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Container Company Puts Lid on Slip-Ups

With its RFID-based tracking system, U.K. container rental company pH Europe not only boosted container utilization but also improved customer satisfaction and gained the ability to offer new services.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mar 14, 2005Three years ago, pH Europe, a U.K.-based container rental company, needed a way to keep better tabs on its fleet of rental containers and pallets and to make its rental processes more efficient. By August 2004, the company had an RFID-based real-time locating system (RTLS) that was streamlining its operations by giving it visibility into the availability of its containers and ensuring that once the containers are returned, they are prepared for service and redeployed as quickly as possible. A few months after implementing its system, pH Europe began receiving inquiries by other companies that were interested in using radio frequency identification to track goods. As a result, pH Europe now provides new service offerings that can combine RFID, GPS and bar code data into a real-time location system for tracking assets across a supply chain—giving pH Europe improved customer retention and new sources of revenue.

From its 25,000-square foot-warehouse in Blyton, England, pH Europe leases out intermediate bulk containers (IBCs), which include large stainless steel or plastic drums that hold up to 200 liters, as well as folding plastic pallets. Its customers, including GlaxoSmithKline and Sun Chemical, use the IBCs to transport pharmaceutical and chemical products, some of which are hazardous or must be kept within strict temperature ranges. Because many of these products are volatile, they must be placed in containers made of specific materials. Often a container used to carry one product cannot be reused to carry another, even after cleaning, to avoid the risk of contamination. So finding a tracking system that would ensure that these specialty containers were rented out properly was a high priority.

pH Europe provides customers such as GlaxoSmithKline with intermediate bulk containers

In 2002, when the rental company started looking into ways of automating the tracking of its containers and pallets, it applied for and was awarded a government grant called the Knowledge Transfer Partnership. Part of a collaborative effort between the U.K. government and Glasgow Caledonian University's School of the Built and Natural Environment, the grant is designed to foster collaboration between research-based and commercial institutions in order to develop business-related, technology-focused projects. The grant accounted for about 30 percent of the total financial investment that pH Europe has put into its RFID hybrid tracking system, and the company says that the school's expertise and perspective on the project has been highly valuable.

Ivelina Ivanova, then a research associate at the university with a strong background in supply chain and enterprise resource planning, was assigned leader of the Knowledge Transfer Partnership with pH Europe. She assembled a group consisting of pH Europe executives and colleagues from the School of the Built and Natural Environment to devise a technology framework around pH Europe's central goal: to be able to quickly locate—optimally in real-time—containers in its container warehouse.

But pH Europe also knew that there could be value in extending whatever tracking system they would deploy to its customers—many of whom not only rent but also own large fleets of containers. If a client could tap into pH Europe's container-locating system and add the same hardware infrastructure to its own facilities, it could know the location of all of the IBCs under its lease in real-time. This could help the client avoid fees relating to late or lost containers. And it could be a great value-added, opt-in service or product that could give ph Europe a new stream of revenue and a competitive advantage.

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