Stock control, no mouldy toms

Thanks to RF technology from Omron, Sainsburys is initiating massive improvements in its supply chain

Using ‘smart labels’ instead of bar-codes, automation specialists from Omron will soon be able to automatically follow every individual item through Sainsburys’ distribution chain.

On trial at the supermarket’s regional distribution centre in Allington, Kent, where 150,000 crates, each with a tag attached, has been passed through the supply chain.

As well as enabling the identification of individual crates on mixed pallets in seconds, the process will also impact on the wider issue of traceability, with suppliers able to locate contaminated products without recalling everything else.

At the heart of the technology are RFID (radio frequency identification) chips. Each chip contains a silicon chip and antenna and is able to send/receive information to/from base stations located at key areas throughout the supply chain. These stations then forward information to a central computer controlling the whole distribution process, which is automatically updated as items progress through the chain.

The system also includes a man machine interface and network communications that display and distribute the information.

Omron has developed a system that operates on a frequency of 13.56GHz and is based on Philips’ open ICODE chip.

With each tag costing around 17 US cents, tagging of individual items is a way off yet. But, says Steve Coffey, Omron’s RFID marketing manager for Europe, once they’re manufactured in large numbers, economies of scale will bring the cost tumbling down.

In the Allington trial – which focused on chilled foods -upon arrival, every crate’s position and use by date was recorded. Thus, when a store orders chilled food for delivery, the central computer tells the warehouse managers which crates to pick – ensuring product rotation.

Rollout of the technology, which Sainburys expects to save tens of millions, should be complete within three years The technology could also bring about an end to those nervous waits in airport arrival lounges, as it is ideally suited to solving the problems of lost luggage.

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