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Australian Cotton Gin Tracks Product to Boost Efficiency

RFID tags embedded in bundles of unprocessed cotton bolls help Southern Cotton track when it receives, stores and gins those bundles, and the company then shares that data with growers.
By Claire Swedberg

Growers harvest cotton in their fields (known as paddocks in Australia) and bundle the bolls into modules, which are then delivered to the gin with the intention of filling a specific customer's contract. It is important that customers receive the correct bales of cotton as ordered, since cotton may be contracted up to four years in advance.

Once a cotton module is ready for processing, it is placed into the gin, the wrapper is removed, and the cotton is cleaned and molded into bales. To ensure that every cotton bale is properly identified when it is loaded onto a customer's truck, employees at cotton gins often attach a printed serial number to each bale, which must be checked against the serial number of the cotton module first delivered by the grower.

Kate O'Callaghan, Southern Cotton's general manager, surrounded by cotton modules
"We realized it doesn't make sense to assign a [printed serial] number," O'Callaghan explains, "when there's already one in the wrap that's rich with data." O'Callaghan is referring to the ID number encoded to each passive UHF RFID tag embedded in the plastic sheeting used by the 7760 Cotton Picker to bundle up each module.

So Southern Cotton hired a contractor to develop software to use the information already provided by the John Deere system, and to manage that data onsite. Prior to opening its gin, the company set up its own test area in which it attached RFID readers and antennas to a cotton scale and gin, then tested how well the tags could be interrogated, as well as how well the software—created for Southern Cotton by a local software company—could capture, store and share that data.

In 2012, Southern Cotton went live with its ginning operation, with the RFID functionality built in. The solution consists of Impinj Speedway Revolution UHF RFID readers built into the weighing scale, the circular gin and a motorized vehicle known as a "moon buggy" that not only transports bales but drives through the yard.

When Southern Cotton receives a delivery of modules from a grower, the modules are driven onto a scale in order to determine their exact weight. At that time, the product's weight, as well as information from the 7760 John Deere picker HIDC system—related to that grower, the variety of cotton and the fields where it originated—is stored in the John Deere software, along with the unique ID number on each wrap's RFID tag, which is forwarded to Southern Cotton's software.

The modules are then stored in the yard according to the grower and the cotton variety. To ensure that the modules are delivered to the proper location for storage, the buggy drives through four blocks each containing 29 rows of modules, reading every tag as it passes. That data is forwarded to Southern Cotton's software on its own dedicated server, and the software can then identify any issues that need to be addressed, such as a missing module, or one that has been stored in the incorrect location. Southern Cotton's workers can then correct the problem, ensuring that no mistakes are made prior to the ginning process, such as the wrong cotton being ginned for a given customer. The process also prevents any incidents of missing modules at the time that they are required for ginning.

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