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Could Computer Vision and AR on Smartphones Transform Last-Mile Logistics?

Do delivery employees really need those expensive, rugged scanners when computer vision and augmented reality (AR) on their own smartphones offer unprecedented intelligence and ease of use? Scandit, the barcode solutions firm, addresses this question in its new report, “Mobile Computer Vision in the Post and Parcel Industry.”

A perfect storm is brewing: the volume of e-commerce parcels flowing through supply chains continues to swell, with Pitney Bowes estimating it will grow by 17 percent to 28 percent over the next three years. We all know who to blame for many of the brown boxes arriving on doorsteps, porches and apartment-building lobbies. When shopping online, 76 percent of U.S. consumers with web access tend to do most of their buying from Amazon, a CNBC poll discovered in December.

With 100 million Prime Members, Amazon attracts more than its share of activity, but beyond that, customers now expect other e-commerce players to serve them with Amazon-like speed, efficiency and low- or no-cost shipping. Nearly all consumers polled by Dropoff earlier this year said they think fast delivery is very important, and just under half (46 percent) expect delivery speeds to accelerate this year over last. Retailers acknowledge this as an urgent concern, with 42 percent telling NRF and Forrester in a survey that getting orders to online shoppers more quickly is a top priority for the year.

On top of that, industry pundits carry on sounding the alarm over a shortage of truck drivers in the U.S., which they estimate will rise to deficit of 174,000 by 2024. That’s not good news for last-mile fulfillment, though gig-economy services like Uber and Lyft, and Amazon’s own Flex network are filling in the gaps—especially during high-demand seasons like the year-end holiday rush. However, tech giants are looking to cash in on self-driving, driverless vehicles that can eliminate the costly human element from the last-mile equation. Just this week, supermarket chain Kroger said it plans to pilot local grocery delivery using Bay Area startup Nuro’s “fully unmanned autonomous road vehicles,” reportedly a world first. The pressure is on to meet rising customer demands while controlling costs.

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For years now, delivery providers have been wrestling with a particular quandary: to use or not to use enterprise-class rugged scanning devices? Long a mainstay of the logistics industry, these hardened devices are becoming more difficult for some firms to justify, as smartphones and other handheld smart devices make a compelling—and cost-effective—case for replacing the ruggedized scanner guns. But the tipping point could be the advent of computer vision and AR on smartphones, technology that can help delivery personnel more quickly and intelligently sort parcels; manage real-time changes, exceptions and updates; and even load vehicles smartly based on how and when packages will be delivered.

Equipped with a barcode scanning smartphone app enhanced by computer vision, delivery drivers can access far greater information when they hover their smartphone over a package label versus a “static” barcode scanner that cannot register any changes that may have happened after the parcel entered the distribution network. Perhaps the delivery address was amended, for example, and now the package needs to be rerouted, or a sensitive item like a pharmaceutical order wasn’t kept at the proper temperature and no longer satisfies delivery requirements.

Instead of just shoving a bunch of boxes into the backs of their vans and hoping for the best, drivers can use smarter barcode scanning to see each package’s dropoff zone based on zip code, and thus group together parcels going to the same zones. In Scandit’s video demo, a driver selects a particular zip code from one screen, and then computer vision scans all packages and highlights those matching that zip with a green bar. It’s a simple visual cue that accelerates processes and encourages greater employee productivity. Once they’re in the vehicle and en route, computer vision and AR also help drivers find the next package up for delivery, only highlighting in green the single right package (all others are tagged red).

At the very last moment of the last mile, the smart barcode provides proof of delivery, with customers prompted to finger-sign on the smartphone screen in an interface by now familiar to many consumers.

Scandit CEO Samuel Mueller said legacy technology and processes will not suffice for delivery enterprises seeking to compete in the e-commerce era.

“The powerful thing about mobile computer vision-enabled smart devices,” Mueller explained, “is that they empower Post and Parcel providers to take the barcode that’s already on every package and turn it into a tool that saves them money and supercharges their performance and efficiency.”