Correos delivers on the promise of RFID

Spain's postal service taps technology to keep the mail moving in an era of instant communication

E-mail, IMs, text messages, online bill payments -- each has chipped away at our need for a postal carrier, seemingly dooming plain old mail to take its place on the dusty shelf of history as a legacy means for communication.

Correos -- the state-run postal service of Spain -- isn't about to let that happen.

Embracing technology to help monitor and improve its delivery service, Correos launched Q-RFID, a quality-control system that taps 13,000 passive RFID labels, 2,300 antennas, and more than 331 readers at the post office's 16 APCs (Automated Processing Centres).

The largest European RFID deployment ever, Q-RFID brought together hardware from Symbol Technologies and software in the form of Sybase's RFID Anywhere. Aida Centre was brought on as a systems integrator to build and integrate the RFID technology into existing back-end solutions.

According to Regina Defarges, project lead and organizational deputy director at Correos, the project was undertaken to help audit the efficiency of postal operations and improve delivery times by streamlining the post office's operating procedures.

Antennas at each APC activate tags on mail and send data from the tags to readers, which in turn send the data to the main server. Business logic within RFID Anywhere then identifies bottlenecks in the system by looking for exceptions to built-in business rules. When an exception occurs -- say, a letter overstays its three-hour window in one of the APCs -- an alert is transmitted.

But the system delivers much more than a tap on the shoulder when the mail is not getting out. It also provides keen insights into operations, which when coupled with other systems, allows Correos to correct systemic factors that may be contributing to delivery delays.

"We leverage the back-end applications to analyze, present, and consolidate the data into meaningful, actionable information," Defarges says of Q-RFID's ability to increase visibility into inefficient processes or practices at the post office.

RFID data is analyzed to calculate arrival and departure times at a particular APC and is then coordinated with other applications to surface possible problems, such as a shortage of staff at that location, allowing Correos to pinpoint potential solutions rapidly.

"It's a combination of the software application and the experience and knowledge of the entire workflow from the people, processes, and the equipment that help us determine what corrective measures need to be taken," Defarges says.

Although Correos grappled with many issues unique to its assets and environment, process auditing -- the biggest challenge the post office faced in making Q-RFID a success -- is an important component of any RFID rollout, regardless of industry, Defarges says.

"Any business which requires asset movement … requires continual improvement and decision making," Defarges says.

Doesn't sound like someone ready to give up on the post office's ability to adapt well beyond the era of text messaging.

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