At City Link, Tagged Roll Cages Keep Deliveries Moving


March 22, 2007 - One of the United Kingdom's express delivery service providers, City Link, is using RFID and a Wi-Fi network to track the whereabouts of 15,000 roll cages, the wheeled containers the company uses to transport packages at its distribution centers.

City Link is using active tags and related hardware and software from San Mateo, Calif.-based RTLS specialist AeroScout. The AeroScout system includes active 2.4 GHz RFID tags; exciters, which activate the tags, causing them to transmit their ID numbers; and the AeroScout Engine, which calculates tag locations by processing data from the tags and various Wi-Fi access points. It also includes AeroScout's MobileView software, which can portray location information on a map, in a table or in a report.

City Link has fitted its 15,000 roll cages with AeroScout Wi-Fi tags.
AeroScout and its U.K. partner, JDH Consultancy Limited are using AeroScout tags, which communicate via the IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi) air-interface protocol. Wi-Fi support enables organizations like City Link to leverage Wi-Fi access points to collect the RFID and location data, thus eliminating the need for proprietary interrogators to collect tag data. City Link, headquartered in Surrey and part of Rentokil Initial, a U.K. company offering a variety of business services worldwide such as pest control, package delivery, catering, and electronic security, is using Wi-Fi access points from Cisco.

Specially designed for this project, the tags used by City Link have a longer battery life than AeroScout's current off-the-shelf tag RFID tags. "They wanted to make sure the tag would last a very long time out in the field, so we created this tag that has up to eight years of battery life," says Joshua Slobin, AeroScout's director of marketing. The tags are affixed to mounting plates at the top corners of the cages, says Andris Berzins, AeroScout's managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

City Link decided on an RFID system to help it manage all its roll cages used at more than 70 distribution facilities, or depots, located throughout the United Kingdom. The cages are pulled by trucks at the depots, where they are filled with parcels and loaded onto delivery trucks. By knowing exactly where all the cages are when at the depots, City Link can more easily stick to its very tight delivery schedule, which is timed to the minute, according to Berzins. "Without cages, packages must be palletized and transported with forklifts, which slows down the process," he says. The cages also ensure that damage to the packages is minimal by protecting them from knocks.

City Link has studied RFID technology for several years. "RFID promises the express parcels sector massive benefits," says Alec Cormack, CIO at City Link. For the moment, RFID-tagging all the parcels is cost-prohibitive, particularly for a business like City Link, which moves well over 300,000 parcels each night to all parts of the world, Cormack says. But tagging the cages used to transport the parcels does make sense. "Rugged, long-life Wi-Fi tags attached to our parcel roll cages provides us with a cost-effective way to utilize this technology within our business." Today, there are 180 Wi-Fi access points spread around in more than 70 depots at City Link's main hub, the National Distribution Center in Wednesbury, West Midlands.

The access points collect the tag reads and locations, thus providing City Link with a central view of its entire population of cages at all depots. With that information, the company can identify cage shortages and overflows. "For the first time, management has a real-time picture of the exact location of all 15,000 parcel roll cages across 70-plus locations," says Cormack. "This is critical information to the teams planning and monitoring operations within the business." The company says it needs to make sure it has enough cages on hand at any distribution facility in order to be able to handle all the parcels within that distribution facility. Before installing RFID, there was no real management of the cages. Each distribution facility managed its own stock of cages individually. Some would occasionally hoard the cages in order to avoid shortages, but that would inevitably create a shortage at another depot.
City Link decided on an RFID system to help it manage all its roll cages used at more than 70 distribution facilities, or depots, located throughout the United Kingdom. The cages are pulled by trucks at the depots, where they are filled with parcels and loaded onto delivery trucks. By knowing exactly where all the cages are when at the depots, City Link can more easily stick to its very tight delivery schedule, which is timed to the minute, according to Berzins. "Without cages, packages must be palletized and transported with forklifts, which slows down the process," he says. The cages also ensure that damage to the packages is minimal by protecting them from knocks.

City Link has studied RFID technology for several years. "RFID promises the express parcels sector massive benefits," says Alec Cormack, CIO at City Link. For the moment, RFID-tagging all the parcels is cost-prohibitive, particularly for a business like City Link, which moves well over 300,000 parcels each night to all parts of the world, Cormack says. But tagging the cages used to transport the parcels does make sense. "Rugged, long-life Wi-Fi tags attached to our parcel roll cages provides us with a cost-effective way to utilize this technology within our business." Today, there are 180 Wi-Fi access points spread around in more than 70 depots at City Link's main hub, the National Distribution Center in Wednesbury, West Midlands.

The access points collect the tag reads and locations, thus providing City Link with a central view of its entire population of cages at all depots. With that information, the company can identify cage shortages and overflows. "For the first time, management has a real-time picture of the exact location of all 15,000 parcel roll cages across 70-plus locations," says Cormack. "This is critical information to the teams planning and monitoring operations within the business." The company says it needs to make sure it has enough cages on hand at any distribution facility in order to be able to handle all the parcels within that distribution facility. Before installing RFID, there was no real management of the cages. Each distribution facility managed its own stock of cages individually. Some would occasionally hoard the cages in order to avoid shortages, but that would inevitably create a shortage at another depot.

City Link completed its RFID deployment in December 2006, and Cormack says the system's rollout and subsequent operation have gone smoothly-a welcome surprise. "From the very first proof of concept trials conducted with JDH and AeroScout, the tags have worked exactly as advertised," he says. "I know I shouldn't be surprised by this, but with 20 years experience in IT, I can say this is not always the case."

City Link is starting a second phase of its RFID project, which includes ordering additional RFID tags to support the company's business growth. City Link is also testing the tagging of other business assets. Cormack declined to offer any further details.

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