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Auchan Tracks Produce Containers Via RFID

The French supermarket employs EPC Gen 2 tags and readers to track 1.8 million plastic reusable containers moving through the supply chain.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 04, 2011French supermarket company Auchan Group will use radio frequency identification to manage its 1.8 million reusable plastic produce crates as they move from grower to distribution center (DC) to store, and through the washing process. The RFID solution, developed and implemented at Auchan's produce DCs over the past two years, is intended to provide the firm with an eye on its leased containers, and with proof that they are being moved in a timely fashion, and washed according to European Union (EU) requirements. The technology, including tags, readers, software and installation, is provided by Orange Business Services, part of France Télécom. The EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags and readers were manufactured by IER.

With approximately 1,317 stores, Auchan Group is the world's 12th largest food retail group. In 2007, the company chose to phase out the system of cardboard and wooden crates and pallets that it had been using, and switch to reusable plastic containers. That, says François Laveissière, the director of IT innovation for Auchan's hypermarkets division, would help the firm reduce the amount of necessary storage space (the wooden pallets and crates are bulkier than the plastic containers), better protect the fruits and vegetables loaded into the containers, and provide a more attractive-looking presentation in a store when produce is placed directly on the sales floor, in its container, for customers to buy.

At Auchan's stores, staff members will use handhelds to read the containers' tags, thereby documenting each container's arrival and departure.

The company rents its reusable plastic containers from logistics provider Cogit LGC. However, Laveissière says, the containers are moved to many stores and distribution centers throughout France and Spain, and thus often seemed to end up lost or stolen—and were difficult to trace when this occurred. In addition, an EU regulation requires that those utilizing such reusable containers prove that they are washing and sanitizing them after each use. Without an automated tracking method, it was hard to determine whether every container completed that process before being reused.

To address this problem, Laveissière says, Auchan decided to attach RFID tags to the containers, and began working with Orange Business Services to develop an RFID solution that would allow the company to locate its containers, but not require employees to scan bar-coded labels, which would be tedious and time-consuming due to the large numbers of containers in use at any given time.

Auchan installed RFID readers alongside its loading bays' doorways, in order to record the arrival and departure of its containers.

Before an RFID system could be taken live, however, Auchan and Orange Business Services began testing the technology to locate the best positioning for the RFID tags. The two companies determined that the best arrangement was to have Cogit place a pair of adhesive UHF Gen 2 passive tags on the front and back of each container, one tag per side. "It was very important to ensure we had a 100 percent read rate," Laveissière states. To date, the companies have achieved an approximate 98 percent read rate.

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