A California produce company which has delivered tree fruit and grapes to grocery store shelves for more than 50 years tapped RFID technology as one of its 21st century moves to increase its order accuracy while getting a better handle on inventory. The result will be a better quality product for its retail and wholesale customers.
Established in 1943 as a partnership between a grower, a marketer, and a wholesaler, Ballantine Produce is headquartered in Reedley, Calif. in the San Joaquin Valley, the state’s top agricultural producing region.
“Wal-Mart mandated that its top tier 100 suppliers had to be RFID compliant. We’re nowhere near that size, but we volunteered to be RFID compliant by the start of our season (May),” explained Scott Albertson, Ballantine’s marketing director. “Our intention was to service the whole retail environment,” he said.
“We are a large vertically-integrated agricultural enterprise. We have our own farms and a grower base which is 40% of our production. We operate numerous packing houses, a marketing company and an import/export division,” he said. “In essence, we follow everything from seed to store.”
But the company’s target is the large grocery store chains, many which are rapidly moving into RFID. To keep pace, Ballantine selected software from Manhattan Associates, Atlanta, Ga. The produce company is using Manhattan’s Warehouse Management solution that can provide extensive supply chain functionality for Ballantine’s distribution center. It also integrates with Manhattan’s Integration Platform for RFID that will allow Ballantine to track its produce throughout the supply chain. This solution supports code date rotation, track date ranges, such as First In First Out (FIFO), a key inventory management ingredient for a grocery store. It will also produce and integrate with Ballantine’s order management system to process orders and allocate shipments, said Greg Gilbert, Manhattan’s director of RFID solutions.
David Silva, Ballantine’s director of information systems, said the Manhattan software encodes the tags which resemble a 2 by 4 Avery label that goes on cases and pallets.
The passive tag includes the EPC code “which tells you what the commodity is, and it also tells you the pallet tag number,” said Mr. Silva. “If one of the labels were to actually fall off, a user would actually be able to tell what pallet it belongs on.”
How does it work? “The Manhattan software tells the printer what to encode. When it passes through a portal (an RFID reader), the pallets are validated and you know that the cases on that pallet belong to it,” added Mr. Silva. “It’s the last step before we ship.”
Mr. Silva said the company “went live May 1 with the inventory control piece for packaging materials, then we went live with the RFID solution on May 15.” Any glitches? “So far so good,” he said. “The interfaces are working okay. What we’re really working on now is figuring out the best place to put the tag on the RPCs (reusable plastic container) for the best read rate.” It also helps in determining how many RPCs Ballantine has on hand at any one time. “In our world, we ship a lot of RPCs, and a lot of corrugated boxes.”
Mr. Gilbert explained the Manhattan middleware solution this way: “It provides two bridges, a bridge between the RFID hardware layer and the enterprise application layer so it can translate all the data, the filtering that true middleware does. It also translates tag data into something meaningful for enterprise systems since most don’t understand what an EPC does.”
Before Ballantine went with Manhattan, it looked at several software companies. Manhattan was “more of a middleware solution, providing the software, but not the hardware, such as printers, and so forth. Manhattan included the middleware plus a full warehouse management solution. There were some opportunities there for us, whether we needed to track packaging materials or bins,” said Mr. Silva.
Another deal-maker, as far as Ballantine was concerned, was that if the produce company had trouble with one supplier’s hardware, it only had to contact Manhattan to “deal with the suppliers. Other software companies we talked to, they would support their software but if you had a problem with your printer or reader, you had to call those manufacturers. If I have a problem, I call Manhattan,” said Mr. Silva.
“Another reason why we went with Manhattan,” added Mr. Albertson, “is that we wanted a more broad service-oriented RFID partner. From a marketing perspective, we’re selling confidence, freshness and taste. That manifested itself in all the products we handle, so we needed something to help validate that we’re in control and we can provide a full supply chain and production chain awareness.”
Mr. Gilbert said there were two factors explaining why Manhattan was the best fit for Ballantine.
“We absolutely understand the business process and the business environment in which they operate,” he said. “Manhattan has almost a thousand customers and every single one of them run distribution centers. We can take RFID and make sure our systems work well. The second thing is the stability of Manhattan Associates. We’ve; been around since 1991. You know we’re going to be here to support you. We have a 24/7 support desk (supporting 65 different languages) and all those inherent capabilities that means we’ll be able to support you.”
This broad scope coverage will also allow Ballantine to grow. “As RFID evolves,” said Mr. Albertson, “we wanted to be in a position to customize our flow to make it retailer-specific, since they all want different things.”
Added Mr. Silva: “The RFID solution gives us visibility of our product that we’re shipping to RFID-enabled customers. I can tell you this fruit is sitting at this point in Wal-Mart’s supply chain. In addition, we have the internal technology to track our assets, productivity and labor.”
The end result? “A framework to ultimately deliver a fresher product that’s validatable, that this pallet, this container; and whatever those attributes we need to track, temperature, quality, etc. are validated by the systems. We’re seeing what humans are seeing in real time,” explained Mr. Silva.
A side advantage to RFID utilization, said Mr. Albertson, is that Ballantine can now email or phone its customers to let them know how long a product has been there and that they should move it out to the front end (the sales floor). “It’s a quantum leap in the relationship, allowing us to work together to maximize the effectiveness of the supply chain. There’s not one box left behind. We’re able to track every carton. The responsiveness of our customers is that they’re grateful for the partnership aspects, and we can make sure everyone is more accountable for the assets we’re putting into the pipeline.”
Ballantine has progressed from its first year production of 50,000 cartons some 50 years ago to a distribution of over ten million packages, representing more than 200 varieties of plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, grapes, Asian pears, pomegranates, persimmons, and apples.
Manhattan Associates, which derives its name from Manhattan Beach, Calif., where it was founded, provides warehouse, transportation, distributed order management, reverse logistics and trading partner management applications, as well as its RFID, performance management and event management capabilities.