New USPS flats-sorter fails flexibility tests

New USPS flats-sorter fails flexibility tests – Updates

Barbara Love

Results of U.S. Postal Service tests have publishers of tabloids, digest-size titles and magazines weighing over a pound more worried than ever that inability to he processed on new flats-sorting equipment will meaning paying surcharges on these publications after the next postal rate case.

These publishers had been hoping that new, more efficient AFSM 100 flats-sorting equipment could successfully process a wider range of product than the FSM 881, which is being phased out. Currently, non-standard flats must be sorted on the slower FSM 1000.

But the results of a Mail Characteristics Study conducted for the USPS by Arthur D. little last summer, announced in late January at a Mailers Technical Advisory Committee Future Flats Strategies work group, seem to have dashed that hope.

Data collected on physical size limitations–height, length and thickness–indicate that the new machines would require the same, or even slightly more stringent, standards for flats than the ones required for the outdated FSM 881’s. That means that non-standard-size titles may well have to continue to be sorted on FSM 1000’s, which process three times fewer pieces per hour than the new AFSM 100 machines. USPS officials have given indications that pieces that can’t be processed on the new machines are likely to face surcharges when a new rate structure is determined in the next rate case.

“The AFSM 100 was supposed to be capable of handling more than the old 881. As it turns out, it is not capable of handling more. In fact, there are some additional, small restrictions,” sums up Kathy Siviter, president of Postal Consulting Services and the PostCom representative at Flat Futures Strategy meetings.

“It’s very disappointing,” says Joyce McGarvey, corporate distribution director for tabloid publisher Crain Communications. “The USPS is talking about different rates for different machines, and that concerns us.”

The tests were inconclusive on the issue of the maximum weight that can be handled by the AFSM 100. Currently, the machine’s weight limit is 16 ounces. More weight tests were conducted in late February and early March in Palatine, IL. Publishers such as Conde Nast-whose titles, with the exception of The New Yorker, all average over two pounds–are anxiously awaiting these results.

“The USPS is optimistic that the ASFM 100 can handle heavier weights than the FSM 881,” says Siviter. “It’s testing up to 26 ounces. It’s a question of how the heavier weights affect the speed of input and frequency of jams.”

The USPS also hoped that the AFSM 100 could handle more kinds of polybags than the FSM 881, but the tests have indicated that this, too, is not the case. This is bad news for all magazines that are trying to use less expensive polybags to offset higher postal rates. What’s more, the USPS tests came up with a new polybag characteristic, “blocking”–that may or may not affect rates down the road. Blocking refers to the tendency of poly to stick to itself, explains Conde Nast director of distribution and postal affairs Howard Schwartz. This wasn’t a significant problem in the past because a human being assisted in feeding the polybags into machines. But polybags are auto-fed on the AFSM 100. And because the same auto-feeding equipment will be retro-fitted on the FSM 1000 now used for non-standard flats, this may become a problem on that machine, as well.

“We don’t know what problems are caused by the feeder as opposed to another part of the machine,” says Siviter. “But it won’t be good.”

USPS engineers have also recommended a new “stiffness” measurement that would replace current “flimsiness” cover guidelines, even though the Mail Characteristics Study was not intended to address cover damage. The USPS has asked the AFSM equipment manufacturer to work on improvements that will reduce cover damage, but that is expected to take a year.

The USPS says that the tests conducted over the summer in Baltimore and Denver were thorough and statistically valid (23,000 pieces were tested in Baltimore and 83,000 in Denver, and all pieces were run three times).

“My question is, why develop a machine that isn’t able to handle what the industry needs?,” asks McGarvey. “Instead, the USPS seems to be dictating what size a magazine has to be. And that’s wrong. We’re stuck. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“This is a typical cart-before-the horse scenario,” agrees Siviter. “The USPS went and bought equipment without thinking of what mailers needed and what the future mail stream is going to be. Mailers are looking to reduce costs through lighter paper, lighter covers and cheaper polys and the USPS is buying machines that can’t handle that mail. If they were in a competitive environment they would be asking us, ‘What kind of mail will you be giving us and what do we need to handle it?’ When we ask, ‘Why do you do this?’ the response is, ‘You want us to save costs and this machine is more efficient’ We say, ‘Yes, it’s more efficient, but if you’re kicking half of your mailings off it, what good does it do?”‘

After the testing on weight is completed, USPS engineering will forward its recommendations to Mail Preparations and Standards, which will write a proposed rule with mail preparation requirements for pieces to be processed on the AFSM 100. The requirements are expected to appear in the Federal Register in mid-April.

Some non-standard-size magazines will no doubt still move to lighter-weight covers and less expensive polybags to save money. But after the next rate case is introduced, distribution and circulation executives will have to assess whether savings from these moves will be erased or outweighed by increased processing costs.

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