ATTORNEY DOCKET NO. 00242-86277 RETURNABLE CONTAINER CONTROL SYSTEM
The present invention is directed to a system for controlling returnable containers, and, more particularly, to a system for tracking and controlling the flow of returnable containers through a distribution network.
Many goods are distributed in packaging that is designed for only a single use.
Corrugated containers, for example, are typically flattened and baled for shipment to a paper mill for use as recycled fiber or sent to a landfill after a single use.
Consequently, reusable or returnable packaging is becoming a popular alternative to single use packaging in specific applications including, for example, automotive parts, baked goods, and fresh produce.
Returnable containers, by their nature, require a greater investment per container than single use containers. Thus, an important issue for returnable container providers is ensuring that the containers are efficiently utilized. Transportation logistics and costs can be important obstacles to efficient utilization of returnable containers. For example, shipping empty containers long distances to be cleaned or reused is costly and inefficient. Container I S inventory investment needs to be kept at a minimum to reduce costs while at the same time meeting the customer's needs. Closed container systems, that is systems in which the returnable containers are segregated by owner/user, can increase costs and reduce efficiency.
If a system lacks the ability to track individual containers, it needs to be a closed system. An open system, on the other hand, provides better utilization of cleaning and transportation assets, since containers can be provided to users based on finding the closest inventory of available containers, regardless of who may have used them last. Containers are typically rented from a container provider, and currently the rental fee for containers is not time dependent. Thus, there is no incentive for customers to efficiently manage the containers in their possession.
It is an object of the present invention to provide a returnable container management system which reduces or wholly overcomes some or all of the difficulties inherent in prior known devices. Particular objects and advantages of the invention will be apparent to those skilled in the art, that is, those who are knowledgeable or experienced in this field of technology, in view of the following disclosure of the invention and detailed description of preferred embodiments.
The principles of the invention may be used to advantage to provide a system for managing the supply of rented returnable containers, where the container rental fee is based on the amount of time that the container is in the user's control.
Tracking containers through the use of a unique identifier by a central computer, or a network of computers, provides the ability to ascertain the location of each container at all times, to calculate the time a container is in the control of a user, and to ensure that users be held accountable for loss or damage of the containers.
In accordance with a first aspect, a system for tracking returnable containers includes a plurality of returnable containers, with each container having an identifier. A central computer having a database tracks the availability and location of the returnable containers and provides billing information. A plurality of input terminals read the identifiers on the returnable containers, and forward information regarding the status of the returnable containers to the central computer. The cost for use of a selected container is calculated based on the time that the selected container is in the control of a user.
From the foregoing disclosure, it will be readily apparent to those skilled in the art, that is, those who are knowledgeable or experienced in this area of technology, that the present invention provides a significant advance. Preferred embodiments of the returnable container control system of the present invention can provide improved tracking capabilities for returnable containers, and, therefore, greater utilization of the containers. These and additional features and advantages of the invention disclosed here will be further understood from the following detailed disclosure of preferred embodiments.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
Preferred embodiments are described in detail below with reference to the appended drawings.
I S Fig.l is a perspective view of container in accordance with the present invention, having a radio frequency chip embedded therein, and a radio frequency scanner for scanning the chip;
Fig. 2 is a schematic representation of a distribution system for returnable containers in accordance with the present invention;
Fig. 3 is a representation of a web page providing access to information regarding returnable containers; and ~
Fig. 4 is a flow chart showing steps that can be included in the distribution system of Fig. 2.
The figures referred to above are not drawn necessarily to scale and should be understood to present a representation of the invention, illustrative of the principles involved.
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF PREFERRED EMBDDIMENTS
In the present invention, returnable containers are used to transport goods from producers, e.g., manufacturers, to their customers. The producers rent the containers from container providers, and the rental fee is dependent on the amount of time the container is in the producer's control. Transportation providers physically move the containers throughout the distribution system. Cleaning providers clean the containers arid maintain an inventory of available containers. A central computer is used to track the status of containers throughout the distribution system, facilitating the placement, sourcing, inventory management and billing of the returnable containers. Contractual arrangements are established between each party as required.
I 5 A container 2 in accordance with the present invention is shown in Fig. 1.
Container 2 includes a unique identifier such as a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip 4. RFID
chip 4 is used to identify container 2 as it moves throughout the distribution system. An RF
reader or scanner 6 is used in conjunction with RFID chip 4 to record the presence of a container 2. An entire pallet of containers 2, either empty or filled with finished goods, can be placed in front of an RF scanner 6 to record the particular containers which are present.
RFID chip 4 is preferably embedded into the container is such a way that it is protected from possible damage during container usage and cleaning of the container. In another preferred embodiment, the unique identifier could be a barcode on container 2 which would be used in conjunction with a barcode reader to record the presence of container 2.
A distribution system 5 for controlling the transportation of containers 2 between cleaners, producers and customers is controlled by a central computer 8, as seen in Fig. 2.
