Future of U.S. Mail –they’re sorting it out

  • The package sorter with attached shipment bags at the United States Postal Service distribution center in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • The package conveyor belt moves the packages up to be distributed. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Bins of mail at the distribution center.

  • Janie Beltran, senior plant manager for the United States Postal Service distribution center, looks down at one of the package sorter shipment bags last Wednesday evening. GEOFF FORESTER/ Monitor staff

  • The scanner on the package sorter reads the mailing label.

  • The package conveyor belt moves the packages up to be scanned at the United States Postal Service distribution center in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The package conveyor belt moves the packages up to be scanned at the United States Postal Service distribution center in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The package conveyor belt moves the packages at the United States Postal Service distribution center in Manchester.

  • Postal worker Zachary Conaway, loads packages to be scanned on the  package sorter.

  • Postal worker Zachary Conaway loads packages to be scanned on the package sorter. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/24/2022 1:01:12 PM

Software-driven automation is all the rage in high tech manufacturing, but there’s a good argument to be made that the state’s oldest public service uses more of it than anywhere else in New Hampshire.

Consider the U.S. Postal Service Center next to Boston-Manchester Regional Airport, which just received a new package sorting machine that is several hundred feet long.

Depending on the time of year, between 150,000 and 930,000 letters, cards, bills and other pieces of mail arrive in this huge building every day, and that’s not including tens of thousands of packages and “flats” such as magazines.

The mail portion is poured into Barney, a giant machine painted purple (hence the nickname). Software reads each address – “You’d be surprised at some of the chicken scratch this picks up,” said Postal Service spokesman Steve Doherty –  and then machines physically sort all those different-sized items at high speed so they can be sent to the appropriate location.

The automated system is so sophisticated that mail is sorted not just by town and post office and carrier route but into what is known as walk sequence, in which the mail in the front of the pile is delivered to the first stop on the carrier’s route, followed by mail at the second stop, then mail for the third stop and so on. Walk sequence is key to mail delivery, but it’s not trivial to accomplish.

“It used to be the clerk would take all the mail and say, ‘This belongs to (carrier) route 7, so let me put it in his cubby; this belongs to route 6; this to route 1’ – then each carrier would get it from their cubby and say, ‘This goes to 24 Main Street; this goes to 37 Adams Street’ and they’d sort it. Then they’d lock it down, and it would be in walk sequence,” said Doherty.

Now this work is done almost entirely by machine. The result: “The rule with carriers used to be: Spend four hours in the office, four hours on the street. Typically now, they’re closer to one hour in the office, seven hours in the street.”

This automation also explains one of the most head-scratching aspects of modern mail: Why a letter posted in Concord and going north to Chichester first travels south to Manchester.

“People say, ‘Why are they transporting it 30 miles away, then bringing it back?; … From a time-use standpoint, it does make sense,” Doherty said.

Complex machinery

The nation’s postal service is older than the nation – Ben Franklin was named the first postmaster general in 1775 – but in recent decades its operation has often been controversial.

The U.S. Postal Service is now an independent entity unsupported by any taxes that has run up huge deficits, made worse by unusual Congressional requirements on accounting for future retirement payments. Cutbacks that began during the Trump administration are seen by critics as efforts to cripple public service and make it easier for private firms to take over, while advocates describe them as changes needed to survive in the era of Internet communication and online shopping.

Whatever the motivation, change is happening. Called Delivering For America, it’s a 10-year plan that includes some $40 billion in investments designed “to achieve financial stability and service excellence,” according to the Postal Service.

The huge package sorter that was installed in Manchester two weeks ago is part of that change.

“We have the room; it was the right time, the right place,” said plant manager Janie Beltran during a recent tour of the facility, explaining why the brand-new machine didn’t end up in Nashua.

New Hampshire has two sorting centers that handle most of the state’s ingoing and outgoing mail, getting it to the right post office so it can be delivered. The newer center, opened in 2001, is in Nashua and handles priority mail as well as local mail; the Manchester center, dating to 1977, gets first-class mail. 

Both are huge, although Nashua’s center is bigger: 324,000 square feet, 46 dock doors and about 550 employees compared to Manchester’s 238,000 square feet, 35 docks and almost 450 employees.

The new package sorting machinery in Manchester is significant because it’s the first time this site will be sorting any packages, which previously all went through Nashua.

“We can take some of the strain off Nashua as we get ready for peak season,” said Beltran. “It adds flexibility.”

Peak season means, of course, Christmas – which for postal workers extends from Thanksgiving week through New Year’s. Even though a lot of what was once sent by mail has moved online the holidays are still overwhelming, producing as much as a six-fold increase in daily volume at the Manchester center.

The new package sorter handles smaller packages, shoebox-sized or less. Larger packages are still sorted in Nashua.

Right now, the equipment and staff are in a sort of shakedown phase, and it handles some 25,000 packages while running 5-6 hours a day. That will triple as the season picks up, Beltran said.

The sorter’s purpose is to take all the packages that have been brought to the center from throughout the state and sort them into the appropriate destination. Packages are loaded from various trolleys and boxes at one end and travel several hundred feet on a conveyor. There are 100 bins on each side of the container for either a cardboard bulk box (often called a gaylord) that can hold 300 packages or a mesh bag that can hold 25 packages or so.

People are still needed at the very beginning of the process, ensuring packages are laid face-up on the conveyor belt so that the camera can read the 11-digit barcode that tells where it is going. After that, the sorter is on its own.

Aside from the software, which reads the address via the barcode and correlates that with the correct Zip code bag, the key technology is the conveyor. It carries the packages not on a fabric belt but on a series of rollers oriented perpendicular to the conveyor. When the software says the package is alongside the appropriate spot, whether it’s for Tallahassee or for Tamworth, the rollers spin and the package flies sideways into the bin or bag.

It’s an impressive sight, especially since the entire machine is the size of 10 school buses lined up, end to end. Making room for this huge device without expanding the building required moving a lot of existing machines and storage, says Beltran. “I think of it as a kind of feng shui, rearranging things to fit it in,” she joked.

All this must be timed so that outgoing packages headed to airplanes at the adjoining airport can leave by 1 a.m.

A changing business

Lurking behind all the Postal Service changes is, of course, the internet.

Letters, bills, invitations, circulars – these were once sent by the billions but now exist online, taking away a large part of the Postal Service’s workload and income.  At the same time, online shopping has increased and boomed during the pandemic.

“It was growing slowly; then COVID hit,” said Doherty. “As we transition out (of the pandemic), you would think that might reverse, but so far there’s no sign of that.”

The task for the Postal Service is to replace declining mail with more of this package business in the face of established competitors like United Parcel Service and FedEx as well as the 800-pound gorilla in the online shopping room, Amazon. Part of that will be making use of the fact that only the Postal Service delivers to every address in the country – a requirement that can hinder flexibility and raise costs but also be a potential benefit.

Beltran, a 30-year Postal Service veteran, points to what happened when the government provided free pandemic test kits.

“Look what we did with COVID kits,” she said. More than 68 million test kit packages were sent out in all 50 states and, judging from coverage, it went off without any major hitches. We got up to speed in two weeks and got all that revenue. … That’s what we can do.”

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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