DM News' Deliver: Into the Mail StreamLast year's edition of Deliver covered the concept-to-creation process for a typical Lillian Vernon catalog. This year, we explain what happens from the moment the piece is printed and mail-ready through its delivery by the mail carrier. Our expert is Paul E. Vogel, U.S. Postal Service vice president of network operations. A 37-year USPS veteran, Vogel sets policies for processing plants and distribution networks. He also is responsible for all domestic and overseas USPS transportation.
As told to DM News executive editor Mickey Alam Khan:
The printer has handed the mailing to a transportation company, which brings it to one of our nearly 400 postal plants nationwide.
Either the printer or the transportation company, before arriving at the postal facility, makes the reservation for their vehicle to come to the plant platform. We have a system that's been in place for a few months called FAST that allows online access to the postal service's reservation system. We prefer that mailers enter that reservation through a computer program called Postal One!
That Postal One! file tells us what we should expect from the mailing ... some sort of estimate on the time they plan to arrive at our plant so we can greet the truck, have a back door available and schedule people appropriately to unload the truck in a timely manner. The information in the Postal One! application helps us decide how much additional sortation capacity we need for that working volume.
Three-digit and five-digit carrier routes
The printing company gets discounts for preparing the mail in steps that reduce the postal service's workload. The preparation that has the greatest discount is a carrier-route-sorted bundle. In that bundle would be the advertising that's already put in the mail carrier's walk sequence. So that takes most of the distribution activities away from us, and we just do a cross-docked transfer from the mail that comes off the truck to one of our trucks to get it off to a delivery route.
The next level of distribution in terms of discounts would be a five-digit discount. This discount is a delivery zone with five-digit bundles that again would be cross-docked. But when it got to the delivery zone, it would have to be sorted to the carriers, so an additional step is thus slightly less of a discount to mailers.
Most of the discounts in this scenario would be three digit. Our plants are set up to sort by three digits. In New York City, you can get ZIP code 100, so you may be 10001 in which the 100 is the plant that would sort just that three-digit sortation. That mail would have to come in to the plants, be broken open, put into our sorting equipment so it would then be sorted to five-digit to get down to the zone carriers run with.
When the mail comes off the dock at our receiving plant, hopefully we have that Postal One! file that tells us what's in there. We scan that pallet - what assortment is coming out of that pallet - and feed back that information to the owner or printer of that mail so they know that we received that volume at the plant. Sometimes they contract out to all the transportation bodies, and thus they know the loop has been closed and, at least, the mail is in possession of the postal service.
Some financial acceptance also goes along with our computer program so the package is appropriately deducted, and quality checks are made to ensure the right mail got off at the right plant. It's not uncommon that a pallet maybe was destined for Dallas but really showed up in Denver because of human error. It's a good quality check for us to provide that information back to different parties.
Letters versus flats
Then, depending on the type of pallet, the difference between letters and flats takes effect. We have six scenarios.
Let's take the simplest example of both letters and flats. If a carrier-route sortation came in and was on a carrier-route pallet, either letters or flats, the people who work that platform would see it as a carrier-route sortation and would keep it on the platform. It wouldn't have to go into the plant. It would be cross-dock transferred to the transportation that was going out to that delivery zone. That takes care of two of those six scenarios.
The next simplest one would be a five-digit sortation. Letters and flats have a different flow on this thing. In a five-digit pallet, using that example of New York 10001, if roughly 500 pallets worth of mail were going to the whole zone and that zone were for flats, in all probability that pallet would stay on the platform and just be cross-docked to that five-digit.
But if that five-digit pallet of flats had more than one five-digit [zone] on it, that pallet would be brought into the plant to be sorted on technology that we call an APPS, Automated Parcel Processing System. That sophisticated piece of automated technology would sort those bundles for the five digits that they belong in into a container. That container would be rolled onto the platform where it would be put onto the appropriate truck bound for the appropriate five-digit [zone].
With letters, the process differs because many of our letter processing zones go through a system called Delivery Point Sequencing, or DPS. In that scenario, the letters would be sorted on a piece of equipment that merges all the mailings and all of the First Class along with all the ad mail and anything else in the shape of a letter. We would put that volume into a walk sequence for our carrier.
So in the case of a five-digit pallet of letter mail, the letter trays would go inside the plant to the appropriate letter-sorting equipment - the Delivery Barcode Sorting systems. Here the letters are merged with all the other letters for our carrier and entered into walk sequence. Those individual carrier walk trays or tubs are brought back out to the platform and put onto the appropriate truck for the carrier's delivery route.
That takes care of four scenarios, leaving us with the two products that have the most work contracted for us.
I'll go with the flats first. A three-digit pallet of flats would enter the postal platform and be sent to a flat-sorting machine, or FSM. Depending on the size and shape, it likely would go to an FSM 100, one of our automated pieces of technology, and that mail would be given a primary sortation. The three digits would be broken into the five-digit level, and it would include any heavy mailing into ZIP codes that some mailers have as a unique five-digit ZIP code as well.
We currently do not sort flats in walk sequence, but that technology is coming - flat sequencing sortation - and that would have a different flow. But that's probably a few years away.
A pallet of letters that comes in three digits would go to one of our Delivery Barcode Sorting machines to receive a primary sortation. In that sortation, the letters would be broken into five-digit or heavy volume direct five digits or mailing industry ZIP codes.
That five-digit likely then would go to another DBS to be put into a carrier-route sequencing, a DBS that I mentioned in a prior scenario for letters under five digits. It's done with all the other five-digit mail that we talked about in the other scenario and then brought back onto the platform and dispatched to the carrier-route zone.
Now there are several iterations of those six scenarios, but we would confuse the whole if we tried to get more than the six.
Some advertisers don't enter into a sortation site
Several advertisers may enter the mail directly into the carrier unit, which is called the DDU, or the Destination Delivery Unit. They would bring into the DDU only mail that was carrier-route sequenced, as a rule. There may be some five-digit residual. That usually happens only with your highest-volume customers that have that level of saturation that they warrant the expense of driving a truck down to our five-digit, and that is the highest level of discount that we give for the Destination Entry Carrier Route. It's usually companies like ADVO or those that have very large saturation mailings.
That follows the path of all the things I just explained before where the mail eventually all went back to the plant platform, got onto the trucks and then would go to the delivery units. So whether it's our trucks that go to the delivery unit or the mailer truck that goes to the delivery unit, once it gets to the delivery unit, the truck is greeted by the local delivery unit people who take that product and walk it over to the individual carrier routes.
This is where the carrier has the sortation equipment and either sorts it or, if it's already been sorted into DPS, they just put it onto the truck and sequence the residual volume into a carrier route walk. Or, if they pick up what already has been carrier-routed, they put it onto their delivery vehicles and off they go to deliver the mail in a walk sequence.
Reach Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joanne M. Veto, senior public relations specialist at the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, authored these sidebars. Photos provided by the U.S. Postal Service.