Feature Story

How digital technologies including IoT are transforming the global postal industry

by Sue Tabbitt

Global courier services are reimagined thanks to digital technology.

Postal and courier services around the world could be substantially reimagined thanks to the latest digital technology, as pilot applications are beginning to demonstrate. Emerging applications promise to remove a whole range of logistical issues for both delivery companies and customers, while paving the way for new value-added services.

Mail tracking

Even basic letter-handling could be improved by adding digital traceability to all mail items. Where customers are able to print their own stamp with a 2D barcode, each letter automatically has its own unique ID that can be captured each time it passes a sorting point. This allows carriers to notify customers when a delivery is due or has taken place. More advanced track-and-trace applications employ RFID tags, which can hold more detailed information and be read in high volumes at greater distance. In Europe, DHL has experimented with a ‘passive RFID’ solution mounted to shipments to monitor the conditions goods are stored in.

Slicker logistics & resource optimization

Research from the US Postal Service Office of the Inspector General (USPS OIG) and IBM estimates that the USPS could save hundreds of millions over dollars a year from smarter asset management, in the form of predictive maintenance; intelligent sorting; and load, route and fleet optimization.

See Also: Internet of Things will deliver $1.9 trillion boostto supply chain and logistics operations

Meanwhile, another recent DHL pilot has seen head-mounted displays (eg. Google Glass) and augmented reality improve order picking and sorting, generating a 25% efficiency gain.

Post-office counters could be digitally transformed too. iBeacon applications (which provide location-based services to people on their mobile phones by recognizing where they are) could be used to initiate form-filling while customers stand in line, the research from USPS OIG and IBM suggests. Meanwhile, 3D cameras with sensors could quickly and more accurately measure parcels and calculate pricing, speeding up processing times while reducing revenue leakage.

Connected mailboxes

Some of the biggest potential for transformation exists out in the community where the ease of Internet shopping hasn’t always translated into a seamless delivery or returns experience.

In Saudi Arabia, all households now have lockable, RFID-tagged mailboxes and an associated email address so that home owners are automatically notified when an item has been scanned in as delivered.

In Belgium, smart mailbox innovator Parcelhome has joined forces with carriers DHL, GLS and DPD enabling them to make secure home deliveries (and send back returns) via ‘connected’ mailboxes installed by their doors. The mailboxes contain weighing scales and sensors, and use intelligent security codes, ensuring that if multiple carriers have access, existing items aren’t tampered with.

In France, La Poste has recently begun piloting a ‘connected lock’ service that lets home owners remotely let their children, or a childminder or cleaner, into the house.

Value-added community services

The national post service in Denmark has discovered additional use cases for tracking technology it employed originally to improve the efficiency of its delivery fleet. In a spin-off application, Post Denmark now sells digitally trackable accessories to help consumers track their bicycles, which are often subject to theft.

Having a connected fleet presents scope for a wide range of other chargeable services too, from reading utility meters to reporting potholes - exploiting the fact that the carrier passes every building on every street almost every day.

‘Connected homes’ will be another driver of new services, as more household goods are connected to networks so they can relay information about their status. Amazon’s new ‘auto-replenishment button’ allows items purchased through its online stores to automatically trigger a repeat order if consumables need replacing. The next step is for delivery companies to come up with innovative new ways to service this demand, for example with same-day replenishment services.

Additional possibilities (assuming a collaborative IoT platform exists to coordinate the parties involved) include more spontaneous pickups of goods or returns from a private address if a vehicle is known to be in the area, and the ability to sell on spare delivery capacity to other companies (e.g. grocery stores) in real time. 

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