Posted on October 13, 2015
Since I was a kid I have been fascinated by how things get done. Maybe it is growing up in a family mail shop business. Or maybe it was all those “this is how it is made” films we would watch in school and as part of Saturday morning educational TV. But, I’ve always been interested in logistics.
A few weeks ago I got to go to a special behind the scenes tour of the big USPS sorting facility south of Chicago. A group of us were there to understand how big envelopes (i.e. Flat Sized Mail) moves through the USPS system. We started our tour at 9 pm so we could see the machines in operation. We finished our tour and discussion at 11:45 pm.
I’ve worked at Hensley for 17 years. I’ve owned Hensley for 4 years. And, I’m still amazed when I see the infrastructure up close. I had summer jobs here when I was in high school. I’ve been through tours before. And, yet, each time I come away with a new appreciation for the complex network of machinery that is the core of the USPS today.
Think about the mail you send and the mail you receive… the USPS machinery needs to be able to quickly read the address and assign it to a distribution route. They do this by way of the Intelligent Mail Barcode.
The variables that can cause issues are many… Handwritten? Tiny type? Different colored ink? Missing address components?
Then there is the physical reality of envelopes having to have the addresses all face up so that the machinery can read them. And, in Flat Sized Mail (over 6.125” tall), the address can be placed in many more areas on the face of the envelope due to its size.
The time they have to do this in is relatively small.. a matter of hours.
We watched trucks bring in pallets of mail from the Blue Mail boxes, area post offices and of course, the pallets that presort houses like Hensley drop off. This mail is then quickly, manually sorted by bin to determine if it is letter mail, flat mail or presorted mail. These are sent on three different paths.
The presorted mail goes directly onto a conveyor. The loose mail (i.e. stamped, metered, etc) is manually put into machinery. Flat mail gets an extra set of hands on it to make sure it is oriented correctly.. face up, with address right side up. (Ever wonder why your 9×12 envelope costs more to mail than your birthday card? This is why.)
From there the machines take over… for a while. Mail is scanned, assigned a barcode if the address is readable. If the scanner can read the address, it travels on a conveyor until it reaches a tub marked for the USPS facility that will prepare mail for the final delivery process. If it is not readable, it goes around again (think airport baggage claim conveyors) and the scanner tries again. If it still can’t determine the delivery address, it gets a new barcode and a photo of the envelope is made. That photo is transferred the National Customer Support Center and a USPS staffer will review the image, make any corrections, relay that info back to Chicago and the computer finds the correct mail piece and the updated address is affixed. Pretty cool, isn’t it? This, by the way, is the same process for letter sized mail.
The last part of our tour took us to the manual sorting area. For mail that the machinery can’t move (too flimsy, too rigid, oddly shaped), there is a group of USPS employees who take pallets of mail and put each piece of mail into its correct bin. There were rows and rows (and even more rows) of bins. There are mountains of mail to be gone through piece by piece. It was very impressive and somewhat overwhelming realizing how much needed to be done to the mail before it had to be ready to move out of the plant at 1 am.
But, it was also a sweet memory. Our family – my dad and uncle, my siblings , our cousins, and me – we remember this sorting style well. Most of us had summer jobs at Hensley at some point. We would stand in the back of the plant, sort mail into piles by state and then by zipcode. Today, the software does that before the address goes onto the envelope.
I started writing this with the goal of pointing out the importance of addressing your mail piece clearly and correctly. But, as I went back through the tour in my head, my main takeaway is that a lot of human effort still goes into getting mail into your mail box. Even I was surprised by how much.