The use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is becoming more prevalent as many different industries — from pharmaceutical to airline companies — adopt the technology and experiment with its uses, but can it be used to improve your greenhouse business? Some growers believe it can, and they are making strides in the industry to combine their greenhouse operations with this growing technology.
Ken VanWingerden, one of the owners of Color Point, Paris, Ky., tracks his metal carts using RFID technology. He approached Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), a technology company, about four years ago with the possibility of implementing automated barcoding, and together they created a system that works for Van-Wingerden’s business.
The KartKeeper tracking system, customized for VanWing-erden’s operation, includes custom fiberglass antennas, passive RFID tags attached to carts and a computer tracking program. The antennas are embedded in concrete at the greenhouse loading docks and are designed to read the tags as each cart passes over. Then the information is fed into the cart-tracking program.
RFID tags can be programmed to transmit specific information. As carts move over an antenna, VanWingerden’s program is set to record the cart’s destination, the trailer it is loaded on, the date it is sent and who the driver is. Cart information is taken again when the empty carts pass over the antenna upon return.
“There’s no special kind of thing that [the workers] have to do. They’re just in the act of pushing a cart on the truck to get it to the store, and we’re collecting the data about what happened,” explained Mike Nolan of AIS. “It eliminates human error. It eliminates the labor associated with data collection because there’s no special action they have to take; it produces information that immediately hits the database, so there is no potential for the information getting lost later.”
Price and system components vary by operation. Nolan described different ways of setting up the antennas. “Depend-ing on how [the system] is set up and how they want to set it up, [price] varies a fair bit,” he said. VanWingerden’s costs consisted of the initial programming cost and then the cost for each cart (Nolan prices the passive tags at approximately $5 each). “If you’re doing it for just 500 carts, it is [expensive],” explained VanWingerden, “but if you’re doing it for 2,000-3,000 carts, I don’t think it is.”
Organizing And Sorting Carts
In addition to tracking when carts leave and arrive, where they are going and who is driving them, the KartKeeper system helps VanWingerden organize how the carts are arranged in the trucks to maximize space and efficiency. He has space for 42 carts on his trucks, and he builds each truck’s route according to the orders it is carrying.
“[The program] helps us take the whole truck and puts it onto our computer at the dock and then it literally comes up on the screen and says, ‘Here is the truck that you’re loading; here are your four stops.’ There are 40 carts, and they come up [on the screen] in four different colors, and these carts need to be loaded right in this position. It actually tells you where those carts are and the slots they need to go into,” explained VanWingerden.
In addition to sorting the carts by destination, the program gives each cart a specific position in the truck. It organizes them in a way that is easy to load and unload. Without the system, “If you take all the [full] carts off the back [of the truck], the empties go in the back, so when you get to your next stop, you have to take all the empties off to get to the next batch,” said VanWingerden. The KartKeeper program snakes the orders up and down the truck for increased efficiency and maneuverability for the driver.
VanWingerden includes a manifest with each order that tells the driver the truck has been loaded correctly, which eliminates any claims about missing carts. “From the days when we didn’t [give manifests] versus the days that we do now, we have no argument with the driver,” said VanWingerden.
He also uses the tracking system as a gauge for how well his drivers are doing. The system knows which trucks are coming in and who is driving them, so as the empty carts are unloaded, it can determine how many carts each driver is bringing back. Kept over time, this information can show patterns and be used to rate the drivers and find who needs to improve.
At C. Raker and Sons, Litchfield, Mich., RFID technology is used to track benches as they move through the greenhouse. “Our benches are all rolling benches, and they move from sowing or propagation through all the stages of growth and then through shipping,” explained Gerry Raker. The company works with more than 150,000 trays and requires no minimum when taking orders, so it used to be challenging to find one or two specific trays in 10 acres of greenhouse.
To track the trays and benches, each tray has a barcode on it and that barcode is associated with a bench number. Each bench has an RFID tag on its underside encased in a polyethylene block. As the benches pass over the antennas, which are placed at bench row entry and exit points, computers track their movements. “We know what tray is on what bench through the barcodes, and we know what bench is where in the greenhouse because of the RFID, so then we can find the trays,” said Raker.
Since the computer knows the tray and bench locations, this RFID application is especially helpful when preparing a shipment: “You can put the benches in the shipping area in any order, and you can run the picking ticket, and it will sort your picking ticket in the order the product is going to come up to you as you walk down the aisle and pick it,” explained Raker.
It’s no secret that water and technology don’t mix, and the added complication of metal benches, carts and machinery (which radio waves can bounce off of) in a greenhouse makes RFID use for growers more challenging — but not impossible. Raker described investing six months worth of research into figuring everything out for his system.
Similarly, VanWingerden worked with AIS to create a greenhouse-compatible RFID system for his business. Different tag frequencies tolerate different conditions; to not degrade performance, VanWing-erden’s tags must be at least 2 inches away from metal. AIS mounted each tag to a cart bottom in a plastic holder that keeps it suspended away from the metal and positioned closer to the ground.
The plastic holders serve a dual purpose; they also protect tags from wetness. Coming into contact with water can ruin a tag, and allowing water to settle on a tag’s protective covering could affect how it is read. “The tag design that we came up with sheds water and maintains an adequate distance for the tag to perform in the proximity of metal,” explained Nolan.
Despite the challenges of working in a greenhouse, the KartKeeper system roughly has a 99.48 percent pass read rate. “That means that somebody pushing a cart at 3-5 mph passing across an antenna is going to get read correctly 99.48 percent of the time,” Nolan explained. VanWingerden and AIS are constantly striving to increase the pass read rate. If growers currently want to be sure they are getting a 100-percent pass read rate, they can add an enunciator to the system. The enunciator makes a noise when a cart is read. “If they don’t hear it go off, they can stop and pull the cart back across [the antenna]. That’s how they get 100 percent,” said Nolan.
RFID is not limited to how growers are currently using it for their businesses. As the technology grows and more people become comfortable with it, new greenhouse applications will be found. Raker is currently working on an RFID implementation plan at the tray level. He’s looking at the costs and benefits of putting an RFID tag on every tray. In the distant future, Raker envisions putting data on RFID tags: “You could theoretically put growing instructions or chemical applications. You can put information up to half a typewritten page on a label,” he explained.
Raker, like many others, feels RFID usage will be inevitable in the long run. It probably wouldn’t hurt to familiarize yourself with RFID technology’s possibilities for your business. From its use in the supply chain to the ways the big boxes are experimenting with it at the item level, RFID appears to be here to stay.