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Trends, innovations: F&B industry
Tuesday, 04 December, 2012, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Didier Lacroix
In today’s economy, more than ever, the food industry is looking for smart strategies and best practices to assure sustainable food production. Business Intelligence Solutions for processing plants can provide dynamic, real-time data, offer an immediate solution for plant and enterprise sustainability KPIs, and provide highly granular yet automatic data collection. These capabilities enable smart capital deployment, advanced quality, traceability and process management and they foster innovation and collaboration, providing a significant competitive advantage to their users.

A recent survey by Leatherhead Food Research asked the food and beverage industry what objectives are currently the most important when considering investment in new technology. Over 55% still considered that despite big moves within the industry to improve sustainability and resource efficiency, the primary technology innovations needed remain focussed on the product - either to deliver better quality or new products.

However when asked to consider a range of issues or themes and whether an emerging technology was the only way of achieving a step change in that area, an interesting picture emerges. When asked, “Which of these objectives are currently the most important when considering investment in new technology?”, Product Innovation and Quality are where the majority of investment considerations are being made (Figure 1).

Leatherhead Food Research (figure)

Historically used in the pharmaceutical industry for traceability purposes, barcodes are now commonly used for a similar function in food and beverage applications, allowing a recalled product to be rapidly identified and traced back to its manufacturing source, easing the recall process.

In the recent past, food packaging was used to enable marketing of products and to provide passive protection against environmental contaminations or influences that affect the shelf life of the products. At this point, it was essential to trace and track the consignment, which was being shipped to various parts of the globe and traceability became a major criteria.

Three categories

Traceability tools fall under three categories: product identification (ID) and marking, traceability tools and software, and radio frequency identification devices (RFID) systems. Product ID systems are the most common tracking tool being used and have been around the longest. They include barcoding and imprinting tools that used tracking numbers to link finished products back to specific data relating to their production history. RFID smart labelling is a means of product identification that has been adopted by retailers and governmental agencies to track the movement of products throughout the supply chain. Later on usage of laser had also started to become popular.

According to market research report on trends in RFID use, IDTechEx, in 2006 predicted almost three times the volume of RFID tags to be sold than over the previous 60 years since the technology’s invention. The prediction for the RFID market, including tags, systems and services, is growth from $1.94 billion in 2005 to $24.50 billion in 2015.

RFID and existing tech

Many businesses have combined RFID with existing technologies such as barcode readers or digital cameras to achieve expanded data capture and tracking capabilities that meet their specific business needs. Many of the suppliers have added RFID products and services to their offerings to take advantage of this growing trend.

With growing technology and different trends being applied across the globe, the food and beverage industry has also started implementing the image-based technology in many of its services. It is useful for this industry as it helps the reader to capture an image and uses a series of algorithms to process the image to make it easier to read. A typical algorithm searches the entire image for the code and identifies the position and orientation of the code for easy reading. Other algorithms handle degradations in code quality due to differences in material types and surfaces.

A key advantage of the image-based approach is that it not only reads 1-D codes and provides higher read rates, but also reads 2-D matrix codes. Because these two-dimensional codes like the Data Matrix can hold a much larger volume of data, they provide a considerable amount of redundancy that is used for error correction. So the code can often be read even when it is damaged.

Image-based systems

The alternative, image-based, line scan systems, provides greatly improved read rates, but their cost and complexity have previously limited their use to high-volume distribution centres. Now a new generation of image-based readers has been developed, offering high speed at a price comparable to most mid-range laser scanners. The technology allows automated equipment to read ID barcodes during the first pass, resulting in higher efficiency that will cut costs by permitting higher throughput and more packages per hour.

Because the system is camera-based, operators capture an image, which gives them data about failed package reads that will allow them to improve their process and support ongoing continuous improvement initiatives. Finally, with no moving parts, the new image-based technology is much more durable than laser systems. The new high-speed, area-array, image-based reader captures an entire image in a single snapshot, eliminating the need for precise encoder input or very bright, always-on illumination. Also, area scan technology is not susceptible to distortion or other undesirable image artifacts. Several recent advances in the technology now enable area scan readers to keep pace with the speeds required by package conveyors.

Also fundamental to this new generation of area scan image-based readers is new autofocus liquid lens technology. Liquid lenses focus much more quickly and with greater range than the mechanical variety – with no moving parts. The liquid lens technology means that the size and position of a package on a conveyor need no longer compromise either throughput or read accuracy. Also, liquid lens technology simplifies installation, setup and maintenance by allowing focal-length adjustment without the need for anyone to touch the lens.

Barcode reading systems

Image-based barcode reading systems offer several advantages over the laser-based variety. First, because a picture is worth a thousand scans, image-based readers begin with more information about the barcode. This advantage allows them to successfully read codes degraded by damage, orientation or distortion. To compensate for damage to the code or light reflections from the package, the analysis software can reconstruct the data of interest from any legible portion of the image. It can also store images for later retrieval and analysis. Archiving this information helps a distribution facility to determine the root cause for any unread barcodes and implement corrective actions, reducing the number of subsequent misreads and thereby improving process efficiency.

Some Disadvantages of Laser

• Users cannot see the image that the scanner is attempting to read.

• Difficulty determining whether the scanner is positioned optimally, especially in omni-directional applications where the rotational position of the code is unk
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