The U.S. Postal Service is expanding its Flats Sequencing System and testing some tweaks, but it is also taking another look at a competing strategy – sorting letter and flat mail together.
USPS last month added 202 more ZIP codes to the areas that will be served by the 100 machines in the first phase of FSS, bringing the total to1,993. USPS has been adding zones to the first phase in response to the declining volume of catalogs, magazines, and other flat mail. The number of Standard-class flats, which are mostly catalogs, was 17.3% lower from October through December 2008 than a year earlier, the Postal Service recently reported.
FSS is explained more fully in the newly updated “Unofficial Guide to Flats Sequencing”, which includes links to various USPS documents and a video.
USPS is testing “automated unbundling” of flats going into FSS, which would require only two employees per machine instead of five to seven, a postal official told a mailers group recently. He also said USPS is already working on plans for the second phase of FSS.
Last month, USPS received proposals for the “Next Generation Mail Processing System” (NGMPS), which would sort both letter and flat mail “walk sequenced to each carrier’s route”, in the words of the request for proposal. The list of interested vendors has 14 companies, including Northrop Grumman, which is building the FSS machines.
Postal officials a few years ago discussed the possibility of sorting letters and flats in one stream, but decided that would be impractical because of the varying shapes and sizes. Delivery-point sequencing now handles more than 90% of letter mail, while Phase I of FSS is to handle an estimated 20% of flats mail when it it is fully implemented late next year. The idea behind the technologies is to have letter carriers spend less time sorting and more time delivering, which means fewer carriers are needed.
"Designed solutions should consider the use of specifically designed letter and flat mail input subsystems, or use feeders currently deployed within the Postal Service,” the RFP says. It’s not clear whether USPS is targeting the new technology for FSS areas, non-FSS areas, or both. Because the huge FSS machines (16 feet tall and about three-fourths the size of a football field) are not suited to sparsely populated areas, postal officials have indicated that at least 20% of delivery points, and perhaps many more, would never be served by FSS.
“The most efficient processing scenario would be a one feed solution for letter and flat mail, independent of delivery points, limited only by a maximum volume, which would provide a merged letter and flat mail product in delivery point order,” the RFP says. The system should have “a small footprint,” it adds. The RFP says a contract for “a study, concept design, and simulation deliverable” will be awarded by April.
Meanwhile, USPS is still working with industry to determine the best way to package flats going into FSS. Until the new rules are implemented, perhaps next year, copies going to FSS areas will be packaged in the traditional manner – e.g. in carrier-route bundles. USPS will probably ask mailers to strap but not shrinkwrap copies going to FSS machines. Printers are advocating a single set of packaging specifications for FSS and non-FSS to avoid complications in their post-press operations.
Mailers will be encouraged or required to put FSS and non-FSS copies on separate pallets, but those pallets will be dropshipped to the same locations, postal officials indicate.
One postal official recently refuted my assertion that FSS would be targeted to commercial districts that get a high volume of flats mail; he told a mailers group that FSS would be targeted for residential areas. There were indications a couple of years ago that many commercial districts would be served via FSS, but perhaps the decision to go slow on including First Class flats in has changed that thinking.