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How technology tracks parcels every step of the way

Follow that truck

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A lot has changed since the '80s. Back in the day, your product arrived when it arrived, often within weeks rather than days and you didn’t get the chance to check where it was.

In time you could see your product entering and leaving locations en route, enabling you to track it from city to city as it made its way to you. Now in some cases you can even see your product wending its way through the streets towards you on an electronic map in real time.

It is all very sophisticated, so how did we get here?

Watchful eyes

Advanced product tracking involves modern logistics systems with sensors, scanners and software designed to monitor product movements at every step of the route.

The two broad benefits of well-executed tracking systems, according to UPS, are efficiency and improved cash flow. Tracking product status helps organisations to prepare for deliveries, plan staffing and manage dock capacity more effectively.

Cheques can also be prepared in advance for cash-on-delivery shipments and receipt confirmation can be streamlined using barcode information.

“Once shipments are received, the internal tracking of items from the dock to their final destination can save time and effort as well as improve accountability,” says Matt Guffey, UPS marketing director UK, Nordics and Ireland.

From a cash-flow perspective, anything that speeds the collection of money from customers reduces the need to borrow capital.

“Merchants who demand and receive faster payment tend to carry less bad debt,” says Guffey.

“Often, a merchant must prove that the product was delivered before the buyer will release payment. Tracking can speed the process of proving delivery and receipt of payment.”

Starting block

One aspect of logistics tracking that is rarely discussed is product picking and fulfilment. Andy Keith, founder of supply chain consulting firm Total Logistics, explains that modern tracking systems start at the point where products are selected from bins and assembled for order.

Usually, products are picked from bulk stock, such as a shelf or carton of individual items. “People have moved away from a paper picking list and are given instructions on a radio terminal that they are carrying or wearing,” says Keith.

Workers scan a barcode either on the product that they are picking or the bin that they are selecting from, so that product selection is integrated with the warehouse management system.

This technology was introduced to improve productivity in warehouse operation but it has since been used to improve the accuracy and lead time of orders.

Streamlining the logistics process is a key benefit because the cost of inaccurate order fulfilment is very high, Keith says. Misfilled orders must be returned to the vendor, re-credited, re-picked and re-shipped. That can raise the cost by five times, he says.

Matthew Robertson, commercial director at NetDespatch, says warehousing partners still get order information to his company via a number of means.

NetDespatch runs back-end web-based software for carriers and retailers, providing a single, end-to-end view of product status.

“There are various ways to get the data into us. From manual booking to automated web services, batch files and so on,” he says.

“Once we get that, we create an entity for it. We make it unique, giving it a consignment number, and then we print some documentation to go with it.”

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