It is to be appreciated that in certain preferred embodiments central computer 8 could comprise a network of computers rather than a single centralized host computer. Central computer 8 has a database 10 to store information regarding containers 2.
In use, a producer 12 (e.g., a manufacturer of goods to be transported in containers) uses a computer 14 to order a desired number of containers 2 from an originating container provider 16, either through central computer 8, or, preferably, conununicating directly with a computer 18 of originating container provider 16. The originating container provider 16 uses computer 18 to place an order for containers with central computer 8.
Central computer 8 will then select a sourcing container provider 20 that is most economical for that particular producer based on parameters such as the producer's location, the quantity of containers required, etc. The order transmitted to central computer 8 by originating container provider 16 will contain the terms of the rental agreement that the originating container provider 16 has established with the producer 12. This information is entered into database 10. Central computer 8 then issues an order to sourcing container provider 20, having a computer 21.
Sourcing container provider 20 will then release the required number of containers to producer 12. Depending on container availability, sourcing container provider 20 may be the same as originating provider 16. Sourcing container provider 20 arranges with a transportation provider 22, having a transportation provider computer 24, for delivery of the ordered containers 2 from a cleaning service provider 26, having a computer 28, where sourcing container provider 20's containers are stored, to producer 12.
Containers 2 are then shipped by transportation provider 22 to a customer 30, having a computer 32.
The containers are tracked throughout distribution system 5 by RF readers 6 which are connected, for example, to computers 14, 28, and 32 of producer 12, cleaning service provider 26, and customer 30, respectively. At each stage of the distribution process, an RF
scanner 6 is used to enter into a corresponding computer the presence of the containers 2.
This information is transferred to database 10 of central computer 8 so that central computer 8 can track the location of each container 2 at all times.
The selected containers 2 are delivered by transportation provider 22 via truck or other suitable delivery vehicle to producer I 2. Transportation provider computer 24 can send in-transit information to database 10 of central computer 8 regarding the location of the containers 2. Producer 12 can access this information, as described below, allowing proper management of the flow of inbound containers. When the empty and ready-to-use containers 2 are delivered to producer 12, the RF scanner 6 at computer 14 reads the RFID
chips 4 on the containers, and computer 14 forwards this status information to database 10 of central computer 8. Central computer 8 begins calculating rental charges for containers 2 at this time, since the containers are now in the control of producer 12. A load tendering notice is transmitted from computer 14 to database 10 of central computer 8 at this time as well, acknowledging that transportation provider 22 has completed its service.
Central computer 8 forwards this information to transportation provider 22, and a bill for the services of transportation provider is created.
Once finished goods are loaded into containers 2, producer 12 enters information regarding the goods to be transported to central computer 8 through computer 14. Such information includes, for example, the customer's name and address, purchase order number, items shipped, quantity shipped, the particular transportation provider used, vehicle number, and bill of lading number. Upon shipment of containers 2 from producer 12, the RF scanner 6 of computer 14 reads the load of containers, and this information is sent to database 10, indicating that the finished goods have left the producer's facility.
Transportation provider 22 then ships containers 2 to customer 30. During transit, transportation provider computer 24 can send in-transit information to database 10 regarding the location of the containers 2. Customer 30 can access this information, as described below, to properly manage the flow of inbound containers. When containers 2 arrive at customer 30, RF scanner 6 is used to read the load of containers, and computer 32 sends this information to database 10 of central computer 8, indicating that the finished goods have been received by customer 30. A load tendering notice is transmitted from computer 32 to database 10 of central computer 8, acknowledging that transportation provider 22 has completed its service and allowing a bill for the services of transportation provider 22 to be created. Central computer 8 provides a reconciliation between what was shipped by producer 12 and what was received by customer 30, and provides information, such as a discrepancy report, to the necessary parties.
Once customer 30 has unloaded containers 2, RF scanner 6 and computer 32 are used to transmit information to database 10 of central computer 8 indicating that the containers are empty. The payment due to producer 12 by customer 30 for delivery of the finished goods is calculated at this time by central computer 8. Since the rental fee charged to producer 12 is time based, producer 12 has an incentive to get customer 30 to quickly empty containers 2 and make them available for use in distribution system 5, and, therefore, may include incentives in their agreement with customer 30. Further, the system provides the ability to calculate a charge to a customer 30 for a lost or damaged container. This provides additional incentive to the customer to ensure that they are held accountable for proper and prompt handling of the containers in their possession.
Central computer 8 then notifies a cleaning service provider 26 via computer 28 that containers 2 are available for pickup. Cleaning service provider 26 uses RF
scanner 6 and computer 28 to notify central computer 8 when containers 2 are received, and also when the containers are clean and available for use. Central computer 8 may, in certain preferred embodiments, wait till a desired number of empty containers 2 are present at customer 30 before notifying cleaning service provider 26 that the containers are available for pickup.
