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Metro Moves Tagging Up the Supply Chain

The German retailer is having its Chinese supply chain partners apply passive tags to cases of goods and active tags to cargo containers, as part of a test to identify and reduce delays and bottlenecks.
By Laurie Sullivan
Dec 06, 2006Metro Group is using RFID to speed up the movement of goods being shipped from Asia to Europe.

Known for its technology innovations, the German retailer is testing active RFID tags affixed to shipping containers carrying nonperishable items from a consolidation center in Hong Kong to a distribution center in Germany. Metro's Advanced Logistics Asia project relies on both active and passive RFID technologies. Active RFID tags are being applied to shipping containers, while passive tags are being affixed to cartons and cases packed inside those containers.

Since September, Fat Kee Stevedores' consolidation center in Hong Kong has been applying passive tags to cases of goods, loading those cases into cargo containers, which it seals by means of active tags. The cargo moves through the Hutchinson Port Holdings terminal in the Port of Hong Kong, to the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the Port of Duisburg in Germany and, finally, to Metro's distribution center in Unna, Germany.

At each port along the route, RFID interrogators read the container tags and record the cargo's arrival. The tags are also equipped with intrusion sensors that can trigger an alert to a shipping manager's PC or portable device, such as a Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry or a Palm Treo, indicating the container was opened during transit. Additionally, the tags can be programmed to trigger an audio or visual warning, such as a blinking light or siren, alerting nearby people.

Currently, according to Susan Evans, Savi Networks' director of business development for Europe and Africa, shippers typically secure cargo containers by means of mechanical seals consisting of a metal bolt. In the future, RFID tags could be used instead, says Metro spokesman Christian Maas. "Savi Technology offers several interesting possibilities for supply chain improvement," he says. "Currently, we are testing ways we can benefit" from RFID for shipping containers in transit.

Metro Group Buying Hong Kong (MGB Hong Kong), a business unit formed in 2002 to manage the retailer's procurement and imports activity, is overseeing the project. This project uses SaviTrack, a Web-based information service that provides a real-time view of supply chain events. The service is run by Savi Networks, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin subsidiary Savi Technology and Hutchison Port Holdings.

The project represents a major move in Metro's step toward expanding visibility up the supply chain, Evans says, to have suppliers apply passive tags to cases of products and load them into RFID-tagged shipping containers at the companies' manufacturing sites. "The next step is to tag containers and product at the manufacturing sites in China," she says. "The original plan was to begin reading tags in China, but it took time to get some frequency approvals, so the project will move there next month."

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