Smart lockers the next disruptive technology

19:29, Mar 21 2013

My career has been spent in technology in one way or another.

I started out as an avionics engineer at Air New Zealand (primarily because their acceptance letter arrived before the one from the University of Auckland’s law school arrived, phew!).

Since then I have been involved in fixing, selling, marketing and enthusing over technology, which until now has been getting much smaller and more portable.

I recently became director of new technologies (best job title acronym ever) at Pitney Bowes in Auckland. One of the products I am responsible for can weigh up to 10 tonnes, be the size of a truck and is built like a battleship.

They’re called smart lockers and they're as disruptive and enabling as technology can be.

Think big, internet-connected steel box with lots of doors. 


The way they work is brilliantly simple.

Instead of having a parcel (let’s say your latest TradeMe purchase) sent to your home address where you run the risk of receiving one or two of the dreaded 'we called but you weren’t home' courier notices, then traipse across town in peak hour traffic to pick up your package, you would instead address it to a smart locker unit close to your home or place of work.

When the courier delivers your package to one of the locker units you would receive an email and/or text message telling you that your package is available for collection. Included in the message is a randomly generated numeric code which you then use to unlock your locker via a touchscreen interface on the smart locker unit.

Once you have picked up your parcel and closed the door again, the system managing the smart locker network is notified that the locker is available for reuse. Rinse and repeat. Clever, huh ?

Well, I think it is, and here’s why. The control console built into each unit can control up to 400 individual lockers and they are connected via the internet to a cloud-based locker management system that enables integration with the logistics systems used by courier companies.

Secondly, the functionality is all software-controlled so new functionality and options can be developed quickly, then downloaded to the locker units.

But wait, there’s more. A study by ByBox in the UK showed smart lockers can provide substantial carbon footprint reductions (upwards of 80% in some scenarios) by reducing the amount of distance travelled by the couriers and reducing or eliminating the car travel requirement for the package recipient.

This is an important consideration when you take into account the fact the number of packages being delivered is growing rapidly worldwide.

For example, in the UK it’s been estimated that 1 billion packages were delivered in 2011, (that’s 15 for every man, woman and child) and that volume is expected to double within the next five years.

So what has all this got to do with Silicon Valley and the like? It turns out that the security, flexibility and connectivity these great big pieces of internet-connected steel provide has come to the attention of many technology companies extremely interested in building the next generation of online, ‘bricks and mortar’ and blended retail businesses.

Amazon has started installing smart lockers in 711 stores in the US, where they provide additional foot traffic to the stores and therefore, hopefully, increased sales.

A week or two back, Google acquired Ontario-based BufferBox and there are a number of technology startups and bigger players driving the emerging ‘ultrafast delivery’ space, including Shoprunner, Shutl, Postmates and TaskRabbit.

In addition to disrupting the package delivery industry, smart lockers also enable other opportunities including services provision (like drycleaning drop off and pick up and laptop repairs), person-to-person logistics and even vending.

Imagine buying the latest gadget on Amazon and popping down to your nearest smart locker (where it was sent pre-emptively by a predictive algorithm a day or two prior) five minutes later to pick it up. Now if that isn’t a clever and cool few tonnes of steel, then I don’t know what is.

Brett Roberts is director of new technologies at Pitney Bowes New Zealand and CEO at connector Wharf42.