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June 6, 2014 8:57 PM   Subscribe

How the US Postal Service works offers a glimpse into the massive automation behind the AFCS (Advanced Facer Canceller System) which helps deliver 150 million of pieces of mail daily
posted by growabrain (31 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I have a PO Box and the postal service now has a cool thing where they text or email you, not when they put something in your box, but when they will be putting something in your box by the usual time.

The USPS inspector general also has a cool whitepaper out about virtual PO Box service which would redirect your mail from a permanent PO Box like address to wherever you happen to be.
posted by Jahaza at 9:12 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

...and some goddamn idiots want to privatize the USPS.
posted by notsnot at 9:29 PM on June 6, 2014 [10 favorites]

It seems so much more organized than the way Bukowski described it.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:30 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The USPS just lost and then found my passport. Despite having a tracking number, and going just from NYC to Boston, it took a random detour to Indiana, where it languished for a week, before some kind postal investigator figured out where it was and rerouted it to Boston. Looking at this video gives me more insight into all the different ways in which my package could have been erroneously sorted - the miracle is that it was ever found at all!
posted by peacheater at 9:56 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is awesome!

I happened to take a Fedex tour once and it's basically a 90% manual system. This is far more advanced.
posted by miyabo at 9:56 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

The USPS is amazing. Anyone who says it's not should be forced to receive their mail via some other countries mail service until they take it back.
posted by fshgrl at 10:32 PM on June 6, 2014 [11 favorites]

Also... half the world's mail... that's insane
posted by miyabo at 10:36 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to work for a division of Bell+Howell that had, at the time, fairly recently lost the bidding for the USPS contract that probably was won by Siemens as shown between 2m and 4m in the video. The company was technically independent and had, I think, most recently sold a fair number of systems to Brazil, but had no other customers in the offing by the time I left a year later. It was sort of chugging on fumes, but sort of worth the continued investment as a single contract with a national mail carrier would be worth millions and millions of revenue. Anyway, after a long period of being cut up and sold off and merged with other stuff, there still is a vestige of Bell+Howell out there selling these things. They were trying to be a Xerox and I'm not sure if that's still their goal, but business solutions is the main game now regardless. (The thing is the camera business and everything else really did make it a fit -- optical scanning, sorting, document management -- it just never quite came together and at the time they weren't really able to shake the "You're still around?" blank face.)

Anyhoo, the fun thing was that while I 90% worked in the offices (IT), I sometimes got to go down on the factory/test/demo floor, where they had these massive systems rigged up and were constantly running batches of fake mail through. When it was really going the speed was nothing if not impressive.
posted by dhartung at 10:54 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The USPS is a fucking miracle! The slimy FedEx and UPS shills have done their best to paint it in a bad light, and it still just keeps kicking ass, day in and day out even despite the horrid cuts it has had to endure.

The ultra-wealthy corporate shills who have been bribed to ignore logic (republicans, mostly) who keep calling for its dismantling can take a long walk off of a short pier, IMHO.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 11:27 PM on June 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

The video is good; the only part that seems odd to me is that they seem to envision packages as being this weird exception case necessitating special equipment, when in reality that stuff is pretty standard---it's the stuff used for processing flat mail that's weird and custom/specific to the post office.

Nobody else handles the volume of letter mail than the USPS. (In part, because nobody else is allowed to.) Packages, though, they have competition. Plus, package handling is not unlike many sorting activities done in warehouses. Inside a Walmart DC, cases of stuff going to various stores get sorted out by barcode in order to get put onto the right delivery truck: that's basically the same thing that happens in a USPS sort center, only it happens multiple times as the package goes through the network. So the package sorting ought to be the most "off the shelf" process.

It actually surprises me that the USPS hasn't tightened up the guidelines on what's allowed for letter mail. It would seem like they could probably make life a lot easier on their machines by only allowing, say, #10 envelopes in First Class Mail, nothing less and nothing more (except at additional non-machinable charge, perhaps). It's impressive to me that they haven't. UPS and FedEx both have much more rigid standards as to what they'll accept, and particularly in terms of labeling requirements. UPS, and I think also FedEx, charge you extra for a hand-addressed package as opposed to a machine-addressed one; the USPS is the only service that lets you just scrawl an address in crayon on the front of a package and get it there without additional charge or complaint, and in fact seems to design its processes around this use case.

