Livingston Co. company's system tracks produce

 Technology helps companies minimize the scope of a recall

By Mike Lammi
Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (Howell)

HOWELL, Mich. (AP) — A Livingston County company’s work has made it safer for you to bite into that apple or enjoy that salad for lunch.

ToolWorx Information Products Inc. recently was awarded a patent for its SmartVision system, which is used to keep track of fresh produce from the field to store shelves across the nation.

“You don’t hear about them, but recalls are happening every day, all the time,” Ed Weber, co-owner of ToolWorx, north of Brighton, told the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus. “The ones that make the news are the really bad ones where you have a lot of people dying and getting sick.”

The SmartVision system uses a camera and a smart printer made by Washington state-based Intermec Inc. to label boxes of produce from the moment they are picked in the field.

“Our applications are really involved more in lot traceability and error-proofing,” Weber said. “You want to make sure that the right information is on that label, on that container. Our focus is basically to help companies minimize the scope of a recall, if there is one.”

Weber and Brad Oyster have owned ToolWorx since 1999, two years after it was founded.

The company writes software primarily designed for labeling in the produce industry and for other manufacturing and packaging companies.

“I would say 50 percent of our clients are in the food industry,” said Weber, adding that the company has about 450 clients and annual sales in the “$2 million to $5 million range.”

Weber said ToolWorx saw an opportunity in 2009 when the Produce Traceability Initiative was formed by groups in the produce industry. He was part of a work group that studied the issue.

“They decided they needed to label every carton. Then they decided everybody’s going to scan it on inbound and everybody’s going to scan it on outbound, so you know where you got it from and who you sent it to,” Weber explained.

In the event of a recall due to contaminated produce, ToolWorx’s tracking system can identify exactly where it has been and where it came from.

Weber said the movement to improve tracking and labeling in the produce industry will get an even bigger boost with Walmart’s heightened support of the Produce Traceability Initiative. The nation’s largest retailer recently announced that effective Nov. 1, all fresh produce delivered to its distribution centers will be required to have standardized case labels, consistent with PTI standards.

ToolWorx’s SmartVision technology is used by harvesters right in the field as produce is boxed.

“You always want to apply the label as close to production or packing as possible, because that reduces the chance of error, of mixing things up,” Weber said.

That philosophy translates to other manufacturing and packaging industries, too, including auto parts and medical supplies. ToolWorx has worked with several big companies including Dole, Chrysler and FedEx, as well as local companies such as Transtar Autobody Technologies in Brighton.

ToolWorx has also designed technology that can help companies eliminate shipping errors, control inventory and track returnable containers, among other things.

Weber said ToolWorx software helps reduce human error and brings traceability to products, which ultimately means more safety for consumers.

“When you’re driving a car, you have confidence that car won’t fall apart. But if something does happen to it, if something does explode or catch fire, you want to know that it’s something they are going to be able to catch to prevent other people from getting hurt as well,” he said. “That’s what our company is all about — helping those companies trace back and maintain that chain of safety.”