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Tracking Products to Thwart Thieves

To reduce losses and boost efficiency, Woolworths has launched a pilot that uses RFID and other technologies to track products through the supply chain.
The first project back in 1999 convinced the company that it didn't make economic sense to track individual items. So for this pilot, O'Neill decided to tag roll cages and dollies, which carry reusable containers that are shipped to the store. He wanted to separate the technology issues from the business issues so he decided to use technologies that had been used elsewhere before. But, the system that was devised includes a unique combination of technologies, which provide complete visibility.


A tagged dolly
Many people considering implementing RFID in the supply chain believe one type of tag and one type of reader will be sufficient. That is rarely ever the case in a complex supply chain. O'Neill designed a system that uses short-, medium- and long-range readers, as well as GPS and other technologies to provide the total visibility he was looking for.

At Woolworths' national distribution center in Swindon, employees pick items ordered by the stores and place them into plastic tote boxes (which can be shrink-wrapped if they contain high-value items). The items are gathered using a pick-by-light system that results in better than 99 percent accuracy. All of the tote boxes have bar codes. The ones going to the same store are scanned and put on dollies. In the past, the dollies had no unique identifier. For the pilot, Woolworths put Savi EchoPoint active (battery-powered) RFID tags on the dollies to track each one individually. The active tags provide a longer read range than passive tags, which draw power from the reader.

The dollies are scanned as they move toward the dispatch bay. A short-range device, called a SignPost, that is located under the track emits a low-frequency signal that wakes up the active tags, which are read by long-range readers installed in the rafters of the building (they can read tags from up to 100 meters away). The software system associates the bar codes that were scanned on the totes with the RFID tag on the dolly. So now the company knows which items were put in specific totes and which specific totes were put on a specific dolly.

Woolworths tied Savi's SmartChain real-time logistics platform in with its transport planning system. So the company knows which vehicle is in the dispatch bay at a given time and where that vehicle is supposed to go. Medium-range SignPost readers, which can wake up a tag from about 20 feet, were installed over the dispatch bays. When the dispatch bay team loads dollies onto a vehicle, the tags on the dollies are activated and read, and the system compares the ID numbers to the truck's delivery instructions. If the wrong dollies are being loaded, the system alerts staff to that fact.

Once the vehicle has been loaded with the right dollies, the doors on the truck are closed and an encrypted seal, which generates a random number, is placed on the doors. (The company is considering using electronic seals.) The seal has a four-digit number that the driver punches into his handheld computer. The vehicle is now ready to make its first delivery.

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