USPS rolls out handheld data collection system

USPS rolls out handheld data collection system

Scanners help ramp clerks save time, get rid of paper and let service streamline monitoring process

By Drew Robb

Special to GCN

The Postal Service will roll out its handheld, synchronized data collection units nationally by the end of the fiscal year to monitor air carriers' performance and track mail, officials said.

Postal Service ramp clerks are beginning to use handheld scanners to monitor mail flow and carrier performance, which increases efficiency.

Until recently, the monitoring system was paper-based. Ramp clerks armed with clipboards, paper and pens manually noted mail flow and carrier performance information. These paper forms were reviewed, summarized on another form, copied and sent to a regional office. There they were again reviewed and consolidated, copied once more and forwarded to headquarters, where reports were tallied to judge carrier performance.

'This was a miserable, time-consuming process,' said Clayton Bonnell, manager of international operations, systems and support for USPS.

Bonnell said the paper process did not give USPS centralized, accurate and timely information, hurting customer service and vendor performance analysis.

Giving handheld scanners to ramp clerks lets USPS leverage its existing technological infrastructure, remove paper and streamline the monitoring process.

The scanners run the Palm operating system from Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. The scanners are housed in ruggedized SPT 1740 handheld devices from Symbol Technologies Inc. of Holtsville, N.Y.

Clerks now follow screen prompts that ask specific questions to evaluate vendor performance: which airline, type and volume of mail, and mail destination. Drop-down menus speed data entry.

Ciber Inc. of Englewood Calif. designed the intranet site's interface to follow the same format as the paper form, said Kevin Norris, Ciber project manager.

At the end of the day, ScoutSync 3.5 from Aether Software of Vienna, Va., lets ramp clerks synchronize their handheld devices as they send and view information through an Ethernet cradle, Norris said.

Each shift's entries are uploaded via the service's WAN to a centralized Oracle8i database, USPS' standard relational database. The Postal Service switched to Oracle from Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 when it decided to expand the system to domestic airports, Norris said.

'Being able to code in C++ and then compile it in the Palm native language is also great, as we have a lot of C++ programmers,' Bonnell said. 'But the ability to sync easily is probably the biggest advantage.'

Bonnell said the technology has boosted morale because ramp clerks no longer waste time on tedious administrative tasks. He estimated that the time saved on data entry in the first month alone paid for each device.

Ramp clerks can also personalize the handhelds with their schedules and phone numbers.

'By allowing them to personalize the devices to some degree, we think they'll take better care of them and will naturally become more comfortable with using the device,' Bonnell said.

In November, USPS deployed the units at international airports in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington.

The service will begin using the devices at 80 domestic airports between July and August.

USPS requires its offices to use their own budgets to buy the devices.

'Too many times, when headquarters buys something and sends it out, it sits in a box or doesn't get properly utilized,' Bonnell said. 'When the local sites make the purchase, they have an investment and they really want to see it work.'

What's next?

Once the Palm handheld deployment is complete, USPS has big plans for its network.

Existing scanners have built-in radio frequency capabilities to add wireless data transmission. That function will be added within two years, Bonnell said.

Meanwhile, airline carriers will be connected to the system to help them predict delays. 'Often, the carrier's home office doesn't even know there's a problem with a field office until we are at our wit's end trying to fix it,' Bonnell said. 'We want the carriers to know what's going on at all times.'

Another feature soon to be added to the Palm devices is the ability to download information such as which flights have mail and which flights are considered most critical.

'We expect the system to pay for itself within 12 months,' Bonnell said.

GCN staff writer Shruti Dat' contributed to this report.


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