Faster Package Tracking with Wi-Fi

By Adam Stone

March 27, 2007

DHL will use new wireless systems and scanners to focus on its mantra of "better customer experience."

Overnight delivery companies have for several years now relied on wireless technologies to help them track packages and manage logistics -- and now the upgrades have begun, with more sophisticated wireless mechanisms helping these companies become even more efficient.

Case in point: worldwide carrier DHL, which is looking to bolster customer service with a seamless, speedier Wi-Fi-based wireless deployment.

Since rolling out its existing system in 2003, DHL has had a problem with lag time, according to Jack O’Neill, vice president of field operations. Wireless scanners on a truck or in a processing station could gather information about package status, but sooner or later, those scanners would have to dock in a cradle in order to get that data into the overall tracking system.

In the new system, scanned information will jump onto cellular networks, which will pump it directly into the main database without any stops along the way. The system employs a range of technologies including GPRS- and Bluetooth-enabled scanners such as the Motorola HC 700, local area networks deployed within all facilities, and cellular technology delivered by outside wireless providers. DHL is not disclosing the cost.

Listen to O’Neill speak the words “better customer experience” or some variation a few dozen times in the course of 20 minutes, and you start to understand why DHL is making the upgrade. In an intensely competitive industry, DHL operates in the shadow of UPS and FedEx. The carrier is looking for a way to distinguish itself in a crowded market, and O’Neill says the streamlined wireless hand-off can help to make that happen.

“This allows the customer to have that visibility as soon as we have it,” he says.

In addition to making the information available, this virtually instantaneous processing takes questions and concerns out of the realm of the customer service call center. In theory, every driver on the street will now have information that is entirely up to date. “We have given our employees the ability to be able to take ownership of every customer issue and resolve it to the best of their abilities,” O’Neill says.

Roll-out of the new system started earlier this year, and is expected to be completed by the end of the third quarter. When that is done, DHL ideally will have a more precise and timely indication of the status of any package.

In the past, the clunkiness of the system allowed for little more than a 10,000-foot view. Was the package picked up? Was it delivered? Given the ease with which drivers and handlers can now update the network, packages can be tracked at every stop along their journey. When did it leave the station? Where is it now? When is it expected? “We think of it as real-time visibility,” O’Neill says.

As the system comes online, DHL sees opportunities not just for improved service levels, but also for enhanced operational efficiencies.

Take, for instance, the matter of international packages. A broad spectrum of rules govern things like the size, type and dollar value of packages. Currently, drivers carry a book and look up that information by hand.

Now envision a scenario in which the main network handles all this data and is always kept up to date. With the new wireless arrangement, drivers can tap into the network and get the information faster, knowing for sure that the data is current.

Fulfilling this promise will take some doing, however. With the technology in place, “the real challenge is just the complexity of getting it done within the timeframe that we want to get it done,” O’Neill says. With roughly 20,000 drivers nationwide, he notes, “the logistics of getting it implemented throughout the organization are complicated.”

Even with the implementation under control, there is one further variable: human error.

“This is not a perfect business,” O’Neill says. “Is it possible for them to miss one? Absolutely.” Packages get dropped, mishandled, waylaid. DHL is looking to a combination of wireless technology and new procedures to address the issue.

With a wireless scanner feeding directly back to the main network, for instance, it is possible to scan a container once and record the entire contents of that container. That data then forms a cross-check, ensuring that all packages within the container remain accounted for on their respective journeys.

Even as DHL upgrades its technology, “we absolutely are streamlining our processes,” O’Neill says.



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