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Sealed With a Tag

In one of the largest RFID deployments in the world, the International Post Corp. monitors test mail with RFID to improve delivery service around the globe.
By Jill Gambon
Feb 18, 2008—Each day, postal services transport, sort and deliver millions of letters and packages to residences and businesses worldwide. Among those items are hundreds of envelopes with RFID tags tucked inside, which serve to monitor the quality of mail delivery across the globe.

Under an extensive quality-of-service monitoring project overseen by the International Post Corp. (IPC), the anonymous, RFID-tagged letters are used to track delivery times and identify any bottlenecks or problems in mail service. Launched in 1996, the program has been continuously expanded and is now one of the largest RFID deployments in the world, according to Ross Hinds, director of operations and technology for IPC, which is based in Belgium. "This has enabled enormous improvements in the quality of service," Hinds says. For instance, 95 percent of cross-border, first-class mail in Europe is now delivered within three days, up from 69 percent when the RFID monitoring project was launched.

Tags are tucked inside envelopes to monitor the quality of mail delivery across the globe.

IPC is a cooperative association of 24 postal organizations in Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific, whose members handle 80 percent of the world's mail—some 330 billion letters each year. The organization is charged with improving performance of mail and parcel delivery worldwide, as well as managing the framework for payment systems between postal organizations in different countries. IPC began employing RFID technology to gauge the amount of time it takes postal operators to deliver the international mail arriving in their territory. This measure is a key component of the formula used to calculate "terminal dues" (the fees postal operators pay to each other for the delivery of cross-border mail). Under agreements reached between international postal operators, the fees are tied to stringent quality-of-service standards. As a result, millions of dollars in fees are decided by the results of the RFID monitoring.

The IPC system grew out of a smaller RFID mail-monitoring project deployed by several Nordic countries in the mid-1990s, says Henrik Egestad, a sales manager at Lyngsoe Systems, the Danish company that custom-developed much of the hardware and software for IPC. The use of RFID to monitor the mail, Egestad says, provides a powerful tool not only to measure performance but also to make improvements in operations. "Quality-of-service improvements often lead to operational improvements and, thereby, savings," he explains. "It's a closed loop. Now [postal operators] know what has happened in between the time a letter is posted and when it arrives at its destination. They can find out exactly where they have delays, and they can do something about it."

How the System Works
Postal operators use bar codes to track bags, trays of mail and items such as registered letters and parcels as they make their way through the postal system. But that technology couldn't be used for the monitoring project because the test letters must move anonymously to get an objective measure of the delivery time. What's more, the monitoring system could not disrupt or slow down operations. "Time is the most precious resource in postal operations," says Hinds. "You can't get more of it." With RFID letter tracking, there is no added work for postal employees.

With the RFID system, individuals in multiple countries are recruited to send "test letters" containing an active RFID tag to a designated recipient. The test letters resemble any other—postal employees can't tell which envelopes contain the tags. Senders log into a Web-based system and enter data about when and where the letters were mailed. As the letters make their way through the postal system, low-frequency 125 kHz exciters installed at various registration points "wake up" any tags within a range of three meters (10 feet).
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