USPS to spend millions to improve mail sorting

The U.S. Postal Service plans to spend millions of dollars to upgrade machines that read handwritten addresses on envelopes to reduce the amount of human intervention in routing letters to appropriate post offices and save millions of dollars.

USPS is improving the so-called Remote Computer Readers (RCRs) by adding the Handwritten Address Interpretation (HWAI) system. Version One of the system software already is installed at 34 sites Version Two which will have more advanced recognition capability will be installed by September at USPS' 254 RCR sites nationwide.

Equipment that USPS uses today correctly reads less than 2 percent of the 40 million pieces of handwritten mail it receives every day. With the second software version the number of letters USPS can machine-read will improve 20 to 25 percent reducing the number of letters that are sent to employees who manually enter the addresses into the routing system.

Manual keying costs USPS $25 per 1 000 letters. A one-month pilot test of the upgrades at 34 sites last Christmas saved the agency $5 million said Al Lawson RCR program manager at USPS.

"With RCR the intent is to save on labor costs " Lawson said.

"Prior to upgrading RCRs images were processed by people and there was a substantial cost to pay these people to view and key these images." Because RCRs read more addresses USPS spends less money sending images to a remote site he added.

The upgrade also will smooth out the load on bar code sorters and make it easier to meet mail processing and transportation schedules. "Results are available much sooner as opposed to waiting for manual operations " Lawson said.

RCRs are part of the larger mail proc-essing system. When handwritten mail first enters USPS it passes through an optical character recognition system which automatically reads the address on an envelope. A bar code corresponding to the letter's ZIP code is then applied routing the letter to the appropriate post office.

If an address cannot be read its image is sent to a Remote Bar Coding System which sends the image through the RCR and the HWAI.

If the RCR and the HWAI cannot read the image it is sent to the Remote Video Encoding system which is used by employees to key in the parts of the address that could not be machine-read.

"With a system such as this there are two different criteria " Lawson said. "One is the throughput or how many images we can process per hour. RCRs have a throughput of greater than 90 000 images per hour. The other is how many images are actually read and finalized - in other words which ones were successfully read. With upgraded RCRs we expect performance will improve 20 to 25 percent. This refers to obtaining a correct result."

The new software was developed by the Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition (CEDAR) at the State University of New York at Buffalo which has been working with USPS for 13 years."We've been working on the handwritten recognition interpretation system for nearly 10 years " said Sargur Srihari director of CEDAR.

Srihari said the second version of the software will improve some of the rules for assigning the finalized delivery point bar code. It also will add software changes including numeral recognition and enhancements on the second pass.

USPS did not disclose how much it will spend on the upgrades but it is expected to be more than $10 million.

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