Mail on the Move – How a Letter Travels
More than 700 million pieces of mail are sorted and delivered by the Postal Service each delivery day. But how does each piece get from point A to point B? Follow the fast and furious travels of a mailpiece.
You enclose your mail into its envelope and fill out the address. Once that letter has been deposited into a collection box, a postal carrier removes all the mail from the box and takes it to the neighborhood post office. From there, that letter, along with other mail collected by other carriers of that post office are gathered together in the mail room and placed on a truck and delivered to a mail processing plant.
At the processing plant, the letter is sent through a machine that rapidly separates mail by shape, separating letters from large envelopes and packages, which is called the culling operation. The machine adjusts letters so that all the addresses face the same way and are right side up. A postmark is then applied with the date and place where the letter was sorted. The postmark’s cancellation lines are applied too so that the stamp cannot be reused, in order to protect postal revenue.
Each letter is also identified by a code consisting of a series of fluorescent bars imprinted on the back. An optical character reader scans the address on the front of each letter. Images of letters that could not be successfully read are transmitted to a remote encoding center for further processing. All letters are then placed in trays and moved to the next piece of automated equipment for barcode application.
Linked with the identification code, a barcode is sprayed on the front of the letter. The barcode, representing the specific delivery address, consists of tall and short bars used for further sorting. The barcode sends a specific mailpiece into a bin on the machine for a particular range of ZIP codes, which identify the next processing plant.
A tray, containing mail specified for a particular ZIP code range, is taken to the airport to begin its flight across the country. Once the plane lands at its destination, postal workers deliver the tray and its contents to the mail processing plant that serves the post office, station, or branch that will deliver the letter.
At the plant, the mailpieces in the tray are fed through a barcoder sorter, which separates letters for a specific ZIP code from other letters in that ZIP code range. After this, the letter receives its final sortation. A delivery barcode sorter sorts the letter to a particular carriers who will deliver it. The barcode sorter also arranges that carrier’s letters in the order of delivery.
Afterward, all of the mail for this carrier is taken by truck to the Postal Office, station, or branch in which the carrier works. The carrier loads trays of mail, including the letter, into a motor vehicle. Once the vehicle is loaded, the carrier drives to the street where the letter is to be delivered and loads his or her satchel with the mail to be carried to each house or business. Within minutes of leaving the truck, the carrier delivers the letter to the addressee.
As letters account for the greatest amount of mail volume, the Postal Service has continued to introduce new equipment and technology to speed up letter processing. Along with letters, it also initiated automation of catalogs, magazines, and other oversized envelopes. It has also turned its attention to speeding up the processing of parcels. Its newest focus is to provide customers with more information on each mailpiece as it travels through the system. The goal is to have an intelligent mail system in place by 2009, which would operate like a Global Positioning System for mail, using a standardized barcode on each piece of mail and mail container, enabling customers to see where their mail is each step of the way.
Whether it’s the U.S. Post Office or a corporate mailroom, the key to delivering mail smoothly is organization. The U.S. Postal Service is a solid example of innovation and organization in the mailroom with use of the right equipment. No matter what volume of mail you may be processing, it’s important to have the correct tools to handle letters and packages. For example, mailrooms should be stocked with several pairs of reliable, safe box cutters. It goes without saying that any mailroom or shipping and receiving department should have many kinds of safety knives on hand.