One could imagine ways in which their process could be greatly simplified if they gave up the insistence on letting people just hand-write addresses on pieces of mail and drop it into random steel boxes all over the place. (E.g., if they required you to put a QR code sticker on each mailpiece and then scan it with your phone and type the address into a webform, they could dispense with a whole lot of handwriting recognition and associated QA stuff.) But then it wouldn't be universally accessible. It's amazing that they manage to do what they do, and still let you drop a hand-addressed, more or less randomly sized, non-standard, envelope into a steel bin on the street corner, and for less than fifty cents deliver the thing in a couple of days to the scrawled-out recipient.

It's unfortunate that the USPS has gotten so hamstrung with retirement benefits and unable to offer new services (banking, money transfer). They are the epitome of "do one thing and do it well", as well as doing something that I very much doubt that anyone can say with a straight face that the market would provide independently.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:54 PM on June 6, 2014 [11 favorites]

I love the USPS; it's one of the greatest features of American life. Efficient, professional, democratizing.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:01 AM on June 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

As a student, I worked in Posti package center that catered the southern part of the country and the video looked very familiar, the dimensions of the place and being able to see only small part of the huge system at a time.

The difference to that package procedure was that instead of packages falling into large open containers at the various end points of conveyor belt (this point), we had some 50 sloping slides distributed across area codes, and there was a person, or few to distribute packages further into those tall wheeled racks with more specific area codes. Rotating around the hall and filling those racks was our work.

It was good to have humans at that point, since packaging those racks efficiently, but carefully to not crush packages that may not like to have weight on them, is easy and a relatively interesting task for humans, but difficult for a robot. It was 3d package tetris, simultaneously filling maybe 12 different racks. Also that was a point to see if any special care requiring packages, or wrongly sorted packages had gone through and put them to their right way.

The work itself was ok, listened a lot of audio lectures and it is satisfying to make a tightly packed container. The problem was that this kind of huge operation is necessarily outside of town, and travel to there and back for a 4 hour late-evening slot was draining.
posted by Free word order! at 2:58 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Isn't the only reason the PO is "hamstrung with retirement" finances because they, uniquely, have special funding requirements...foisted upon them by (R) lawmakers who have been trying to kill the USPS for years?
posted by maxwelton at 3:13 AM on June 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Yes, the USPS was forced to front-load their pensions by the GOP-run Congress in 2006.
posted by zombieflanders at 3:35 AM on June 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

If only the Post Office had a machine that could teach my carrier to close the loud on my mailbox when it's raining. But I guess you can't have everything. Anyway, the ability to stick postage and a scrawled address on just about anything (hello, "Wired" readers) and have it arrive at its estimation is a feature, not a bug. I can't imagine trying to teach my dad to scan a QR code with his phone and go online, though. The Post Office also offers some cool features, such as stamp delivery, and you can print prepaid postage for packages that your carrier will pick up. One of the great government success stories, no matter what lying conservatives say.
posted by wintermind at 5:58 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

This kind of video just isn't the same without Fred Rodgers popping up afterwords, telling Mr. McFeely that he has a very interesting job, and thanking him for sharing it with all the neighbors.
posted by radwolf76 at 6:48 AM on June 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

...and some goddamn idiots want to privatize the USPS.

USPS is already semiprivate. Or is it quasigovernmental? I forget.

I love the USPS; it's one of the greatest features of American life. Efficient, professional, democratizing.

You’ve obviously never worked for them.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 7:18 AM on June 7, 2014

These people should be celebrated as Gods!
posted by cleroy at 7:31 AM on June 7, 2014

it still just keeps kicking ass, day in and day out even despite the horrid cuts it has had to endure.

USPS mail delivery does indeed kick ass. The mail carrier who comes to my door, Anthony, is a paragon of good humor and always has a moment to chat or answer questions. When I have to go to my local PO to pick up an undeliverable package the workers in the back are singing and laughing and it makes having to wait in line just a little easier. Between MeFiSwap and my Amazon Prime addiction the USPS keeps itself squarely within my good graces.

The one way in which I do feel those cuts is in US passport processing. Many people are required to appear in front of a government agent to apply for a passport, and the State Dept. has long taken advantage of the quasi-governmental status and thousands of locations of the USPS to provide that service. But those cuts and the general shortage of PO workers has meant that passport services at Post Offices is often irregular (as workers call out sick or are otherwise unavailable) and increasingly nonexistent (as staff is downsized).

