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July 24 2006 04:39 PM

Around the globe, postal and parcel services have long been among the most trusted third parties, reliably delivering millions of letters and packages to homes and businesses each day. Today, economic and competitive pressures are forcing postal services and parcel shipping companies to streamline their existing processes and invest in technologies to meet customer demands for faster or time-definite delivery, expanded services and lower costs. This must be achieved while meeting worldwide postal service mandates for Universal Service and protecting the system from those who would use it for illegal or dangerous activities. In addition to recouping revenues lost to other means of delivery, these organizations are looking to provide value-add products and services that generate new sources of revenue and reduce operating costs.


To meet this challenge, postal enterprises require detailed information about the materials and assets moving through their supply chains. To capture and analyze this data, the mailing industry must work to implement the technologies that will enable it to make proper business decisions.


The core competencies of barcode scanning, mobile computing, wireless local area network (WLAN) and wide area network (WAN) technologies can bring considerable expertise to parcel and post operations. These technologies can increase efficiencies, reduce costs and speed the flow of mail and packages to every customer, even as they ensure security.


From wearable scanning systems worn by package sorters in processing hubs, to handheld computers used by airport ramp clerks and dock personnel, mobile and wireless tools provide the necessary visibility to monitor every load and container as it moves through the system. Two-dimensional barcodes can be used for digital bills of lading, manifests and labels from their entry points into the system through to delivery. Each of these applications is grounded in the kind of proven, low-cost tech-nologies required to keep pace with a changing world, while safeguarding the integrity of the shipment.


Driving Change

Several factors contribute to the parcel and postal industrys need to adopt new technologies to remain competitive. Many international postal organizations are transitioning from state-owned institutions to privately managed entities. New rules are in play as former state-owned agencies are disconnected from government subsidies. As a result, postal systems are exploring ways to streamline operations and generate profits. Although the U.S. Postal Service remains a public agency, it too is facing pressures to hold the line on costs and increase revenues.


With the privatization of postal services, many are confronted with competition for the first time. Shifting from state-endorsed monopolies into the competitive market space reinforces the need for profit-based business models.


Traditionally, most postal services are primarily concerned with delivering domestic mail. Now, they are evolving into international couriers, confronting infrastructure issues that will enable them to reach a global market while satisfying every customer. In addition, the changing world economic climate is driving the need to implement technologies that boost productivity and security.


The threat of substitution either by private enterprise or electronic communication is affecting First-Class mail volumes and revenues. Customers now have several choices for their delivery and payment alternatives. In Holland, any item weighing more than 100 grams, (approximately four ounces), can be handled by any carrier. E-mail, e-billing and automatic checking account withdrawals are draining volume from every postal entity.


The increased use of the Internet and catalog/direct mail for home shopping has resulted in an explosion in the volume of small parcel shipments most of which are handled by private carriers such as UPS, Federal Express, TNT and DHL. An offshoot of this is the subcontracting of parcel and priority mail delivery by post offices to private carriers. One example is the use of Federal Express to provide air transport and cargo service for the Postal Service. However, this necessitates increased accountability to track shipments originally entrusted to the Postal Service and detailed information to determine the proper cost of outsourcing.


In the past year, the world has discovered the vulnerability of mail as an open and porous communications channel. The wave of anthrax attacks in the US and abroad has many people worried about the safety of their household and business mail and even the neighborhood post office. It is now clear that postal services can be transformed into effective weapons delivery systems with stealth capability. While security experts agree it is impossible to protect every entry point in the system, technologies that can increase accountability will go a long way toward removing anonymity and safeguarding the system.


Parcel and postal enterprises must therefore partner with technology providers to design and implement systems that accomplish these objectives. The results would be improved processing and delivery performance as well as added security.


Bringing New Efficiencies

Barcode scanning is at the forefront of increased efficiencies in transportation and logistics, including parcel and post, presenting itself in several form factors.


Parcel companies, including United Parcel Service, Federal Express, TNT and DHL, have deployed powerful wearable technology containing miniature scanners and rugged, compact wireless computers to speed operations in their processing hubs. Workers equipped with wearable ring scanners and wrist computers divert bulk mail containers tagged bags, trays, boxes and racks as they move through the facility to their final destinations.


Handheld mobile computers play an increasingly powerful role in parcel and postal operations. In Postal Service logistics and operations areas, managers use portable handheld terminals tracking route schedules to ensure each carrier is operating at peak performance. At airport ramps, postal clerks use scanner-equipped handhelds to track and trace mail containers as they roll on and off planes. In some European countries as well as the US, letter carriers employ mobile computers to input the time of collection when they retrieve mail from public letterboxes. This data allows the post office to continually monitor and adjust performance to meet its service standards.


Enhancing Security

The events of September 11 further highlighted the fact that, as executives at both UPS and FedEx have recognized, package information has become just as important as the package itself.


Increasingly, detail information is showing up as data-rich package labels, manifests and bills of lading in the form of two-dimensional (2D) barcoded data.


Nowhere is that more true than in the American defense establishment. For example, the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency uses 2D-coded shipping labels and at a higher level bills of lading and manifests to track, trace and route critical shipments within its system. The U.S. Marine Corps uses thousands of mobile computers with integrated 2D barcode scanning and WLAN communications to track, manage and deploy the thousands of tons of supplies Marines need to fight and win.


Using the ANSI MH10.8 standard, a wealth of information can be communicated in a 2D-based label or document. Postal and country codes, class of service, tracking number and carrier, pick-up location, date, the shipment ID number, number of containers, weight and the ship-to address can all be fit into a 2D barcode.


There are other benefits from 2D-based ANSI data formats:

Parcels can be tracked based on customer parameters (e.g.,

            purchase order number, invoice number, part number, etc.)

The information is tied to the parcel, as opposed to electronic

            or other paper channels, which are not necessarily synchronized

            with the movement of the package. This ensures new tracking

            services would be provided consistently and reliably.

Keying errors can be eliminated for bills of lading and other forms.


The additional information would give a carrier expanded insight into traffic flow to help the carrier optimize its distribution systems. The carrier could do this in real time or after the fact.


All of this information, generally collected at pick up or first contact, could be immediately networked to the carriers headquarters through WAN in the truck or LAN in the terminal. Having the information in advance can allow carriers to enhance tracking services, adjust traffic and logistics planning dynamically and avoid burdening the sortation hubs with this data collection work.


As a result, carriers can increase revenue by providing new services from the customer to the consignee and eliminate errors and cost of reconciliation, telecommunication reliability issues and errors at country of entry.


Moving Data and Goods Faster

Technology is helping the world get smaller. E-commerce initiatives and the resulting explosion in shop-at-home purchases are impacting the type and volume of packages customers demand for timely delivery. One-to-one direct marketing is increasing the volumes of catalogs and the corresponding rise in mail order merchandise purchases and returns. International shipments are increasing, facilitated by the Internet as well as the use of standardized currency in Europe. Government mandates are forcing post offices and parcel couriers to maintain Universal Service levels while holding the line on costs.


Yet, many of the same technologies that are driving change in how and when we communicate can also be applied to improvement of the global delivery chain. In short, barcode scanning, mobile and wireless computers and 2D barcodes are not only helping to move data, they are also moving physical goods such as letters and parcels to their destinations with improved speed and accuracy. And as these capabilities proliferate, postal and parcel carriers are entering a new era of efficiency and security.


Larry Klimczyk is vice president of Worldwide Mail and Express for Symbol Technologies, Inc. He can be reached at the companys United Kingdom office by phone at 011-44-118-945-7588 or by e-mail at