Track and trace issues are often viewed as concerns for parcel recipients. But they are in fact broader than that. While track and trace is about the service CEP operators offer customers, it also relates to optimising a number of internal processes of CEP operators in their parcel centres.
CEP operators face three common track and trace issues. Here's how they can be resolved.
When deciding on a system design, CEP operators tend to concentrate on the actual sortation aspect of the system. It’s just as important, however, to give attention to the door-to-door process as a whole. Identifying the individual parcel labelling quality, for example, is as equally relevant as knowing the parcel mix according to parcel profiles. It’s also important to think about where these items should go and that means carefully considering the scanning aspect of their operations. What kind of scanning equipment does the hub need? For instance, is it really necessary to scan every side of a parcel or does the hub already know where the barcode is placed for most of its parcels? And how small a barcode does the system need to read?
Most people will assume a highly technical solution to their challenges is best when in fact, there are sometimes alternative, cheaper solutions. It’s therefore important that hubs seek the expert advice of their sortation solution supplier when it comes to their technical specifications. The key to determining the scanning needs lies in the CEP operator knowing its parcel flows, its processes and its business.
Let’s take each of these in turn.
Knowing the numbers and sizes of parcels passing through a system is important. But in understanding its parcel flows, a hub also needs to know how its inbound parcels are labelled.
Parcel labelling, for example, is larger and easier to read than letter labelling and will require different scanning capacities. In the same way, high quality print used in parcel barcodes will reduce the need for a scanner with fine print reading capabilities. Most hubs will deal with the same range of inbounds and are able to make decisions based on really knowing the labels and barcoding it receives. It takes time getting to know your parcel flow. But in the process, CEP operators might learn that incoming parcels actually have perfectly readable shipment barcodes, and that it's not necessary to have a system for reading all the other kinds of labels that come with the parcels’ original manufacturer wrapping. The sortation system does not need this extra information in order to process the parcel - it just needs the shipment barcode.
Then there’s the parcel handling process, as different processes will impact on the scanning needs of the hub. Does the hub handle its items through human intervention or through automation, for example? BEUMER Group's studies show that human handling results in 70% of labels or barcodes being placed in the right position for scanning. So for those hubs that use human operators to handle their inbound flows, investing in a very high quality scanner may not be necessary. Conversely, if the hub handles inbound parcels in bulk using automated sortation, then high level scanning capabilities will make better sense. It’s a matter of knowing where in the range the hub sits – a small scanning investment being logical for handling uniform flows while greater investments may pay off in the long-term for automated flows.
A problem common to many CEP operators is operating with insufficient or even blank parcel data. Unfortunately, in focusing on the delivery aspect of their operations, CEP operators can sometimes overlook the importance of resolving the issue of getting the data into the system and the consequences can be costly.
Insufficient data on parcels occurs where readable barcodes do not contain the data needed to process the parcels properly. So while operators can read destinations on the labels and move the parcels out of their systems and on the right track, information about the senders, receivers and whether the parcel is express and not economy gets lost. So while CEP operators think they’re taking appropriate action in quickly processing the parcel by its address only, in fact they can often deny themselves valuable revenue. It is both expensive to the operator if it processes an economy freight parcel as an express parcel and an express parcel as economy.
What’s more, the items “disappear” in the system, seeming to not move from their original place of hand-in, arriving at next stop terminals as unexpected “ghost items”. This is problematic for sending and receiving customers who are tracking and tracing items. It also creates problems for couriers who, with sufficient data, cannot plan their parts in the parcel flows.
Finally, items with insufficient data soon become very costly for sorting facilities. If these items make up just 5-10% of parcel flows, the hubs begin to lose money in terms of time, space and human resources needed to resolve the issue. To make matters worse, hubs cannot settle accounts when their handling processes have not been recorded. They find themselves in the situation of providing services for free, impacting on future viability.
In contrast, there are large distribution centres that may refuse to process parcels that have blank or insufficient data.
Through data enrichment practices and the use of video coding system (VCS) and optical character recognition (OCR) technologies, however, hubs are able to work around this problem. For example, oftentimes the parcel text will be sufficient for an operator to know where the parcel is next headed. The operator can send the parcel on its way and while it is en route, enrich the data by finding details such as a precise address.
Applying these technologies means that by the time the parcel arrives at the next terminal stop, the incomplete data will be resolved. The important point here is hubs should try to solve these data issues when they first appear and avoid pushing the problems further down the line.
RFID chips (radio frequency identification) are passive chips which share their data with a reader only when activated by radio waves. Making a contactless payment with your credit card at the supermarket is an example of RFID technology.
In parcel processing, RFID technology involves placing small electronic chips into parcels which can send messages through radio signals to an operator. RFID chips would then include all the same data as a barcode, just with a higher read-rate. As such, RFID technology might seem like a good option for sortation and tracking, however, it’s actually better suited for other purposes at distribution centres.
RFID technology has evolved considerably since it was introduced to the industry some 15 years ago. From a parcel tracking perspective, the problem is simply that the technology is not specific. In fact, radio frequency is so scattered that a scanner cannot determine the position of an RFID tag - only its area. This means that if a hub is sorting numerous parcels in an automated flow, a bunch of signals from all the parcels will be sent to the scanner, making the position of an individual parcel impossible.
RFID (to the left) vs barcode reading: RFID scanning results are diffuse, whereas barcode is precise in terms of sequence.
But what if the scanner should register the general whereabouts of an item or its movement? This is where RFID becomes especially useful. The operator could, for example, transfer the parcels from the chute to the roller cage and drive the cage through a scanner tunnel. By doing so, the entire content of the cage will be registered as being inside the cage. The operator now knows that an item is placed in a certain roller cage, while saving much time in not having to hand scan every item.
Furthermore, RFID scanners can be set up in such a way that entire postal bags can pass
through them, reading everything inside. As a result, the operator may not know what is where in the postal bag but will know everything that is in the bag. The operator obtains helpful data without having to do the manual labour involved in handheld scanning.
For this reason, RFID technology is great for inventory purposes and registering bulks of items. Sorting facilities can know at all times what they are handling, where it is, what it has been placed into and what it has been unloaded from. This is important in an era when businesses need to be more efficient than ever to stay competitive.
There is so much more to track and trace issues than being able to inform a sender or receiver the whereabouts of their parcel. Knowing parcel flows, how to deal with items accompanied by insufficient data and how to use RFID effectively are all important track and trace issues for sortation facilities. In choosing the right scanning equipment, a distribution centre should consider its particular needs rather than focusing on the best type of equipment. This involves the hub knowing its parcel flows, processes and business and relying on the expertise of their sortation system supplier to advise on how it can best combine technology to fit its exact requirements.
Knowing how to deal with insufficient data through data enrichment efforts and how to best apply RFID technology are also important track and trace issues for sortation hubs. These considerations are just three ways that a hub can better optimise its internal processes and avoid potentially hurting its revenue stream.
Emerging trends in global e-commerce make it increasingly difficult to know which is the right solution for automated parcel sortation.
Based on clients’ requirements, Jan and his team help design software for operating automated sortation systems. They work on solutions that increases distribution efficiency and improves the management of shipment data.