Dec 29, 2023

Inside an N.J. post office: How your holiday mail gets delivered on time

BELLMAWR -- The United States Postal Service processing plant in Bellmawr serves as the main center for every postal delivery in South Jersey.

"Think of it as the hub, and every associated post office is like the spokes," said Ray Daiutolo Sr., Communications Programs Specialist for the USPS. "All of the incoming and outgoing mail from those offices comes through this facility."

The 250,000-square-foot processing center handles all the mail from the ZIP codes that start with 080 through 084. That means mail for more than 150 ZIP codes comes though the plant.

Serving that many communities means that the facility is incredibly busy. Senior Plant Manager Dave Robinson estimated that on a normal Monday, they process 400,000 to 500,000 pieces of loose mail.

However, with the holiday season well under way and Christmas just two weeks away, the plant has already seen a massive spike in its volume for both loose letters and packages, and Robinson only expects that volume to go up in the next two weeks.

"This Monday coming up, we're expecting maybe 1.2 million pieces and the next Monday about the same," he said. "When Christmas falls on a Friday, people think they can wait a little longer to send stuff out. So we're expecting the next two weeks to be very heavy volume."

In order to make sure that all that mail gets to where it needs to go, the facility relies heavily on automation. Robinson said a lot of the mail that comes through is never actually touched by a human. The mail can even be stacked and ordered for each delivery route.

That process starts at the Advanced Facer Canceller System, which takes all of the loose mail, faces it in the same direction and cancels the stamp. He said the machine translates addresses to a barcode, and it's able to accurately decipher handwriting about 96- to 97-percent of the time.

"It lifts an image and tries to determine what the address is and puts a barcode on the piece," Robinson said. "Whether it's local or going to Philly or to Delaware or all over the world, it sweeps them into trays and takes it to the next operation."

Once the trays leave the Facer Cancellor, the mail goes on to other machines that separate out the mail even further. Each step in the process sorts the mail out until it gets closer closer to its delivery unit.

"When the carrier comes in the morning, a lot of his letter mail is already in the order he serves his route," Daiutulo said. "The automation is doing 95-percent of that work."

One of the main areas where the facility picks up during the holidays is package delivery. Robinson said they processed 180,000 parcels in just one day last week.

The packages come off a truck, through one of the 64 bays on the loading dock, and get run through the Automated Package Processing System (APPS), which places a single piece on one of the "cells" that make up a large twisting conveyor belt.

Around the side of the belt are 156 large cardboard boxes, one for each ZIP code the plant serves. When a package reaches its designated box, the cell kicks it off the belt.

"From there, we'll dispatch it for delivery," Robinson said. "This machine runs through 8,000 to 10,000 packages in an hour. It's one of the highest-utilized machines in the country."

Although machines are needed to handle the sheer amount of mail coming through, the plant relies on actual human employees to facilitate the operation. During the holidays, the plant hires an additional 90 employees to help on the loading dock, process packages too large for the machines and to keep the whole system humming.

"(The APPS) runs for longer and needs more people to run it," Robinson said. "This runs for 20 hours a day. Some days it runs 22 or 23 hours."

The employees and the machines at the Bellmawr processing plant will pretty much be running 24/7 to make sure deliveries get out on time. Time, however, is running out.

Daiutulo said they recommend that any first class mail be out before Dec. 19 for Christmas.

"If you're going to wait, then you're going to have to use priority first class mail by the 21st," he said. "If you wait until the 22nd, you're going to have to use priority express mail."

Daiutulo said there's an easy way to avoid the stress and avoid the more expensive shipping options: Get those letters out as soon as possible.

"I've been mailing my cards all week," he said. "I know from experience that I don't want to wait until next week."

Alex Young may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @AlexYoungSJT. Find the South Jersey Times on Facebook.

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