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Dutch Horticultural Supply Chain Tests RFID "From Plant to Customer"

Growers, exporters and shippers are using EPC RFID tags to track the location of each tray of plants, ensure the accuracy of shipments and reduce labor.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 28, 2010An ambitious pilot in the Netherlands, known as "van Plant tot Klant" (From Plant to Customer), is testing how well RFID technology can be used to reduce labor and increase the efficiency and accuracy of the shipment of potted plants throughout Europe. The Florilog Foundation (which aims to improve the horticultural supply chain by developing projects focused on gaining efficiency), located in Honselersdijk, is funding the project on behalf of Productschap Tuinbouw, a Dutch association consisting of members of the horticulture industry. The system, provided by Interaxi, includes EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to track trays of plants from two growers in the Netherlands, through the hands of logistics providers and exporters, to transport companies' distribution centers, before the trays are then shipped to retailers.

The Dutch plant industry is seeking an automated system that would save space and time for members of the products' supply chain, while also reducing errors. RFID, the project's participants believe, offers an option by which tags on plant trays and trolleys could be read without manual intervention, thereby saving workers time that would otherwise be spent confirming orders and manually writing down order numbers of arriving and departing shipments.

Metal trolleys used for transporting potted plants were fitted with Omni-ID Flex EPC Gen 2 RFID tags.

The project, which began in the first quarter of 2009, includes two growers: Oriental Group, which grows bonsai, bamboo and other plants found in Asia, and Zuydgeest de Lier, which grows Calandiva (a Kalanchoe cultivar) and other flowering plants, all of which are purchased by buyers throughout Europe. Zuydgeest and Oriental Group ship plants from their greenhouses to a DC operated by logistics-management firm Sierteelt Direct, in the neighboring city of Naaldwijk. At Sierteelt's DC, the plants are sorted according to orders, and are then transported to exporters such as Hamiplant (each exporter ships product to different parts of Europe, such as France or Germany). The exporters' employees then rebuild the trolleys according to specific orders, and transport companies, such as Breewel Transport (which is also participating in the RFID pilot), pick up the plants via truck and transport them to retailers throughout Europe. In some cases, such as with shipments sent to Paris, the product is further broken down into smaller shipments at a DC, and then loaded onto smaller trucks for delivery to specific city neighborhoods.

Often with little understanding of what is happening with supply chain partners, logistics firms, exporters or transport companies can be taken by surprise when multiple orders arrive unexpectedly, or fail to arrive when expected. The plants must move quickly through the supply chain, and a lack of information communicated between supply chain partners can cause delays, as well as excessive labor costs to keep up with the unpredictable need throughout the day for manpower to process the plants as they arrive or need to be shipped.

For the Plant to Customer project, participants employed RFID to help them track the locations of shipped plants, and to share information regarding the receipt and subsequent release of each tray of potted plants to the next recipient, on a server hosted by Interaxi. For plants being shipped to those pilot participants, the two growers applied passive UPM Raflatac EPC Gen 2 RFID tags to plastic trays on which plants are placed Those trays are then put onto wheeled metal trolleys, explains Erik Heemskerk, Interaxi's new business developer. The trolleys themselves also have an Omni-ID Flex EPC Gen 2 tag attached to the center front of the bottom shelf. When loading plants onto trays, employees at Zuydgeest or Oriental Group manually enter a description of the order in the van Plant tot Klant system, linking that description with the ID number on the tray's tag and the trolley tag, after which the tags are printed on an RFID label printer and stickered on the trays.

As the trolleys are loaded onto trucks destined for Sierteelt Direct, they pass through a Motorola RFID portal (each portal consists of one reader and eight antennas—four on each side of the dock doors), capturing the IDs encoded to the trolley and tray tags, and transmitting that data via a cabled connection to Interaxi's software, which links each ID number with a date and time stamp. Interaxi's software platform uses Microsoft Silverlight for the user interface, and Microsoft BizTalk Server RFID 2009 for the storage of and access to information on Interaxi's own server.

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