By Gary Hartley of GS1 New Zealand
It’s export time again in the Kiwifruit industry. And EastPack is again harvesting the benefits of EPC/RFID in its extremely busy cool store operations.
EastPack is one of the industry’s biggest pack house (or post-harvest) operators, responsible for cool storing kiwifruit and delivering for export shipment on-demand from ZESPRI. And EPC/RFID – radio frequency identification based on the Electronic Product Code standard – is the technology EastPack has been using to help manage its way through each hectic export season since 2008.
This year’s shipments from the Port of Tauranga started, as usual, in late March – and it’s the seventh season of EPC/RFID operating in the tightly-packed kiwifruit cool stores of EastPack in Edgecumbe and Te Puke.
The company confirms that the system is still running as designed and supported by GS1 New Zealand consultants in 2007-08. Then, it was New Zealand’s first large-scale commercial roll out of EPC/RFID (and maybe the first whole-of-operation use of the technology in the Asia–Pacific region).
The system works like this: An EPC tag is applied to each pallet of sorted and graded fruit as it goes into storage; forklift-mounted RFID readers enable each pallet’s identity and movement to be electronically recorded; specific locations are recorded using cameras (also on the forklift as it moves pallets around) to snap visual markers mounted on cool store ceilings; and a central database is constantly updated with information on fruit location and movement.
EastPack saw large, early efficiency gains in it storage and retrieval of fruit, and its capacity to deliver on shipment requests that can change repeatedly in the days and hours before product is due on the wharf. Forklift driver productivity, accuracy in picking fruit from stores, time spent marshalling it for shipment, fruit spoilage rates – these and other variables all improved. No longer could cool store operations descend into chaos when the pressure really came on.
In 2014, EastPack senior managers say they could not live without the system that opened a new era of productivity in their cool stores. And they have been able to build on those early gains – largely the streamlining of daily operations –by using the rich data gathered over the years of EPC/RFID usage for better planning and decision making across the business.
The system seems to have plugged right into EastPack’s Growing Excellence philosophy on continuous improvement – and contributed to a 28 percent saving in costs in the company’s processes and plant operations over four years. EastPack has been spurred to find and lock in those savings through the tough years of PSA — the vine-killing disease that hit some of its cooperative owners hard in the pocket.
Happily the Kiwifruit industry is bouncing back from PSA with recovery in production levels as new, disease-resistant plant stock bears fruit. In 2014, EastPack expects further recovery in volumes with the number of trays through its cool stores being a third higher than the low point of 2012.
EPC/RFID has surely proved itself in the pack house area of the industry and, indeed, contributed to financial resilience through the type of biological crisis that is the nightmare of any business in horticulture or agriculture. This year and beyond, EastPack will benefit more than ever from its system as kiwifruit volumes increase with the all the pressures that flow into the export season.
Full credit to the foresighted management and board of EastPack. But let’s hope that their great learnings from sustained application of EPC/RFID are picked up also in other New Zealand primary production and export sectors where efficiency and resilience are equally critical in a world of increasing competitive and ever-present vulnerability to natural setback.