Returnable Transport Items (RTI) for packaging and transporting fresh produce play a crucial role in getting fruit from the farm to the consumer’s plate. Millions of RTIs from different packaging pools are handled every day within and between thousands of companies in the supply chain. Those collaborating stakeholders have an urgent need to eliminate inefficiencies to assure product quality as well as safety and to protect their assets in these cross-company processes. Equipping these RTIs with tagged radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips opens the possibility to create smart networks. Increased traceability of RTIs makes resource planning, transport coordination and logistics from farm to fork much more efficient. It also helps to ensure food security for a growing world population. This is going to be a big challenge for the entire food industry, and everyone from farmers to distributors to restaurant owners. Therefore, more attention needs to be given to how harvested crops travel from farm to fork. By analysing big data the team can identify changes in the market behaviour and swiftly react accordingly. Information such as the storage temperature, number of cases packed, orders handled or trays shipped can tell how well throughput is within the distribution center. This helps to respond to bottleneck and ultimately reduces food waste.
Smart trays all over Europe
This use case is unique in the way that it is not limited to a specific local area. Nevertheless, to give you an idea of the sheer size: there are 8 static Euro Pool Service Centers in Germany in addition to 25 Service Centers in Central Europe.
The internal testing, e.g. for new hardware configurations is carried out in the Service Center Depot of Euro Pool System in Bornheim, Germany and the surrounding area. After the testing phase, all RTIs flow freely in Europe and the smart trays equipped with RFID chips can send pings from every position. Over the whole project time Dr Robert Reiche, the Use Case Coordinator, and his business innovation team Bornheim collected thousands of those tray pings. However, not all of them are related to interesting locations or points of interests, rendering data management an important factor. If the received data, centralised in a location management application, of one specific track or smart tray journey required a more thorough investigation due to irregularities, a report can simply be created by the software administrators.
Runtime of an IoT tray
Cloud connected RTIs
Since the team is operating along the whole value chain, the smart trays can literally be anywhere. During the project phase, network limitation forced them to focus on European regions where a Sigfox network is deployed and working well. Furthermore, each standard location was classified. This could be a Euro Pool System service depot, a farmer or grower, a distribution center, a supermarket or store as well as a wholesaler. Those locations would describe a perfect rental trip of a smart tray from one depot and back. In addition to those standard locations, restaurants or gastronomy in general, marketplaces, gas stations and many others have been added over time.
Targeted market insertion for better insights
Over the course of the project phase, the researchers learned that their solution can be more than a tracking and tracing tool.
Fortunately, the figures and numbers confirmed that estimations made in the initial phase were indeed correct. The use case is able to quickly analyse complex value chains or product flows and to deliver that output in an easy and understandable way even though the amount of collected data can be very high and detailed. Therefore, the solution has a positive influence on critical market situations by alleviating pressure on supply chains or product flows. The service offering to customers entails a single project-based implementation and end-user training to help them use the smart trays themselves. Knowing where certain assets are at a specific time is important for their customers and the entire value chain alike. Just imagine the amount of RTIs needed during the busy harvesting periods, compared to the amount required during calmer winter months.
Rotations per smart tray
Accuracy of RTI position
One learning point was that the use of smart trays is much more effective if it is done in a focused and targeted way rather than randomly. To give you an example: inserting 100 smart trays randomly into the market obviously delivers data too, but, when inserted in a closed and targeted case the data quality allows a much more precise and insightful interpretation as well as evaluation. Considering the relatively long production time of one smart tray, this is an important finding. Each tray must be modified and equipped with a RFID tracker which is manually covered in resin before. Once this preparation is completed, the team sends the smart tray to the central location of Euro Pool System for the registration process. Only then can the RTI be inserted into the market or targeted product flows.
Supply chain management during a pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on everybody’s life all over the world. The realisation that their solution provides visibility into the supply chain to determine bottlenecks, patterns or processes encouraged Dr Robert Reiche and his team to dedicate their research to fight the effects of the pandemic.
To find out how to do that in the best possible way, the team compared data from two different time periods. One dataset was taken shortly before the first lockdown in Germany when shopping behaviours changed significantly due to tendencies of hoarding. The second dataset was measured in the summer after the lockdown when the market behaviour returned to normal levels. Comparing every step of smart trays and the time it stayed in one single location revealed that there is a huge potential to increase the whole value chain and to speed up every single process by identifying bottlenecks or other issues at an early stage. The researchers were astonished to find out how quickly the market needed to react to a higher demand and how flexible every stakeholder in the value chain must be to meet this demand.
RTI loss rate
The advantage of artificial intelligence applied to big data is that every iteration is potentially better than the one before. Since the location management application observed and analysed those significant demand changes throughout the pandemic, the solution of this use case is now even better prepared to alleviate supply chain pressure in the future. By predicting demands and product flows customer needs can be anticipated and the seamless supply of every end-user guaranteed. In the future, the use case team plans to generate automated reports which leverage the temperature measurement even more. This will help to evaluate the freshness of the transported produce such as fruits and vegetables and significantly reduce spoilage or waste.
Achievements, products & services
Improved customers handling of trays
Identification and reduction of logistic bottlenecks
Traceability and monitoring data from the smart trays
Less food waste, better food quality and increased food safety
Reduction of kg CO2 equivalent through supply chain optimisation