Modern world market trends globalization, liberalization, deregulation all require the postal industry to adapt to increased competition, changing customer behaviors and uncertain or lower mail volumes. They also raise the bar in performance and efficiency standards at all stages of mail processing, from sorting mail to offering quality services. Technological innovation has an important role in the battle for efficiency. Although image processing and address recognition technology have been used to speed up mail sorting and reduce manual data entry costs for more than a decade, the reality is that the present day requires revisions to approaches and priorities.
In the past, automated postal systems were intensively and efficiently used by posts that had high-volume sorting operations. For example, USPS was one of the market leaders in terms of its use of technology and high-speed automated systems. Today, with the high read rates already achieved by the industry, the volume of residual items that has yet to be processed is comparatively low. To further automate the sorting of these leftover mailpieces would provide lower additional savings, when compared to those achieved in the past. Postal operators in countries with lower mail volumes face a similar issue; even though their current level of automation may not be high, further automation would be too costly for the low mail input.
Two big opportunities exist to improve the efficiency of mail sorting in low-volume environments:
The first is reducing the cost of the technology. Until recently, the cost of a mail sorting automation project was very high, as suppliers provided integrated solutions that included both OCR and transport components. This resulted in the tight integration of sorting equipment and OCR module(s), hampering the replacement or updating of one of the components independently.
With the introduction of the OCR/Video Coding Systems (OCR/VCS) open interface standard by the European Committee for Standardization, this is no longer the case. The OCR/VCS standard enables postal operators to work with different suppliers on needed replacements or expansions of the sub-systems without incurring significant engineering costs. The opportunity to be more selective and demanding when choosing OCRs enables postal operators to rely on universal OCR technology that is comparatively less expensive to customize and can be more easily applied to country-specific address formats and coding rules. It also helps postal operators to unify efforts across different types of mail streams letters, flats and parcels. In this case, the savings received from the reduction of labor on a combined mail volume help justify the OCR improvement project.
The second way to raise the efficiency of mail sorting and to make it feasible in a low-volume environment, is by improving the OCR's performance, and, in particular, the ability to recognize mailpieces that could not automatically be read and had to be sent to manual processing. This has often been the case with international mail, including mail sent to other countries and sent from abroad.
In our fast-paced society, integration and international communication are playing increasingly important roles. The European Union enhanced the political and economic integration of the 27 countries of which it is comprised. Citizens of the EU member states can invest, live, travel and work in other member states. This integration and increased ties lead to a significant share of international mail in the mail stream of each country. In some European countries, 15% of the mail goes to foreign destinations.
Simultaneously, the United States (about 830 million per year) and Great Britain (almost 450 million annually) are among the largest exporters of letter-post items. Besides international letter mail, the volume of international parcels grew as a result of greater e-commerce activity and was 4.2% between 2000 and 2005. It is critical that: all this international mail be processed as quickly and accurately as domestic items, the processing of these items is not deferred and the OCR produces valid mailing addresses.
In most countries, postal sorting machines primarily read and sort mail by country name, which may be written in English or in the language of the destination country. For example, a letter addressed to Germany may have the country name written as "Germany" or "Deutschland." A letter addressed to Ivory Coast may have "Côte d'Ivoire" or "Ivory Coast." It is important that postal sorting machines be able to correctly interpret any variation, in writing, of the country name. In the United States, the USPS reads the country name and assigns an appropriate international ZIP Code to a mailpiece. All mail sent from the US to any country goes to a single location in that country for sorting and separation. The exclusion is Canada, where province and city name also have to be read in order to sort the mailpiece. In the latter case, OCR is dealing with addresses that may be written in English, French or even a combination of the two languages. Reading addresses written in different languages is a challenge for most OCRs. It is important for postal centers that sort international mail to rely on universal OCR technology.
The problem of processing addresses written in different languages in one stream is not restricted to sorting by country name. While the United States ignores the destination city in international mail (except in mail to Canada and the UK), other countries do not necessarily do so. For example, mail from England to Los Angeles is sent directly to Los Angeles, whereas a letter to New York goes on a flight to New York. The journey of a letter from Nome (Alaska, US) to Provideniya (Siberia, Russia), if sent westward rather than east, could be 23,000 miles shorter if the USPS processed the city line. Even in the domestic mail stream, there is a certain percentage of mail that comes from abroad and may not comply with the addressing guidelines and formats of the particular country or have addresses written in foreign languages or using names that differ from local names (for example: The Hague for Den Haag in the Netherlands, Copenhagen for København in Denmark, Cologne for Köln in Germany, or Prague for Praha in the Czech Republic). Therefore, in many countries, even domestic mail sorting requires the OCR to read addresses written in different languages. For example, in Russia, postal sorting systems are required to read addresses in both Russian and English. Countries like Canada or Switzerland, having two, three or even more official languages require that mail sorting systems use universal OCRs to equally and reliably read different languages and run efficiently.
International mail is just one of the segments where correctly chosen OCR can further increase the read rate and accuracy of postal sorting. A significant percentage of mail is incorrectly addressed and has to be forwarded or returned. This results in additional handling and processing costs. OCR technology can also assist in improving automated mail forwarding processes to solve this problem. There are many other areas in postal operations that can significantly improve with technological innovations. In its turn, an efficient technological infrastructure for mail processing and delivery will ensure that the post is relevant, universal and non-intrusive. In the long run, this will allow postal services to meet today's requirements and remain an integral part of the infrastructure in the modern economy.
Dr. Tatiana Vazioulina has worked in product management and marketing at Parascript, LLC, an address recognition and interpretation company, for a decade. She can be reached at Tatyana.firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-381-3106.