Feb. 23 2007 04:36 PM

In a competitive and technologically advanced world, the postal industry continues to face a great challenge: to deliver the mail with ever-increasing efficiency. Each day, the U.S. Postal Service delivers more than 680 million letters, parcels, catalogs and magazines. Despite the scope of this responsibility, the Postal Service has earned a well-deserved reputation as a responsive and innovative organization. Throughout the course of its history, it has looked to technology to process mail more efficiently and improve overall service.


For the past 10 years, the Postal Service has used optical character recognition (OCR) to automatically read addresses on letter and flat mail. Recently, this technology has been expanded to read addresses on parcels and bundles.


The Parcel Challenge

Parcel and bundle mail present greater challenges in address recognition for several reasons. Letter and flat mail have only two sides and are generally presented on the sorters with the address facing the camera at a fixed focal length. Parcels typically have six sides, which must be searched to find the address, with a complicating factor of being anywhere within a full 360-degree rotation.


Compare the cover on a bundle of magazines to the front of a letter envelope. It is often difficult to locate the correct destination address on parcel surfaces, many of which contain advertising, logos, pictures and miscellaneous text that contribute to the complexity of locating the correct destination address. Location of the address block among a very high number of confusing and conflicting candidates has been added to the fundamental OCR technology from the letter and flat mail streams.


Furthermore, accurate sortation cannot rely on the correct ZIP Code alone. It also requires the optional endorsement line or the pre-sort label on standard bundles. Many parcels contain multiple and conflicting labels, which require OCR technology to choose the correct answer by matching the barcode ZIP to the address data.


The Parcel Solution

Automation of package and bundle sorting and the challenges of parcel address recognition are being addressed by the recent deployment of 74 Lockheed Martin Automated Package Processing Systems (APPS). APPS significantly changes the parcel sortation paradigm and makes use of optical character and barcode recognition technologies to improve efficiency.


The fully integrated, end-to-end system automatically sorts high volumes of First-Class packaged mail, Priority Mail envelopes and parcels, as well as bundled mail, such as magazines or catalogs, with greater efficiency and higher accuracy. The system has the unique capability of processing the full spectrum of mail from items the size of letters to boxes weighing as much as 25 pounds.


APPS is capable of processing more than 9,500 packages per hour. This efficiency is achieved through advanced OCR and barcode reading (BCR) technology, coupled with an innovative image acquisition system. Together, these elements make up the advanced automatic address recognition subsystem of APPS.


The APPS image acquisition subsystem uses four high-speed cameras to capture an image of each side of the package. Two methods determine the package's destination address. BCR technology deciphers barcodes to determine the destination ZIP Code. For mailpieces without a barcode or for which the barcode was not read by BCR, OCR interprets addresses from machine-printed, as well as handwritten, addresses. Currently, OCR technology is providing ZIP Code results for 80% of the non-barcoded mail, which is 10% above the original requirement, and further improvements are already in the development and test process. In the event that neither the BCR nor OCR can provide a destination ZIP Code, the mailpiece images are sent via a wide area network to a video coding system for human recognition of the address from the images.


The OCR technology used in APPS is useful in multiple applications and has been extended to Postal Service bulk mail centers across the United States. Bulk mail centers have unique requirements in which OCR can again serve to increase efficiency. In 19 bulk mail centers, an additional OCR solution has been developed for even larger parcels. This solution employs a five-camera tunnel subsystem that captures all sides of the parcels traveling on a high-speed conveyor after being automatically singulated. In bulk mail centers in New Jersey and Chicago where a tunnel system is not practical, a single camera captures an image of every mailpiece placed face up onto the conveyor. With the incorporation of OCR, the time-consuming step of manually keying-in information has been automated.


Moving Forward

As online shopping expands, the mailing  industry will continue to see growth in the number of parcels processed and delivered. Image acquisition and OCR technology currently employed by the USPS is designed to be flexible and adaptable to accommodate the rich mix of mail from the home shopping industry. Engineered setup and adjustments within the camera to accommodate the various parcel sizes make this possible.


A number of attributes from advanced OCR technologies realized in letter and flat mail can be and have been applied to the particular challenge of OCR in the parcel stream. Continuing pressure for productivity in this growing mail segment will make OCR and advanced BCR technology more vital to solutions required to provide a competitive posture for the Postal Service in the future.


Brian Tanton is Vice President and General Manager of Lockheed Martin Distribution Technologies. Visit www.lockheedmartin.com.