FedEx is known for pioneering overnight delivery in the 1970s, and then online package tracking in the 1990s. But in the last few years, the company has been positioning itself to take advantage of the so-called “Internet of Things” phenomenon, in which inexpensive wireless sensors will be able to report on a real-time basis. A FedEx innovation team has been at the center of building businesses that leverage Internet of Things technologies.
The first is called SenseAware, and it allows FedEx customers to know about the temperature, light exposure, relative humidity, and barometric pressure of a package in transit — not to mention its precise location and whether or not it has been opened yet. We talked to FedEx Director of Innovation Michelle Proctor, left, about the development of the offering, which is sold as a subscription-based service.
The idea for SenseAware grew out of FedEx’s work with some of its healthcare clients, Proctor says, whose tissue and blood samples had very particular handling needs, like ensuring that temperatures never rose above a particular level while the samples were in transit. To meet those needs, FedEx assembled a team of more than a dozen people from varied disciplines in engineering, information technology and other specialties. The team used an agile development approach, showing prototypes to customers frequently and making changes based on their feedback during short “design sprints.”
The service they created has two components. The first is a sensor-rich device, about the size of a smart phone, which attaches to the inside or top of the package being shipped. The second part is a companion web site that receives and tracks information about the status of the package. SenseAware can report on the package’s “health” whether the package is on the road or in the air, Proctor says.
“We had not done something of this nature before,” she says. “At the time this was in development, there was a lot of sensitivity around cell phones and their usage on aircraft. Did they interfere or did they not interfere? And so our team and operations crew worked very closely with the [Federal Aviation Administration] and their folks to do rigorous testing on multiple aircraft types.”
After months of testing on its own airplanes, and working closely with the FAA to document the results of the tests, SenseAware was cleared for flight. “It was time consuming, but it was absolutely the right thing to do and something that needed to be done just to prove the safety of the device, that there was indeed no risk with the device flying on aircraft,” Proctor says.
Proctor’s team also worked with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to certify that the temperature and other readings the device reported were accurate. “Working with those people as well to get that certification again (was) time consuming, but absolutely critical to the success of the product and to guarantee the type of quality that you’ve come to expect from the FedEx brand,” she says.
FedEx’s SenseAware offering is also carrier-agnostic, Proctor says. This means customers aren’t tied exclusively to shipping on FedEx planes, but can use more than 25 other domestic and international air carriers including American, Air Canada, Air France, Delta, Emirates, Qantas, Southwest and others.
Since its launch, Proctor’s team continues to refine and add features to the technology. One recently-added feature is a probe that can be attached to the SenseAware device to measure extreme cold, such as items packed in dry ice or liquid nitrogen. And FedEx has been marketing SenseAware as a solution to companies in such diverse industries as aeropsace, antiques and collectibles, consumer electronics, fine art and museum artifacts, gourmet food and beverages, and sophisticated industrial and scientific equipment. SenseAware is now available in 30 countries; Europe and Taiwan were added last year.
For Proctor, the big lessons from the project involved listening carefully to customers, honing in on their pain points, and looking for ways that technology could be applied to make the pain go away. “Keeping our customers in the center of everything we do really was critical to the success of this launch,” she says.