Investment by mailing companies in reliable, automated letter sorting technology is critical to gaining competitive advantage in the UK's liberalised market. In this respect TNT Post does not differ from its competitors. What seriously sets this company apart however is its forward-thinking. With a prime focus on growing its end-to-end business TNT Post hasn't just adopted one OCR package but two. As well as the MMT Sabre™ address recognition system option with its chosen Böwe Bell +Howell Criterion letter sorter platform, it has also equipped all of its UK sorting centres with Prime Vision's Address Reader.
Although there is a high degree of cross-over between these OCR products the PV Address Reader introduces a unique benefit to the mix. It excels at capturing hand-written information. In common with many companies worldwide TNT Post is indeed using the PV Address Reader as a reject reader to process address images that are not picked up by the first-line OCR engine. However it is in the growing hand-written market that it will really come into its own. And for TNT Post this is an important business differentiator.
TNT Post came into being as a result of market de-regulation. It is the UK mailing arm of the global parent company TNT and has been a leading downstream access provider for just over four years. In the last twelve months this business has experienced more than 60% growth in mailing volumes and the company now delivers an average of 160 million items a month.
TNT Post enables large and small businesses to benefit from quality and innovative services that competition has brought to the postal market. As a measure of its success it is now ranked 22 places ahead of Royal Mail in the current UK Business Superbrand rankings.
Downstream Access allows TNT Post to trunk mail through its own sorting system throughout the UK to Royal Mail Inward Centres where Royal Mail completes the final end delivery. The automatic sorting systems involved in this service have also been key to the development of TNT Post's own end-to-end service. Any addresses that qualify for delivery by one of its localised operations can be streamed off, providing the customer with another added value service.
This investment by TNT Post has allowed a highly attractive alternative to Royal Mail's Mailsort for business customers whose volumes fail to meet this service's minimum quantity. TNT Post sorts this mail into batches that then meet the Mailsort qualification criteria before giving it back to Royal Mail, downstream, for delivery.
Mail sorted for smaller customers also has different characteristics and these offer further business potential. First, the final delivery is common to a defined area rather than nationwide and TNT Post is fast developing its network to provide an end-to-end service for these SMEs. TNT Post's Northern operation based in Manchester is a flourishing example, providing a cost-effective 2/3 day postal service for more than 170 local businesses.
Another important difference with the growing SME customer base is the higher volume of hand-written mail being handled and this is the sector where TNT Post anticipates its Prime Vision technology will give it considerable edge.
Chris O'Malley is Head of Sort Automation at TNT Post and was responsible for specification of the Prime Vision software. Having previously implemented automated sorting at Hays DX – primarily for its legal and judiciary mailing service – Chris had a clear vision of how the mail consolidation process could benefit from having two OCR engines.
“We expected our Sabre OCR to read from 90 – 95% of our mainstream, machine-printed addresses and this has now been proven,” Chris explains. “We also knew that the incorporation of Prime Vision would have the potential to increase this read rate. In fact tests showed an improvement of up to 4.24% when using both OCRs. This, together with the potential to develop our ability to sort hand written mail automatically prompted us to install a PV Address Reader on each of our UK sorting machines. This is a spring board for future services.”
“Our main challenges were timing issues for hand print recognition and the scalability of the system,” commented Prime Vision's Project Manager, Bram Verlaan. “We were pleased to see the sort rate on the machine increase while the mis-sorts slightly decreased when the two readers were integrated. Another benefit of the PV addition was its clear contribution to read rates on the deepest sorting level, house number for example. This has the potential to improve the quality and profitability of the sorting product. Future enhancements will be on tuning handprint recognition so that even higher sort rates will be achieved on these type of addresses.”
The PV Address Reader is based on more than fifty years of R&D on OCR techniques that has led to Prime Vision's high yield character recognition technology (HYCR™). This uses different techniques to those employed by other OCR systems and is the basis of many of Prime Vision's products and solutions. Recent enhancements have been in the field of additional character and language sets for example Hebrew, Chinese and Tamill.
“We're very happy with our OCR choices,” Chris continues. “We've done some handwritten mail trials with the untuned and basic PV Address Reader. Even at this stage we are getting more than 56% read rate. We are now collating written images from all our sorting centres so that the development work can start in earnest.” Also being evaluated is the possible addition of video coding.
“It's all down to being able to develop our automation to meet customers' changing needs and introduce new services,” Chris concludes. “Our aim is to rival Royal Mail in the end-to-end market and with our investment in twin OCR we have a powerful means to achieve that.”