As competition grows hotter in package delivery, Federal Express Ground, a division of FedEx Corp., is cooking up some new technologies. The delivery people who drop by your door are swapping out their old handheld scanners for new Bluetooth-capable PocketPC models. Meanwhile, the Ground division is adding more CCD scanning, while mulling a possible expansion on the RFID support already in place.
The handheld upgrade will be particularly dramatic for FedEx Home, a unit of FedEx Ground specializing in business-to-consumer (B2C) shipments such as mail order. The Home crew has toted DOS-based scanners up to now, with black-and-white screens.
“Think about your 1999 laptop, in contrast to a 2005 model. Thats the kind of difference these guys are starting to see,” said Roman Hlutkowsky, FedEx Grounds vice president of operations technology and systems support, in an interview with eWEEK.com.
FedEx Ground is not to be confused with FedExs “Express” Division or with FedEx Freight. FedEx Ground and FedEx Express each deliver packages of up to 150 pounds to both businesses and consumers. Anything heftier than that—up to shipments of tens of thousands of pounds—gets handled by a third division, FedEx Freight.
What are the key differences between FedExs Express and Ground divisions? Rates are lower for FedEx Ground. But, as its name implies, transport is by truck, not plane. Also, the Ground division is geared to shipments a tad less time-sensitive. “Well guarantee a day—two- or three-day delivery, for instance. But we wont guarantee a time of day,” Hlutkowsky said.
New Star III Scanners from Handheld Products are already being deployed among FedEx Home contractors. Starting in about March of 2005, the division will enable the units with wireless wide area network (WWAN) capabilities, according to the vice president.
Instead of doing batch uploads of delivery records at the end of each day, over phone lines, home contractors will transmit from their trucks in real time. “Well start out with Mobitex, and migrate from there to GPRS,” Hlutkowsky said.
FedEx Ground contractors who dont work for FedEx Home specialize instead on the business-to-business (B2B) side. Outfitted with Star II handheld scanners, this group is already performing in-vehicle communications over Mobitex. Data from the Star II can be posted to FedEx.com within 30 minutes.
The B2B contractors have also been using the Star IIs built-in Wi-Fi for transmitting manifests while loading their trucks.
In January, though, the B2B shippers will step to Star III, a model that also replaces previous Wi-Fi radio frequency (RF) hopping capabilities with support for speedier 802.11b wireless.
In another upcoming move, the B2B contractors will exploit the Star IIIs Bluetooth support by carrying new portable Bluetooth printers. Then, theyll be able to print out receipts on the spot—instead of leaving customer sites to hook up by cable to printers inside their trucks, as they do today.
In certain markets, FedEx Express couriers are also starting to use Bluetooth-enabled PDAs. For a longer time, the Express division has been implementing Bluetooth for package sorting at its hub facilities.
But FedEx Ground also has a lengthy heritage of RFID use, stretching back to about 1998, Hlutkowsky said. FedEx Ground actually began in 1985 as Roadway Package System (RPS), a division of Roadway Services, a company that became Caliber System Inc. in 1996. Two years after that, FDX Corp. bought the Caliber Companies, and in January, 2000, RPS was rebranded FedEx Ground. Parcel Direct, obtained by FDX Corp. through another acquisition, became a subsidiary of FedEx Ground and, in turn, has since been rebranded FedEx SmartPost.
In commercial deployment, FedEx Ground still uses RFID strictly for asset tracking, to monitor the arrival and dispatch of truck shipments at loading docks. “Were also seeing a lot of interest right now among shippers and receivers in RFID [for package tracking]. But RFID is a relatively new technology. We will work to support enhanced visibility [into the supply chain], but we want to understand what that visibility will be, and what it will mean to carriers,” Hlutkowsky said.
“We have quite a long legacy of providing a lot of visibility, anyway—of being able to tell where a shipment is,” he said. RFID provides the advantage of not requiring line-of-sight transmission, but so does FedEx Grounds current bar code scanning technology, according to the FedEx exec. “For example, weve engineered our systems to be able to scan at high speed on all six sides,” he said.
At the same time, FedEx Ground is doing internal testing and evaluation of various RFID technologies, as well as collaborating with RFID standards groups such as epcGlobal and ISO.
Meanwhile, FedEx Ground has been focusing, too, on replacing laser scanners with CCD at its shipping facilities. “Laser used to be state-of-the-art. But with CCD—actually, the same kind of technology thats used in camcorders—we can capture and decode very quickly, for much faster read rates,” he said.
Is FedEx Ground feeling any pinch from competing carriers, such as DHL and UPS? Not really, according to Hlutkowsky.
“Weve been at this game for about 20 years now, and we truly believe we have the most sophisticated operation. Whenever weve deployed a new technology, its been very well-designed and tested,” he told eWEEK.com.
Editors Note: This story was updated to provide more background information about FedEx Ground.