and other containers for shipment to end user customers.

During field testing, the RFID tags underwent extreme changes in temperature from more than 100 °F in the field to 32 °F in cold storage and more than 170 °F in the sanitation cycle. The RFID tags were also exposed to dry field conditions, wet and cold storage environments, warehousing, store racking and hand deliveries to the store shelves.

Each of the RFID tags were subjected to an average of more than 1,000 miles transportation distance, before being unloaded at a distribution center, then reloaded onto local trucks for delivery to the stores, redelivered back for sanitation and finally redeployed to the produce company for reuse.

The key finding of the study, according to RPA, is that RFID tags designed for single use can be used for multiple trips without any deterioration in performance if positioned correctly on reusable containers.

“The compatibility of RFID technology with reusable containers brings substantial added benefits to the already proven economic and environmental advantages of reusable packaging systems,” says Pat Kennedy, vice president of marketing and sales for the Kennedy Group, and leader of the RPA project team that sponsored the independent evaluation.

“By combining RFID technology with reusable containers, industries gain the ability to better track their product and their containers as they move through the supply chain,” adds Bob Klimko, chairman of the RPA board and director of marketing at ORBIS. “This will result in a stronger return on investment on the containers, as well as provide opportunities for improved supply chain management through analysis of the data provided.”

Although reusable packaging provides cost savings and supports environmental initiatives, it also poses challenges in terms of managing and locating the reusable assets. The RPA concludes that the successful application of RFID technology demonstrated by the study provides a means to cost effectively track and trace reusable assets as well as the goods being transported.

The complete study is available to RPA members. MHM will also report more details as they become available.