How technology tracks parcels every step of the way

Follow that truck

Check the label

Warehousing systems now talk to carrier systems, and they are often responsible for generating the barcoded labelling for the package that goes to the carrier. NetDespatch prints labels customised for each carrier, whether that is the Royal Mail, Canada Post or a private carrier.

Label creation is the first tracking event, when the product is logged in the system, says Robertson. After that it is released into the carrier network.

A collection event is registered when it is loaded onto the carrier’s vehicle and taken to a logistics hub where it is sorted for forwarding, often via conveyor belt-operated sorters using barcode scanners.

A product's time at the sorting office typically involves separate scan-in and scan-out events, telling the system when the product arrived and when it left. The same is true for the delivery depot, where it is prepared for loading onto trucks for delivery to the final location.

It then goes to the customer location, where a proof of delivery is signed, sealing off its journey.

That is a relatively straightforward delivery story but many product journeys can be far more complex, especially when involving bulk shipments via international transport.

Products may be sent by road from a factory, then by rail to a port and again by rail and road at the other end

Products may be sent by road from a factory, then by rail to a port where they are loaded onto ships, and then transported again by rail and road at the other end.

Some organisations may want the product closely tracked throughout that process, especially if the goods are of high value or sensitive to environmental changes.

There are ways to monitor cargo constantly on the high seas. Globe Tracker makes small location-independent sensors that sit inside shipping containers and monitor environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity while connecting to a GPS.

The unit is dustproof and waterproof, to the extent that it can take a blast from a high-pressure hose, and can transmit a whole variety of environmental data, according to the company's chairman Jim Davis.

“It’s completely battery operated,” he says. “We install our unit in a container for an asset owner and we guarantee and maintain it at our cost for the life of the container.” In other words, about 10 to 12 years.

The unit conserves power, connecting to GPS satellites for signals so that it can log its position in the ocean. This can then be communicated back to a cloud-based service using external antennae on the containers which connect to communications pods around the ship’s perimeter using a sub-GHz radio communications frequency.

That is no mean feat, as the proprietary protocol used must be able to cope with communications around lots of metal.

Although there is a capability to install a satellite radio system on board the vessel for forwarding this information, this is not strictly necessary. On-board aggregation systems can also function as store and forward units, uploading their data when they come into port.

The last mile

There are monitoring systems for some products even during the last delivery phase where they are driven to the customer’s door.

Lewis Marston, CEO of logistics consulting firm Rocket Consulting, explains that trucks can be geared for constant reporting back to base.

“There can be ruggedised hardware in the truck,” he says, describing a system that the firm recently developed and is currently fielding with prospects.

“It takes a sequence of multi-drop routes and a sequence of pre-defined booking times, and uses a commercial vehicle routing engine to convert the trip into an estimated time of arrival.”

If booking times are unlikely to be met, the back-end management software can warn operators and re-sequence deliveries for the day to mitigate the problem.

Telematics systems also carry the potential for two-way interactions, Marston adds, so that companies can make the necessary environmental adjustments to delivery vehicles – or even seagoing containers – remotely.

Because these systems don’t require lots of bandwidth, they can often survive on straightforward GSM/GPRS communications networks, cutting the cost of communications substantially.

Bright future

The last mile of the delivery process can be the most difficult. Consignees may not be at home, or there may be disputes over whether the package was delivered or confusion about who was meant to pick it up.

This is going to change when wearables become more prevalent, says Robertson – indeed, these gadgets are very handy during the final part of the delivery tracking process.

Providing pictures of the consignees and interior delivery directions could all help to eliminate those frustrating scenarios when carriers are forced to take packages back to the depot.

In the future, then, product tracking is likely to become even more precise, providing senders and receivers with as much information as they could ever want about the orders that they are sending. ®

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