IoT Transforms On-demand Postal Service Nationwide

By Roelof Koopmans, Senior Director, System Integrators in Semtech’s Wireless and Sensing Products Group.

Traditional postal services are facing increasing pressures. On one hand, they must respond to growing competition as customers demand rapid delivery, low prices and excellent service to fit in with lifestyles in smart cities.

On the other hand, there are price pressures as postal companies struggle to maintain post offices that are proving increasingly uneconomic to run, particularly in rural areas that may be hard to reach due a lack of infrastructure. This is exacerbated by national regulations that may require companies to serve a particular percentage of citizens with a defined level of service.

These were the challenges facing Swiss Post, the national postal service of Switzerland. The organization plays a central role in the lives of the country’s citizens, delivering 7 million letters and five hundred thousand parcels every day.

Many of these customers live in remote mountain villages, yet Switzerland’s Postal Services Act requires that Swiss Post ensure access to postal services to all users. The Act stipulates that post offices must be within a 20-minute walk or public transit trip for 90% of each federal state’s population. This poses a significant challenge in rural areas. Limited Wi-Fi connectivity in these locations represents another obstacle to providing postal services, given customers cannot easily place orders online.

To meet these challenges, Swiss Post set out to improve its range of services by collaborating with leading technology providers to leverage the Internet of Things (IoT) to create an innovative device that customers could use to place orders for postal supplies and services in the easiest way possible.

Choosing a connection method

Swiss Post envisaged a simple device based on IoT technology that would make it easy for customers to order postal supplies and services. The device would also need to rely on Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technology for low battery consumption of the devices and yet have devices that can communicate over a long range in order to serve rural customers. This was essential given that the system would cover distances too great for the usual cellular networks technologies.

After Swiss Post completed an evaluation of several network technologies, Semtech’s LoRa® wireless devices was selected. Furthermore, Switzerland happened to employ a public LoRaWAN® protocol network operated by Swisscom, called LPN, which provides near nationwide coverage.

Dr. Thomas Koch, senior enterprise architect, Swiss Post explained that:
“we started looking into Semtech’s fascinating IoT solution, LoRa. We experimented with our own small testing network of about 10 gateways just to see if all the promises about distance and quality of service were true. Once we saw the benefits of LoRa for ourselves, we eliminated Wi-Fi or 4G-5G cellular technology.”

Of all LPWAN technologies available in the market, the LoRaWAN protocol offers the broadest range of connected applications and the ability to connect millions of LoRa-integrated, battery-operated devices across Switzerland.

The success of Semtech’s LoRa devices and the LoRaWAN protocol in LPWAN-based IoT applications speaks for itself— IoT networks based on the LoRaWAN specification are now deployed in over 150 countries with an ecosystem supported by hundreds of contributing members of the LoRa Alliance®, including Semtech, Swisscom and Miromico.

Rolling out the SmartButton

For the creation of a scanning device, Swiss Post collaborated with leading technology design services company, Miromico, a Zürich-based product engineering company that already possessed a strong experience with the Semtech’s LoRa devices for several years. This resulted in a product called SmartButton, a device that makes it easier for both consumers and businesses to order postal services. Running on batteries that last up to 10 years, SmartButtons allow users to order postal services as needed with the click of a button. They do not require configuration or a SIM card, nor do they need to be set up and do not need to be connected to Wi-Fi. So really plug and play!

Since the product utilizes LoRaWAN, the SmartButton can be integrated in any other IoT solution since the global LoRaWAN standard is open, provides for robust security, bi-directional communication, mobile optimization, and scalability.

The first pilot of the SmartButton was deployed to customers in the home service areas too far away from a physical post office. These households received a free SmartButton, and a printed list of codes associated with specific postal services like ordering a parcel pickup or a registered letter.

To use the device, a customer touches the SmartButton reader on the product code icon, then presses a button to scan the code using optical identification (OID). A short beep and a light confirm the code has been recognised. The order data is now transmitted via an embedded antenna and LoRa radio module within the scanner through the Swisscom LPN network using the LoRaWAN protocol, which will then route the order data to the SwissPost cloud.

If ordered before 7:30 a.m., a mail carrier will deliver the requested services on the same day. If ordered later, the carrier will deliver the next day.

The pilot programs proved that the SmartButton is a very convenient way to order services without using a smartphone or a computer. This makes it very easy to use for people who are not as familiar with smartphones or ordering online.

Swiss Post has started rolling out 100,000 SmartButtons to homes in villages too small to support a physical post office branch. Deployment of the SmartButton has also expanded beyond rural areas and it can now be used by any Swiss citizen wanting easier access to postal services.

Attractive for businesses too

Beyond postal service use, the SmartButton can be used for a broad range of potential B2C applications. Businesses can use the device to simplify and digitize the ordering process – orders placed via the SmartButton appear in the web application instantly, replacing the need to compile and log information on each item ordered.

The web application provides full transparency and the ability to manage devices used, departments, access rights, supplier relationships, order quantities, and delivery times.

The SmartButton plug-and-play installation, stand-alone communication network, feedback functionality and low maintenance needs, make the device ideal for business use. Possibilities of the solution can now span ordering pizza’s, office supplies or other regular items that customers want to have delivered at home.

Other possible applications are in B2B environments where easy replenishment will increase efficiency of any business process, for instance in production and assembly lines or ordering office supplies.

Combining OID technology with LoRaWAN was the perfect solution. The development of Swiss Post’s SmartButtons, created with batteries that last up to 10 years or longer with LoRa devices, is a great example of IoT technology being used in a new on-demand solution.

Image provided courtesy of Swiss Post.

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