Processing a high volume of incoming mail is a challenge for many mail centers. Sorting mail to the final end destination is one of the most difficult stages of mail processing that lends itself very well to automation. Several solutions are available today that go beyond basic sorting to offer many opportunities for efficiency improvements. Optical character recognition (OCR) technology, high-speed in-line processing devices and advanced data processing capabilities are some of the factors that help to automate processing of incoming mail, improve accuracy, speed delivery and significantly reduce manual sorting costs.

Deriving the most benefits involves selecting the right solution, configuring it correctly and implementing recommended practices for the problem areas to be addressed. This article reviews these areas at a high level and presents some solutions implemented by leading companies.

Selecting the Right Solution

Selecting the right solution starts with the selection of a transport appropriate to the type of mail and the expected volume. A range of solutions are available, from low-volume (less than 4,000/hr) mixed mail sorters that can handle complex flats to high throughput (40,000/hr) letter sorters. Selection of the transport has a large impact on the benefits and efficiencies achieved, as well as possible future upgrades.

The next step is to determine the desired reader options, based on the mail stream. Readers sort mail based on P.O. Box, text strings, numeric ZIP Codes, keywords and, of course, barcodes. The simplest readers handle only barcodes, but with recent advances in OCR technology, readers have rapidly moved to reading machine print, cursive and handwritten text. Current technology takes advantage of dynamic cross-validation of partial recognition results with information available in a reader database without separating the recognition and assignment processes. This approach makes it possible to handle mail with poor print quality, misspellings or character smearing.

Arriving at the number of bins required is critical to maximizing efficiency. This is driven by the number of sort destinations, the grouping among these destinations, available footprint and time available for sorting. A general approach is to sort out high-volume destinations with dedicated bins in the first pass and fine-sort lower volume destinations through carefully designed subsequent passes.

Selecting the appropriate inline devices is the next step. Devices can be used for detecting checks, spraying a mailstop code, sorting based on size, etc. Devices are available for measuring thickness, height, length, metal content, MICR content detectors as well as printers, selective opener and markers. With current technology, these devices can be used inline without loss in throughput.

Finally, the desired data storage and data transfer options should be selected. It is possible to archive images, connect to an organization's network, import a database using an automated utility or remotely edit the sort scheme.

Example 1

A large international oil and gas company needed to automate incoming and interoffice
mail. A good proportion of both were handwritten. Handwritten mail was assumed by default to require manual sorting.

This company selected a mixed mail, vertical feed sorter since most of the mail volume was
letter and interoffice mail. The advantages of advanced reader technology can be easily defeated by missing, multiple, mixed, unnecessary or incomplete records. Therefore, a significant component of the setup was to define a database, describing company-specific address structure, fields specifying a destination and a list of potential addressees. The company worked closely with the vendor to set up a database with an import utility that would interface to the company's enterprise system to update changes to end destinations and keep track of personnel turnover.

Prior to the implementation, interoffice envelopes were not optimized for read rates, a common problem. Based on the vendor's feedback, the envelopes were redesigned, and the old ones were phased out. The sorter now handles most of the incoming mail, saving significant labor expenditures.

Example 2

This is a classic remittance processing (lockbox) company that handles between 50,000 to 130,000 pieces on a daily basis.

The company selected a letter sorter with a three-tier bin section to minimize the footprint requirements and maximum throughput. The reader was set up to read multiple parameters the barcode, P.O. Box, department/mailcode values and handwritten mail. The system uses specifickeywords to cover common spelling variations of P.O. Box and Department.

A network server was utilized to update the sorter database with changes in client accounts. The new solution resulted in an assignment rate in the 90% range. The sorter runs multiple shifts and is also used for sorting outgoing mail and earning USPS pre-sort discounts.

Example 3

A variation of the remittance processing application was implemented at a premier financial services provider. This company needed to identify and separate mail with checks. A letter sorter was selected with a metal detector, thickness detector and in-line opener. Thickness detectors are used to identify mail that may also include a remittance slip and/or check within an envelope. The system sorts and opens (in a single pass) only mailpieces that meet specific criteria and do not contain metal pieces.

Example 4

One of the largest car and home insurers in the country took extra strides to design a mail-friendly envelope. Anywhere from 30,000 to over 100,000 letter-sized mailpieces per day needed to be handled with time-sensitive payments processed based on a numeric code visible on the face of the envelope. A letter sorter was selected as the transport to process return envelopes. The solution performs an in-line calculation on a numeric code read from the envelope to determine the time available until the payment is due and uses this as the basis for sorting mailpieces, in conjunction with other parameters The numeric code was designed to be read efficiently, resulting in a very high assignment rate. This is an example in which careful design of the mailpiece maximizes the sorter's performance.

Key Success Factors

Sorting knowledge often resides with a few individuals. When moving to an automated sorting solution, it is important to systematically capture the latest information in the system. Source information needs to be identified, and a mechanism should be set in place (preferably automated) to keep the sorting system updated with the latest information.

In some cases, the address structure is such that no single component of the address is sufficient to determine the end destination.The solution is to identify addressing patterns and configure the system to utilize unique combinations of address components rather than individual components.

When mail is sorted to a very large number of sort destinations, often several times the number of sort bins, multiple pass schemes can be established to optimize bin usage, while high-volume destinations are out-sorted in the first pass.

Frequent change of end destinations/clients is a common problem. This is true both for remittance processing environments and for organizations with a high volume of incoming
mail. Manually updating the database and sort scheme is often inefficient and error-prone. The database should contain the most comprehensive data, specifying valid fields and their values for a particular company. The need for database preparation tools for maintaining and keeping a corporate database up-to-date can not be underestimated. The best solution is often to work with the vendor to set up an automated database update utility to keep the sorting system updated with changes to the end destinations.

Beyond Incoming Mail Sorting

There is an increasing trend by customers to use sorters beyond basic sorting to perform verification and/or data capture, transferring data read, or measured, from mail to other enterprise systems and enable other business functions.

Many organizations improve the ROI of the sorting solution by handling multiple sorting activities on the same machine. USPS provides discounts for pre-sorted mail (provided minimum quantities are met), for one. It is also possible to use mail processing machines to sort incoming mail in the morning, for example, and then run outgoing mail in the afternoon. A sorter will make it possible to commingle multiple jobs from an inserter as well, maximizing USPS discounts. Efficiencies
such as these can enable organizations to go with a higher throughput sorting solution to
achieve greater benefits for various departments.

Given these examples, it should be clear that a broad range of possibilities exist for optimizing the efficiency of incoming mail processing. As in other areas, there is a tradeoff between simplicity and efficiency. Some organizations prefer to reduce complexity at the loss of efficiency, in the interest of keeping operations simple. However, current technology makes yesterday's complex operations simpler to handle the needs of today. Correctly chosen systems and close interaction with the vendor will enable a simpler, clearer, more efficient process. New technology improvements make it possible to increase efficiency without necessarily increasing operational complexity with significant benefits to any business.

George Varghese is the Product Manager, Sorting Products for BÖWE BELL + HOWELL, a provider of document processing and postal solutions. He can be reached at or 847-423-7515. Kaz Jaszczak is the Director of Product Planning and Operations for Parascript, LLC, an address recognition and interpretation company. He can be reached at or 303-381-3153.