Carlsberg UK Expands RFID Keg-Tracking System

By Claire Swedberg

The beer and cider brewer expects to tag a total of 600,000 kegs, using RFID to create a record of which empty kegs are onsite, which have been filled and shipped, and how long they remain at a customer's site.

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Brewing company Carlsberg UK is expanding its RFID-based solution that captures and manages data related to the movements of its Somersby Cider kegs, to include a percentage of all the beer kegs it sends to, and receives from, distributors and customers. The system is provided by Kegspertise, a West Yorkshire, England, business that provides tracking services for kegs and casks.

Throughout the past year, the brewer has been filling kegs—approximately 80,000 altogether—of its new cider product at its Northampton location, and then tracking them via radio frequency identification. Based on the results of that installation, the company is now rolling the system out to include all new kegs purchased for containerizing beer, while also retrofitting its existing beer keg inventory with EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags.

Each Carlsberg UK keg is being fitted with an HID Global Inline Tag Ultra Curve passive EPC Gen RFID tag.

Managing reusable kegs poses a challenge for brewers. The metal containers are typically valued at around $100 or more apiece, and tens or hundreds of thousands can be in the supply chain at any given time—either being shipped to or from a customer, or in use at a customer’s place of business. Because the kegs belong to the brewer, they should be returned there when empty, but in many cases, they do not make it back, and the brewer is unable to trace them. Therefore, the company simply purchases additional kegs—and thus often ends up with excess inventory—in order to cover seasonal fluctuation in demand, and to ensure that it never runs out when a new order comes in.

In 2002, a company called TrenStar offered a solution by purchasing beer kegs from brewers and managing the kegs via RFID, thereby providing a keg-management service to beer manufacturers (see TrenStar: RFID With Less Risk). TrenStar, which had initially envisioned providing services for the largest U.K. brewers, left the British market in 2007. In August 2008, an RFID software company called Fluensee—now known as TrackX—acquired TrenStar and began providing keg-tracking services, though not to U.K. clients (see Fluensee Purchases TrenStar).

The TrenStar solution employed passive low-frequency (LF) RFID tags, which had a short read range and thus required that each keg be scanned, one at a time, with fixed readers positioned on the filling lines, or via handheld readers. When TrenStar left the British market, U.K. brewers needed to find an alternate solution. “When TrenStar left the marketplace, it took skills the brewers had counted on,” says Andy Dorr, Kegspertise’s managing director and TrenStar’s former senior quality-assurance manager. Dorr is also chairman of the Keg and Cask Committee within the United Kingdom’s Brewing, Food & Beverage Industry Suppliers Association.

With the Kegspertise solution, brewers retain ownership of the kegs, and collect and manage information about those kegs themselves. Kegspertise provides the necessary software and hardware to enable this arrangement, using the technology to which the brewers are already accustomed: RFID. However, because it utilizes UHF RFID technology, the Kegspertise system allows users to read the tags from a greater distance, and in large volume. Users can employ a handheld, for example, to interrogate tags within a full trailer, or utilize fixed readers installed at vehicle entranceways, to automatically capture the ID number of each tagged keg as it passes through a portal. With a handheld or fixed reader, it is possible to read all of the tags aboard a vehicle loaded with up to 840 kegs.

Kegspertise began working with its first adopter, Carlsberg UK, early last year. At that time, Carlsberg UK was launching a Somersby Cider—a hard cider that bars and restaurants sell by the glass. Since the company was purchasing a new fleet of kegs for the cider, its managers opted to have the keg manufacturer simultaneously mount an HID Global Inline Tag Ultra Curve RFID tag to the top of each keg, so that the firm could begin using the technology in a limited way (on cider only), rather than immediately installing a solution for its many beer kegs. The cider within each keg has a shelf-life of about 12 months, meaning that the cider’s cycle time is longer than that of beer. So now, more than a year since the kegs were being shipped out, the brewer is beginning to retrieve complete cycle data regarding kegs that were shipped out and returned empty.

The initial data amounts to details about the number of kegs onsite and shipped out, as well as when kegs have not returned as expected. This information helps the company better manage how many more kegs to order. “In this way,” Dorr explains, “they’re able to intelligently forecast when kegs will be returned,” based on which kegs are shipped, and when this occurs, which also helps with reordering plans.

For now, the technology is being used to track kegs at only two locations: at the filling line, just before the kegs are filled with cider or beer, and at the strategic store (the storage site for empty kegs, located approximately three miles from the processing plant), where the empties await reuse after being returned by customers. Each time an empty keg is returned, it passes through a reader portal at the entrance gate, at which time the tag is interrogated and its ID number is captured and linked in the software to the specific keg’s shipping history. As the keg travels down the processing plant’s filling line for refilling, the tag is again read, in order to update its status as filled and ready for shipping.

Kegspertise installed its RFID reader portals on Carlsberg UK’s storage and production sites.

The tag, which measures 3.5 inches by 1.5 inches by 0.6 inch (88 millimeters by 37 millimeters by 14.5 millimeters), is encased in rugged protective plastic and is designed to be attached to curved metal surfaces. Carlsberg UK is using a variety of readers, Dorr notes, based on the locations where the tags are read, though he adds that Kegspertise designed the firmware installed on those readers to capture the unique ID encoded to each keg tag.

As the tags are read, the collected read data is sent via a wired connection to Kegspertise’s hosted server, which interprets and stores the information for Carlsberg UK. It can then provide information to Carlsberg UK, such as when order volume increases, which seasons may put extra demands on production lines, and thus what ordering behavior the brewer can expect in the future.

Carlsberg UK now requires that all new kegs used for beer come with passive UHF RFID tags as it expands the system to include that beverage. Eventually, all 600,000 kegs and casks that the company owns will be tagged. Beer cycle time is much shorter than that of cider, Dorr says—only about three months—so the company can expect to capture data about the movements of its beer kegs very quickly.

“We have intentionally not made much noise about this until now, as we wanted to ensure that the system was accurate and robust,” Dorr states. “After more than 12 months’ data capture and a happy customer, we are now confident to take this solution to the brewing world.”

Discussions are already underway with several U.K. brewers, Dorr reports. What’s more, he says, Kegspertise has secured key partnership agreements with Portinox SA, the world’s largest keg manufacturer, and Athelia, targeting international sales.