Southeastern Container turns to Motorola for RFID asset tracking

Posted May 13, 2010

Motorola MC9090-G

The company: Southeastern Container

Southeastern Container was formed in 1982 as a privately owned company under the ownership of a group of Coca-Cola® Bottling companies. Today the company operates as a manufacturing co-op with ten manufacturing locations producing plastic bottles. Southeastern Container handles nearly 70 percent of the bottle production for Coca-Cola in the U.S. and also works with bottle manufacturers outside of the co-op. The company keeps quality and service high with a focus on continuous improvement.

The challenge: Inventory control and traceability for specialized product containers

With roots in the southeastern U.S., Southeastern Container now has ten manufacturing facilities across the East Coast, Illinois and Wisconsin. At the company’s three injection molding facilities, bottle blanks called preforms are manufactured. The plastic preforms are blown into bottles at Southeastern Container’s blow-molding facilities and at bottle manufacturers outside of the co-op.

The preforms are shipped to bottle manufacturing plants in cardboard containers or existing plastic bins. Ideally, these containers are returned empty to the injection molding facilities to repeat the cycle. However, problems with this return process were costing Southeastern Container thousands of dollars each year.

Some containers are lost or damaged in transit and must be replaced. In addition, the design of the existing containers prohibits Southeastern Container from maximizing the capacity of shipping trailers, resulting in the company paying to ship “air” for each load. Finally, cardboard containers are often pre-assembled to save time, and the fully assembled containers take up warehouse floor space. In the process of shipping billions of preforms, these issues add up.

Southeastern Container planned to address these problems by replacing the existing containers with a new version — a specialized returnable plastic bin. While the new folding bins are designed to significantly reduce costs and increase efficiency, each of them is nearly ten times the cost of a cardboard container. Thus, cycle counting would be introduced to track bin lifetimes against the number of cycles guaranteed by the manufacturer.

“We decided to cycle count for inventory control, traceability, and to validate bin lifetime, and we chose RFID tracking as the most effective method,” said John Underwood, Engineering Manager, Southeastern Container, Inc. “We already use barcoding extensively, and have looked at RFID on a number of occasions during the years. RFID was the right choice now because it’s affordable and the technology is at a point where it can provide the reliability and accuracy we need,” Underwood explained.

The solution: RFID system with Motorola handheld RFID readers and fixed readers and antennas

Southeastern Container worked with Motorola to architect an entire end-to-end solution to tackle this challenge. The system implementation started with a pilot RFID system for cycle counting the new bins. The solution includes Motorola XR440 industrial-class fixed RFID readers, Motorola AN400 RFID antennas, Motorola MC9090-G RFID rugged handheld readers, and OATSystems’ Oat Asset Track software. In addition, Southeastern Container relies on the Motorola Service from the Start program for repair coverage for its Motorola RFID handheld readers. They worked very hard to analyze the RFID tag selection with the Motorola devices to maximize successful reads for both full and empty bins.

The pilot at one injection-molding facility was very successful, and Southeastern Container is proceeding with a phased rollout across its operations. When the system is fully deployed, each of the approximately 30,000 bins will be permanently identified with an RFID tag and tracked using Motorola XR440 fixed RFID readers.

They use Motorola barcode scanners for several functions at Southeastern Container and have been impressed by them, so going with Motorola fixed and handheld RFID readers was a natural progression. In a separate project in their bottle production operation, they’re also putting Motorola’s Mobility Services Platform (MSP) in place. With the MSP, they’ll save time and IT resources by supporting the handhelds from a central location.

For the RFID project, Motorola helped Southeastern Container through the process of choosing the correct products for the system. Ultimately, they chose the MC9090-G handheld RFID reader because it is rugged, reliable, and has the flexibility to capture data from both barcodes and RFID tags.

Each RFID tag identifies a single bin for its lifetime, which they are targeting at about five years. But, they continue to use barcodes to identify the contents—the product, such as ‘20-ounce contour clear,’ for example—and this varies per cycle, so the multi-function aspect of the MC9090 is ideal.

In addition to using the handheld RFID reader at Southeastern Container, the company also supplies them to the bin manufacturer. As bins are produced, the manufacturer captures the barcode and RFID tag information for each one, enabling Southeastern Container to link the two for warranty tracking and vendor certification. When the project is complete, the powerful MC9090’s will run the Oat Asset Tracking application at the bin manufacturer just as the software runs on the Motorola XR440 fixed RFID readers at the Southeastern Container facilities.

Motorola tested and installed their XR440 fixed RFID reader for the pilot, and it was basically plug and play. They set it up and it worked. Even with all kinds of metal conveyers around, the reader and the Motorola AN400 antenna are outstanding on the plastic bins. They can read the bins in any orientation, up to 20 feet away.

The AN400’s are four-watt antennas, and at a little more than one watt, they have very good control and reliable reads. No doubt this will go very smoothly as they expand from the pilot across their other facilities. The benefits: Thousands of dollars in savings and a leverageable enterprise solution. The pilot was very smooth, and the system has proved to be reliable. Once this is fully rolled out, they expect to see ROI in less than two years.

The initial impetus for the RFID project was to perform cycle counts to track bin lifetimes against the manufacturer’s guaranteed number of cycles. This is going to work well for cycle counting and traceability in the event of loss or damage, but those are just some of the reasons for this project. Other valuable benefits include much more effective and accurate warehouse and inventory control in the future. We’ll know how many bins are with customers, how many have come back, and what the contents were. So it will help them manage not only their assets— the bins — but also manage their product inventory in the warehouse.

The scalability of the Motorola solution and OAT Asset Track software offer opportunities for a wide range of additional asset tracking across the Southeastern Container enterprise in the future. Looking ahead, they are considering a similar RFID system for real-time tracking of outbound shipments and return dunnage.

For Southeastern Container, the benefits of the RFID solution include:
• Saving thousands of dollars a year in transportation costs
• Reducing container loss and ensuring traceability
• Achieving ROI within two years of full implementation
• Providing accurate data on bin lifetimes for warranty contracts
• Establishing a successful use-case with RFID technology to leverage with a wide range of future warehouse and inventory control efforts

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