ThinfilmProper handling and transport of various fresh food items, such as dairy, raw meat and vegetables, have long been a challenge for the food supply. Recently, government agencies have put even more emphasis on this challenge. In 2010 and 2011, there were massive recalls by the Food and Drug Administration, resulting in approximately 85 foods being pulled from store shelves. While the focus is on egregious situations that demand recalls, even safely transported goods may not be delivered in optimal quality due to improper refrigeration and storage temperature.

Temperature-controlled logistics is a key factor driving the safer handling of food. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, consumers in the United States waste 33 million tons of food every year, which has significant economic and environmental impacts. There is also significant impact on revenue for the food producers.

As the food industry faces stiff competition and ever-shrinking margins, manufacturers, distributors and retailers are looking for ways to maximize efficiencies, minimize costs and avoid waste. And with increased government regulation, it is clear that the industry must closely monitor and ensure high quality of supply chain conditions for food.

Currently, manufacturers and distributors use radio frequency identification (RFID) tags paired with sensors. RFID tags are made up of small radio frequency units, comprised of a simple silicon microchip, that send signals to readers, which are also small RF units. The tag's information is stored electronically in non-volatile memory using an Electronic Product Code (EPC) to track the physical location of a tagged item. The tag can be active (with a battery), passive (no battery, drawing power from the reader) or a combination thereof (battery assisted passive).

Tags don’t need to be within line of sight of the reader, so they can be located inside a case, carton or container. The readers transmit information to systems running RFID software to collect and distribute information in near real time to a database for analysis as products travel through a supply chain.

Some early adopters in the food industry have already been using RFID tags paired with sensors to monitor cases, pallets or containers of perishable foods to automate the collection of food temperature data. These units monitor temperature, but some also track humidity and others track both.

These sensor-equipped RFID tags send alerts when food is exposed to unfavorable conditions during transit. In some cases, trucks are outfitted with GPS receivers and satellite communications links so that shipping companies can monitor their locations and can send trucks to closer locations for deliveries if necessary.

While these solutions offer valuable information, it comes with a price. Each system costs approximately $10 per tag, making monitoring expensive at anything except the pallet or truck level. They also require an infrastructure of RFID software and computer systems in order to act on the information in the tags. But a newer, more cost-effective technology is emerging that could help grocers and their suppliers track and prevent food spoilage and possibly save millions of dollars in wasted food. This technology may even minimize food waste by the consumer, saving them food dollars as well.

Lower-Cost Sensor Technologies on the Horizon

Printed electronics utilizes new manufacturing methods to create fully printed electrical devices on various substrates. The manufacturing, printing is often done using common printing equipment such as screen printing, offset lithography and inkjet. Functional electronic inks are deposited on a substrate to create active or passive devices, such as thin film transistors or resistors. These devices can be combined to create electronic systems at very low cost compared to traditional electronics.

This enables electronic functionality in a whole new family of products such as medical and consumer disposables, packaging, labels, RFID tags, and toys and games. Independent research and analyst firm IDTechEX estimates that the overall market for printed electronics will rise from $2 billion in 2009 to more than $50 billion by 2019.

One technology under development is a temperature sensor tag that incorporates the sensor and data storage on a “smart tag” for tenths of cents.  Such tags can also include displays, power sources and antennas, all in a single adhesive label. Printed systems or tags can be manufactured in high volumes for less than a tenth of the price of an RFID-sensor tag, making it feasible to monitor the temperature of food by unit rather than by pallet.

Printed electronics-based tags will provide valuable information in real time with no added infrastructure. When used in combination with RFID infrastructure software, the advantages and cost savings for supply chain applications will be significant.

Low-cost smart tags based on printed electronics will enable suppliers, distributors and retailers to make better decisions, save money and avoid wasting food.

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