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Alliance One Turns Over a New Leaf in Tobacco Handling

In Brazil, RFID brings new efficiencies to product sorting and storage.
By John Edwards
Jan 23, 2012—Tobacco has been processed and organized in pretty much the same fashion for hundreds of years. But now, as in so many other industries, radio frequency identification is changing everything.

In Brazil, tobacco processor Alliance One Brasil Exportadora de Tabacos is pioneering the use of RFID for sorting and storing tobacco. The company turned to the technology with the goals of improving operational efficiency and minimizing mistakes and costs, says Dilnei Alexandre Haas, the Alliance One systems analyst in charge of the project.

Bales of tobacco at Alliance One's facility

Alliance On, with the help of approximately 4,000 permanent and temporary workers, processes more than 220,000 tons of tobacco annually. In 2010, the company was Brazil's 59th largest exporting company, with gross revenues of US$536.5 million—a figure representing 20 percent of the country's entire tobacco export market.

The System
Alliance One's tobacco production chain begins with the 30,000 small farmers who sell the tobacco leaves they grow on their own land to the company. As soon as a tobacco bale is purchased from a farmer at the "buying door" of an Alliance One production facility, that bale is loaded onto a conveyor and delivered to an expert leaf grader, who visually examines the tobacco and assigns it a grade. "The tobacco is graded according to the color, leaf position in the plant and quality," Haas explains. "The grading is done by Alliance One employees with deep tobacco knowledge."

After the bale has been graded, a printed RFID passive tag is applied—tucked under one of the strings tying the bale together—to provide both visual and electronic identification. Each reusable tag is pre-prepared to indicate one of several grades, and is attached to a bale by an employee stationed next to the grader. "This employee picks a card corresponding to the grade and sticks it on the bale," Haas says.

The graded bales next enter the plant's "airport" area—so named because conveyors within this section of the facility run in a continuous loop, like those found in a typical airport terminal's baggage-claim area. There are three extension conveyors within the airport area, each equipped with its own RFID portal. As a bale moves through the portal, its grade is detected. A mechanical piston then automatically deflects that bale toward the rack station dedicated to its grade, and the bales are manually moved onto the rack. Of the 18,000 tobacco bales checked each day, the pistons deflect approximately 60 percent onto extension conveyors leading to storage racks. The remaining bales are moved manually onto racks along the main loop.
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