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Transforming Last Mile Delivery with Real-Time Visibility, Technology, and Data Integration

Updated: 4 days ago

By Sara Pearson Specter


This article was first published in MHI Solutions, Q2 2024


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In supply chain, perhaps no question is asked more often than “where’s my stuff?” From ocean freight aboard transport ships, ports, and inbound logistics via rail or tractor trailer, to receiving at the warehouse or distribution center for crossdocking or putaway into stored inventory, to brick-and-mortar store replenishment and order fulfillment via parcel carrier, to last mile delivery of individual packages, achieving visibility and transparency is the brass ring all stakeholders want to grab.


Herein lies the promise of real-time location systems (RTLS). Myriad devices connect wirelessly to share data that helps various technologies pinpoint an item, case, pallet, cargo container, or vehicle’s geospatial position—all synthesized (and, optimally, synchronized) by software that can be accessed by anyone seeking the answer to “where’s my stuff?”


It sounds simple, and yet it’s anything but, said Bart De Muynck, a supply chain thought leader with more than 30 years of experience, including as a vice president and industry analyst at Gartner and most recently as the Chief Industry Officer at supply chain visibility platform project44. He noted that, as retailers of all sizes compete for consumers’ attention and loyalty by enhancing the customer service experience, last mile transparency has become critical.

“There are so many options for purchasing and order fulfillment today: buy online from a retailer and receive a shipment at home that comes directly from the manufacturer, the distribution center, or a retail store outlet, or pickup in store or curbside. Managing last mile has become so much more complex than it was even a decade ago,” he noted. “Not only are parcels being shipped, but also many more big, bulky items are being bought online and delivered last mile.”


Those complexities include a variety of issues, such as higher order volumes and limited fulfillment and parcel handling labor capacity; higher carrier shipping rates inflated by additional surcharges during peak seasons; delayed service levels that may extend from a two-day delivery to three or four days thanks to a lack of warehouse and transportation capacity; or the need for a recipient to be home to open the door for a large item delivery.

“If things go wrong in the last mile and the customer isn’t going to receive their item in the promised timeframe, what can you offer them? Information about the shipment and updates about its progress—or even better, choices about any changes they would like to make about the delivery time or location,” De Muynck said. “Having visibility in real time about an item’s location is crucial to support this. Because a lot of times, when customers have a bad experience with a retailer, they probably don’t give them a second chance.

It’s also not possible to ensure a flawless last mile delivery without upstream visibility, he continued. “You can’t ship something last mile if you don’t have the product to begin with,” De Muynck observed. “Operations are turning to a variety of RTLS solutions to support better inventory visibility throughout their supply chain.”



RTLS Technologies Aren’t One Size Fits All

There are several different RTLS technologies in the market, each offering different degrees of location precision at a variety of different price points. While none are necessarily new, many of them are increasingly being deployed as technology costs come down and the need to execute last mile deliveries more efficiently and at higher service levels rises.

One such technology is radio frequency identification (RFID). This technology is ideal for tracking the movement of merchandise or mobile assets within a short range. Passive RFID systems track RFID tags which emit radio signals detected by handheld reader devices, or fixed readers stationed at specific gateway points.


“RFID is the overnight sensation 20 years in the making,” chuckled Andre Luecht, Global Strategy Lead for Transportation, Logistics, and Warehouse at MHI member Zebra Technologies, a digital solution provider that enables businesses to intelligently connect data, assets, and people. “It’s been used for years in the distribution and tracking of high-value items, such as pharmaceuticals and electronics. But only recently has it begun making inroads into last mile applications as the costs of the tags and the reader systems have come down significantly.”


The findings of Zebra’s 2023 Global Warehousing Study offer confirmation of this trend. In it, 58% of supply chain decision makers reported plans to deploy passive RFID by 2028 as a means to help increase inventory visibility. While the value of the commodity often still drives the decision about what unit level gets tagged—pallet, gaylord, wire transport cage, individual item, or parcel—the need for the increased inventory accuracy and asset traceability RFID provides is increasingly being driven by last mile expectations. Regulatory and retail mandates are also speeding up implementations, he added.


“In the perishables space, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Section 204 from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is increasing the documentation requirements for tracking of consumables. In these applications, we’re also seeing humidity and temperature sensing capabilities added to the RFID tracking,” Luecht said. “There are also more and more retailer mandates for RFID tags to help them track inbound deliveries. Finally, manufacturers are increasingly adding tags to finished goods as an automated process, which has brought the costs down. All this has created fertile ground for the increased adoption of passive RFID.”

Indeed, even parcel carrier UPS has announced deployments of RFID tags, placing them on both packages and devices worn by employees as part of its Smart Package Initiative. The carrier says the tags eliminate as many as 20 million manual scans a day, which in turn reduces the risk of errors when loading parcels onto trailers and last mile delivery vans. The RFID system is also expected to accelerate delivery through UPS’ facilities.


