RFID streamlines automated tomato harvesting
Australians eat 22 kg of processed tomatoes per head every year, due to its presence as an ingredient in tomato sauce, soup, stews, pasta sauce and more.
Founded in 1899, the Japanese tomato processor Kagome has more than 100 years’ experience in the tomato growing and processing industry. Since 2010, Kagome Australia’s factory in Echuca has been cultivating and processing tomatoes, providing high-quality tomato products to food companies in Australia and overseas.
Quality control covers Kagome’s entire process, from tomato seed management and growing crops through to in-store displays. The minimised use of agrochemicals and the maximised use of natural pollination ensure that the tomatoes supplied are grown in a manner that is friendly to people, the crops themselves and the environment.
Today, cultivating and processing tomatoes is automated, and it can be a logistical challenge to get the tomatoes from the field to the factory in the most efficient way. RFID technology from SICK allows Kagome to ensure product traceability and leads to increasing efficiency in the production process.
Searching for an automated identification solution
On the Echuca fields, Kagome operates 12 harvesters loading tomatoes into more than 300 huge bins, each with a capacity of 14 tonnes. Once a bin is full with fresh tomatoes, it is unloaded at a bin pad, waiting for one of 12 trucks to pick it up and take it to the weighbridge close to the factory. One trip from the fields to the Kagome factory takes approximately 90 minutes and each truck can load three bins — that is an average of around 42 tonnes of tomatoes per truck.
Three years ago there were long truck queues at the weighbridge, forcing drivers to wait for 12 minutes until their tomatoes could be weighed. As part of Kagome’s quality control process, three samples from each bin had to be processed in the laboratory to ensure they were from a Kagome farm, and the drivers had to prepare paperwork to document the harvesting process as well as the quantity and quality of the yield.
This paper-based process increased the potential for human error, which could result in contaminated products and conceivably create widespread foodborne illness. To ensure traceability, it was time for Kagome Australia to implement a paperless automated identification solution at the weighbridge.
Guaranteeing traceability: what is the best solution for identifying tomatoes?
Food traceability is the process of tracking a product’s history and sharing that data along the entire processing path — so-called ‘farm-to-fork’ or ‘paddock-to-plate’ programs. While traceability has always been important for the food and beverage industry, in recent years the need for real-time recalls has increased in Australia due to plant processing errors or recalls from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
In an ideal world, there would be no need for product recalls; however, in the event of a recall, minimising the impact is a major focus of any food manufacturer’s program of compensation.
An effective tracking and tracing program comprises a number of components, starting with accurate and fast identification. For years, the identification workhorse has been the ubiquitous barcode. As foodstuffs move through the production process, they are identified by a unique code — on containers when in process, on packaging for the finished product, on cartons and pallets during transport and on shelves when they finally hit retail stores. The Kagome specialists were looking for a real-time identification solution that can handle mud and tomato juice as well as heat, wind and rain.
Streamlining harvesting processes with RFID
RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology is increasingly found in food tracing as technology improves and prices come down. Implementation is not uncommon in the case of large containers containing raw products and in the mixing of bulk materials. It offers companies a number of ways to streamline and manage their capacities, focusing particularly on the issues of traceability and process reliability.
Using wireless technology for identification purposes opens up a new dimension in automatic data recording. RFID tags offer more functionality than bar code technology, as they are read/write devices and no visual contact of the tag is required. Moreover, their robustness means they can even survive harsh ambient conditions such as high temperatures, mud or wetness.
SICK Australia presented the RFU63x read/write unit to Kagome in 2012. The device is an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID solution for the tracking and tracing of re-usable containers that also offers the possibility of bulk detection. Furthermore, the RFU63x can be used as an intelligent stand-alone system. Integrated functions such as data processing and filtering ensure stable reading performance and short reading cycles.
In January 2013, Kagome installed six RFU63x units from SICK — each equipped with three antennas for double-stacked bins — at the weighbridge and discharge hill at the factory in Echuca. Resistant and stable RFID tags were attached to the tomato bins, accompanying them right from the start of the harvesting process.
The RFU63x entirely meets Kagome’s requirements for paperless automated identification of tomatoes and thus helps to prevent the typical errors made during inbound and outbound goods processes, such as incorrect data or missing accounting entries.
RFID allows real-time identification of where the tomatoes come from. Due to paperless identification, no truck driver has to leave the truck at the weighbridge anymore, so driver safety is enhanced. The trucks are spending less time at the weighbridge and traffic jams in front of the weighbridge and the tomato drop hill have become a thing of the past.
As the truck time at the weighbridge has been reduced from 12 minutes to two minutes, the truck driver can manage one extra trip per 12-hour shift. With a fleet of 12 trucks and one truck loading an average of 42 tonnes of tomatoes, this means a productivity gain of 504 tonnes.
With reliable real-time data made available by intelligent identification technology from SICK, Kagome gained the ability to make better decisions, thereby increasing productivity and efficiency.
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