• on Dec 8th, 2014 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 7 comments

    Turns out the U.S. Postal Service isn’t just about collecting and delivering mail. It also has an essential role in the middle. Sorting and long-haul transporting, that is.

    That may run counter to the arguments of those who believe the Postal Service could be more efficient if it focused only on collecting and delivering mail (also known as first mile and last mile) and let private companies take over sorting and long-distance transporting (the middle mile). The argument has gained traction among some stakeholders and observers, but our new white paper – The First and Last Mile Strategy: A Critical Assessment  – says the opposite may be true.

    With the Postal Service beset by financial challenges, anything that might improve efficiency and the bottom line merits consideration. But outsourcing mail processing would be a pretty radical measure, not to be taken lightly. That’s why we asked Dr. John Panzar, a noted expert in postal economics, to look at the economic implications of the Postal Service completely abandoning mail processing and focusing exclusively on collection and delivery. We asked him to look only at letters and flats because parcels constitute a different market.

    Dr. Panzar developed a theoretical model based on key economic principles and found that overall efficiency would likely decrease should private companies take over the middle mile. Mailing costs, in turn, would likely go up for postal customers. The only winners would be the companies sorting and transporting the mail, but their combined gains would be less than the losses to the Postal Service and customers. Simply put, the Postal Service’s participation in mail processing is necessary for overall efficiency.

    Like all theoretical models, Dr. Panzar’s relies heavily on particular assumptions that are open to challenge. Still, his intriguing conclusions invite thoughtful discussion and debate. So, what do you think? Should outsourcing the middle mile be studied further? Do Dr. Panzar’s findings surprise you? What other ways could the Postal Service gain efficiencies? 

  • on Aug 19th, 2013 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 10 comments

    Alternative fueled vehicles are gaining renewed interest with the abundance of cheap, domestic natural gas. Compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles took off in the 1990s as infrastructure development surged. Service stations then declined for a decade but are now resurging. Liquefied natural gas and ethanol are other options, as is a new clean fuel called GDiesel, a combination of conventional diesel and natural gas that can be used on conventional diesel engines without modifications.

    With so many attractive options and an aging delivery fleet in need of an upgrade, the time seems ripe for the U.S. Postal Service to convert or retrofit its fleet. But a quick overhaul remains problematic given a significant hurdle: the Postal Service lacks capital to make a major investment. Another question is where the Postal Service should place its bets. Should it convert to an electric fleet or go with CNG or are the emerging hybrid technologies the way to go? Should it put all its eggs in one basket or should it convert parts of the fleet to different fuels? How does the Postal Service remain flexible enough to adapt to the best technology knowing that rapid innovation in the alternative fuel sector means the next best thing could be right around the corner?

    The Postal Service has set a target of increasing alternative fuel use in postal vehicles by 10 percent annually through 2015. It also has goals for reducing postal-vehicle petroleum use and contract transportation petroleum use by 20 percent annually in that time. In its 2012 Sustainability Report, the Postal Service notes that it continues to take proactive steps to increase the use of alternative fuels. It is testing many types of alternative fuels, including fuel cell vehicle, electric long-life vehicles, and new hybrid technologies. “Providing affordable delivery service requires our use of alternate fuels that are conveniently available and competitively priced,” the Postal Service said in the report.

    Converting or retrofitting the fleet to an alternative fuel has to make sense financially and logistically based on how the Postal Service operates. Lower fuel costs make the financial benefits of alternative fuels easier to justify. Their environmental benefits are well documented. But logistics remain an issue. If refueling stations are not conveniently or strategically located, the Postal Service has to travel further from its routes. This can affect service and costs.

    Share your thoughts on the best strategy for an alternative fuel fleet. Should the Postal Service throw in with one type of fuel or continue experimenting with a number of options? Should it set more aggressive goals for reducing its use of petroleum and increasing its alternative fuel use? Or does its financial situation limit its ability to move aggressively in those areas?

  • on Oct 29th, 2012 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 7 comments
    With so much technology at their fingertips, customers now want and expect complete visibility of their mail, from entry to delivery. The Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb) program has helped to bring total visibility closer to reality, and other technologies, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning system (GPS) tracking, can fill the gaps. Complete visibility of mail provides real-time information about mail to customers and the U.S. Postal Service, including service performance data. This visibility into mailing activities allows the Postal Service to better manage its operations, increase route efficiency, improve service, and control costs. Mail visibility gives customers insight into mailing activities and provides them analytics to drive business decisions. As the IMb program matures and more customers adopt the full service offering, the Postal Service gets closer to total visibility of mail. But gaps in end-to-end visibility still exist, such as when mail travels on contracted highway route transportation and it is no longer “communicating” its location. One solution is to use GPS on HCR trucks to have visibility of mail during transport. In November 2010, the Postal Service initiated a limited-scope GPS program on about 900 of its 15,500 commercially contracted highway transportation routes, which covers about 300 highway contract route (HCR) suppliers. The suppliers were supposed to provide certain GPS tracking information every 30 minutes while hauling mail, including location of the vehicle. However, a recent OIG audit found that this GPS program was capturing only limited data, primarily because suppliers were not consistently reporting the data to the Postal Service. Limited data resulted in reports that were not useful for managing highway transportation routes. Still, the audit found enormous potential in this GPS program. If the Postal Service expanded it and data were captured and reported properly, it would provide the Postal Service with actionable reports that could include enhanced data analytics, real-time alerts, and fuel analysis and route optimization information. GPS data-based reports could be indicators of efficiency improvements, as well as potentially fraudulent activity. Further, the Postal Service could integrate this GPS program with its other mail visibility technologies, such as IMb and the surface visibility program, to enhance total mail visibility, which the Postal Service has cited as a priority and “essential to transforming the business.” The key, however, would be to ensure adequate supplier compliance. Further, integration of the various visibility programs would have to be seamless and cost-effective. What would be the best way to integrate the various visibility technologies? Would extending the GPS program to more surface transportation routes be a logical next step? Are there other technologies that should be considered to close some of the visibility gaps?