Significant RFID Roll-Outs in the Postal Sector
In 2007, approximately 650 billion articles will be sent through postal and courier systems around the world. After retail, the tagging of each postal item is the next largest potential market for RFID by volume of tags. There are numerous significant RFID roll-outs in this sector which are under publicized, and here Raghu Das from IDTechEx summarises the latest progress.
Dec 20, 2006
The largest RFID network in the world
The International Post Corporation (IPC) is a cooperative association of 23 national postal operators from North America, Europe and the Pacific. It aims to facilitate the development and improvement of postal services. On behalf of its 23 postal operators, IPC has implemented a global RFID system to monitor the quality of service. The RFID based Automatic Mail Quality Measurement (AMQM) system was deployed by Lyngsoe Systems from 1994. Today the system is used everyday in 52 countries. RFID tags monitor test letters at key points in the mail processing pipeline. It highlights bottlenecks so that postal operators can free them and speed up the mail flow. Test letters with RFID tags in them are seeded into normal mail flow and operators do not know which have the tags in them, ensuring objectivity and reliable results.
Antennas at international sorting centers and airports "wake up" the RFID tags placed in test letters. The tags transmit an ID signal as they pass by and this is stored along with the time it was read. The data captured records a typical letter's travel time from one key stage in the mail pipeline to the next. These are active tags, made by Lyngsoe Systems, costing about $23 each. Right now 600,000 tags are used each day over and over again as they are circulated through the postal system. After car clickers and the US Military, this has been the largest order of active tags so far. Read range is 3 meters and multiple tags can be read even when they are inside metal mesh roll cages used by postal services. Data is sent to a central global server and presented to the users through a customized web portal interface. Over 8,000 reader points are installed in over 1,000 locations in 52 countries. A further 22 countries are deploying the system.
Here are a few examples of how often the tags are read:
- Each AMQM tag is used once or twice a month every year - on average 18 times a year. On average it is read 8 times on the out-bound and 8 times on the in-bound. The result is 172,800,000 valid reads. In reality the tag is read many times more but most reads are filtered out in the software as invalid reads (cross-talk).
- Domestic Quality of Service Measurement for letter mail: Today many of the same AMQM tags are also used for end to end domestic quality of service monitoring in many countries throughout the world. One end to end test letter trip involves between 16 to around 96 reads. Moreover the AMQM tags and system are also used for in-plant process monitoring where the number of reads is anywhere between 10 and 200 per trip. The number of reads exceeds 1 billion per year in total.
IPC owns the active RFID technology IP, and has licensed this to Lyngsoe Systems to exclusively make the tags and readers. Bo Helmer, VP Postal Systems at Lyngsoe, told IDTechEx that the tag life is warranted for 5 years which relates to the battery life. He said that in reality however, tags live longer - "we have tags coming in for battery replacement at 8 -10 years usage - only to be put back in circulation with new batteries onboard."
Helmer reports, "The AMQM tags and system reliability is proven - so much so - that some of the international performance measurement agreements are based on the RFID registrations for statistical purposes and thus used as the basis for the division of postage income based on actual performance as measured by the AMQM RFID technology."
Where AMQM has been implemented, postal services have seen a dramatic payback, improving the quality of the mail flow. Diagnostic monitoring data has also helped to revolutionize the way IPC members pay each other for delivering their international mail, saving them millions and preventing disputes about exactly when postal items were handed over. Since its implementation over a decade ago more than 93% of letters arrive in Europe within three days of posting versus 64% in 1994. The results are used as a basis to pay terminal dues - and this represents a saving of about $1Bn for the IPC members.
Europe's largest UHF EPC project
In Europe, the Spanish Post Office "Correos" has implemented what they say is Europe's largest UHF RFID system for any sector. Correos ships 25 million articles every day, utilizing 30,000 boxes and 11,500 vehicles.
The RFID implementation uses 332 UHF Gen2 readers and 1,992 reader antennas supplied by Symbol Technologies. These are installed in sorting centers in 16 cities across Spain. Some 5,000 passive RFID tags are employed, which are reused. A tag is inserted into an envelope and sent as any other piece of mail through the system. The readers throughout the postal system read the tags, such as when they first enter the sorting center; when they are taken to the automation room; and when they are dispatched. The RFID system monitors the movement of the letters and logs the performance of the postal system in real time. At any one time thousands of tags are in the mail supply chain, each building up a picture of the performance of the postal system. This allows Correos to quickly detect bottlenecks or delays and tackle these. As tags are received at different addresses they are sent back again to another address to monitor the mail flow. The central server which is in Madrid also monitors the reader network through the country to ensure that each reader is operating correctly. The passive tags cost less than 30 Euro cents each and weigh a few grams.
