Smart Lockers Come to Cedarville University
It’s happening in every college and university mail center in the country: mail volumes are plunging and package volumes are through the roof. “It was, at the beginning of a semester, almost getting impossible to manage the volume,” admits Tammy Slone, director of Retail Services at Cedarville University, a private Baptist university in Cedarville, Ohio, echoing what mail managers everywhere are seeing. “When you’ve got 1,200 packages a day coming in, trying to find those packages can be a challenge. [Students] were waiting in line 30 minutes to pick stuff up."
Yet, like most universities, Cedarville still had wall space taken up by antiquated combination mailboxes — 4,000 in all — while packages were processed and staged in an area where volume had exceeded space. With that volume continuing to rise, something clearly needed to change.
So, 18 months ago, Slone began researching smart lockers — parcel storage units with integrated technology that notifies recipients when they get a package and opens the right door when they scan their ID card at a kiosk. She visited East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., and Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, to see their locker systems from TZ SMArt Lockers and Neopost, and drew up a proposal. Her boss liked the idea of replacing the old mailboxes with smart lockers, but it was an expensive solution. The university pushed the possible installation date to the summer of 2021.
And then in March, something happened to accelerate that timeline.
“When COVID hit, all of a sudden social distancing and the lines that are a part of the postal operation became a glaring problem,” Slone says. Students crammed together for long periods waiting for packages was a recipe for disaster.
Video: Smart lockers at East Tennessee State University
Slone’s boss called her in August to say the smart lockers had become a high priority for University President Thomas White. Could they be in place by Christmas? No problem, said Slone. And then the project shifted into high gear.
In September, the university signed a contract with TZ SMArt Lockers. By November, 2,700 mailboxes had been ripped out to make space. In December, 392 metal lockers and 220 metal mailboxes were installed. They were ready to use by Christmas.
“COVID was the final push,” Slone says. Now the mail and package pickup process is completely different. “Students no longer have an assigned mailbox,” Slone says. “Their mail will be assigned to a box when it comes in, and once they pick it up, that box will be available for the next person.” That’s how the school was able to go from 4,000 to 220 mailboxes.
“It makes no sense to have 4,000 mailboxes for 300-500 pieces of mail a day,” she says. Students get email or text alerts when mail and packages arrive. They scan their IDs at the kiosk, and the locker door automatically opens for them. Starting in February, they can download an app and use that to open the lockers. “Any time this building’s open, those lockers will be accessible,” says Slone — not just when mail center staff are working. This will eliminate the lines and be much more convenient for students.
One feature Slone likes about the TZ lockers is the ability to load new packages for a student into a locker that has already been assigned to that student. “That is very common, where students order textbooks and they’ll get three or four in from Amazon in one day,” she notes. This avoids the confusion of having multiple lockers assigned to the same person.
The smart lockers can also be used for delivering short-run print jobs, without needing to come face-to-face with the customer. Slone sees this as a great solution for allowing the in-plant’s outside customers, like churches and school districts, to claim their jobs after hours. About 30% of the in-plant’s work, she says, is insourced from off-campus clients.
Another benefit during the pandemic is that the lockers’ smooth surfaces can easily be sanitized, unlike the mailboxes, with their knobs and windows. And instead of requiring students to sign for packages with shared pens, “your signature is your card you’re using to open the locker,” Slone points out.
With less need for mail center staff to work the pickup desk, Slone will be able to put employees to better use in the print shop. And when the remaining mailboxes are removed next summer, the in-plant will end up with additional space. This will be welcome, considering some of the recent new equipment additions the in-plant has made. In October, it added an IntoPrint MP200W envelope printer so the shop could start printing short-run envelopes. Slone is impressed with the color of the output and the ability to use white toner to print on dark materials. The in-plant also installed a Konica Minolta AccurioPress C3080 digital color press in October, along with the IQ-501 Intelligent Quality Optimizer, which performs automatic density correction and front-to-back registration adjustments prior to printing. The MB-508 manual bypass tray is proving very beneficial. “You can do up to 51˝ sheets,” Slone enthuses. This is perfect for long banners and trifold 8.5x11˝ brochures.
“Our marketing department is very interested,” she says.
But even their interest pales in comparison with the university-wide buzz the new smart lockers are generating. Even President White is keeping tabs on the project, she says. “I’ve bought lots of equipment over the years, but this is something that’s on everybody’s radar,” Slone says.
Related story: New Package Lockers Enhance Service at Bucknell
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited nearly 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, co-sponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.