J.D. Smith Tracks Pet Food Shipments Via RFID

By Claire Swedberg

The Canadian logistics company used pallets fitted with passive EPC tags to chronicle when goods were loaded and shipped to a retailer.

Canadian logistics firm J.D. Smith and Sons has completed a six-month trial of radio frequency identification technology to track the loading, shipping and receipt of bagged pet food for a pet product retailer. The company is now offering an RFID-based service to track its customers' goods, based on reads of RFID tags embedded in J.D. Smith's pallets.

The solution was provided by Axios Mobile Assets, a manufacturer of lightweight plastic pallets, to better manage the loading of trucks and transportation to stores, based on data indicating when each pallet was packed, loaded onto a vehicle and delivered.

Scott Smith, the president of J.D. Smith

J.D. Smith has been investigating RFID solutions for several years. In late 2010, the company began testing the use of Axios Mobile Assets' RFID-enabled pallets at its own warehouse (see Axios MA Launches Tagged Pallets and Real-Time Tracking Solution). Six months ago, however, the firm began its first full-scale pilot with a customer—a pet product retailer that has asked to remain unnamed. Each 47-pound soy bio-resin reusable pallet has four Invengo XCTF-8030A-CO2 passive EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags—one in each of the pallet's four corners. The four tags are linked to the same pallet in software residing on a Web-based server hosted by Axios, which shares all RFID read data with J.D. Smith.

During the pilot, every time that the pet product retailer placed an order, J.D. Smith's warehouse staff picked the requested products, loaded them onto a pallet and used either a Motorola Solutions MC3090-Z or GAO RFID 246005 handheld RFID reader to link the order number with the four pallet tags' ID numbers, explains John Psihos, Axios' VP of technology and sustainability. The handheld then transmitted that information to the Axios software via a Wi-Fi connection, signifying that the order had been picked. An Impinj Speedway Revolution fixed RFID reader interrogated the tags as the pallets arrived at the staging area, where the pallets then waited until a truck arrived to transport them to the retailer. The tags were read one final time by another Speedway reader as the pallets were loaded onto trucks, and the order's status was updated to "shipped."

Once a truck arrived at the customer's store, its driver used an Axios app running on a Blackberry to manually indicate the number of pallets unloaded, as well as when the shipment was delivered. That delivery status was then forwarded to the Axios server, along with the GPS location determined by the phone. In that way, the software was able to detect when and where a delivery was placed, and issue an alert to J.D. Smith's management in the event that a shipment were taken to the wrong location (such an error, however, did not occur during the pilot, the company reports).

J.D. Smith tracked 50 tagged pallets during the six-month pilot period. According to Psihos, the participants found that the RFID solution provided a series of benefits. For example, it enabled J.D. Smith to know when it was running short on pallets (due to an insufficient quantity having been shipped out), or when it would need to coordinate a pallet pickup from a customer site.

"Leveraging technologies such as RFID was very insightful," says Scott Smith, the president of J.D. Smith. When applied correctly, he adds, RFID not only improves efficiencies, but also delivers value to the company's customers.

For instance, Smith reports, the system helped provide J.D. Smith with visibility into the collection of pallets within the staging area, thereby enabling greater truck-loading efficiency. When a truck arrived at the warehouse, for example, the company's staff could simply sign into the Axios system and view which shipments were already in the staging area, and then coordinate loading accordingly.

In addition, the solution allowed the firm's management to analyze how quickly orders were being delivered, as well as how the order of deliveries could be optimized to make delivery times shorter. What's more, the system could also catch mistakes before they occurred, since it could immediately issue an alert if a driver reported an erroneous delivery. For the customer, the RFID data culled from the tag reads provided a view into when products were shipped, while the Blackberry mobile app supplied details indicating when they were received by stores.

"With the transparency it provides," Smith says, "RFID introduces accountability and now enhances our ability to mitigate and deal with potential problems."

Another benefit for J.D. Smith was in creating a record of how frequently pallets were used. This was important, Psihos explains, since logistics businesses receive carbon credits from government agencies for using reusable lightweight pallets, but must produce an audit trail demonstrating the pallets' frequency of use. The Axios system made that process automatic, he says.

J.D. Smith is now offering the system to clients, which would pay a fee to Axios to access the server in order to view data regarding the packing and delivery of their palletized goods. The pet food company that participated in the pilot is currently reviewing the results of that project, to determine whether to deploy the service permanently.

In addition, Axios Mobile Assets is testing the use of Near Field Communication (NFC) technology to track goods. For example, an NFC tag could be attached to a truck delivering products, and the recipient of those goods could then utilize an NFC-enabled mobile phone to immediately record the receipt of that delivery.