Container Centralen Adds Active Tags to U.S. Carts

By Claire Swedberg

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.

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The 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.

While Container Centralen intends to provide readers for every customer that ships carts directly to and from retail locations, some of the locations are very remote, lacking power or Internet coverage. In those cases, Medford indicates, RF Code built a solar panel to power the devices, as well as a 3G modem to transmit data via a cellular phone network. “The most basic infrastructure is a simple reader with power and an Ethernet connection,” Costin says, while other locations may require a modem and solar power.

According to Costin, the system is expected to be fully deployed by February 2010, in time for the spring growing season. The deployment is beginning in parts of the country in which the growing season starts the earliest, and is then working north, he says. “We’ve been waiting to move ahead with this for a long time,” he states, “and we’re very enthusiastic. This will be a major step up. We think we can look forward to having close to 100 percent visibility of our carts.”

When a CC depot receives an order for carts, its workers will scan the carts’ bar-coded serial numbers, which are linked to data regarding the shipment on the CC server. The staff will not use the RFID system when carts are shipped from the depot, because the interrogators tend to pick up stray reads—from the tags of carts not being shipped, or of those being shipped elsewhere. Costin says he hopes to eventually resolve that issue by using handheld RFID readers, and is presently discussing that solution with RF Code.

After picking up the carts, a customer will take them to its own facility. There, RFID readers at its dock doors will read the ID numbers on the tags and transmit that information to CC’s server, where the Fluensee software stores the information, thus confirming the carts were received. The customer will then fill the carts with plants and read the tags once more as loaded carts are wheeled onto trucks to be shipped to a retailer—and again when they are returned empty from that store.

This last read provides the most valuable data, Costin says, since Container Centralen can now have an immediate update regarding which carts are being used by which plant grower after they were removed from the store. The Fluensee system enables CC to determine when carts have been sitting for a long period of time at a retailer (such as those that were shipped much earlier to the store and have not yet returned to any of its customers). In such a scenario, the firm can quickly dispatch a truck to the store to pick up those empty carts, and bring them to one of its depots to be serviced and made available to other customers.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to get the cart back,” Costin says, to be available for reuse by other customers. If Container Centralen sends its own third-party logistics provider to the store to pick up empty carts, those carts are read as they arrive at one of CC’s depots.

The tags cost approximately $10 each, Medford indicates, and can last for about seven years.