Among their many challenges, postal workers must efficiently process mail that is "non-machinable." This includes pieces that are irregular in shape, too thick or too large to pass through automation equipment at the originating mail processing facility. A considerable amount of resources are expended, both in people and time, to process non-machinable mail. This includes handling, positioning and turning the mailpiece and then manually keying the address to generate the required barcode. This is just one area where image technology is being applied to address mail-sorting inefficiencies.
The efficient processing of mail requires that barcodes be applied to mailpieces so they can be read automatically further downstream in the mail processing system. The costs to process mail can be reduced significantly by using image-reading technology to generate the required barcode and expedite the mail through the system for faster delivery.
Using handheld, image-based systems to read address information is a relatively new idea. Previously, postal employees used traditional laser-based scanning technology to read postal barcodes. Yet, now there is an ever-increasing demand for image-based solutions within the postal industry because the cost of ownership is now lower and the solutions offer more sophisticated data collection and information capture capabilities.
An image-based system utilizes a small camera to capture the image of an address. These cameras have hundreds of rows and columns of imaging elements arranged in a two-dimensional array to capture the image. Image-based solutions are becoming desirable in the mailing and postal industry because of the following attributes:
How It Works
The first step in the mail sorting process is to capture an image of the mailpiece. Using image technology in a handheld unit, individuals depress a switch on the unit to activate an "image locator," which captures the image when the switch is released. The image locator is positioned over the approximate mid-position of the address. When the switch is released, an internal light source illuminates the address area and an image area of about six inches by four inches is captured of the mailpiece.
The image is then sent to a local computer where sophisticated algorithms are employed to identify the various objects that may appear on the mailpiece, including the address block, return address, barcodes and indicias. Once the system identifies each line in the address block, it segments the characters and completes the process of character recognition. The characters form words that are interpreted into an address. The address is then correlated and validated with a national address directory. Once the address is validated, a barcode is generated from a local printer and applied to the mailpiece. In addition, the system locates, reads and decodes any barcodes that are on the mailpiece. Thus, the handheld imaging system provides both OCR-and barcode-reading capabilities.
Image-based technology has other applications in the mail and postal industry:
Reject Mail Processing In this application, the technology can be used to process rejects from a mail processing operation. The traditional method would employ a piece of capital-intensive sorting equipment to reprocess rejects. The handheld image solution provides a more efficient use of sorting equipment and does not require a special machine operation to reprocess rejects.
Low-Volume Mail Processing For applications where low mail volumes exist, handheld imaging technology can be used to capture and interpret the address and generate the barcode for downstream mail processing. This application negates the need for a large investment in equipment to process this type of mail. It can also be used for letter mail, flats or parcels.
Point of Receipt In this application, a handheld imaging solution captures and interprets the address information at the mail counter, with the mail clerk applying a barcode before the mail enters the automated mail workflow process. This negates the need for the receiving mail clerk to key in any information (normally a ZIP Code) and also validates the address against a national database.
Image Capture Through handheld image-based technology, certain information can be provided about a specific mailpiece. This includes documentation of damage to a mailpiece, the capture of a signature for proof of delivery and the capture of an address block for archival or database applications such as updating address information to include an address that is undeliverable.
Mixed-Media Information Capture Imaging technology can process multiple media types including linear or 1D barcodes, 2D and postal codes (Postnet or PLANET), graphics, text, signatures, grayscale photos and images. Mailing companies and postal organizations can benefit from this versatility by facilitating new applications such as track and trace, delivery or signature confirmation, address management, accountable mail and indicia (proof of payment).
Image-based solutions can reduce the time and costs required to process mail in low-volume as well as reject applications, avoiding the need to use capital-intensive equipment. They also increase accuracy because image-based solutions capture, process and interpret address information and then are cross-referenced with a national database for extra protection.
In addition, the technology can capture, read and store multiple barcodes for any particular mailpiece. Important information is held in these barcodes, and as a result, image-based solutions ensure faster mail.
Harry Page, chief operating officer of Symagery, has more than 22 years of experience in the microelectronics and telecommunications industry. To contact him, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 613-592-2592, ext. 4353.