Mail processing equipment as I know it. : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

First of all let me tell a little about my self. I turned 41 last month. I've been in technical maintenance all my life. Eight years as a naval nuclear power plant operator, a couple as a biomedical equipment tech. I've worked for the Post Office(PO)14 years and have been an electronic technician 10. Prior to that I worked as a mail processing equipment mechanic and maintenance electrician.I've spent 56 weeks going to their training center in Norman OK or contractors training in Arlngton TX. That training cost them about three grand a week. So much for the bio,

Next let me apologize for the amount of acronyms I'm forced to use in the discussion. These people love them. Why? I have no idea.

Lastly I don't know how many installments this discussion will take. I don't type very well. My bad hand gives me fits. AKA nine_fingers.

What I'm going to describe is the process which occurs from the time You put the mortgage payment in the box til the time the lender gets it.I'll describe the equipment used in the process.

1. You drop the letter in the box and a letter carrier takes it to the local plant. It is dumped in a bulk mail collection system and then processed to the point where it reaches a cancellation machine.This machine more often than not is an Advanced Facer Canceler System (AFCS).

2. AFCS faces the mail so all the letters have the stamps in the upper right corner and cancels it with a dated cancellation mark. This date is changed daily and involves manually changing the type in the die. AFCS's also look for preprinted and barcoded mail and segregate it because it doesn't require as much processing.They also break out mail which is handwritten or typed without a bar code. The typed w/o barcoded mail is compaired with the national Zip(Zone Improvement Plan) code and a bar code is then sprayed in the mail piece.(More about that later). Lately a lot of them have been retrofitted to operate as part of the Remote Bar Code System (RBCS) as Input Sub Systems(ISS).

3. Now it starts getting complicated. The whole goal of this process is to place a machine readable bar code on the front of the letter so people don't have to handle it. A machine can process mail for $3.50/k while manual processing costs $44.00/k.

4. The black bar code is a Postnet(Postal Numeric Encoding Technique) code and is basically binary in nature. It is not date sensitive.

5.The AFCS-ISS uses Optical Character Readers(OCR). They scan the letter and make a digital video image of the letter and determine the delivery Zip Code.If the determination is good enough AFCS sprays a Postnet code on the letter. If not it is sprayed with an orange ID tag Bar code. You've seen these on the back of letters. This ID tag has lots of information encoded in it and is date sensitive. With the ID tag and scanned letter video we go to the next step .

6. The ID tag and video package then goes via Ethernet to the site mainframe. From there it is sent to a remote site via T1 phone lines where an operator reads the letter and keys that information into the system. The info is sent back to the host mainframe.An Output Sub System(OSS) reads the ID tag on the letter and querys the mainframe. It passes barcode data to the OSS and a Postnet code is placed on the letter.

7. Now you have a nice machine readable Postnet code on the letter. And you haven't left the plant of origin.


A problem I see with this part of the process is the use of T1 Telco lines to move data packages.On a Very Few systems the "Remote site " is in house with the host and the information is passed via Ethernet. RBCS is only as strong as the phone line.Another problem is the national Zip code directory which is downloaded fron San Mateo CA on a weekly basis. The system which does this is called NDSS(National Directory Support System). NDSS has always been fragile. It uses DEC computers. The newest sites use DEC Alphas, good machines. However there are a lot of older DEC machines out there.Many sites don't maintain good backups of the directory. And the directory changes every week because they keep building houses and tearing houses down. You can keep about 95% current by doing a backup once a month.If NDSS puts out a crapped up directory and you download it and infect the local LAN, your plant goes down.I've seen it happen. What are the chances of this happening with our little "bump in the road"? Good ET's like my self have backups hidden away for this situation. And you can isolate equipment and run it as stand alones. They will process pre barcoded mail and MACHINE PRINTED envelopes. Not HAND Written. If RBCS goes down they have to process it the Ben Franklin Way(manually). BTW as RBCS gained popularity the capability for manual processing has been removed.

8. Now you have a good Postnet code and the mail is ran through Bar Code Sorters(BCS) until it gets to the letter tray which will be dispatched to the air port.The letter tray is sleeved and taken to another system called Scan Where You Band(SWYB). The tray is banded shut and scanned with a hand scanner. This information goes to the local site computer which generates a label that's placed on the tray. This label tells the recieving airport how much the tray wieghs, where it's from, when it was scanned, what air carrier gets the tray,what flight it goes on,and what if any connecting flights it needs. SWYB transmits in real time. It is connected to the Aircraft Contract Data Collection System(ACDCS).

9. ACDCS takes SWYB data and generates flight manifest data for the tray. The airlines use the manifests to bill the PO.ACDCS sites use DEC PDP11 series computers as hosts to the remote SWYB systems. They are mostly 11-45's and 11-83's. These sites are usually pretty well strapped as far as their capabilities. For example, Denver has 25 remote sites tied to it. Salt Lake City has 5. I've heard through the rumor mill Mike Ramsey out of Denver is working on an overlay to keep ACDCS from Squating as of 1/1/00. He's making headway but it's slow going cause RSX11M(the operating language of PDP's) doesn't like Y2K. I hope he figures it out. As of now it still doesn't work.

Problems: Again you are dependant on the phone company for data transmission. Also if FAA says, "Boy's its no fly again this week but don't worry, we'll get it up by the first of the month", I'm sure your mortgage company will understand.SWYB is such a shirt tail operation we can't even make magnetic media backups of the scheduling data. It's downloaded weekly by a menu driven utility by me.Via Phone. AND in their infinite wisdom, with the dumbing down theory( you don't have to pay a dummy as much as a smart guy)all the operations are transparent to me the machine tender. If it dies on me I call Minneapolis and they backdoor the system and fix it(again transparent to me) Via Phone.And PDP's don't like Y2K.

