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Digital SOS: How technology can save the USPS

Cindy Waxer | Dec. 9, 2014
Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can compare with the challenges currently facing the United States Postal Service. Email continues to have a crippling effect on the centuries-old agency: The volume of first-class mail, or stamped mail, plummeted by 2.8 billion pieces in 2013.

First-class innovation

Financial woes, congressional shackles, privacy regulations, security breaches and damning audits aside, the USPS continues to test new digital waters. In the fall, the agency introduced an augmented reality technology designed to convert standard print ads into interactive experiences. The system enables consumers to use a free Android or iOS app to view digital presentations when they scan special icons that marketers attach to advertising brochures sent through the mail.

The agency is also piloting its Federal Cloud Credential Exchange, a cloud-based clearing service that could act as a hub for validating the digital credentials of people who want access to online government services like health benefits packages and student loan information.

In the meantime, tech-savvy companies are forging ahead with services that promise to disrupt the parcel delivery industry. "Small flying vehicles will completely change the way we distribute small goods," says Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of Matternet. A Silicon Valley startup, Matternet has developed a 7-lb. unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, that can carry a 5-lb. load and travel up to 15 miles autonomously, guided only by a mobile phone app.

"The USPS might be comfortable thinking, 'We can keep on delivering letters,' but this is a dying industry," says Raptopoulos. "The growing segment is packages, and for package delivery, [drones] are the perfect transportation method."

Amazon and Google are also developing drones for futuristic delivery services in, respectively, their Amazon Prime Air and Project Wing programs. However, until the Federal Aviation Administration relaxes the rules on commercial drone use, drones are likely to remain "a novelty in the U.S. for some time and not serve as a primary source of revenue," says Matt Swain, a director at consulting firm InfoTrends.

Another emerging technology that's threatening to disrupt the delivery business is 3D printing. UPS has 3D printing centers nationwide where everyone from inventors to small-business owners are signing up to turn their prototypes into retail-ready products. UPS recently expanded those operations to nearly 100 more locations, and the overall 3D print service market increased by 21% last year, according to the Wohlers Report 2014.

Innovations like 3D printing rarely escape Cochrane's radar. "There's not much going on in technology that we don't keep our eye on," he says, noting that lately he's been following efforts to develop self-driving cars as Google gears up to release its driverless cars in 2017. But what direction the USPS heads — be it obsolescence or digital innovation — depends greatly on whether Cochrane, or Congress, is in the driver's seat.


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