Mailers Concerned About Postal Machine's Appetite

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While the U.S. Postal Service touted its Automated Flat Sorting Machine 100 program at a Board of Governors meting last week, some mailers said the machines are damaging mail.

The AFSM 100s are considered "intelligent" flat mail sorting machines that can decipher hard-to-read addresses while sorting three times as fast as previous equipment.

Walter O'Tormey, manager of processing operations at the USPS, who spoke at the monthly Board meeting last week said a two-year nationwide deployment of 534 AFSM 100s showed that they sort 15,000 pieces per hour -- three times the rate of earlier machines -- at a third of the cost. He said the AFSM 100 is expected to save the USPS $292.5 million this year.

But major printers and flat mailers say the machines occasionally rip the covers off heavier saddle-stitched, glossy cover catalogs and magazines. Insiders said the problems have occurred on catalogs from L.L.Bean, as well as on magazines such as the New Yorker and BusinessWeek.

After surveying its members last month, the Direct Marketing Association "found that some were" experiencing problems, said Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of government affairs at the DMA. "We are disappointed. We would have loved these machines to come on line and work perfectly without destroying the mail product."

"We have seen problems happen," said Linda Carlisle, a spokeswoman at Donnelley Logistics, the logistics solutions unit of Chicago-based R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company. "Basically, the gripper on the machine grabs the cover, and if it has a slick coating, it will slide, as opposed to the whole book coming through. As the cover slides, this creates more tension on the spine, and if the catalog is saddle-stitched, the paper has already strayed because of the fold, which causes the covers to tear."

Carlisle said problems almost always occur when a catalog with a glossy cover and a saddle-stitched binding go through an ASFM 100, but sometimes occur when catalogs just have a glossy cover or just have a saddle-stitched binding.

The USPS said it is working with the manufacturer of the machines on the problems. "We're aware of this issue and are working with the manufacturer as well as our engineering research and development groups to correct the problem," said USPS spokesman Mark Saunders. Northrup Grumann, one of the manufacturers, also has proposed solutions and is presently testing a new feeder.

But others said the engineering work that needs to be done is costly, and fixes may be on hold since the USPS has not been able to identify what the return-on-investment would be.

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