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RFID Raises Profits at Plant Nursery

After developing and deploying an RFID system to track trays of seedlings at its own greenhouse, Knox Nursery plans to market the solution to other plant growers as well.
By Claire Swedberg
May 29, 2009Since late fall 2008 Knox Nursery, located in Winter Garden, Fla., has been using an RFID system that is working so well, its creators at the nursery—together with enterprise software and services company BizSpeed—have begun marketing it to other commercial plant growers and wholesalers. The Grower's Own RFID-based system is commercially available now, while an upgraded version with additional features is slated to become available in the third quarter of 2009.

Knox Nursery grows seedlings that it sells to wholesalers and retailers that, in turn, raise the plants until they are large enough for the consumer market. During busy seasons, the company typically sells as many as 30,000 trays of seedlings per week. The nursery employs RFID to identify the disposable plastic trays it sows with seeds—mostly floral annuals, as well as some herbs—then uses the technology to track the inventory and movement of those trays throughout its 13-acre greenhouse, and to expedite the shipping of seedlings to its customers.

Handheld interrogator for reading tray tags

Without RFID, Knox says, the process of growing the seedlings and preparing them for shipment is daunting. Knox and similar nurseries often plant approximately 20 percent more of a product than they require, in order to account for any loss during the growing process, thus making it that much more difficult to track their product. Because it has a short shelf life, much of the product excess is often discarded. In addition, identifying which types of seedlings are on any particular tray can be hard to do simply by looking at them. Some nurseries use bar-coded labels to track their trays. Knox Nursery has done so as well, says Eric Claiborne, the company's manager of information systems and the lead developer of Grower's Own, but the bar-code system proved to be problematic.

"It was one headache after another," Claiborne says. Soil or water often covered the bar-coded labels, which were not all located in the same spot on each tray, and in some cases, plants could grow over the bar-code labels as well. All of this, he notes, reduced the rate of successful bar-code scans, making it challenging for workers to identify the trays. In 2006, Claiborne began conducting research into RFID, though he could not find anyone with the specific knowledge of the technology to help him.

Eric Claiborne, Knox's manager of information systems

When Claiborne contacted Chris Henry, BizSpeed's CEO and cofounder, in 2006, they had phone conversation that lasted several hours, leading to a one-week pilot that involved the application of RFID tags to trays that were then tracked through the shipping process. After that pilot's conclusion, Claiborne began installing the Grower's Own system one phase at a time, positioning a total of eight Motorola XR400 and XR440 fixed RFID interrogators at various points within the greenhouse. By October 2008, the company had reached full deployment, with every tray tagged and read multiple times before it is shipped.

The trays are first put to use when an order comes in for specific plant seedlings. At that time, employees enter data regarding each tray's order number and the variety to be sown in that tray, then a Zebra Technologies printer and tag application system prints and applies an adhesive label containing an Avery Dennison AD-223 EPC Gen 2 RFID inlay to the edge of the tray.

Each label has information written on the front, including the order number and a bar-coded serial number. To encode the label's RFID inlay, Henry explains, Knox utilizes a system specially designed by Knox and BizSpeed that automatically scans the bar-coded serial number and writes it to the RFID inlay, then verifies that the inlay was encoded correctly and sends a confirmation to the Grower's Own software system (using an MS SQL server for storage) via an Ethernet connection.

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