Central computer 8 is able to maintain billing information for the appropriate parties I S in distribution system 5 based on the information received from the RF
readers and computers in the system. Since database I 0 of central computer 8 has information regarding the amount of time a container spends while in control of each party, time based rental fees are easily calculated by central computer 8. Fees due to the requisite providers can be calculated, and invoices for producer 12 and customer 30 can be created by central computer 8. Originating provider 16, sourcing container provider 20, transportation provider 22, cleaning service provider 26, and, preferably, a service provider operating central computer 8, each receive a fee for their services in connection with the movement of containers 2 throughout distribution system 5. The fees are paid directly by producer 12, and indirectly by customer 30, who pays producer 12 for delivery of finished goods in containers 2.
Producer 12 will set its finished goods pricing based in part on costs associated with using distribution system 5.
S Since database 10 of central computer 8 has accurate information regarding the status of all containers 2 within distribution system 5, the use of containers 2 can be optimized by arranging for shipments that are efficient and cost-effective. For example, once containers have been emptied and made available at a customer's location, central computer 8 can determine which cleaning service provider is closest to the customer, and, therefore, minimize shipping costs by arranging for delivery to the closest provider.
Additionally, as noted above, when a producer orders containers, central computer 8 may arrange for the containers to be delivered from the closest location having suitable container inventory.
It is to be appreciated that distribution system 5 preferably contains multiple producers, customers, container providers, transportation providers and cleaning service providers, each communicating via a computer with central computer 8.
In preferred embodiments, central computer 8 is a web server providing a web page 40 as seen in Fig. 3, permitting the different entities in distribution system 5 to access information regarding containers from a web site. The term "web site" refers to a computer on which a web page is stored and from which the page can be retrieved by a web browser.
Any of various conventional browsers can be used and the pages can be constructed using conventional web programming techniques. The web site can be accessed directly by typing in a web page address on address line 42, or through a search engine providing appropriate hyperlinks to the site. The content 44 of web page 40 allows the producers, customers, transportation providers, etc. access to information regarding all aspects of an order for containers, including, for example, the location of particular containers and billing information. It is to be appreciated that the content 44 of web page 40 can be varied to include any information contained within database 10 of central computer 8.
For example, by clicking on hyperlink 46, a producer can look up information regarding the status of containers that they have ordered, allowing them to find out exactly where the containers are and when to expect delivery. Similarly, a customer can also inquire as to the status of containers for which they are awaiting delivery. Other hyperlinks allow, for example, inquiries regarding billing information 50, and the entry of information regarding an order 52. Central computer 8 is capable of exchanging data with computer systems of various parties. This data interchange will allow for the automated recording of transactions.
Fig. 4 shows various steps that can be carried out to implement aspects of the present invention. Each of the parties in distribution system 5 negotiate agreements 60 with one another, establishing terms such as pricing, method of delivery, method of communication, etc. A producer then places an order 62 for containers with an originating container provider.
Central computer 8 will then select containers 64 from an appropriate sourcing container provider. The containers will be scanned 66 by an RF reader at the cleaning service provider where the containers for the sourcing container provider are stored. The containers are shipped 68 to the producer, with the transportation provider providing in-transit information to central computer 8 during shipment. Such information will be available to the producer in order to help manage the flow of inbound containers. Upon receipt of the containers by the producer, the containers are scanned 72 by the producer's RF reader. A
load tendering notice is sent 74 to the central computer 8 and on to the transportation provider, indicating that the shipment has been completed.
At this point, since the containers are in the control of the producer, the rental time period calculation begins 76. The producer loads finished goods into the containers 78, and then sends key information 80 to central computer 8 describing the goods to be shipped to its customer. The loaded containers are scanned by the producer's RF reader 82 and a bill of lading is printed 84 for the transportation provider. The transportation provider ships the containers 86 to the customer, providing in-transit information to central computer 8 during shipment.
Advance notice of the shipment may be provided to the customer 88. This notice may be sent directly to the customer by central computer 8, or, alternatively, the customer may access the web site of central computer 8 at their convenience to access this information and thereby more efficiently manage the flow of inbound containers. Upon receipt, the customer uses its RF reader to scan the incoming containers 90, and a load tendering notice is sent 92 to central computer 8 and on to the transportation provider, indicating that the shipment has been completed.
A reconciliation 94 is then performed by central computer 8, comparing what was shipped by the producer and what was received by the customer. If a discrepancy exists 96, a notice of discrepancies 98 is prepared by central computer 8.
After the containers are unloaded 100, the customer scans the containers 102, notifying database 10 of central computer 8 that the containers are available for pickup to be cleaned and/or reused. The rental period ends at this point and invoices are prepared I 04 by central computer 8 for the producer and the customer. Central computer 8 then arranges for the containers to be shipped 106 to a cleaning service provider. The cleaning service provider scans the containers 108, indicating receipt, cleans the containers 110, and scans them I 12 with their RF reader, notifying central computer 8 that the containers are available for reuse.
In light of the foregoing disclosure of the invention and description of the preferred embodiments, those skilled in this area of technology will readily understand that various modifications and adaptations can be made without departing from the scope and spirit of the invention. All such modifications and adaptations are intended to be covered by the following claims.