USPS bar codes get smaller, smarter

Service enhances Intelligent Mail program with more information

A single code is easier to read, which results in better data, and requires a lot less ink than two or more codes, reducing costs.'

'Charlie Bravo, USPS

Laurie DeWitt

The Postal Service is expecting its bar codes to do more with less.

Charlie Bravo, senior vice president of Intelligent Mail address quality at USPS, said the new, four-state bar codes will do more than simply track mail'they will let customers choose more services and help increase revenue both at USPS and in the private sector. They're called four-state codes because they use four types of bar-code lines instead of the two currently used.

The bar code is the latest offering under Intelligent Mail'a program initiated in late 2001 that USPS expects, eventually, to let customers track every piece of mail from pickup to delivery.

Officials will formally unveil the new bar code at their annual trade show, the National Postal Forum, this week in Orlando, Fla.

The new bar codes pack nearly three times the data contained in existing ones, but in a much smaller space, Bravo said.

Right now, bar codes on a piece of mail are typically located in one or more of at least four different places surrounding the address and consist of two features'full bars and half bars. The bars detail such postal services as sorting, tracking, certified mail and change of address, Bravo said.

But under the four-state system, all that information will be moved into a single bar code running just above the outgoing address, giving mailers more options and reducing processing costs for the government, he said.

The new system makes use of four distinct types of lines in groups of 31'a full line, a small line, and two half-lines that jut up or down, each representing different pieces of data.

'Using [four-state] cleans up the envelope and frees up more real estate for marketing messages,' Bravo said. 'A single code is easier to read, which results in better data, and requires a lot less ink than two or more codes, reducing costs.'

Jeff Freeman, USPS' manager for mail technology strategy, said the new system is based on propriety software and runs on the Microsoft Windows platform, although the service is currently developing a Linux version as well.

Freeman said the bar codes are read by a digital imager and translated by the four-state software package.

Gary Reblin, manager of USPS' Intelligent Mail planning and studies office, said Lockheed Martin Corp. supplied the mailing automation equipment as part of the ongoing broader Intelligent Mail program and network upgrade.

The Postal Service worked with Lockheed to make sure that the equipment could read the new bar codes, he said.

Reblin said USPS is implementing the bar codes while in the midst of updating its back-end infrastructure network across the country.

For that reason, he could not specify how much the agency has spent on the four-state system itself. He did say, though, that doing both at the same time has reduced costs.

The new 31-line code lets postal workers uniquely identify up to a billion pieces of mail, while the current system can ID about one million unique pieces, Bravo said, giving postal workers and customers nearly real-time access to information about where their mail is and if the intended recipient has changed their address, Bravo said.

Better management

With the four-state bar code, if an agency or company sends out a mass mailing and some recipients have changed addresses, the sender is notified electronically and the mail is automatically re-routed, Freeman said.

This can help agencies and private corporations better manage their business because they can find out when someone received a piece of mail, such as a bill, and whether it is being returned.

While USPS officials could not be specific about when the new bar codes will be available for all customers, it is already conducting a pilot program with two large financial firms'Prudential Financial Services of Newark, N.J., and another company USPS declined to name.

Prudential started using the bar codes last August, and the other company came aboard in October. Reblin said both plan to use the service when it becomes publicly available later this year.

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