Industryweek 4799 Farm Factory

Technology: The Farm, the Fork and the Factory: Tools of the Digital Supply Chain

July 11, 2013
"RFID is a foundational technology that provides connectivity to the physical world," explains Anders Gustafsson, CEO of Zebra Technologies. "It acts as the convergence point between the physical and the digital worlds, enabling you to take advantage of the information hidden in your assets."

In late 2012, a strain of salmonella found its way into the supply of the country's largest organic peanut processing plant outside Portales, N.M.

The result was a quick and massive recall of just about every jar of organic peanut butter sold at health food and bulk retailers around the world.

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Somewhere in that frenzy of notifications and emergency reverse logistics, a blip appeared on the software screens of supply chain managers at Earthbound Farm Organics.

Earthbound produces organic fruits and vegetables for many of the same retailers that carried the contaminated peanut butters, but the company doesn't deal in the stuff itself. Nor had the recall been expanded to include any peripheral peanut products. And that made the blip all the more interesting. 

Driving Earthbound's supply chain platform is a high-tech RFID tracking system by IBM (IW 500/10) associate Frequentz that tracks the movement of, for example, every head of the 140 million pounds of lettuce it produces every year from its global network of farms all the way to the customers that bring them home. 

It is a system that CEO Charlie Sweat calls "farm-to-fork traceability." And it was that system that created the blip.

Once word of the recall hit the network, it told the company a few important facts: first, it confirmed that the contaminated peanuts had been used in some pre-packaged salad mixes and that pallets of those mixes had already been shipped. Then, most importantly, it told the company exactly when those pallets shipped and exactly where.

This allowed Earthbound to enact a targeted recall of the specific products at risk of contamination long before any official word had been issued and before anyone got sick. 

"In this industry, we need to be sure that whenever you buy food, you have the confidence of knowing how it was produced and that it is safe," Sweat explains. 

To do that, he says, he requires real-time traceability and identification of products across the supply chain, bringing visibility into every step of the process from how it is produced, where it is produced, how it's brought together with other products, to who buys it — every detail, as he says, from farm to fork. 

From Farm to Factory

Just like Earthbound's lettuce, today's manufactured products and parts, assemblies and subassemblies are zipping across the globe, passing through countless hands in dozens of factories and facilities, each with different processes and standards in a complex, convoluted dance to the consumer. 

Ensuring quality in that crooked path — and efficiency in the processes that guide it through — requires those same high-tech tools used to ensure the quality of its workers' lunches.

At the center of that technology suite is the new king of traceability: RFID.

"RFID is a foundational technology that provides connectivity to the physical world," explains Anders Gustafsson, CEO of Zebra Technologies. "It acts as the convergence point between the physical and the digital worlds, enabling you to take advantage of the information hidden in your assets."

In the manufacturing zone, that "illuminated value chain," as he calls it, translates into a host of high-tech efficiency wonders, from automatic inventory tracking to automatic tool settings, even customized part selection for unique assemblies in process. 

Zebra, which manufactures the tools and software that make this possible, sees this kind of insight as a requirement of today's tech-centric manufacturing world and has positioned itself at the center of what is proving to be the latest technology boom. 

A recent study conducted by Zebra with Forrester Research found that about 67% of global manufacturers and tech leaders will be investing in systems like that at Earthbound within the next five years to help beef up such critical issues as supply chain visibility, tracking transactions and asset locations. Add to that the 15% already employing these tools and the market seems suddenly ripe. 

To see RFID technologies in action, visit

"This is a technology at the heart of today's digital environment," Gustafsson says. "It holds together the smart, interconnected devices that manufacturers are using to drive more timely and effective business decisions."

And that, he says, is changing the industry. 

"It's like seeing the light," Earthbound's Sweat says. "There's no going back now." 

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