One important point is that, like many other European countries, the UHF regulations in Spain are incredibly limiting where readers are close to each other. Correos reports that they were given a six month dispensation by the Spanish government to use UHF power levels and protocols similar to those of the US. This is the only way they could have adopted RFID as readers are close to each other in their sorting centers. For example, in a previous issue of Smart Labels Analyst IDTechEx revealed that Tesco in the UK had to halt its roll out of RFID because readers on dock doors were not turning on due to the sensitivity of the European Listen Before Talk (LBT) protocol. The success of the system in government-owned Correos with relaxed UHF regulations has had a positive effect - they say the government is now looking to change the UHF licence regulations in early 2007.
The project also utilizes semi passive tags operating at UHF, with 34 readers and 135 reader antennas deployed in four centers. The tags here cost Euro 30 each, weigh 12 grams and incorporate a laminar lithium battery, making them about the same size and thickness as a credit card. These tags are attached to the bins that post is transported in. Semi passive tags are used because the bins are metal and passive tags would not give satisfactory read performances.
With both systems Correos' objective was to achieve a 95% read rate. In reality, they achieved a near 100% read rate every time. AIDA Centre, the company who did the systems integration, told IDTechEx that the main challenges they overcame were the mechanical protection of the semi passive tags, and for the passive tags they were picking up cross readings in dense reader environments, such as readers on a dock doorways next to each other reading tags going through a different portal. AIDA solved this by mounting motion sensors on each dock, so the reader for that dock would only turn on when the trolley was approaching it. They also developed reader algorithms to perform better in this reader dense environment.
In the next phase Correos intends to tag 12,000 trolleys with robust semi passive tags.
Speaking at the POST-EXPO show in Amsterdam in late, there was some question if passive UHF should be used at all because IPC's active tag system is already globally embedded and does the same function. Correos intended to use this as a test to see how passive UHF could perform in relation to active tags and reported very good read rates, saying the cheaper passive tags is a bonus. However, others such as Korean Post say tagging mail in bags is fine with passive tags, but as most postal operators use metal roll cages active tags are needed.
RFID at China Post
Symbol Technologies has been involved in several major postal RFID programs around the world. At China Post, they have implemented UHF readers in 20 post offices in Shanghai. China Post, which ships 10 billion articles a year, wanted to trial RFID to:
- Validate the use of UHF
- Improve shipment tracking
- Increase processing efficiency
It wanted to achieve a 99% read accuracy through this demonstrator project. Gen2 UHF tags are embedded in a robust plastic case but the EPC numbering system is not used - China Post use their own numbering system. Truck drivers were given handheld readers with fixed readers at the distribution/sorting centers. Concord Unity, the systems integrator, has reported so far a 99.4% performance rate when reading and encoding tags. The tags are attached to mail bags and are used to track letters sent by the express mail service. The system has resulted in several major paybacks so far - demonstrating that 33% more post could be processed in the same time as before; and ensuring delivery bags were sent to the correct location reducing errors and delays.
In the Middle East, there has been limited RFID uptake but that is now rapidly changing with schemes such as the baggage handling system at Dubai International Airport. Saudi Post's home delivery plans will be underpinned by a large RFID project. It is installing millions of RFID-enabled post-boxes across the Kingdom as part of a US$270 million project to support its new home delivery service, Wasel. The Wasel project, a key step in Saudi Post's efforts to transform itself prior to privatization, will eliminate the need for customers to collect mail from post offices, as the postal service will deliver and collect mail from their homes instead.
Hear what the world's largest postal company has to say on the topic - USPS - along with all the other companies mentioned in this article - Lyngsoe Systems, AIDA Centre, Symbol, and many others such as DHL, at the dedicated RFID in Postal and Courier Services session at RFID Smart Labels USA 2007 in Boston, USA, on Feb 20-23. The only event to cover where the big orders are and profitable sectors! Register early and save 15%! To find out more about the conference visit www.idtechex.com/USA.
To learn everything you need to know about this sector including forecasts, players and detailed case studies, read the 200 page IDTechEx report RFID for Postal and Courier Services.