Every day the U.S. Postal Service entrusts millions of pounds of mail to commercial airline carriers for transport around the world.
Every day the U.S. Postal Service entrusts millions of pounds of mail to
commercial airline carriers for transport around the world.
Sometimes, packages get left behind, other times mail bags are put on
the wrong flights. Making matters worse, USPS' paper-based system for reporting
those errors and detecting wider problems was usually weeks or even months
behind — when it was used at all.
But thanks to a new World Wide Web-based data management system developed
for USPS by Ciber Inc., current reports are available on a daily basis.
That enables postal officials to identify problems sooner and ask air carriers
to fix them more quickly.
With the new system, which went online last month, USPS employees use
special ruggedized Palm Inc. Palm III handheld computers to scan bar codes
on mailbags and to report the type of handling error using a simple drop-down
menu. That information is uploaded to a database via the Web each night,
a far cry from the old paper-based system.
"It used to take reports six months to be processed. Now, they are available
in a matter of hours," said Clayton Bonnell, manager of International Operations
and Support at USPS. "This system has put the data into the hands of those
who can make a difference."
Bonnell said productivity improvements should allow the system to pay
for itself within 12 months, although he declined to disclose the system's
Besides being faster, the Palm-based system solves accuracy problems
that plagued the paper system, Bonnell said. Fewer people now handle the
documents, and issues such as illegible handwriting and incomplete forms
"The device walks the ramp clerk through the process step by step,"
he said. "In the past, the system was so miserable no one wanted to use
it. The same problems were taking place every day because no one wanted
to report it."
At the end of the day, the handheld is placed into a cradle and the
data is transferred via the network to the agency's database in Washington,
D.C. The Palm IIIs have wireless capabilities, but because of restrictions
at airports on the use of electronic communications, USPS is not using the
technology at this time.
Information in the database is accessible to postal managers via a Web browser.
They can search for information such as the number of incidents reported
at a specific airport in a given time period.
"This is valuable information, especially at the national level, when
it comes to deciding what action to take with a carrier," Bonnell said.
"It has also made it easier to solve problems that may be taking place at
a certain location. There may be a problem with mail being transferred in
San Francisco, but only San Francisco may be aware of it because a report
was put into their file cabinet and not immediately sent to headquarters."
Not only is the new system easy to learn, but it can be updated with
little or no effort, said Kevin Norris, account manager for USPS at Ciber
Inc. Whenever the handhelds are placed in the cradles, the USPS database
automatically updates the software or system information.
"We could never afford to send out software updates on disks," Bonnell
said. "This way it is done every time the [device] is synced to the system."
When a new device is added to the system, a manager contacts Ciber via
its Web site and enters in information such as airport location and employee
identification numbers. The new handheld is then placed in the cradle, and
Ciber downloads the information via the Internet.
Because of the flexibility of the system, USPS is exploring other areas
in which to use the handhelds and Web-based management.
"It would be ideal in a warehouse, distribution center or anywhere you
use forms," Bonnell said. "This system would be ideal for any agency [that]
needs to use forms and have immediate access to data."
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