Smart system confirms bulk deliveries
Smart system confirms bulk deliveries
- By Jason Miller
- Apr 12, 2002
The Postal Service, which has been criticized for its business practices by Congress and the General Accounting Office, is running a pilot that uses IT to better allocate resources, limit overtime for workers and provide businesses with important information about their bulk mail.
For four years, USPS, as a part of its intelligent mail initiatives, has been tracking business mail from more than 200 companies using bar codes called Planet Codes.
'We can look at the information for internal analysis about how the mail is processed,' said Jeff Freeman, manager for planning and integration in the USPS' Technology Organization. 'It lets us know when mail entered the system and we finished processing it. And it lets us know about service problems.'
The bar code, which senders put on a piece of mail above the address, tells postal officials and companies where it is in the system and how long it takes to get through the system. Scanners at 350 mail processing plants across the country read the data and send it to district offices over a postal WAN. Then the information is transmitted to a server running the Confirm application, developed by the Postal Service, to scrub the data and filter it by mailer, district or region. The information is stored on an Oracle database residing on a Sun Solaris server at a center in Eagan, Minn.
The filtered data is sent to USPS management via the Postal Service WAN to client servers over the Internet or to the Postal Service Web site, where users can log on with a password to access their information.
Labor costs account for more than 75 percent of the Postal Service's total overhead, said Mark Saunders, a USPS spokesman, so knowing where big shipments are in the system makes a difference. Means business
The benefits for mailers also are important because 80 percent to 90 percent of the 620 million pieces of mail the Postal Service handles daily comes from businesses, Freeman said. Mailers are assigned four digits within the Planet Code for internal tracking. Freeman said by late spring the code will expand to six digits.
'The key for mailers is [to know] when the mail goes through the last sort,' Freeman said. 'Then they know the mail will be delivered later that day or the next day.'
When USPS developed the system, determining its size was a major hurdle, he said.
'When we started the proof of concept, we looked at the mail and realized we might have to handle as much as 90 million scans a day,' he said. 'We needed to have a running platform that scaled to that extent.'
Transmitting data through a post office and then a district office to the Confirm server was another challenge, Freeman said.
There were many sites that had mail processing equipment but were not connected to the postal network, he said. 'We had to retrofit some of the scanners on the mail processing equipment to be able to read Planet Codes, and we had to improve the computer infrastructure of some of the facilities.'
Retrofitting the scanners, which are supplied by Lockheed Martin Corp., Pitney Bowes Inc. of Stamford, Conn., and Siemens AG of Germany, was a matter of reprogramming them to read the Planet code, Freeman said.
Upgrading the USPS infrastructure was more complicated. 'We had to install some new networks at facilities as well as new servers or wiring,' Freeman said.
Last October, the Postal Service upgraded Confirm to track how long it would take the mail to go through the process.
During the pilot, sorting centers scanned between 1 million and 2 million pieces of mail daily. USPS has not charged businesses to participate in the Planet Codes pilot.
But Freeman said the Postal Service expects more businesses to sign on when the program moves out of the pilot phase, and it is considering charging customers.
'From the beginning we have developed the product with input from the industry,' Freeman said. 'We are continuing to think about what other features to add and what the industry would like to see.'