Postal Automation Delivers
The Bulk Mail System was the Postal Service’s firstventure into large-scale mechanization. It’s still going strong —but its future is being debated.
by Bernie Knill, contributing editor
It’s hard to believe that the National Bulk MailSystem is almost 30 years old. Seems like only yesterday that this 21-facilitynetwork of mechanized material handling installations came on line — andwas generally trashed by members of Congress and the newspapers. I mean, theBulk Mail Centers were described with phrases like “nonsensemachinery”; “full of unnecessary gadgets”; “wastefultechnology”; “a management blunder of the first magnitude”;and “one-billion-dollar boondoggle.” Whatever criticism the PostalService gets now is tame compared to what the Bulk Mail System got.
The mailstream of letters and packages has grown socomplicated that the current freeze on funding is being used as a time toponder what the BMCs should be doing in the future and how much money should beinvested.
Whatever the Postal Service does with the Bulk Mail System,it certainly won’t get newspaper headlines these days. But back in the1970s the Bulk Mail System made news by flouting all kinds of postaltraditions:
• TheBulk Mail System gave these packages their own network of processing facilitiesinstead of being a neglected afterthought in Post Offices where letter mailenjoyed favorite-child status. One Bulk Mail official made the hereticalstatement to Material Handling Management:“We’re in the material handling business.”
• BulkMail Centers were not multistory monuments decorated with statues and murals.Instead, Bulk Mail Centers are big, flat, one-story buildings centered aroundtrucking outside and mechanization inside.
The current vice president of engineering, Tom Day, saysthat the Bulk Mail System is still relevant, but the product that has flowedthrough the centers over the years has changed. Sacks, for example, are beingused less and less in the Postal Service. Also, mail used to go to a BMC forprimary or secondary distribution before flowing down to a processing center.
“Although old, the BMCs have a robust technology thatis capable of doing sorts for us,” says Day. “We use it forpackaged products, as well as sacks that enter the system; and even as we moveproduct into tubs and trays, it’s capable of handling that product aswell. Also, the non-machinable product, such as tailpipes, is handled in theBulk Mail Centers.”
Probably the biggest improvement in the material handlingsystem in the Bulk Mail Centers is parcel induction onto the sorter.Originally, a “facer” turned the parcel so that the label waspositioned so that a “keyer” could key the parcel’s identityinto the system. Currently, an upgrade called the Singulate, Scan and InductionUnit (SSIU) that automates the induction process has been tested and introducedand will modify all 21 BMCs. “The SSIU scans all six sides of a containeror package to read the bar code automatically,” says Day. The singulatororganizes the mailstream into a string of individual mail pieces that areconveyed to the sorter.
The six-side bar code reading is being introduced into thesecondary sort. “We’ll bring the same technology over to theprimary sort induction system, with OCR capability to do a six-side read on animage lift and bar code application,” Day says.
From postal to commercial
Sometimes the connection is closer than you might imagine.Some products, for example, migrate from postal to commercial. Sometimes thesame pressures are felt by both postal and commercial. And work-sharing givescommercial incentives to share the mail load with postal.
Material handling in control systems is an area that can beimmediately transferred from the Postal Service to the commercial marketplace.Controls are really the heart of a material handling system. “Withconveyors, for example, there’s always software that gives them theintelligence that makes them work,” says Judy F. Marks, president of theDistribution Technologies business unit of Lockheed Martin Systems Integration— Owego. “Sometimes the software is at a low machine level andsometimes it’s higher up. But we have some wonderful controlarchitectures that allow heterogeneous conveyors to talk to each other.”
Another area is Optical Character Recognition (OCR).Lockheed Martin has been a leader in working with the Postal Service on lettermail applications of OCR, says Marks. “We have taken that to the nextlevel: What we call a Carton OCR solution allows you to lift an image from oneside up to all six sides of a carton or package. Carton OCR then obtains thedesired information by reading the labels or decoding bar codes. The systemoften uses database correlation and look-up to help read the machine-printed orhandwritten information.”
The Postal Service has significant throughput needs becauseof the volume of mail that gets handled: billions of letters, billions ofmagazines, even billions of packages. Most commercial warehouses anddistribution centers don’t handle that much. “But we’re seeinga change,” Marks says. “Now more distribution centers have24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year requirements that the PostalService has always had. Whether companies are responding to Web orders or tojust-in-time commitments, they are trying to optimize their physicalinfrastructure,” she says.
Marks is seeing a lot more individual units being handled inthe commercial market, probably driven by e-commerce. “Our previousdistribution consisted of palletloads being shipped to a retail outlet from adistribution center,” she says. “Now, that still happens —but there are a lot of individual units, whether they be split cases or mailorder prescriptions being shipped by a pharmaceutical company to a number ofdestinations. Things are changing in complexity in the commercial marketplacebecause the customers are different now.”
The Postal Service encourages work-sharing with large-volumemailers because it allows the mail, whether it be letters, flats, parcels orpackages, to enter its system farther downstream. That way, they handle itless, resulting in lower operating costs. “In work-sharing programs,Lockheed Martin offers a unique bridge: a provider of systems to commercialindustry on one side and a provider of systems to the Postal Service on theother. We understand both domains,” Marks says.
Work-sharing is a fairly robust business. The Postal Servicehas guidelines for calculating the discount your company is allowed for theamount of mail processing that you do. Based on that discount, you candetermine both your capital and your return. MHM