decision analysis partners was recently asked by a large post to perform a study on mail bundling technologies. The study consisted of two parts: a test of bundles on sorting equipment within a plant, and a survey of trends in mailers and bundle equipment manufacturers. The study revealed that significant savings could be achieved beyond selecting the right bundling method by taking an integrated approach to mail preparation and handling.
This particular postal carrier, like many other posts, created mail preparation standards, including standards for bundles of publications sent to a common destination. Savings from handling bundles rather than single mail pieces are typically passed on to the mailers. These standards, however, are mainly concerned with the ability of a bundle to remain intact after mechanized sorting (bundle integrity) and the sorting equipment’s ability to smoothly process the bundle (machineability). Mailers, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with product protection and the cost of bundling; bundle integrity and machineability are considered only insofar as they impact shipping rates. These differing perspectives lead to a variety of bundling techniques, preferred by each party for their own reasons. Smaller mailers, for instance, still use string to tie bundles: our study found that it provides adequate product protection and bundle integrity, and because it is an older technology, equipment is inexpensive. But string-tied bundles can easily snag on sorting equipment, and loose string from broken bundles can jam in sensitive components such as rollers or conveyor belts, causing downtime and delays for postal operators. Plastic strapping, on the other hand, is a popular alternative, and our tests determined that it provides superior bundle integrity and machineability, but may also cause additional product damage. Shrink wrap, another common bundling option, has the opposite problem: strong on product protection, but weak on bundle integrity. To compensate, we found that some mailers combine plastic straps and shrink wrap, but this is more difficult for posts to remove and requires significant additional investment by mailers in equipment, materials, labor and other production costs – an investment that many small mailers cannot justify.
These bundling technologies all seem to have distinct weaknesses, but by thinking beyond the bundling, their effects can be reduced. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has worked over the past few years with mailers to develop one such integrated approach. It turns out that many handling steps that may damage bundles could be avoided in postal plants if bundles were prepared on palettes and presented in a way that could be processed straight into the mailing equipment. As part of their Bulk Flats Processing strategy, USPS has worked with mailers to develop specifications for an “Auto-Ready Pallet” which incorporates bundling guidelines as well as instructions for pre-sorting and palletizing mail. By defining how bundles should be presented in palettes, it allowed the USPS to design equipment that gently processes these bundles and skips pre-sorting tasks, improving preparation and mail handling times and reducing in-plant footprint. It turns out that these savings more than offset the cost of preparing the pallet, resulting in the lowest combined cost to both parties.
More of this kind of integration between posts and mailers can lead to further innovations between mail production and processing. Current designs use these new standards to prepare mail for existing equipment, but they could be used to define entirely new sorting processes. And the idea can be taken further – a careful examination of printing technologies, for example, could allow postal operators to one day accept mail straight from a printer with minimal presorting and handling. Continuing to integrate mail preparation and delivery could realize substantial savings for both mailers and postal operators.