The value of tracking and traceability in the retail sector needs no long explanation. The ability to do so provides not only operational efficiencies through process optimization, increased customer satisfaction through freshness of groceries or enhanced insight into the product and differentiation through the ability to provide end to end auditability.
The latter feature is especially valuable for high value segments such as organic products and produce.
To place some common issues in perspective, consider the case where a high profile startup in the e-grocery segment had realised that implementing a farm-to-customer traceability solution would enable better insight into its operations, enable it to optimize its produce handling work-flows and provide greater customer satisfaction.
The customer wants to be able to trace, at every point in its operations, information related to all items, such as the farmer from whom the vegetables are procured, the date and time of purchase, the collection center where the purchase was made, any intermediate product packaging for retail packages and tracking the distribution out to the end customer, all the time developing relevant performance metrics.
The problem is not only a high volume one, but requires handling both transportation and tracking of origin as produce is re-packaged, stored and delivered.
The tracking process needs to be simple and as relatively low technology as possible, both to minimize logistic system costs as well as to provide a system robust enough to work in a mixed human-worker / semi-automated environment.
The generation and tracking of information from the logistics workflow needs to be in real-time and interconnected to the entity’s resource planning infrastructure in order to push and pull information from it.
Given the problem domain, and given the prevalence of low cost tracking technology in the industry ie, the use of bar-codes and QR codes, it makes sense to use bar-code readers and printers as basic logistical components.
These need to be combined with a few other components, an ERP platform, and specifically for packaging & re-packaging or inventory holding operations with a modular inventory storage system.
The complete framework consists of:
- Smart weighing scales and scanners for identification of produce suppliers and weighing and tagging incoming material
- New modular container based material holding containers with metal bar-codes ID tags for durability.
- Smart weighing scales, barcode printers and scanners for produce re-packing centres
- ERP platform to implement the tracking workflow information transfer
The customer buys various kinds of produce from the farmer at Collection Centers (CC) near the farms. The purchased produce is sent to a Distribution Center (DC) that are at peri-urban locations, where the bulk purchase is divided into smaller, retail-sized packs, weighed and stored in inventory. On receipt of consumer orders, these packs are sent from DCs to Storage Centers (SC) inside the city, to be stored overnight and shipped to consumers the next morning.
At the CC each farmer has been provided with an ID which is stored as a barcode on the farmer’s Identity card. As soon as the farmer arrives, the ID is scanned and the produce is placed in a barcoded modular handling/storage container and weighed on a smart weighing scale.
The containerization enables the safe handling of bulk produce in standardized form factor containers that are easy for operators to handle and that ensure that operator lifting limits are not exceeded. The operator at the CC enters the product name through a tablet and initiates a product inventory update. The ERP solution captures all this information – Collection Center, Farmer ID, product (potatoes, onions etc), weight, time and date, container ID.
As soon as a DC receives the supply container from a CC, the barcode on the bulk produce container is scanned. The bulk produce is divided into retail packs of 1 kg, 2 kg etc each and each of these packs are weighed. The operator at the CC then selects the product name on a tablet. The product name, together with information gathered from the ERP based on the bulk produce barcode – Collection Center, Farmer ID, time and date of receipt – weight and price (already fed into the ERP) are printed on another barcode/QRcode and fixed on each of the retail packs. At any point from this stage, the product can be traced back to its source and its journey by simply scanning the barcode.
This solution enabled the first end-to-end traceability solution for this kind of business. It allowed insights on movements of produce, retention times, freshness evaluation.