UPS Delivers Next Phase in Smart Package/Smart Facility Initiative with RFID

Published: July 10, 2024
  • The global carrier is building RFID into 60,000 vehicles this year—and 40,000 next year—to automatically detect millions of tagged packages.
  • The roll-out is part of the global company’s vision of intelligent packages that communicate their location as they move between shipper and their destination.

After building RFID reading functionality into more than 1,000 distribution sites across its network, tracking millions of “smart packages” daily, global logistics company UPS is expanding its Smart Package Smart Facility (SPSF) solution.

UPS is in the process this summer of equipping all its brown trucks to read RFID tagged packages. A total of 60,000 vehicles will go live with the technology by the end of the year, with another approximated 40,000 coming into the system in 2025.

“Smart Package Smart Facility will improve our customers’ experience because it will make their packages smarter, faster and greener, and it will make their businesses more productive,” said Jon Bell, UPS’ head of strategic innovation. “They won’t have to deal with calls asking where their shipments are.”

Historic Initiative

The smart vehicles installation is Wave 2 in a four-phase deployment of SPSF, one part of UPS’ wide scale Network of the Future (NoF) digital transformation initiative. UPS’s NoF will introduce end to end automation in its sortation facilities, including robotic systems.

Within NoF is the SPSF system, for which RFID feeds data into a platform leveraging Generative AI and Digital Twins. With RFID tags on packages and reader antennas in facilities and vehicles “we’re moving from a scanning-based logistics network to a sensing-based network,” said Bell.

He called SPSF “one of the largest initiatives at UPS, in the history of UPS”—a company with 117 years of history that today moves about 20 million packages a day globally.

Tomorrow’s Technology Today

The SPSF initiative began before the pandemic with planning, innovation and piloting intelligent packaging. Today, the majority of UPS facilities have been equipped with RFID readers and tags are being applied to packages as they are received. Each package label is connected to key information about the package’s destination.

The average UPS sorting facility has about 155 miles of conveyor belts, sorting over four million packages every day. The seamless operation requires tracking, routing and prioritizing packages. By building the RFID sensing technology into its facilities, the company has eliminated 20 million barcode scans from daily operations.

For the RFID industry, UPS’ sheer volume of packages shipped daily may make this initiative the largest implementation of UHF RAIN RFID technology to date.

Misloads Cut by More than Half

For UPS, one early benefit has been reducing the kind of errors that take place in manual sortation systems. Since the SPSF RFID technology went live, the company’s misload rate by 67 percent.  This, Bell pointed out, elevates customer experience while reducing carbon footprint.

These inadvertent misloads occur when a package is loaded on the wrong vehicle, a process that can cost time and fuel to correct.

The RFID technology enables UPS to pinpoint the location of every smart package as it is being sorted, within about three feet. This means that if a tagged parcel is routed to the wrong vehicle, that action can be detected in real time, and the network immediately and automatically sends out an alert so that the mis-loaded package can be corrected quickly.

Smart Vehicles

With the second wave of the SPSF initiative, the company’s trucks— which UPS calls “package cars”—are getting smarter with RFID readers. That means as each package is loaded in the vehicle, its unique ID is automatically captured, updating the status of that shipment as it is picked up. This creates a new point of data during pickup, and will boost pickup accuracy across store networks, Bell explained.

That additional data means customers can keep a closer eye on their package’s journey, ultimately enhancing customer confidence.

The RFID installation in vehicles is underway now with 60,000 vehicles being equipped to identify packages automatically, in a staggered rollout that continues through the end of 2025.

Smart Driver and Smart Customer Plans Ahead

In addition to the Smart Package Car roll-out, several more waves are in the pipeline. The third wave —“Smart Driver”—will enable technology to display for drivers where, in a loaded vehicle, each RFID-tagged package is. That effort is designed to improve driver productivity, decrease on-road exceptions and reduce the carbon footprint of the vehicle.

Lastly, Wave 4 brings in the “Smart Customer” who will be able to print RFID smart labels onsite prior to pickup. The unique ID on the label will then automate the data capture as soon as the package is prepared for shipping.

The system gains visibility at the very beginning of the package’s journey —at the point of shipping —while enabling UPS to offer new service offerings and improve customer satisfaction, Bell reported.

Package with a Brain

With the system fully implemented, the SPSF software will capture each movement of a package from the package car to the UPS hub, Bell said “this is really the heartbeat of the operation. As the smart package starts moving through our network these next generation sensors are picking it up, giving real time information back to the shipper on the status of their package. We call it a package with a brain.”

Additionally, UPS is leveraging both GenAI and digital twins to provide real-time and historical insights and analytics to improve efficiency and make the shipping process greener. Because the SPSF technology increases the amount of data about each package and its movement, UPS will use AI to process that data for more informed decision making as well as prediction analysis.

One example would be adjusting outbound operation according to peak delivery dates and increased demand, before it happens.

Next Generation Sensing for Sustainability

SPSF is aimed at making deliveries more efficient, and that creates improved sustainability because the greenest mile is the one never driven, according to UPS. Data from automated sensing also enables UPS to address potential bottlenecks before they happen.

Ultimately RFID is just one tool in the company’s wider initiative. SPSF intelligence relies on RFID as a data vessel, while the AI and digital twin technology will help the carrier make real-time decisions that benefit operations and get packages where they’re going most efficiently.

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