Have you stood in a long line in the post office lately - shifting from foot to foot as you wait with diminishing patience to mail a package? The United States Postal Service is trying to shorten that line and at the same time cut personnel costs. It is developing two types of computer-operated machines. Used in combination, they will do much of the routine postal work: answer questions, sell stamps, and allow customers to stamp and mail packages.
It's part of the Postal Service's high-tech modernization campaign, which also includes new machines to sort and process odd-shaped letters, now an extremely expensive hand task. This added automation is needed if the Postal Service is to handle the huge increase in volume expected over the next 15 years.
Last year Americans dropped 147 billion pieces of mail into the mail box. If all had been regular business envelopes and laid end to end, they ``would stretch to the moon and back over 40 times,'' says Gary Herring, director of the service's Office of Advanced Technology.
In 2001, the Postal Service estimates, Americans will mail 250 billion letters and packages. Without a lot more employees, added automation is needed to handle these mails. ``Right now, we're at the size of the United States Army,'' says Fred DiLisio, director of the Postal Service's office of Operations Research and Systems Requirements.
Working to increase productivity was a top priority when the old US Post Office was reorganized into the Postal Service in 1970. Productivity has risen substantially since then, but of late it has begun to level off. Since 1970 the amount of mail has nearly doubled, but because of gains in productivity the number of postal employees is up only 5 percent.
Testing of three prototypes of the automated-teller machines is to begin next May. ``The real payoff,'' Mr. DiLisio says, will come in a few years, when such machines are ready to be put into shopping centers or banks, a move that he says should reduce postal lines. But even if everything goes smoothly, ``we're looking at 2 to 3 years before deployment.'' DiLisio says surveys show customers will use such a system, as they already use automated bank tellers - ``if it's reliable.''
Even more of a money-saver for the Postal Service, when they can be developed, will be machines to process mail that now must be hand-sorted because of its odd shape - for example, stapled letters, open magazines, and rolled newspapers. Nearly one-fourth of all of the Postal Service costs are for hand-sorting this mail - nearly 40 percent of all mail.
In recent years the Postal Service, through contractors, has had several experiments under way to design equipment that will automatically sort such mail. An experimental sorter is scheduled to be built by 1990. ``By the early 1990s,'' Mr. Herring says, the Postal Service will likely begin using the first of these machines to sort odd-shaped mail.
Research is under way, too, on equipment that can find and read the addresses on a surface that contains many words, such as many advertisements, magazines, and newspapers. Such machinery, like automatic sorters, would provide major savings of time and money.