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Cultivating RFID

Horticultural firms achieve benefits from tracking returnable transport items, while nurseries, governments and researchers develop business cases for monitoring individual plants.
By Jennifer Zaino
Aug 26, 2014

Holambra, a municipality in São Paulo, Brazil, is known as the City of Flowers. In 1989, Cooperativa Veiling Holambra (CVH) was established to market flowers and plants from roughly 400 farmers to domestic and international distributors and wholesalers. CVH rents more than one million returnable transport items (RTIs)—including metal trolleys, plastic buckets and trays—to producers and clients, to move flowers between different areas of its 80,000-square-meter (262-square-foot) warehouse and auction facility in Santo Antonio de Posse, a city roughly 250 kilometers (155 miles) from São Paulo.

Until recently, CVH tracked and managed the RTIs manually, a process that was labor-intensive and error-prone. This spring, following a 12-month project to design, test and implement an RFID system, CVH began tracking RTIs automatically. The company installed 25 fixed portals equipped with Impinj readers at dock doors and other strategic locations throughout the facility, so any RTI, empty or full, must pass through a portal as it is moved from one location to another. Plastic RTIs are identified with Confidex Pro ultrahigh-frequency EPC Gen 2 tags; metal RTIs are tracked with Smartrac Dogbone tags. Coss Consulting, a Brazilian RFID service provider, developed custom software for the system.

"By automating the RTI material counting with RFID in all areas and processes and tracking their life cycle," the flower co-op reports, "CVH is now able to count RTIs faster, with better accuracy in their operation, and produce key information on the fly for its business managers, saving a huge amount of labor time." Each tag is encoded with a GS1 Serialized Global Return Asset Identifier (SGRAI) number, which can be used to manage regular maintenance and repair records.

Next up, CVH intends to orchestrate a flower supply chain to further improve logistics. The co-op plans to install the RFID asset-tracking solution at its flower producers' and clients' facilities. CVH is not the first horticultural company to adopt RFID for managing RTI assets. Container Centralen (CC), a Dutch horticulture logistics supplier, has been employing the technology in its European and U.S. operations for a few years. Now, the industry is developing the business case for using RFID-tagged RTIs to improve supply-chain and business processes. In addition, there's growing interest in tracking individual plants to boost inventory accuracy, regulate a budding legalized marijuana industry and manage water conservation.

Planting the Seeds
In 2007, Container Centralen began piloting passive ultrahigh-frequency RFID technology to manage its assets. Two years later, the company's U.S. division began identifying its RTIs with active RFID tags, and in 2011, the firm fitted all the RTIs used in its European operations with EPC Gen 2 RFID tags.

CC's European clients—small and large growers, wholesalers, transport companies and retailers—generally subscribe to long-term trolley hire contracts. Some 22,000 customers use the trolleys on their own premises, and typically exchange those filled with flowers or plants for empty ones, or vice versa. CC RFID-tagged its 3.84 million trolleys to combat the use of counterfeit containers and theft. RFID readers were installed at 60 CC depots and four repair shops. Customers use handheld readers to authenticate a tagged trolley before making a swap.

"There is a very clear indication that before the introduction of RFID, there was an inflow of copies of our trolleys, and we can see, when we run the same analysis now, that this negative trend was broken," says Flora Spaeth, the firm's European sales manager. That's good for Container Centralen and good for its customers, she says, since rising repair costs for counterfeit items would impact the fees for use of the company's trolley pools.

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