Jeff Taylor, sales director transport & logistics EMEIA, Honeywell Scanning and Mobility, provides advice on how to choose the right technology package for an optimised delivery process.
In recent years, the postal industry has faced a number of difficult challenges. Declining mail volume and demand for faster and more efficient services has had a dramatic effect, forcing postal operators to review all elements of their business. In many cases, the decline of letter traffic (which is expected to go down even more every year, according to UPU predictions) has led to mergers amongst postal operators hoping to realise greater economies of scale.
Additionally, many postal operators have acquired logistics and parcel businesses to exploit fast-growing B2B and B2C parcel growth, as online commerce continues to replace traditional retailing. The growing demand for international parcel shipments has also forced a lot of operators to work more globally – often in partnerships with various postal operators in different regions. The demands of both the business and consumer sector are ever-increasing, especially in the face of rapidly growing competition.
Technology is the modern saviour
In such fast-paced environment workers have to be prepared to be one step ahead of customers' expectations and meet their needs before they are voiced. This is where technology comes into play. Postal services have changed dramatically over the years. The increasing demand has called for greater automation and even bigger usage of technology which has to be completely reliable and work fast and precisely in even the harshest conditions. The average postal worker has to deal with thousands of letters and parcels a year. They have to be delivered to customers in a perfect condition, often after travelling for hundreds of miles through different countries. Each item has to be sorted, checked and then delivered –often at a very specific time.
Speed and accuracy are of highest importance. Workers need to access all necessary information immediately and there is no room for error. Therefore the technology has to keep up with the human worker. It has to minimise the space for errors and help to access information on the spot. It also needs to provide an opportunity for items to be traced. A critical success factor in reliable postal delivery is the ability to accurately track and trace items from first to last mile. This data must be made available to all stakeholders, who must have confidence that it is reliable and consistent, throughout the process. On this basis, best practice and efficiency gains can be highlighted and new value added services conceived and implemented. Barcode scanning and mobile technology play a role in driving data acquisition, worker communication and operational reporting.
First mile collection
Post box, parcel locker, post office and doorstep collections all require fast and reliable barcode scanning. Mobile devices used by postal workers must be capable of scanning 1D and 2D bar codes at any angle, including damaged barcodes. This capability speeds up data capture, avoids delays in the collection process and ensures postal workers do not suffer strain or fatigue in trying multiple angles to scan a barcode. This must also be the case for scanning engines used by parcel locker manufacturers. For the optimal customer experience, the individual collecting a parcel from the locker, just like a customer as a self-service retail checkout lane, expects the barcode to be decoded instantly, whether on a piece of paper or the screen of a mobile device.
2D barcodes are fast becoming the standard in mail and parcel operations, as they can store more data and be decoded very quickly. However, for hand written address labels on collections, another technology is required. Optical character recognition, or OCR, has been used in automation of mail sorting for some years, but only in recent years domain experts have engineered this technology to be available on mobile devices. Mobile technology must help to provide a complete customer solution, so that ad-hoc collection labels, both hand-written and printed, can be captured in nearly the same amount of time as a barcode scan. Additionally, OCR technology can be used to verify the address and postcode on the package. This ensures that data captured at the earliest point in the delivery cycle and dealt with before cascading errors leads to delivery failure and additional cost.
On the road
Mobile devices are critical to delivery operators. These tools record collections and deliveries, communicate with the back office and customers, and can even be used to monitor driver performance – essential element of reliable communication which is key to efficient delivery service.
For example, immediate task allocation and timely service agreement (SLA) failure alerts allow mobile workers to proactively notify customers when unforeseen events occur. When operators are delivering optimum service levels, technology providers must ensure seamless roaming is available through use of software-definable radios and dual SIM cards for carrier choice. This is particularly evident where vehicles are crossing borders, and coverage or air time costs can be inhibitors to service delivery.
Additionally, convergence with fleet telematics systems must be considered to ensure economies of scale when investing in separate vehicle and mobile computing systems, such as wireless communications and GPS. Integral to a successful mail delivery operation, vehicle and driver performance metrics can be used to initiate improvement and cost reduction programmes. Therefore, mobile computers must have underlying technology required to integrate in-vehicle systems.
Postal facilities encounter a number of difficulties in efficiently identifying and sorting items using the postal barcode found on each one item. Because of the small size of a typical postal barcode and low-resolution printers used to create them, postal codes can be one of the most difficult types of codes to find and decode in real world environments. Postal codes are also often damaged and covered by plastic due to the rough handling they have to endure. Both can cause major problems for the high-speed decoding systems used to scan them.
Higher read rates are extremely important to postal applications and slight increases can greatly reduce a facility's cost associated with finding, reading and sorting letter, flats and parcels. The technology employed by automated sortation machinery must decode virtually all 1D, 2D and postal barcodes on the first read, including poorly printed, damaged or obscured by plastics barcodes travelling on conveyor belts at speed in excess of 600 ft/min.
Last mile delivery is one of the key end-to-end components by which recipients and regulators judge service quality of postal operators. Mobile computing and barcode reading technologies are the platform for accurate first-time deliveries for operators. They also enable the valuable data captured to support the future optimisation of walk sequences, vehicle routing and marketing services through demographics and survey data. Additionally, GPS location management can assist zonal pricing delivery initiatives.
GPS and geographic information can also be employed to record specific locations where items can be delivered when the recipient is not present, or specific drop boxes. Coupled with colour imagining, the same technology employed at post office counters for document capture can be used to verify proof of condition/location imagery. Geo-codes can also be easily embedded in the image for location accuracy, minimising delivery issues in geographies where addresses and post codes are not standard or even used at all.
Electronic proof of delivery by signature or document capture is essential for updating online track and trace systems, so that shippers and recipients can view their consignment status. Sign-on glass technologies must be rugged- how many times have we all seen a mobile worker's device with pen marks and scratches on the screen – and visible regardless of weather conditions. If a sign-on screen is not a legal tender, then signed document capture must be swift and executed in one press of a button, without the operator needing to move the device around in multiple angles to obtain the image. This means that postal operators must deploy imagining technology with automatic de-skewing, colour correcting, cropping and rotation of the image.
In many geographies, mobile postal workers will also be responsible for collecting customer payment at the doorstep. Snap-on card, where chip and pin is not legally required. In these countries where chip and pin is utilised, a two piece solution is generally favoured. This allows the operator to see the transaction on his mobile device whilst the customer uses the chip and pin pad which helps to avoid fraud and error. The cost of accreditation and certification of such device is much cheaper than this of one piece device.
Partnerships bring future success
A key element in delivering postal end-to-end excellence and value added service differentiation is the integration of new processes and newest technology. It is important for technology system providers to work closely with postal workers in order to help improve and speed-up the key processes. The increasing demand for transparency and tractability of items is probably the most challenging aspect, especially with increasing volumes of international shipments. Carefully chosen technology that is capable of working along the people without extra effort to process information is what can help to reduce the costs and make the processes as seamless and easy as possible.