USPS expands mail-sorting technology to improve service, reduce costs

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Technology that successfully boosted postal efficiencies in the processing, distribution and delivery of letter mail will soon be applied to the sorting of flat mail such as large envelopes, magazines, catalogs and circulars.

Known as the Flats Sequencing System program, the initiative was approved Dec. 6 by the by the U.S. Postal Service's  board of governors at its monthly meeting.

FSS will allow the sequencing of larger mail pieces in delivery point order. Flat mail is one of the most labor-intensive mail categories to process because of variations in size, thickness and address label placement. Allowing the sequencing of larger mail pieces in delivery point order will reduce the time carriers need to prepare mail for delivery. Carriers currently must manually sequence this mail before leaving the office for their routes.

Walt O'Tormey, vice president of engineering at USPS, said that using technology to sort flat mail into the order of delivery for letter carriers will increase efficiency in the office and allow carriers to begin delivering to their customers earlier in the day.

Mailers, however, have expressed concern that as a result of the new system, they will have to change the location of their customers' addresses on these mail pieces. Customers' address labels will have to be moved from the bottom right or left corner of a mail piece to the top center.

If this happens, might fewer people open their mail, and, as a result, will response rates fall?

The FSS equipment is designed to sequence flat mail at a rate of approximately 16,500 pieces per hour. Scheduled to operate 17 hours per day, each machine will be capable of sequencing 280,500 pieces per day to more than 125,000 delivery addresses.

The first phase of the program calls for an initial order of 100 FSS machines to be deployed to 33 postal facilities beginning in the summer of 2008.

A prototype FSS was installed in April at the Indianapolis Mail Processing Annex, where it was tested sorting mail in delivery sequence for carriers in that area.

A full-size pre-production machine will be installed at the Dulles, VA, mail processing facility, where it will operate six days a week for one year (August 2007 to July 2008).

As this test proceeds, the USPS will study and measure the system's effect on downstream transportation, logistics, work methods and other long lead-time activities required to support deployment in 2008.

Mr. O'Tormey said delivery remains its largest cost, accounting for 43 percent of all expenses. This, combined with costs to serve almost 2 million new addresses each year, means the agency must pursue every opportunity to improve its efficiency and the service it provides to its customers, he said.

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