Safeway Tracks Shipments to Alaska Stores, DCs

By Claire Swedberg

The supermarket chain is using a system of active RFID tags and readers to track cargo containers transported by shipping and logistics company Horizon Lines.

Safeway is utilizing a system of active RFID tags and readers to track cargo containers filled with cases of canned food, paper goods, boxes of cereals and other groceries as they leave distribution centers in Washington State and travel across Alaska to the chain's stores and distribution centers. The RFID system, deployed by container shipping and logistics company Horizon Lines, went live in late September with 5,100 of Horizon's 7,000 cargo containers tagged.

These containers are destined for Safeway and other customers. Thus far, however, Safeway is the only one with RFID readers installed at its own facilities. Horizon has installed Identec Solutions RFID interrogators at its Alaska sea terminal, as well as at three locations on the Glenn and Parks highways, traveling north and south between the terminal and Fairbanks. Safeway is using the same Identec Solutions readers at three of its facilities in Alaska—two stores and a distribution center.

Rick Kessler

The system was designed and implemented by Horizon Services Group, an IT subsidiary of Horizon Lines that is looking to extend this RFID infrastructure to roads, stores and DCs throughout the lower 48 U.S. states. In Alaska, Horizon deployed 12 interrogators at various points, from the port to Safeway stores, in order to provide the food retailer real-time shipment visibility during all phases of transit. Horizon is ready to make the system available to any of its other Alaska clients, says Rick Kessler, CIO of Horizon Lines and president and CEO of Horizon Services Group.

"What we wanted was to put the infrastructure in place to increase visibility from the terminal to the distribution centers and stores," Kessler says. Safeway has readers in place at its North Pole, Alaska, store, and at another site south of Fairbanks. It also has readers at its distribution center in Anchorage, and more DCs in Washington State—one in Bellevue, another in Auburn—from which Alaska-bound shipments depart.

Horizon Lines transports about 300,000 cargo containers of goods annually, 66,000 within Alaska. The biggest problem for Horizon, says Kessler, has been helping customers track a container's location as it moves from the port by truck. Until now, visibility has been limited to the seaport in Washington State, where the container has been loaded onto a ship, and to the destination seaport. Once the container left the Anchorage terminal on a truck bound for a store or warehouse, the visibility disappeared and Horizon Lines depended on phone calls to drivers and dispatchers to confirm a container's location at any given time.

Horizon now has a system in which RFID readers are deployed at the point of unloading in the Alaska terminal, as well as at the exit and final security gates. From there, trucks heading for Fairbanks pass three RFID readers and antennas installed in boxes containing electronic equipment used by the Alaska Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) program—an infrastructure that transmits wireless and wireline communications-based information.

The Identec readers receive signals transmitted by the active Identec 915 MHz tags on the containers every few seconds, capturing the container's unique ID number as the truck drives by at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour and at temperatures as cold as -50 degrees. That unique RFID number is then sent, along with the time of the transmission, via a cellular connection to Horizon's portal, where the data is made available to its clients. Kessler says the company could store data about the shipment on the tags but chose not to "for numerous reasons." One is that with Horizon storing all the data about the container's contents in its back-end system, there's no reason to carry that data on the tag. The system can also automatically send an alert if a shipment, for example, passes the final reader about one hour south of a Safewaystore. This alerts workers to prepare for receiving.

Skinner says the roadside interrogators have thus far shown a read rate of about 95 percent, and all the readers combined have recorded about 79,000 RFID reads since September. Horizon set up cellular communications while Identec provided the site surveys, hardware and reader software.

Safeway only needs visibility for the containers heading north to its Fairbanks-area stores, says Greg Skinner, Horizon Sources' RFID project lead. Still, he points out, the readers are capable of capturing reads on containers moving both north and south.

The value for the customer, Kessler says, lies in allowing the customer to know where all their freight is and how soon they'll receive it. It also allows Horizon Lines to track its empty containers, and could lead to the tracking of containers in its own yard, Kessler says.

Although Horizon hopes to deploy RFID readers and tagged cargo containers throughout the country, Kessler states, Alaska has been a good place to start. "It's a good closed-loop environment. The equipment stays inside that trade lane [Tacoma to Alaska], and Alaska has a limited number of highways." Skinner adds that with the infrastructure in place in Alaska, it would be fairly simple for other customers to join into the tracking system. "The solution is already built—if another customer wants to hook up, it's just a matter of building out the readers [at distribution centers or stores]," he says.