RFID labels may cost more than bar codes, but the tracking system at Knox Nursery is making sense for its plug trays and resulting in serious savings.
September 11, 2008
Bruce Knox grabbed a tray of gerbera plugs, turned to place it inside a box and immediately stopped as a foghorn sounded to indicate some kind of shipping error.
The color listed for the order was exactly right, and the description seemed to be spot on. At the time, Bruce was demonstrating Knox Nursery's new RFID program to a broker. So he continued to scan the tray three or four times before turning to place it in the box, and that foghorn sounded on cue three or four more times.
What on earth was the problem?
"He was trying to pack a 384 tray size for a 105 on the order," says D.J. Matthews, internal developer at Knox Nursery. "That one mistake would have been about $100."
Well then, that's one solid demonstration. It's also just one example of a $100 shipping error Knox Nursery, located in Winter Garden, Fla., has avoided since implementing the RFID program for plugs early this year. Consider the number of $100 mistakes that could occur in an hour, a day, a week or a month, and the savings there obviously add up tremendously.
Knox has, however, found multiple ways to save at the shipping stage because of its ability to track an assortment of data with RFID labels. Wrong tray size was a common shipping error, Matthews says, and one wrong tray size error can lead to a domino effect of other errors.
"By correcting this error, it could save money utilizing the correct, less expensive unit," Knox says. "It will then also make certain that the correct item will be available for another order. There will be no cost incurred from the need to reship the proper item when the customer receives an incorrect item."
The most important savings with the investment of an RFID program for Knox Nursery might be in reputation. Brokers, like everybody else, crave information - and they certainly don't want the runaround when they call or e-mail about the status of trays they've just ordered.
Knox Nursery brokers are fortunate, though, because Knox can now track orders through FedEx once labels are printed. Knox even notifies brokers by e-mail when trays are headed out the door, and it links them to the FedEx Web site with the tracking number of their trays.
"There was one instance where we had a broker here, and I just set up the e-mail notification system that sends out e-mail tracking numbers," Matthews says. "We shipped an order, hit a button and within two minutes, a woman with a PDA (personal digital assistant) received an e-mail about her order from us right there on the spot while we were there talking. Everybody was just astounded that we could do that."
The RFID program, called Growers Own, also captures information at delivery. Before RFID was implemented, brokers would call Knox and explain how their grower customers hadn't received a particular order when, in fact, they might have yet simply didn't know it. Knox had to issue a few credits back then, but now it knows who signed for packages and when they were delivered - and it can feed that information back to brokers.
Growers Own, which is software that encompasses inventory, production, RFID and other aspects of Knox Nursery, also helped the company catch one major shipping error this year.
"We billed a broker for FedEx, and we were getting billed for it," Matthews says. "At the time, it was a $20,000 mistake."
For Knox, the transition from traditional bar codes to RFID on plugs is still an ongoing process. Still, workers who might have questioned a switch to RFID a year ago are now on board with the program after witnessing first hand how it increases the speed and efficiency of simple tasks that probably took up too much time for many years.
"Shipping was very hectic because you had to make sure that all the boxes had labels, and if you needed an extra label, you had to go into the office and print it," Matthews says. "That stopped the person in the office from what they were doing, and they also had to print out all the packing lists. In a day, that could be hundreds of pages of packing lists that we had to put into boxes."
Now, as orders are completed, packing lists are automatically printed. Time is saved, frustration is lessened and data that workers once counted by hand is now calculated scanned inventory.
And that tray that workers say they counted but is nowhere to be found?
"Now, we actually know they counted it because we can track the scan they counted it on," Matthews says. "There have been times we've proven trays are out there when the crew isn't sure they are. When we say there's a tray out there somewhere, they believe it."
The next step for Knox Nursery and its new technology is to find different ways to use Growers Own. Knox would like the program to be able to locate the exact position of each tray in the greenhouse.
Matthews and Brian Levine, manager of information systems, have talked about stationing marker RFID tags throughout the greenhouse. As workers read the marker tags, they can also read tags on trays. And depending on where marker tags are placed, trays could be pinpointed to a 10- or 20-foot radius.
"Going from 3 acres to 10 to 20 feet is a huge improvement," Matthews says. "We've tested it. What we've gotten is pretty accurate and being able to print this information out would reduce the time our pullers are actually out there looking for orders."
Bruce has also seen increasing interest from other growers about using Growers Own, which Knox might eventually market.
"There is no denying the effectiveness of Growers Own, only a concern on the payback for each growing operation," he says. "The interesting aspect of the various growers' interest is to watch each grower determine how this program would best benefit their operation. I believe that everyone wants RFID. They're watching to see how the technology evolves."