In attempts to make the service slightly more regular many POs have instituted an appointment system for passport processing, but the one by my work cancelled the service altogether after a few months of taking appointments and had to call several weeks' worth of appointments to let them know they'd have to apply elsewhere. The POs that still offer the service (by appointment only!) are taking new appointments two months in advance—it's easier to get a prime table at Fogo de Chao. State Dept. application processing is another month or so. This basically means that if you need to get a passport for traveling abroad and can't renew an expired one by mail, you have to set up an appointment almost three months in advance of your travel plans. Some people have their shit together three months in advance but many folks (in my experience) are a little more... whimsical than that.

Anyway, USPS is awesome except for that.
Renew your passport by mail if you are eligible, leave the scarce appointments for people who need them.
posted by carsonb at 7:48 AM on June 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

carsonb - do the DMVs around you still take passport applications? That was where I did my first application, no appointment needed. I recall that the state dept's website told me I could go to any number of post offices, but then I showed up at one and was turned away. I think they took them at only certain days or times. Trying to get that info fixed on the website was a futile exercise. That was in 2007 in Minnesota.
posted by soelo at 8:16 AM on June 7, 2014

I just checked at and the only acceptance facilities in LA are post offices. Too bad.
posted by soelo at 8:18 AM on June 7, 2014

Well, some municipal governments around town do it too, Culver City, Pasadena, Cleremont, Van Nuys, mine, but there's a big disconnect between when City Clerks' offices are open and when kids/families can show up for an appointment like this. That cancels out availability for a big chunk of people who are required to appear to apply. Beyond Post Offices and in general it's basically up to any given local government whether or not they volunteer to provide the service, and also how they go about setting up the facility.
posted by carsonb at 8:38 AM on June 7, 2014

I note they don't mention the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:31 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Fuck the USPS. I've been fighting with them for 3 years to deliver mail (payments to my business) that is correctly addressed to an address that i've had for 14 yrs. weekly i have patients and insurance companies call to tell me they've had mail 'returned to sender' in a SASE that is identical to the mail that is correctly delivered.
I've been up and down the chain of responsibility and yet they still can't get it done. funny how all that junk mail seems to make it unscathed.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:32 AM on June 7, 2014

USPS is already semiprivate. Or is it quasigovernmental? I forget.

It isn't really. Until 1970 it was a cabinet department. Since then it has been "an independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States". You may be thinking of how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used to be set up as public corporations* -- that is, legally just like any other company but with statutory responsibilities and limitations. (In the UK these are called Quangos.) The Federal Reserve is set up in a generally similar way.

* Technically they still are but wholly publicly owned, post-crisis.

But USPS employees are federal employees, the largest civilian agency in the country.
posted by dhartung at 10:51 AM on June 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

OHenryPacey--call your US senator and/or representative's office. The few times we've had delivery problems, the local postmaster was on them instantly when they got a call from a congressional staffer.
posted by maxwelton at 11:35 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's like live-action internet routers. I love it.
posted by the jam at 3:09 PM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kadin, one of my good friends started her career at the post office 15 years ago in one of the 55 regional centers where they sent illegible mail that the computer couldn't read for human processing. (She picked it up as a part-time college job; now she's a postmaster.) The computers are now SO GOOD at reading people's illegible handwriting that only one of those centers remains open. Reading terrible handwriting is basically a solved problem at the USPS.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:16 PM on June 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

the ability to stick postage and a scrawled address on just about anything (hello, "Wired" readers) and have it arrive at its estimation is a feature, not a bug

A friend showed up late to lunch a few years ago all indignant about some moron at the post office who held up the lunchtime line by trying to mail tires with the address written on them in grease pencil.
"what a jackass!!" he said
"you can't mail tires like that?", we all replied (Ok, thought silently to ourslves and talked about later)
because, seriously, you can mail anything at the USPS. I was more shocked they rejected them than someone tried to mail them.
posted by fshgrl at 11:00 PM on June 7, 2014

Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.
posted by homunculus at 9:23 PM on June 10, 2014

The music and narration was a little overwrought, and the descriptions of the machines tended toward "these things are the size of a FOOTBALL field! and are REALLY fast!", which I think is a trend in 'educational' videos nowadays if shows like "How It's Made" are any indication. I like knowing more about the particularly clever and/or intricate parts of a machine than the size of the machines, or how fast they go.

Nonetheless, it was pretty neat watching the whole chain of people and machines delivering something I hadn't thought too much of before. It was also nice seeing the variety of the people that they showed; it looked like something that whoever was behind the making of the video took pains to do.
posted by coolname at 8:18 AM on June 12, 2014

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