BOSTON — It's crunch time for delivery services like the United States Postal Service and Federal Express. The strike at United Parcel Service has meant more packages to handle and longer work hours. "It's a nightmare," says my local Fed Ex delivery man, as daily volumes approach Christmas proportions.
At least during Christmas, workers know the crush will end, he adds. No one knows when the UPS strike will be settled.
One bright spot in this picture is the performance of several behind-the-scenes technologies. (Customers say another is the Postal Service's Sunday parcel deliveries.) These aren't all shiny new and whiz-bang. Some of them are old. But together, they've kept the pipeline of packages from clogging up completely.
For example, when the UPS strike began, Federal Express was deluged by calls - 600,000 a day instead of the usual 380,000. The company coped without adding operators to its ranks. The secret? Intelligent call processing, which automatically routes calls to alternative call centers if the primary center is backed up.
Maybe Fed Ex should have added people, given the busy signals many customers have encountered. But the situation has pushed consumers to another technology - the Internet. The company's Web site (www.fedex.com) allows customers not only to track their packages and figure out the cost of delivery, it also lets users with a Fed Ex account schedule their shipment online and print out the label, complete with bar code. Traffic to that portion of Fed Ex's site has jumped 85 percent since the UPS strike began.
Technology is also helping the Postal Service deal with a 70 percent increase in overnight mail and 50 percent jump in Priority mail. For example, the Postal Service is mechanizing the sorting of parcels and small bundles. These packages are harder to sort automatically than letters, because they come in all sizes. Nevertheless, the Postal Service has installed 232 parcel and bundle sorters since 1988 and has just approved 46 more sorters, which should save in excess of $25 million a year when fully operational in 2000.
Technology is also helping post office workers indirectly, speeding up mail sorting so they can concentrate on the specialty items. Late last year, for example, the Postal Service began installing software that reads handwritten addresses. That's an important breakthrough. Automatic mail sorters already handle letters with typewritten addresses. Machines "read" the street address and zip code, print a bar code along the bottom, and speed it to a carrier with very little human intervention. (Check your mail. Each letter should have a bar code on it, except really large envelopes.)
But reading handwritten addresses is trickier. The sorters can only make out about 2 percent of those and shoot the rest of the letters to a human operator. The operator reads the address and types in the bar code, but it's 10 times more expensive to do it this way. The Postal Service has been eager to automate the process since 15 to 20 percent of the mail is still handwritten.
Using software developed at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the machines now read about a quarter of the handwritten addresses, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. A new software version should boost accuracy up to 30 percent.
The university software center, called the Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition, is working independently on a technique for reading handwritten addresses on parcels. So far, though, none of the delivery services have ponied up the cash to speed up a process that right now is causing nightmares for those who deliver our mail and express packages.
* Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at www.csmonitor.com