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Rugged Computing Case Studies

Turning a Cool Profit with Rugged Mobile Computers — A meat distribution company improves quality control in refrigerated storage facilities
by Brynna King

Even small environmental changes can make an enormous difference when it comes to food preservation. For food distributors, a storage and transportation climate that's just one degree too warm or a few percentage points too dry can compromise the quality of deliverables — and impact revenue.

But meat distributor Fridosa, based in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, has discovered a way to monitor and minimize climatic impact on its products. Using the Nautiz X3, a rugged, pocket-sized field computer and imager from Handheld Group, inventory employees can easily maintain a detailed product database that bolsters quality control efforts, resulting in a better product for consumers and saving Fridosa valuable time while preserving profits.

Fridosa is Bolivia's largest meat-product exporter. Its offerings include cuts of meat, burgers, breaded meat, sausages and potato snacks. Since starting operations in 1993, it has grown to employ more than 400 people, sources cattle from 300 suppliers and holds accounts with large companies such as McDonald's and Burger King.

In order to continue in its tradition of offering high-quality meat products, Fridosa's quality control staff track and record the weight of meat products along its supply chain. This is an effective way to identify a compromised storage environment, because meat undergoes surface drying and shrinkage when it's exposed to fluctuating temperatures and humidity conditions. While a minimal amount of shrinkage is considered normal, weight loss above a certain threshold indicates a climatic problem that needs to be corrected.

Fridosa employees used to track inventory and quality control data by hand. Then they introduced a computer-based inventory management system. This system saved time by eliminating paperwork and manual calculations — but it also introduced some significant problems of its own. Because while cuts of meat thrive in extremely cold, humid environments, most computers do not.

A tough "cold chain" climate

"The main challenges consumer computers face in very cold environments are air condensation inside the equipment, and interrupted operation," says Eduardo Arce, project manager at Neologic, an information technology provider and Handheld reseller in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Fridosa maintains its storage conditions at 90 to 95 percent humidity, with temperatures between 0 and 3 degrees Celsius (32 and 37 degrees Fahrenheit) for refrigerated products and as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit) for frozen products.

Humidity and condensation from fluctuating temperatures — such as entering and exiting a cold storage locker — can cause harmful electrical shorts inside computer equipment, and extreme cold dramatically shortens the life of conventional computer batteries.

"We tried to implement automated controls with conventional computer equipment. But this equipment did not resist the extreme environmental conditions at the facility, and it deteriorated very quickly," says Oscar Aguilera, Fridosa's systems manager.

A cut above the rest

Frustrated with conventional computer equipment and unwilling to return to manual inventory control, Aguilera and his team contacted Neologic to discuss rugged computer options. Fridosa needed a computer with barcode-scanning functionality, one that performs reliably in humidity and low temperatures and communicates wirelessly with other computer equipment.

"Neologic provided us with quotes from different brands, and we found that the Nautiz X3 fit our needs best in terms of features and price," Aguilera says.

The Nautiz X3 is small and easy to operate in one hand. It is built specifically for rugged applications in the world's toughest environments, meeting U.S. military standards for withstanding extreme temperatures, humidity, repeated drops and vibrations. Its IP65 rating means it's also sealed against dust and water exposure — valuable qualities in an industrial environment. This data collector comes standard with a built-in barcode scanner, and its battery lasts all day on a single charge.

Fridosa's operational staff began using a Nautiz X3 unit in its production facilities. After a trial period, the company decided to purchase five additional units. Aguilera says operating the units is easy, and the technology works seamlessly within Fridosa's existing IT environment.

Better quality control with rugged technology

When animal shipments from local ranchers arrive at Fridosa's facility, they are loaded into refrigerated chambers, processed into four pieces and labeled. Inventory employees use the Nautiz X3's barcode scanner to read tags affixed to each piece, recording identification information into a database. The pieces are then weighed and digital scales send weight data to Fridosa's server. The Nautiz X3 reads this data from the server and stores it locally.

The weigh-in process is repeated before meat is dispatched to vehicles for distribution. At any time, inventory employees can view animal identification information, the type of cut, the weight, and the date and time of each scan, directly on the Nautiz X3. The Nautiz X3 and Fridosa's local database communicate back and forth to store all this information in the company's enterprise resource planning (ERP) software program.

Because employees can identify any excessive product shrinkage at multiple points during processing and storage, Fridosa is able to better control its cold storage environments to deliver the most optimal products possible. Cuts of meat maintain better coloring, appearance, texture and flavor in these conditions — and since meat is priced by weight, preserving the mass of each piece also preserves Fridosa's bottom line.

"With the Nautiz X3, we have created a better inventory control system, and we have experienced significant savings with better shrinkage control for our products," Aguilera says. "Additionally, we have gained efficiency by shortening the time it takes to carry out the control process. We plan to purchase more units soon."

"The use of the Nautiz X3 units has allowed Fridosa to add a specific procedure for shrinkage control, further improving the quality of its products and the efficiency of its operations," Arce says.

Already a success story in the food industry, Fridosa's smart efforts to improve its processes show that preservation truly is an art form — whether you're preserving the food products you sell, or valuable commodities such as time and revenue.

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