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chipFORTH gets your packages to you faster


photo: SuperTracker Federal Express SuperTracker

The operational efficiency of the courier business has undergone a dramatic change since the introduction of electronic package tracking in the late 1980's.

The "SuperTracker" is the principal input source for Federal Express' Cosmos II Package Tracking System, which won the prestigious Malcolm Baldridge award for technical excellence in 1990. It also gave them a significant advantage in this highly competitive market.

The SuperTracker hand-held device carried by FedEx collection and delivery agents uses a Hitachi 6303 8-bit microcontroller. It has a 32K PROM and extended RAM for program and data storage. A bar-code scanner in the tip of the SuperTracker device is used to scan package IDs which are kept, along with other data entered from the keyboard on the device, in a database in the RAM. The scanner is also used to communicate with a processor in its rack, which contains a battery charger and a RF transmitter used for up-loading package information to the computers at the FedEx regional centres.

Federal Express wanted to do so much with so little memory in the SuperTracker that they soon found it was not feasible with conventional programming methods and techniques. Given its limited program memory, it appeared that this device would only support a small part of the functionality planned for it.

Such problems require a fresh perspective and an innovative approach, not merely a re-design. That is where FORTH, Inc. had the expertise, developed and refined since 1973, to undertake and complete, ahead of schedule, the project to the full satisfaction of the customer.

Using COMSOL's chipFORTH development software for embedded applications, Federal Express and FORTH, Inc. as a team recoded, in only a few weeks, the existing functionality -- and the program size shrank from 32K to only 8K! Subsequently, the full functionality was achieved within the 32K memory available. Federal distributed nearly 50,000 units to their agents worldwide.

It is difficult to make and distribute changes to a ROM-based program with 50,000 copies all over the world. To facilitate such changes, FORTH, Inc. developed a means whereby the PROM contained mostly generic support code and the application could be down-loaded via the transmission link to run in RAM. Thus, FedEx could do updates as required by transmitting a new software release when one was ready. FedEx has used this capability not only to update the field SuperTrackers, but also to develop variants for other applications as well.

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