It’s the one element that poses the greatest challenge to the continued growth of online commerce: package theft.
Not every home has a place where a package ordered online can be left securely if the buyer isn’t there to receive it. Hence the problem of endemic theft. According to a 2017 report by Shorr Packaging Corp., 31 percent of U.S. online shoppers have had a package stolen from the doorstep. Considering that the average value of those packages is $140, that adds up to serious losses for consumers and retailers alike.
Up to now, the solution for many shippers and receivers has been to ignore the problem. Walk through any residential neighborhood, and you’re sure to see packages resting on porches, offering a tempting target to thieves. A number of households have installed cameras in entranceways, but the technology is far from prevalent. Even where thieves are captured are camera, the image is often too fuzzy, or viewed too late, to be of any use in recovering the stolen merchandise.
The answer lies in real-time tracking technology, according to Scott Fletcher, president and chief executive officer of LocatorX. Various types of tags and transponders have been on the market for decades, but they’ve either been too expensive or offered inadequate range to allow for widespread use on consumer goods.
Now, with the emergence of the Internet of Things, effective tracking technology is at last becoming feasible on a broad scale, Fletcher says. The key lies in deployment of a manmade molecule, the outgrowth of Nobel Prize-winning work at the University of Oxford’s nanomaterials lab in 2012. It involves the insertion of a nitrogen atom into a molecule, creating a miniature atomic clock. LocatorX places that molecule on a microchip, which can be applied to a label on just about any product imaginable — from expensive military items to a tube of toothpaste. The resulting Global Resource Locator can track any package both indoors and outdoors on the real-time basis, without the need for costly beacon systems.
The technology is still in the early stages, and has yet to be developed for mass production. Fletcher says the company is currently in the second of a three-phase plan for going to market. He hopes to make the product available early next year, in the form of a “smart label” that will be able to pinpoint the location of goods via GPS.
Barcoding and radio-frequency identification (RFID) have served the purpose of keeping tabs on goods for decades, but their economic feasibility often depended on the value of the product in question. Now, says Fletcher, “there’s been a convergence of technologies that have just recently become available, enabling us to bring a powerful phase-one baseline product that provides unique barcodes for each item. We couldn’t do that in the past.”
Digital printing technology provides the last piece of the puzzle. It allows for inexpensive printing of labels on high-speed presses, giving each item a unique stamp. In some cases, the information might be printed directly on the product, making removal by thieves impossible. The system also can help to eliminate counterfeiting, Fletcher notes, as well as support customer loyalty programs, improve the efficiency of product recalls, and allow for personalization of local languages.
LocatorX’s product initially will utilize a form of blockchain technology, which can store information about a product’s status. Fletcher calls it “blockchain lite” because it’s not tied to the use of cryptocurrencies. Initially, he says, key data will be held in the cloud, but could eventually be incorporated into the kind of distributed ledger that characterizes a formal blockchain.
The atomic clock actually takes up a relative small portion of the label, Fletcher says. It can also include near-field communication (NFC), RFID or Bluetooth capability, with environmental sensors that monitor for temperature and humidity. As for the clock itself, it’s accurate to one billionth of a second and can pinpoint the location of a package to within 1,000 feet.
Tracking is achieved through cellular technology. An errant package can be located by monitoring signals from a minimum of three cell towers, Fletcher says.
He envisions the technology as eventually being deployed by major parcel carriers such as UPS, which generally rely on wand scans or some type of beacon system today. With completion of the third phase of development, that information will be transmitted automatically by the chip.
LocatorX’s first customer is a major consumer packaged goods firm, according to Fletcher. The company is also talking to one of the world’s largest technology firms, which is considering purchasing nearly half a billion phase-two chips for its printer and toner product line.
The key is making it feasible for use on a wide variety of packages and products that couldn’t previously afford the technology. Claims Fletcher: “Our cost point will be down in the pennies.”