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Container Centralen Adds Active Tags to U.S. Carts

The horticultural logistics company is installing 150 RFID readers at nurseries, greenhouses and fields, as well as at its depots, to track the whereabouts of 250,000 metal carts.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 30, 2009The U.S. division of European horticultural logistics firm Container Centralen (CC) has begun fitting 250,000 of its metal carts with active RFID tags so they can be tracked at 150 locations throughout the United States. The deployment includes the installation of RFID readers at remote farms, nurseries and greenhouses throughout the country, says Sonny Costin, Container Centralen's president. In that way, the firm will be able to know where its carts are at any given time, as well as when they are moved, thus ensuring more efficient cart use.

Fluensee is installing the readers, which are being supplied by RF Code, and is providing the software CC will use to consolidate and analyze data from the RFID tags and readers. Mitch Medford, RF Code's CEO, believes that once the system goes live, in February 2010, it may be the largest deployment of active RFID tags to date within the United States.

The carts, composed of galvanized steel, measure 53 inches wide, 22 inches deep and 6.5 feet tall. Each cart sits on rubber wheels and contains one to 12 shelves. The supply chain of Container Centralen's carts is complex, and the process of tracking those assets requires bar-code scanning and multiple reports over the Internet, to update dispatchers as to the carts' locations. The carts are typically shipped from one of the company's 40 U.S. depots directly to a grower's site, where they are then loaded with plants and transported to a large retailer location. Once there, the carts are used as display fixtures, and gradually become emptied as consumers remove products for purchase.

Once all of the plants are sold, the carts are picked up by the grower for reuse, by another grower, or by a third-party logistics provider to be returned to one of CC's depots. Often, one company may pick up carts from multiple growers and retailers. The growers pay rent for the carts while using them, so it is essential to track who has possession of each cart at all times. Most of that information is tracked with bar-code scans by Container Centralen's staff, at its depots and at the sites of its customers—plant growers. Tracking the carts is so important to Container Centralen—and so time-consuming, in the case of using bar-code scanners to identify large volumes of carts—that the company stations its own employees at some customer sites in order to obtain that information. In addition, customers send cart information to Container Centralen over the Internet.

When the firm began seeking a better solution for tracking its carts two years ago, it faced several challenges. Many of its customers are in remote locations, in some cases without Internet access or power. While Container Centralen has been utilizing passive RFID tags for tracking its carts throughout Europe, such a solution would not work in the United States, Costin says, because of the nature of American horticultural facilities. Although carts of plants in Europe can be passed through narrow portals and easily read by ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID interrogators, many growers in the United States load trucks from large concrete warehouses with wide dock doors, making it difficult to read passive tags automatically across such a large distance.

When the company began making plans for an active RFID solution with RF Code and Fluensee, approximately 18 months ago, RF Code tagged 20 carts, which were then transported to a grower in Texas. There, the carts were loaded with plants taken directly out of the field, and the tags were read by a reader installed at that site.

Fluensee is currently in the process of attaching a 433 MHz RF Code tag to the bottom of each cart, between its wheels. The tags are about the size of two matchboxes, and employ a proprietary air-interface protocol to transmit a unique ID number at a rate of once every two minutes. Fluensee is also installing readers at 150 sites throughout the United States. Forty of those sites are Container Centralen's depots, Costin says, while the rest belong to the company's plant-growing customers. Installing the readers provided the greatest challenge, Medford notes.

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