FedEx unveils $80 M package-delivery system

FedEx Ground, a subsidiary of Memphis-based Federal Express Corp., unveiled an $80 million package delivery system designed to give shippers more detailed tracking information.

The project, the largest nonfacility investment in company history, includes the installation of new on-van computers; enhanced handheld scanners for electronically capturing delivery information, including signatures; wireless LANs at every FedEx Ground facility; and wearable ring scanners, the company said in a statement.

The idea behind the new system is to give shippers more detailed, real-time tracking and delivery-confirmation information, said Roman Hlutkowsky, FedEx Ground’s managing director of operation technology and systems support.

For one thing, Hlutkowsky said, FedEx Ground equipped its pickup-and-delivery fleet with new state-of-the-art, handheld scanning computers, called Star II, designed by Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y.

“We improved the handheld devices used by the 9,000 FedEx Ground [drivers],” he said. “We looked at the devices out there and we decided to have something designed for us that was revolutionary, not evolutionary.”

The new faster and bigger scanners, which also have more memory than the old ones, will be used to record delivery addresses, and beginning in June or July of next year, they will be able to electronically capture signatures as well, Hlutkowsky said.

He said FedEx is also equipping all pickup-and-delivery vans with new in-vehicle computers, which will be able to constantly transmit data captured by the handheld scanners to the company’s mainframe computer over a wide area network (in rural areas satellite communications will be used). Previously, this data was transmitted only every two or three hours, Hlutkowsky said.

“The reason you want data collection to be wireless is so you can get information [to customers] in real time,” said Donald Broughton, an analyst at A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in St. Louis. “For shippers, it’s not just the speed at which you move their goods from point A to point B, but it’s also how much real-time data you can provide them on an item.”

In addition to the technological improvements at the point of delivery, FedEx is also providing greater package visibility by doubling the number of times it scans packages at its terminals, Hlutkowsky said. According to FedEx Ground, these additional scans will give shippers more complete and accurate en route tracking information about their packages.

To do this, Hlutkowsky said, FedEx Ground is using radio-frequency-enabled ring scanners, which package handlers will wear while loading delivery vans. Currently 1,200 laser ring scanners – and wearable computers – developed by Symbol Technologies are in use at more than 100 FedEx Ground terminals. By May, approximately 4,000 more ring scanners will be in use at all 369 FedEx Ground sites, Hlutkowsky said.

The ring scanners, worn on a person’s index finger, are activated by pointing at the bar code on a package while pressing the thumb against a trigger at the base of the finger. The information is then transmitted to the computer, which is worn on the forearm, Hlutkowsky said.

“This announcement is pretty important for FedEx Ground, because [providing real-time information] is important to a customer,” said Ting Piper, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.