Making waves

Features - Cover Story

Hibernia Nursery is using RFID technology to manage its inventory and find the true cost of its plants.

June 5, 2017

Mike Fisher demonstrates how the RFID scanner, tag (on post) and app work in tandem in Hibernia Nursery’s inventory management system.
Shea Rose Photography

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.

Once a change is recorded in the Arbré Nursery app in the field, it is accessible to sales reps using the software in the office. The cloud-based system helps sales by providing instant up-to-date inventory.
Shea Rose Photography

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.

The set-up was not particularly complicated, Fisher says. After a one-hour demonstration with Vollmer, Fisher was able to train the rest of his staff without difficulty. He did the initial Bluetooth connections himself, so they all now connect automatically.

“All the workers have to do is go into the app, click the scanner, turn the scanner on and you’re ready to scan,” he says.

As plants move in and move out, that RFID stays static for that block. Whether you are tagging individual plants or tagging a row or an entire zone, like Hibernia, the software allows you to easily clear that tag out. If a grower decides to move one zone or not use it anymore, they can open up that profile, remove that RFID and at that point, the identification is relinquished. It can then be reused in another zone. For finished growers, Arbré Technologies recommends tagging individual plants. When those nurseries add a specific tree to a sale, there is a sales process that once they mark it as shipped, the system is assuming that tree is dug and put on a trailer to get picked up by the customer.

“At that point, we relinquish the RFID and they can throw it into a bucket of resusable tags, and reuse it for next year’s plants,” says Ben Meyers, co-founder and partner, Arbré Technologies.

In addition to ensuring accurate shipping counts, Fisher uses inventory tracking to improve the quality of his cost reports.

“We track cost on everything,” Fisher says. “I like to track everything from culls, damages, everything. Just to get a true accurate cost of each crop.”

Real-time statistics measuring how much fertilizer or herbicide a plant uses help Hibernia Nursery know the true cost of a plant, which is vital information when making production decisions.
Shea Rose Photography

The cloud-based Arbré Nursery inventory management software presents Fisher with the information he needs, when he needs it. Having real-time statistics helps him make production decisions.

“I can base the numbers I’m growing for a plant based on how many times it’s been touched, moved, fertilized, herbicided, pruned,” Fisher says. “I will actually know an accurate cost.”

He can use that information to determine the true costs of a particular crop, and then decide whether to grow more or less of it.

Flying into the future

Arbré Technologies is planning for a future where RFID becomes the industry standard. The RFID tag will be applied at propagation and stay with that plant through the entire production process, then get passed down to the next company in the supply chain – from the liner producer to the finished grower, to the retailer to the customer. Bar codes, UPC and RFID are already used this way in other industries. “Our vision is that RFID will be the gold standard for inventory management in the nursery space, whether it’s a shrub producer or tree producer,” Vollmer says.

To reach that future, Arbré Technologies developed CaliperRFID, an adjustable band that is designed to expand and contract with a tree. When the band is scanned by a RFID reader, the caliper is automatically stored in the Arbré Nursery inventory management system.

Calipering is such a time-consuming, costly task that many nurseries are only able to do it once a year. But it could be done much more often if the process could be automated. With the advances in unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, this could be a reality sooner than you think.

Arbré Technologies is working with Tali Freed, a professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at Cal Poly State University San Luis Obisbo, who has been researching drone scanning in nursery settings.

“Drones are going to the be the future of inventory management in nurseries in general,” Meyers says. “Drones have the ability to self-charge themselves, have the ability to put in flight plans, things like that. Our long-term goal is to have the drones be doing all of the collection. You can imagine the nursery with CaliperRFID on every one of their trees, then being able to have a drone put in your flight plan. GPS your nursery one time, to show where things are located and have it take a strategic path to collect the readings.”

If a nursery sets a monthly scheduled flight plan, the updated readings it will collect result in a true “live inventory.” This enables the grower to sell trees at their actual sizes, not their size from a year ago, the last time they were hand-calipered.

“The ability to tag a tree then fly a drone and get accurate reads of the calipers where I don’t have to have a guy do that by hand is very interesting to me,” Fisher says.

Vollmer says many nurseries are waiting for the “Rolls Royce of inventory management.” But he encourages nurseries to start small to get comfortable with the technology, then work from there.

“Once you have an RFID on every inventory item, the sky is really the limit,” Vollmer says. “It really opens up countless possibilities of what you can track with your inventory in a much more efficient and automated way. But what we’ve been trying to stress to the industry is that you have to start somewhere. The train is moving. It never stops. You have to pick a time to get on, otherwise you’re going to miss the train completely.”