Luecht noted that RFID allows stakeholders—retailers, shippers, carriers, and recipients among them—to verify that a last mile parcel made it on to the correct vehicle. The tags also allow each package to be quickly located on the back of a delivery truck by a driver with a handheld device.

“Not only does that save seconds per delivery—which could provide the opportunity to add another stop at the end—but it also generates data that can support recipient tracking and help providers identify bottlenecks in their last mile delivery process,” he said. “Passive RFID isn’t new, but it is going to be disruptive because it captures data automatically and independent of labor in the warehouse or last mile,” Luecht continued. “Using RFID disconnects data capture from a person’s workflow. That is a highly sought after capability that makes it very attractive for retailers and shippers.”


Bill Poulsen agreed. Poulsen is Executive Director of Internet of Things (IoT) and Engineering at MHI member RMS Omega Technologies, a system integrator that designs and deploys strategic tracking and automation solutions. Nearly 20 years after Walmart issued its RFID mandate, the technology has finally begun to deliver on its promise, he said..

“From a retailer’s perspective, RFID helps with inbound deliveries and yard management. They want to know when something is on its way and when it’s going to get to their warehouse or store,” he explained. “Having visibility about whether a truck will be arriving early or late allows them to reallocate their resources to handle unloading.”


A variety of other RTLS technologies are also being used throughout supply chains to enhance inventory visibility and bolster last mile efficiencies, Poulson added. “Inside the four walls, we’re seeing some operations deploying ultra-wideband (UWB). This is a technology that is used on high-value items that need to be tracked extremely precisely, literally within a couple of inches of its location—including how high up in the racking it is,” he explained. “It’s also one of the costliest solutions, with tags between $25 and $50 each, and requires an expensive infrastructure. But for exceptionally expensive items, UWB can be a fit.”


Outside the four walls, Poulson continued, global positioning systems (GPS) have become virtually ubiquitous as an RTLS technology for last mile. Used for geolocation tracking of vehicles and equipment operated outdoors, GPS technology uses the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) network. This space-based navigation system tracks positioning, navigation, and timing of satellites to detect the movement of vehicles or devices—such as mobile phones or tablets—equipped with GPS receivers. Considered a medium-cost technology, it provides real-time tracking within a few meters and only works outside of buildings.


“GPS automatically determines the location of a device carried by a delivery driver, documents it, and transmits that data to the overarching tracking software,” he explained.

Likewise, Poulson has seen some delivery vehicles equipped with Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) gateways or hubs that receive signals from Bluetooth beacons. “The beacons are typically applied to a reusable pallet or container in a closed loop system because at $15 to $20 apiece you don’t want to throw them away. But they are another RTLS solution that is seeing some use in last mile applications.”


Barcodes, both 1D and 2D, are another an important part of today’s RTLS-enabled visibility, added Leucht. He reported increased interest in fixed industrial scanning, making it the second most popular technology for near-term planned investments in Zebra’s Global Warehousing Study. “These are either barcode readers or vision cameras that provide optical character recognition (OCR)—or combinations of the two—installed overhead so that workers can quickly scan packages while retaining use of both hands,” he said. Because associates don’t have to constantly pick up and put down a handheld scanner, productivity goes up. “It’s just another means to capture data, which makes it easier to optimize your processes in the last mile.”


Leveraging Software, AI and ML to Enhance Last Mile Delivery

While all of the different RTLS technologies provide item and inventory location information, what makes that data both visible and actionable is software. There is often software associated with the individual technologies; middleware is what ties those data inputs together and connects them to user- or customer-facing applications that track the items.

MHI member Deeyook Location Technologies is one such software company that offers location as a service (LaaS) solutions for indoor and outdoor asset tracking. The company leverages inputs from a variety of different RTLS hardware tags to provide what Dirk Franklin, Vice President of Business Development and North American General Manager, calls “hyper-localization” of inventory or assets.


“Our solution uses Wi-Fi sensing to determine the coordinates of a given item, then uses an application programming interface (API) to relay that information to the end customer’s workstream of choice,” he said. The solution passively senses the existing Wi-Fi signals in a given location, using interferometry to triangulate between three or four different access points. That gives the solution location accuracy as precise as 4 inches.


“By using the existing Wi-Fi deployments, our system avoids the need to install expensive network infrastructure, as well as avoids deep involvement by the IT department,” Franklin continued. “It can be up and running very quickly, with low cost and rapid ROI. With hyper-localization of inventory, search and find times are drastically reduced. That allows an operation to immediately confirm to the customer that an item is in stock and ready to ship.”

That said, Franklin notes that the Deeyook system is also capable of receiving and sending information from other RTLS technologies, such as GPS, on cellular networks. “With RTLS in general, there’s not one size fits all,” he explained. Chain of custody is important where the goods need to be continuously tracked, from the manufacturer all the way through the supply chain to the final retail outlet. “In our case, if tagged goods such as pharmaceuticals are stolen on the open road, they can be located even if Wi-Fi is not available.”


