Co-op Uses RFID to Track
Plastic Bottles It Makes
for Coca-Cola in U.S.
Jean V. Murphy
A conversation with John Underwood, engineering manager at Southeastern
Container, the largest U.S. bottle manufacturer for Coca-Cola.
Southeastern Container, Enka, N.C., was formed in
1982 under the ownership of a group of Coca-Cola
Bottling companies. Today the company operates as
a manufacturing cooperative, producing 70 percent of the plastic bottles used by Coca-Cola in the
U.S. It also works with bottle manufacturers outside
of the co-op. The company recently implemented an
RFID asset tracking system.
Q: Give us a brief description of Southeastern
Underwood: Southeast Container is a
cooperative owned by a group of Coca-Cola bottlers. We manufacture for them unlabeled, unfilled
bottles that they then fill and label. We have 10
manufacturing facilities across the East Coast and in
Illinois and Wisconsin. At three of those facilities we
have injection molding operations where we take
PET [polyethylene terephthalate] resin in pellet
form and produce what we call pre-forms. These
are the thread part of the bottle attached to what
looks like a large test tube. The pre-forms are
shipped to our bottle-blowing locations where they
are reheated and stretched and blown in a standard
Q: The assets you want to track are the containers
for these pre-forms?
Underwood: That’s right. Until now, we
have been using mostly cardboard containers,
which have a relatively short cycle life. They also
have stackability issues that prevent us from maximizing the capacity of shipping trailers. And the
cardboard containers often are pre-assembled to
save time, which takes up a lot of warehouse
floor space. These issues add up when you are
shipping billions of pre-forms, so we decided to
move to returnable plastic bins. We already had a
few plastic bins in use, but they were not optimized for loading on a trailer or for efficient
return of empties.
The 30,000-plus new plastic bins we are adding to
our system are collapsible. They fold down on four
sides into a nice, compact shape so that we can maximize their return to our injection operations. But
these containers cost a lot more than cardboard and
we wanted to be able to count their delivery/return
cycles so we could track that against the number of
cycles guaranteed by the manufacturer.
Q: Why did you decide to use RFID for this?
Underwood: Well, we already use and will
continue to use barcodes to identify the contents of
each box or bin, but that content changes with each
cycle and a new barcode has to be applied. So the
barcode can’t tell us how many cycles a box or bin
has been through. As I mentioned, the bin manufacturer guaranteed a certain cycle life on these
bins, and the only way to ensure that we get that
guarantee is to count the cycles as the bins go
through our system.
We looked at using a separate barcode to identify the bins but barcodes can come off and they are
quite fragile—you get a scratch on them and they
may not read well. An RFID tag, on the other hand,
is rather permanent and rather protected, which
ensures, with a high degree of certainty, that we can
get an accurate cycle count on the bins.
As a piggyback on that, we are doing some
other things with the tag information. For example,
when we barcode the unit, we also read the RFID
tag and associate both of those pieces of information, so we know what that particular bin contains.
This provides a backup in case the barcode is not
read for whatever reason—maybe it falls off or is
damaged. As the bin makes its way back through
the return cycle and we read the RFID tag, if we
don’t have a record of the contents having been
dumped, because the barcode scan failed at that
point, then we go ahead and remove it from inventory based on the RFID read.
As we go forward in time, we will probably
use RFID more than barcodes, but we are not
ready to get away from barcodes entirely because