Postal Service wants feedback on automating 'flats' mail

The change would affect items such as magazines and catalogs

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is looking for feedback from customers on its Corporate Flat Strategy, a plan designed to automate the delivery of "flats" mail, which includes magazines and catalogs.

Using what it's learned from automating letters, the USPS is planning to automate what it refers to as flat-shaped mail to avoid costs associated with manual sorting. The Postal Service said it will then pass those savings onto customers (download PDF).

According to the USPS, flats represent about 25% of total mail volume and generate approximately $16.1 billion in revenue a year. However, nearly half of last year's 51.6 billion flats weren't presorted for carrier delivery, making them more costly to process because of the additional sorting required.

The Corporate Flat Strategy identifies initiatives to reduce the $4-billion-per-year cost of having letter carriers spend almost three hours a day sorting mail before they make their rounds, the USPS said.

Despite its name, flat-shaped mail varies greatly in size and shape and is sorted on various machines or presorted by mailers to carrier routes. Because there is no one machine that combines this mail, letter carriers also spend time checking through as many as five separate flat bundles at the customer's mailbox before delivering the mail.

"It's important that we find innovative ways to increase the amount of bar-coded flats in the system, since bar-coded flats are sorted quickly and at the lowest cost," said John Rapp, senior vice president of operations for the USPS, in the statement. He said the USPS is investing in research and development projects to determine if equipment can be designed to inexpensively handle a wide range of sizes and shapes.

Rapp said the larger goal is to reduce mail streams, first to two -- automated and manual -- and then to one, Deliver Point Packaging (DPP), if the technology can be developed.

DPP is an R&D initiative that uses automation to simultaneously sort both letters and flats into delivery order and then bundle the mail into one package for each delivery stop. Rapp said that while the technology isn't yet available and a decision has yet to be made on how quickly to pursue it, the Postal Service expects to have a DPP machine simulation available for evaluation during fiscal 2005 or 2006.

A second option, the Flats Sequencing System, will be designed to sequence flat-shaped mail in two passes.

Decisions to move forward with either or both of the initiatives are expected to be made next year, with possible deployment targeted for 2006 or 2007, the USPS said.

Customers can offer feedback on the plans by logging onto ribbs.usps.gov, which is where the Corporate Flat Strategy can also be viewed. On the left column under "RIBBS Links," click on the "Corporate Flat Strategy" link. The FlatStrategyFeedback@usps.gov e-mail address routes all comments to the Postal Service headquarters.

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