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RFID Cooks Up Tray Visibility for Chicago Bakery

Alpha Baking Co. is identifying the routes on which reusable trays are delayed or lost, enabling it to take corrective actions that ultimately result in significant cost savings.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 19, 2011Alpha Baking Co. has begun employing passive EPC Gen 2 RFID tags to track the shipping and return of some of the trays in which its bakery products are transported, thereby affording it visibility into how long it takes for the trays to pass through its depots and routes to customers, as well as when particular trays do not return. By using RFID technology, the company is able to identify on which routes trays end up missing, and thus take corrective actions in order to ensure that the trays return in a timely manner. Alpha's reusable-tray provider, Orbis, is providing the baking company with trays fitted with passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 labels, provided by The Kennedy Group, which also supplied Alpha with RFID readers, ePReusable software and integration and installation services. The solution was first deployed as a pilot in January of this year, and was trialed for approximately nine months before Alpha opted to make the installation permanent.

Without an RFID system, a company has little visibility into where trays are located, or which customers have them, and thus can not ensure that the trays are returned, says Bob McGuire, Alpha Baking Co.'s VP and director of logistics, as well as the chairman of the American Bakers Association's Fleet and Distribution Committee. Although each tray is valued at only about $5, the company utilizes more than 350,000 trays, so the cost of replacing large number of lost trays can be significant. What's more, the company incurs a high number of associated expenses when it lacks a sufficient amount of trays at specific locations and times.

Orbis attached RFID labels to approximately 35,000 of Alpha's reusable plastic shipping trays.
Based in Chicago, Alpha Baking Co. is one of the United States' largest providers of specialty bakery items, selling its breads, rolls and buns in 11 Midwestern states, with four bakeries and 15 depots through which the products are transported before being driven by truck to restaurants, stores and other customers. At the bakeries, workers load the company's products onto reusable plastic trays that are then stacked on pallets. When the loaded pallets arrive at one of Alpha's depots, the trays are often removed from the pallets, and are then loaded onto trucks for delivery to customers. Each route driver later returns to the customers' sites to retrieve the empty trays and return them to the depot. The empty trays are then transported back to the bakeries for reuse. The company must purchase additional trays when the numbers dwindle, as some simply never return—though the firm previously lacked a means of determining the exact number that failed to be returned, or the point at which they went missing.

Alpha Baking Co.'s Bob McGuire
There are many opportunities for trays to become lost, McGuire says. Drivers from other bakeries or food companies may accidentally pick them up, they may be discarded when a driver fails to return promptly, or they may be stolen—thieves often take plastic items in order to sell them to recycling centers. Therefore, Alpha sought a system that would enable it to know where trays were sent, the party responsible for them, and how long they took to return—or if they were never returned at all.

The solution consists of RFID readers installed at portals through which loaded trays on pallets are rolled on their way to a truck. Two UHF Gen 2 passive RFID tags are attached to each plastic tray, according to Patrick Kennedy, The Kennedy Group's VP of marketing and sales; to date, approximately 10 percent of the company's trays have been tagged. Now that the pilot is complete, says Bob Klimko, Orbis' director of retail supply chain marketing, the baking company intends to continue tagging all of its new trays, with the goal of achieving 100 percent RFID coverage of the trays once all old, non-tagged trays have been replaced due to wear or loss.

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