At the delivery end of the last-mile supply chain, advances are being made through software that synthesizes a variety of RTLS technologies and data along with the predictive capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). New platforms—such as the one offered by Bettermile—leverage multiple technologies to enhance transportation transparency, accuracy, and driver efficiency in the last mile.


Bettermile’s cloud-based solution offers greater visibility to parcel recipients through dynamic estimated time of arrival (ETA) delivery tracking. It also supports real-time adjustments directed by the recipient should they not be able to receive the package, explained Simon Seeger, Managing Director.



The system pulls the optimized route data for each delivery van as a baseline sequence of deliveries. It also accounts for any constraints or priorities that may impact that standard sequence, such as opening hours of shops or businesses, or large cartons that need to be unloaded first for access to the rest of the parcels. The Bettermile platform also pulls in AI-driven traffic projections that predict the likelihood of congestion at various points along the route throughout the day. Algorithms continually refine and recalculate ETAs for each parcel aboard the vehicle as conditions change. “Although our system predicts an ETA to the minute, we know that’s not reliable enough to promote to a recipient because of the dynamic sequencing,” Seeger said. “We use AI to provide a delivery window. Instead of saying ‘your package will arrive at 2:45,’ we say, ‘your package will arrive between 2:35 and 2:55.’”


Those windows become narrower as the day goes on, he added. “At the beginning of the day when the target delivery is five hours away, we may provide a 60-minute window,” continued Seeger. “But, by 10 stops prior to delivery, we may be as accurate as a 10-minute range.”

While this may sound similar to the “10 stops away” map tracking service Amazon provides its customers for some of the parcels its own Prime vehicles deliver, the retailer’s system doesn’t yet adjust the ETAs dynamically, said Seeger. Not every Amazon package is real time tracking enabled, and currently neither are Amazon parcels delivered by third-party carriers — such as UPS or FedEx.


Another crucial difference, noted Seeger, is the Bettermile platform’s capability to enable a recipient to redirect a parcel if they will not be available to receive it at the appointed time. With The New Yorker magazine recently noting that 210 million parcels are stolen annually from U.S. porches and 61% of American parcel recipients having already experienced package theft, that degree of control—and convenience—is a valuable commodity.


“In Europe, 77% of recipients plan their day around parcel delivery times. If they see that something has happened during the driver’s route that causes the delivery to come at a different time, they can click to redirect it to a neighbor, the carrier’s retail store, a locker, or elsewhere,” he said. “Through greater visibility, the recipient gains more control, which in turn creates a much better user experience.”


Additionally, delivery drivers using the system typically find that the recipient is waiting for them. “If someone is standing in an open doorway, the driver tends to deliver the parcel faster and with a higher success rate and fewer delivery attempts. This generates higher productivity,” he continued.


The Future of RTLS for Last Mile Deliveries

In Europe, roughly 50% of delivery companies are using dynamic delivery platforms, added Seeger. He believes the technology will be deployed increasingly in the U.S. in the near future.

Looking five to 10 years down the road, Seeger believes RTLS technologies will merge into an overarching delivery orchestration technology, similar to what has happened with mobility companies like Uber.


“I foresee delivery drivers following directions from a technology that is self-optimized based on productivity, but also on recipient requests. Plus, there will be room for upgraded services, such as offering recipients the option to pay extra for an evening delivery. This is only possible with delivery orchestration,” he added.


De Muynck believes AI in particular will continue to enhance the benefits of RTLS in last mile. “AI is important for advanced analytics, because all that real-time tracking and visibility data on its own doesn’t really provide much,” he said. “What’s key is taking that information and turning it into an actionable insight through predictive analytics. AI can be used to create highly accurate ETAs, for example.”


Additionally, De Muynck says AI will help companies by providing prescriptive and proactive actions based on continual analysis of the RTLS data. “In this case, the system will identify a data point that indicates the package is not going to arrive in time for whatever reason. It will automatically suggest expedited transport of a second shipment in order to get the order to the customer as originally planned,” he explained.


In last mile specifically, he continued, robotic process automation (RPA) can be used to communicate with a customer when such a situation occurs. Instead of staffing human customer service agents in call centers to answer calls from unhappy customers about late deliveries that haven’t arrived, a chat robot can resolve the issue before the customer even realizes there’s a problem.


“With RPA triggered by RTLS data, a retailer’s chatbot can reach out to the customer with a message that says, ‘Your order due to arrive on Friday is going to be late. We apologize for the inconvenience and have reissued a replacement order that we’re expediting for you so that you get it on time at no charge to you. Additionally, as a further apology, please accept a 10% discount on your next order,’” suggested De Muynck. “That truly creates a great last mile customer experience, and it even generated an upsell opportunity for the retailer. That’s the future of RTLS.”


Looking for the right combination of RTLS technologies that will help improve efficiencies and customer satisfaction in the last mile? Many of these solutions will be on display at MODEX 2024. Visit modexshow.com for more information and to register to attend.






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