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Brazilian Coffee Coop Brews Up a Hearty ROI

Copacafe deployed a passive RFID warehouse-management solution to improve efficiencies and lower costs.
By Jennifer Zaino
Feb 06, 2012—Brazil's Copacafé, a cooperative founded in 1978, provides assistance to 1 percent of the nation's coffee growers, including storing, blending and selling the beans. That involves receiving the beans at Copacafé's warehouse, as well as identifying their origins and classifying their grade. But the Minas Gerais-based cooperative had difficulty locating batches of coffee beans stored in bags within its warehouse, so it adopted a radio frequency identification solution to streamline these processes.

Once coffee is received at Copacafé, a sample of the beans is tested and classified; the same farm can produce different coffee crops annually. Before RFID was adopted, the bags were identified via handwritten labels that included the test results and information regarding each bag's contents, and its location within the warehouse was stored on a spreadsheet. But inevitably, the bags would end up being moved as forklift drivers searched for those they needed to pick up in order to fulfill orders.

"The tag IDs [on the bags] could not always be seen," says Octavio Castello Branco, Copacafé's commercial director, "as they were blocked by another pile in front," which often led to products being shifted around during searches. Any bag-positioning errors that occurred were amplified over time. "It is hard to say how big was the time lost," he notes, "but I remember having to work for a whole week locating lost batches."

To bring greater efficiencies and lower operational costs, Copacafé enlisted the help of Coss Consulting, an RFID service provider located in São Carlos, Brazil. The project focused on using RFID to enable automation and drive speed in multiple processes, beginning with receiving the coffee. Instead of employing an active real-time location system (RTLS), Coss recommended using passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) technology, which is less expensive. The RFID initiative went live in September 2009, Branco says, and paid for itself within 10 months. What's more, he adds, it has since delivered a 300 percent return on investment (ROI).

How It Works
When a batch of coffee is received, the invoice number is recorded manually in the receiving module of Coss' WelCOSS-iTracking software, and the system then generates a batch number. The beans are unloaded in bulk into a big funnel, which is lifted by machine so the beans can be transferred to large storage bags, which are pre-identified with reusable UHF RFID Gen 2 tags containing Electronic Product Code (EPC) numbers. Copacafé uses standard wet inlays and strong glue rubber tapes to install the tags, enabling them to resist wear. Coss Consulting recommended replacing the 60-kilogram (132-pound) bags with larger 1,200-kilogram (2,646-pound) bags, to increase the warehouse's coffee-handling capacity.

Next, the filled bags are placed on a scale for weighing. "The forklift then docks and reads [via RFID] the big-bag number and weight of the big bag," explains Fredy Valente, Coss Consulting's partner and CTO. While this is taking place, a coffee sample is tested by the cooperative's coffee classification laboratory, to determine hardness, softness, palate and other characteristics, and that information is entered into the system. Thus, each bag's EPC number is associated with those classification elements, which is useful for identifying appropriate coffee-bean batches to satisfy client orders.
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