10. Now the mortgage made it to the airport and flew where it was supposed to go. Once there it's processed on a DBCS(Delivery Bar Code Sorter) This machine sorts it to the carrier who takes it to the mortgage company.


The DBCS, in fact all BCS's, get their sorting instructions from San Mateo through NDSS Via the phone. DBCS's have another quirk which leads me to believe they will croak next Jan. When the clocks bump up or down for daylight savings time the download instructions get screwed up. They, YUP THEM, keep telling us the problem will be corrected on the next software update. They've been saying that for eight years or so.

So that's how your letter gets from here to there.

Some conclusions

The people who can fix the PO have not done so. I have seen a memo which states a contractor will audit my office for problems in July99. There is no mention of remediation. I work for these clowns and I don't think they will get their act together. I've gotten the majority of my bills where they can be paid in town. I use Type Written addresses in Times New Roman 12 Point font. I plan on paying my mortgage in DEC99 through MAR00

Personal things My check is direct deposited(mandated) I've been actively perparing since FEB98. Locally, the boy Scouts have been pushing the basics real hard, winter camping,water purification,first aid, emergency preparedness. the middle school is mandating CPR and first aid for 7th graders.

Sorry for the typos.

-- nine (, March 16, 1999



That was an awesome report! I doubt that any of us, geeks included, truly appreciated the complexity of what's involved in moving an envelope from point A to point B.

A bit of historical trivia may be useful for the non-geek readers of this thread. When I started up my consulting firm in the mid-70s, there were no PC's (what? no PC's? gawd! the era of dinosaurs!), and it was a major event when we finally reached the point where we could afford to buy a mini-computer for the company. To put it in perspective, dumb terminals (things like IBM 3270s and VT-100s) cost about $3,000 in those days, and computers were obviously much more expensive.

So, when we finally took the plunge in the spring of 1975, we actually bought a used computer, for the princely sum of $50,000. It was a PDP-11/45.

And 24 years later, this is part of the operating equipment that the USPS apparently still depends upon to help move the mail. Pretty sobering...

Thanks again, nine, for your post. I took the liberty of forwarding it on to my extended family, to impress upon them that they should re- think the old adage that "neither rain nor snow, nor gloom of night..."

-- Ed Yourdon (, March 16, 1999.

Thanks nine,

Very informative, if not a little above this non-geeks head. You sound as if you know exactly how it works in the trenches. What does your knowledge tell you as far as how well the mail system nationwide will work after 1/1/00? Also do you have any insight as to the international mail system?

-- Cary Mc from Tx (, March 16, 1999.

Damn. Bad news - I don't like any part of it.

Particularly troubling is the repeated "over the net" and "over the phone" and "over the net" routine: it looks like not only the phones are essential, but the local LAN, the local power, remote power, intermediate power (phone relay stations), local computers, local power (again), remote computers, remote power, airport power, airport flights + FAA controllers, (both cities - and if several go down, all flights are delayed elsewhere as traffic builds up). Not only are many more things time-driven in real times thatn I expected, but they are all on OLD computers - PDP's, DEC's, etc. Nothing anywhere in the link is up to date, except the Alpha's. (Only 1 generation back.)

What does the San Mateo master computer run on?

Local power, water, heat, and lights are essential if the workers are going to manage too. (And you need power to pump gas to run the trucks, among other things.) Will the USPS union keep working if federal payrolls are screwed up?

-- Robert A. Cook, P.E. (Kennesaw, GA) (, March 16, 1999.

Those who followed the original thread on Yourdon commenting on the independent audit know that, from my audit experience, I concluded the USPS was hosed. But why/how, specifically? Thanks, nine, for another heartbreaking report fromthe front.

Are you able to say, obviously speculation, whether you anticipate 20% drop in efficiency? 40%? Widely varying efficiency in different locations? Complete gridlock followed by recovery? Collapse of the USPS? And how long to recovery? For sure, you have a personal scenario for USPS, please share.

Let's assume utilities and telecom are up, to make it simpler :-)

Of course, this would be speculation, but some of us on forum (me) have businesses that rely heavily on USPS and would appreciate educated speculation dearly.

-- BigDog (, March 16, 1999.

Oh man....I am even more depressed now.... I never knew just how involved getting a letter from point A to point B really is. I guess I have a better idea now. Thanks for posting this.
Bobbi (got Pony Express?)

-- Bobbi (, March 16, 1999.

True, the PDP's are toast, but most of the DEC line - the VAX and Alpha will run post 2000. It is the software on the OS that may not be coded correctly.

-- (cannot-say@this.time), March 16, 1999.

I don't know about the USPS union but as a unionized federal employee in an essential services occupation, my husband and I plan on working through the Y2K storm if at all possible. I realize that I/we probably won't get paid for a few weeks or a few months but hopefully everything will eventually balance out for us in the end. Bottom line, my husband and I are preparing for several months without a pay check by 1) not having any bills due, 2) pre-paying our mortgage, 3) not needing any supplies for many moons, 4) having enough cash to float us through.

-- Ramp Rat (Aviation_R_us@noname.nocity), March 16, 1999.

Thanks Nine. There is nothing like a report from a geek in the trenches, before management has a chance to spin it!

Man, and I thought we had a couple of the last PDP-11s on earth running our VideoComps. Yes, very sobering. <:)=

-- Sysman (, March 16, 1999.

thanks for the reprot, nine

-- Greybear (, March 16, 1999.

Nine's review of USPS procedure makes a great supplement to Karla Corcoran's report. (

The official Postal Service Readiness Survey takes on new meaning now.

-- Tom Carey (, March 16, 1999.

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