Each year, 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted worldwide, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. And 6.43 million tons of it originates in Japan, according to the Japanese government in 2016—the most recent data available.
Recognizing the importance of reducing such waste—not only because it matters on a global scale but also because securing a more efficient food supply matters to the country’s future—the Government of Japan enacted legislation in May that aims to cut the loss.
And businesses are cooperating. Seven-Eleven Japan Co., Ltd. and Lawson Inc. announced shortly after that they would discount onigiri (rice balls) and obento (lunch boxes) nearing expiration. It was a move that could be implemented using traditional labels, but could be enhanced by the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, a technology that originated in World War II but has become a key part of modern inventory management.
RFID tags are small labels that use electromagnetic fields to provide data to other devices, such as smartphones. Unlike barcodes, they need not be in the scanning device’s line of sight.
In 2017, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) launched a project to promote the use of these tags by retailers. Five major convenience store chains—7-11, FamilyMart, Lawson, NewDays, and Ministop, which is owned by retail giant Aeon Co., Ltd.—have agreed to introduce RFID tags on all their products by 2025. That’s a huge step forward, as the number of items sold by the five companies total some 100 billion annually.
With 55,743 convenience stores in Japan as of December 2018, rollout of RFID technology in these small centers of daily life could bring big results.
One company leading the way is Glendale, Calif.-based Avery Dennison. The packaging and technology company has developed a range of RFID-based solutions aimed at the food industry under the Freshmarx solutions name.
Of particular note in terms of food waste are Temp Tracker—a cloud-based application that allows stores and kitchens to monitor temperatures in storage environments to prevent inventory loss, optimize staff efficiency, and improve customer safety—and Food Waste Tracker, which allows businesses to do what the name says. Specifically, the solution logs and tracks the root causes of food waste and provides data that can be analyzed to enhance reduction efforts and align business operations with community and environmental goals.
Doing so makes business sense. A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, a 2016 study by ReFED, a collaboration of more than 30 business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States, found that waste tracking and analytics could bring restaurants an extra $620 million in profit annually.
RFID technology can help stores better track which items will soon expire so that they can provide incentives to buyers. For example, the price could be steadily lowered automatically as the expiration date approaches. Avery Dennison estimates that, by reducing the number of items that are thrown away because they are past date, RFID could cut food loss at stores by as much as 20 percent.
But there have been challenges. With Japan’s focus on convenience stores, and foods that many consumers grab to eat on the run or during lunch breaks, the RFID tags must withstand heating in a microwave oven. There has been concern that the metals in the tags could spark when heated.
Such worry appears to be a thing of the past, however, thanks to a breakthrough by Avery Dennison. In January, after a decade of research, the company unveiled its WaveSafe tag, an RFID label that can withstand up to five minutes of heating in a 950-watt microwave oven.
These WaveSafe tags will be used on all items in the aforementioned stores that require heating. Their cost, however, has not been announced. METI has recommended that RFID tags be sold for no more than ¥1 each. Higher costs could present an obstacle to implementation, slowing the government’s plans to cut food waste and maintain operations of stores through more efficient inventory management as the workforce shrinks.
There is certainly incentive for manufacturers to make RFID tags easy to implement, however. The technology represents a big market—$4.91 billion globally in 2017, according to Stratistics Market Research Consulting Pvt Ltd., projected to reach $18.2 billion by 2026.
Another reason food is sometimes thrown out is that it has spoiled prematurely. An offshoot of RFID technology being developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aims to solve this problem by monitoring food for contamination. Called RFIQ, the technology makes use of the electromagnetic waves generated when an RFID tag powers up to capture data about the product to which the tag is attached. A machine learning model then analyzes that data to detect contaminants. This can be helpful both in store for inventory management and safety as well as at home, where consumers can better determine whether a product is still good rather than throwing it out.
In two trials, the MIT team was able to use RFIQ to identify tainted baby formula and fake alcohol with 96-percent and 97-percent accuracy, respectively. The wireless system can detect minute changes in the signals from RFID tags that show abnormal conditions inside the container.
Another example of how RFIQ could be used to prevent problems and deaths resulting from contamination is the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich., which began in 2014. A combination of RFID tags and RFIQ could have allowed easy detection of the elevated lead levels introduced to the city’s water supply.
One of the great things about RFIQ is that it works with the hundreds of billions of RFID tags already in place on products. The technology is not yet ready to deploy in the market, but the effectiveness and benefits are already clear.
Automatic for the People
Another goal of METI’s RFID plan is to ensure that convenience stores can continue to operate efficiently as the country finds itself with fewer workers.
In its 2017 "Declaration of Plan to Introduce 100 Billion Electronic Tags for Products in Convenience Stores Formulated," METI said: “The retail industry in Japan has been facing a labor shortage and an increase in labor costs affected by the impact of the declining birthrate. It also faces a variety of issues across its supply chains, including food loss and returned food, despite achieving highly efficient logistics through mass production and frequent deliveries. With the potential of causing an increase in the burden on onsite employees and in the cost of operations, companies in the retail industry have been undertaking a variety of measures to overcome the issues.”
Increased automation is one such measure, easily seen in many stores where self-checkout systems have replaced human clerks. While the experience may be less personal, it is more efficient—both for store operators and customers.
Combining RFID for inventory control with the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud-based technologies can help stores provide a consistent customer experience with fewer staff. Shifting the payment process to the consumer is part of that.
Panasonic Corporation has demonstrated two RFID-based checkout systems since 2017—one with Lawson and the other with Trial Company, Inc., a Fukuoka-based retail and distribution company.
In the Lawson tests, Panasonic showed its Regi-Robo automated system, which uses a smart basket that can read the RFID tags attached to products. When the shopper is finished filling it with items, the basket reads the tags, calculates the price, automatically settles the transaction, and places the items into plastic bags.
The trials were carried out in 2017 at the Panasonic-Mae location in Moriguchi, Osaka Prefecture—an experimental store supported by METI where technologies and techniques for the next-generation of convenience stores are being developed.
Panasonic said: “We have developed the Regi-Robo using our know-how for productivity enhancement in factories, mechatronics technology, and sensing technology, all of which we have accumulated in the manufacturing industry. The Regi-Robo is a customer-friendly self-checkout machine which will shorten customers’ time for settlements and operations at register counters.”
In 2018, Panasonic and Trial demonstrated what they called the industry’s first “RFID-based walkthrough automatic checkout solution” at Trial’s headquarters in Fukuoka. The system, which features Trial’s RFID tagging technology, functions in a similar way to the Regi-Robo, in that customers can walk through carrying a basket filled with RFID-tagged items. Using pre-approved payment methods, the system can complete the transaction itself, meaning there is little the customer needs to do and no staff are required.
Hiroyuki Aota, president of Panasonic Smart Factory Solutions Co., Ltd., said: “We are utilizing IoT and robotics technology to provide retail, distribution, and logistic solutions that help realize a better life and society. In 2017, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced its plans to introduce 100 billion electronic tags for products sold in convenience stores. With this tailwind, we are developing individual solutions that have the potential to become key solutions for the retail and distribution industry.”
While not the only technology that can enable such automation for improved retail management and customer experience, RFID’s proven track record and versatility make it an ideal solution to the challenges now facing Japan.
Not only can RFID revolutionize inventory control and help improve food safety, it can help achieve the overarching goal of reducing food waste at the same time. And the combination of US and Japanese companies working to advance the technology highlight how the expertise of the two nations can be brought together to solve the problems of an aging society.
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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