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31st Jan 2006 | 22:01


I just heard a pretty amazing programme about technology and the postal service. The thing that struck me was the way they have mechanized bulk sorting of letters. There are 73 major sorting centres in Britain which between them have 200-300 letter sorting machines, which do the obvious jobs of working out the letter's orientation and photographing it for OCR. (Really fast - 30,000 items per hour per machine.) What surprised me is that the OCR is not done on site, but instead the photos are transmitted over the post office's data network to a single centralized data centre which contains all the clever computers. Of course they aren't so clever that they can deal with all letters, so - second surprise - unrecognized letters are handled by sending the images to offices full of people who type in post codes all day.

No significant sorting intelligence is on the same site as the sorting machines.

Hmm, perhaps this is the manufacturer of the machines: http://www.abprecision.co.uk/businessunits/hsp/postalservices.htm

And perhaps this is a press release about the data centres: http://www.prnewswire.co.uk/cgi/news/release?id=59114

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Comments {11}

from: hsenag
date: 31st Jan 2006 22:32 (UTC)

Do you know how the machines store the letters that need manual handling until the postcode has been entered? It seems likely that the results will arrive out of order which could make finding the right letter a bit tricky.

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The Bellinghman

from: bellinghman
date: 31st Jan 2006 23:00 (UTC)

I imagine - and this is just guessing - that the process actually works in two parts. Initially an item passes through get a first stage UV-active phosphorescent marker applied, uniquely indentifying the package and taking a picture of it for OCR and/or manual reading. Then, a little while later, it goes through a second stage, at which point the first-stage marker is read, and a second stage marker with the actual addressing information in it is applied.

Anything reaching the second stage too early can be routed back to the holding stage.

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Tony Finch

from: fanf
date: 31st Jan 2006 23:05 (UTC)

They didn't describe any initial marking stage on the radio, but yes, there is an additional holding loop for letters that can't be OCRed automatically.

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from: hsenag
date: 1st Feb 2006 00:15 (UTC)

But without an initial marking stage, how do you re-identify the letter once the postcode is available?

I can see a variety of possible solutions, I'm just interested in what actually happens.

Possible solutions include:
- Rescan letters in the holding loop repeatedly and match up the images
- Treat the holding loop like a TCP window so that you can identify letters in it by position and only need to remove letters from the head

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The Uitlander

from: uitlander
date: 31st Jan 2006 22:38 (UTC)

Just after I finished my O-Levels I did a weeks' work experience for a small film making company. My job was to walk around with a notepad and list peoples' names as they were interviewed for a promotional film. This was in Mount Pleasant sorting office, and was about the first of the 'high tech' sorting machines the post office were deploying. Must have been in 1983.

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from: kaet
date: 1st Feb 2006 12:49 (UTC)

I received back lots of letters today which I'd posted at the weekend with "Not At This Address" written on them and the address crossed out.

They still prominently bore my handwriting saying "not at this address". I assume the machine read the bar-code print things.

Yay, mechanisation.

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from: cartesiandaemon
date: 1st Feb 2006 12:57 (UTC)

Interesting -- I dumped a whole load wrapped with a rubber band into a box, and never saw any of it again. I was pleased.

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from: kaet
date: 1st Feb 2006 13:00 (UTC)

Perhaps a rubber-band is the answer, :).

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from: cartesiandaemon
date: 1st Feb 2006 13:05 (UTC)

I wouldn't know, but it could be -- if the van has a box for undeliverable post, it might have made the postie drop the caboodle in there, as opposed to each going back into the machine.

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Run away to DreamWidth. Come with me.

from: reddragdiva
date: 1st Feb 2006 17:21 (UTC)

That'll be it! I've had the same happen ...

In Australia, envelopes are almost universally printed with four little light-orange boxes for the postcode, to make the OCR's job even easier. I'm surprised they don't push for that here.

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from: cartesiandaemon
date: 1st Feb 2006 12:58 (UTC)

unrecognized letters are handled by sending the images to offices full of people who type in post codes all day.

<Vernor Vinge>Aah! Zipheads!</Vernor Vinge>

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