How fresh is this produce? How was it shipped? Where does it come from? Soon, labels might tell you. As goods move from grower to consumer, unique identifiers on each IFCO RPC can gather and store data on each shipment. Transparency goes up while costs go down.
"Hey! Look at me! I’ve just arrived from the sunny Valencia region of Spain. I grew plump and juicy with only minimal use of crop protection products. Harvested a week ago, I’ve been cradled by an environmentally friendly reusable plastic container, and kept at optimal temperature of approx. 5°C. My journey was mostly via rail to reduce CO2 emissions. Best of all, I am on sale today!"
Yes, that is your orange talking. Or at least, that is the message on your shopping app as you stroll through the fresh produce aisle in your supermarket. Such end-to-end transparency is made possible by digital technology.
In recent decades, sales channels have shifted as consumers’ shopping habits continue to evolve. Following Retail 1.0 (Supermarket), Retail 2.0 (Hyper-size), and Retail 3.0 (e-commerce), digitalization is improving efficiency in the food industry, and deepening what consumers can learn about groceries. Retail 4.0 (Multi-/Omni Channel) is a reality.
While most large grocery retailers are already multichannel sellers – in other words, they have one or more physical locations along with an online presence – omnichannel selling links the information intelligently. For example, with apps that alert you to sales while you are standing in the produce aisle, and that let the fresh Valencia oranges speak for themselves.
"In much the same way as retail has evolved, fresh food packaging and IFCO RPCs have gone through several generations of change," explains Josh Taylor, Manager of Asset Management at IFCO.
Taylor groups these changes into Packaging 1.0 (General Packaging), Packaging 2.0 (Plastic Reusable Containers), Packaging 3.0 (Digital, able to carry information). Today we have Packaging 4.0 (Smart or Intelligent, able to share information).
Through specific labels, each IFCO RPC is uniquely identified – and they have been for decades. "Back in 1992, we introduced IFCO RPCs – and invented Packaging 2.0. By already equipping our first containers with track-and-trace capabilities, we were also technology leaders," he says.
On IFCO RPCs, the Global Return Asset Identifier (GRAI) is stored in two formats. The first is an optical system, a two-dimensional data matrix pattern that most people refer to as QR code (for "quick response"). A scanner deciphers the specific code, much like a serial number, from the pattern and enters it into the system.
The second system broadcasts the information through the air by means of radio frequency identification (RFID). A tiny radio transponder in the RFID tag sends digital data such as an identifying number to the reader.
With two different formats for the identifier on IFCO RPCs, we can fit the immediate requirements of the supply chain, yet are also flexible enough to adapt to the various systems that clients use, as well as to changes in technology taking place over the long lifetime of our containers.
Tracking is the ability to follow fresh products in real time, and tracing is having the capability to monitor events along each step in the supply chain. The parameters of each event are stored, and the data is gathered. This
While these benefits are clear today, digital technology changes in the blink of an eye. So finding, developing and adopting formats that remain readable and that will pass the information along reliably for the lifetime of the RPC – which often lasts a decade or more – were among the challenges facing IFCO.
Taylor has evaluated many identification systems for their usability and adaptability. We selected systems based on two different technologies for identifying each individual IFCO RPC. One is visual – a data matrix pattern – and one is transmission-based radio frequency identification (RFID). Why double up?
"By using this combination, we are more likely to be compatible with the different types of systems that our customers have," explains Taylor. "In addition, the data matrix label might be scratched, or the RFID could be broken. By using two systems, we always have a contingency plan."
Each IFCO RPC is assigned a unique number, a Global Return Asset Identifier (GRAI), much like a serial number on a manufactured product. The container then remains unique and identifiable by this number throughout its lifetime. Yet as the name implies, the GRAI is specifically for returnable assets, allowing the asset’s owner to track or trace its whereabouts within the pooling system.
The label or code gives each IFCO RPC an identity as well as the ability to store data. "Growers already need to document their shipments, and they increasingly do this digitally, including the GRAI codes of the IFCO RPCs," says Taylor. "Then, the next person receiving the goods just has to scan in the label, and doesn’t need to key in the details again." Here is how this chain could work in practice:
During growing and following harvest, producers already enter crop details digitally in their systems.
When a certain shipment is identified along with the GRAI number, there is already a record of how the produce was grown and when it starts its journey.
As fresh produce is transported, maintaining the cold chain is key. Logistics operators monitor the temperatures and humidity of onboard units digitally, along with the IFCO RPC-identifiers throughout shipping to the distribution center. En route, operators can send a message before they arrive with, let’s say, a shipment of Valencia oranges.
At warehouses, identifying data enable more efficient operations, by alerting operators about the exact content of incoming shipments. These can then be routed quickly inside the warehouse. Automated systems continually scan packaging and allocate the shipments to the correct dispatch area, or in the case of urgent goods, push them directly through to the loading zone, called cross-stocking.
Using identifiers also makes voice-picking easier because the shipment details are already available. "You need identifiers for several picking strategies and technologies," explains Taylor. "The warehouse logic can then find the most efficient way to bring each IFCO RPC to goods-sell area."
Retailers also benefit from receiving data in advance. This smart planning helps reduce waste and supports first-in-first-out (FIFO), so the freshest produce is always on display. Store managers can avoid shelf-out situations, running out of stock on display, because they know the exact content of containers coming in, as well as which ones need refilling or replenishment.
And once goods are in – the produce aisle, product data can be transmitted electronically to price clips on shelves – or even to consumer apps. Consumers get complete transparency about the supply chain journey. The oranges themselves tell them the whole story.
Taylor explains that data monitoring also helps uncover the cause of excess damage or theft at any stage of the supply chain. An additional, essential benefit is being able to track and trace empty IFCO RPCs individually through our wash processes to verify cleanliness and hygiene.
By referring to RPC 4.0, intelligent or smart packaging means adding logic, not simply storing data. So not only can you orchestrate patterns – when this container arrives, send it here – but you can also learn from your experiences. "If you know how the IFCO RPCs behaved last time they moved through your warehouse or store," says Taylor, "you can use machine learning to help you define strategies on how to make operations faster and better the next time. To do this, you need reusable containers and standardized technologies."
"Although end-to-end track and trace is not yet heavily implemented in our industry, we do have minor pools, smaller use cases, that follow shipments via RFID all the way through," Taylor adds. "And digitalization is increasing. So RPC 4.0 is part of the enabling technology that we offer our customers, and which can support and help increase transparency throughout the industry."