New technology can be daunting, especially when it has a reputation as being user-unfriendly. RFID, or radio frequency identification, isn’t new by any means. But it has never reached its potential in the green industry. Arbré Technologies is trying to change that perception with an inventory management solution that combines hardware and software.
“There has been a lot of talk about RFID for a long time,” says Matt Vollmer, co-founder and partner of Arbré Technologies. “It hasn’t taken hold. There have been a lot of issues with it. It was not very user friendly. But the technology has come a long way.”
In nurseries, like in any industry, RFID technology is used to track and manage assets and products. A microchip and antenna make up the “tag,” which can be read by a RFID scanning device. The scanner turns the radio waves into digital data. While similar to the more familiar bar code system, RFID offers a major advantage over bar coding in that the scanning device does not need direct line of sight to read the tag.
Arbré Technologies’ solution integrates hardware – the RFID tags and scanner – with software. The company created an inventory management system called Arbré Nursery, which is designed to track and manage green assets.
The software includes an in-field mobile app that is streamlined to make the essential features easy to access. Users can set preferences customizing which statistics the app will show for specific tasks. It is scalable for nurseries from 20,000 trees to 500,000 or more. The system is capable of tracking inventory as individual trees or rows, batches or pallets.
How it works
Mike Fisher, operations manager at Hibernia Nursery, is dipping his toes in the waters. He’s been using a modest version of the system to test the technology at the 135-acre Florida wholesale nursery. So far, he’s been very pleased with the results.
Instead of placing a tag on each individual plant, Hibernia Nursery placed one rugged RFID tag on each block of plants. As Fisher’s crew leaders pull plants for shipping, they scan the RFID at each block. This ensures accurate shipping counts. It’s a cloud-based system, so as soon as a field manager or supervisor makes a note and taps “Save” on the block’s profile, the people in Hibernia’s office have the same information as the crew leader who is physically in front of the block of plants.
“When he rides around he can make a comment or suggestion regarding herbicide, disease, or anything we like to track, instead of the information going from field to office, (and potentially) losing that information, he’s doing it right in the field so there is no chance to forget it between the hot days in the summer,” Fisher says.
All historical data is tracked, so everyone with access to the Arbré Nursery system can see dates and times of herbicide or fertilizer application.
“It’s basically costing, by tracking every input that goes into a species,” Vollmer says.
A nursery employee uses a RFID reader to scan the tags. The reading device is synced via Bluetooth technology with an Android tablet running the Arbré Nursery app, which is used to manage data.
“Once they scan that tag, and it brings up that block’s profile, all the trees or shrubs that are in that block will come up and they can do an action to each specific plant,” Fisher says.
“It’s as demanding as ‘We need to get in there and spray these now,’ or ‘These are a little light on water, we need to stay on it for the next few days.’”
Know the true cost
The capital investment for the first year of Hibernia Nursery’s RFID experiment is about $43,000. That includes the software subscription, RFID tags and scanners and some other services.
But with the efficiency gained from the system, the nursery has been able to free up one supervisor’s job for an entire year. Instead of dedicating that person to inventory tracking, Fisher is able to shift the employee to other areas, like propagation or irrigation. Fisher says that gives them a 100 percent rate of return within the first year. In addition, the increased accuracy in shipping counts should reduce shipping claims – which Fisher values at about $50,000 per year.
Top photo: Shea Rose Photography
Mike Fisher and crew cruise the nursery scanning inventory.