The Letter Writing Revolution

Revitalizing a Lost Art One Letter at a Time

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Field Trip #1: Ottawa Mail Processing Plant

Let me just say that I was under the impression that once you drop the letter into the mailbox, it passes through several hands before arriving at its destination. I imagined my letter arriving at a Post Office in Ottawa, for example, and getting dumped into a large bin with all of the other letters getting mailed that day in this area. People would stand around hand sorting the letters and eventually the letter would get into smaller and smaller bins until it was brought to the post office where it would either be put into a post office box or would be hand delivered by a mail carrier. Yes, I know, very naive.

Canvas mail bags.....some dated as far back as 1921!
So, when I was offered the opportunity to participate in a guided tour of the Ottawa Mail Processing Plant (OMPP) on September 17th, I signed up.  The OMPP opened in October, 1970 and is the first mechanized plant of its kind in Canada. It is one of 21 similar facilities in the country and  is operational 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the exception of Saturday night and holidays. It employs 900 people!
In front of the Ottawa Mail Processing Plant (OMPP)
 Canada Post has strict guidelines when it comes to allowing non-Canada Post employees into this facility. It was by chance that I mentioned TLWR in a prenatal class. It turned out that one of the dads-to-be worked for a company that is partially owned by Canada Post. He thought that Canada Post should know about TLWR blog and he made arrangements for me to tour the plant. Since my mom was with me that day, they graciously allowed her to join the tour. We were met by Mr. Dean Ryan and proceeded to strap on steel-toed shoe covers and enter the ground floor of the OMPP. The ground floor is used for sortation for Priority Courier, Xpresspost and parcels. The main floor has 35 loading bays, Fleet offices, Receipt Verification Unit and a Retail Postal Outlet. During the day, the floor is relatively quiet but at night, it is buzzing with activity....letters galore and parcels being sorted and ready for delivery by morning.

Early morning on the main floor. Any minute the trucks will back up to the
 loading bays and start loading these parcels to take to their destinations
Bins and bins of parcels as far as the eye can see!
The parcels below this sign are coming to our neck of the woods!

I was actuallly quite overwhelmed by the size of this one floor. It was the size of a football field and there were two more floors to be visited. Basically, the letters leave this floor and go to the third floor of the facility which is the letter sorting floor.  The OMPP processes approximately two million pieces of mail every day for Ottawa, Eastern Ontario (up to and including Kingston, Cornwall and Hawkesbury) and the Outaouais; an area of approximately 50,000 sq. km. Amazing!!

So, it turns out that I was way off with my vision of people standing around bins hand sorting the letters. Here is a list of some of the machines you might see while visiting the OMPP:

The EFM (Edger, Facer Machine) was designed by Canada Post’s Engineers. It places S/L envelopes on their edge, then “faces them up” by using cameras to determine the orientation of the letter. The EFM processes 18,000 pieces/hour.

The Multi Line Optical Character Reader (MLOCR) sorts S/L lettermail by taking a digital image of the letter. The OCR software is capable of reading and interpreting several lines of an address and processes 28,000 pieces/hour.

The Video Encoding System (VES) transmits images of letters, which cannot be deciphered by the MLOCR to remote keying stations, where clerks key-in the postal code. - 2,000 pieces/hour.

The Bar Code Sorter (BCS) is used to sort mail to a letter carrier walk or town/village. It sorts the mail by reading the barcode on the front of the envelope that was printed by the MLOCR. - 30,000 pieces/hour.

The Alcatel Flat Sorting Machine (AFSM) sorts oversize letters mechanically. It determines the postal code and prints a barcode on the front of the letter then sorts it directly into containers - 15,000 pieces/hour.

The Cubiscan measures the external dimensions of parcels, weighs and scans the barcode for postage verification. It also scans the parcel as part of the Track and Trace system. This information is cross-referenced against the customer’s Statement of Mailing. Parcels are then hand sorted (I knew there was some hand sorting!!) into cages or loose-loaded onto trucks for dispatch.
All parcels are placed on the Parcel Conveyor System as soon as they enter the plant and are sorted immediately to their destination.
After visiting the first and third floors, we were taken to the second floor which houses five letter carrier depots which make up the Caledon Depot and administrative offices. I was pretty stoked about this floor as one of my friends who is from our hometown works as a Letter Carrier in Ottawa. I was thrilled to see her in action loading up her mail bags for the day. She was shocked to see mom and me in her high security workplace. This is Lisa. Check out her legs :-) of Ottawa's 300 Letter Carriers

After two hours, the tour came to an end. I was completely boggled by the details of mail processing. I suppose I had never given it much thought. If you ever get the chance to visit a mail processing plant, I encourage you to check it out. You may start thinking that stamps are relatively cheap when you see what is involved with mailing one letter. The OMPP opens its doors to the public twice a year. If you are in the Ottawa area, I would highly recommend it.

Bins of sorted letters getting ready to send out for delivery
   Another cool fact: each evening the Canada Post trucks drive around the city emptying the street mailboxes. It turns out that it's not only letters that end up in those boxes. The OMPP receives on average 50 wallets, 30 cell phones and lots of keys daily among other undesirables like dog poop, cold pizza, dirty kleenex, spilled coffee. I suppose people mistake the mailboxes for garbage bins at times. But, good to know that if you find a wallet or keys or a cell phone, you can drop them into a mailbox and there is a person at the OMPP whose job is to get these items back to their rightful owners.

So, this concludes my first field trip. I hope you enjoyed my report. I am going on another field trip this Friday. Stay tuned as field trip #2 includes TLWR's first GIVEAWAY.......................


  1. Amazing, Jule! What an incredible operation. So if you send a letter from Cobden to Pembroke, does it go to Ottawa first?

  2. Yep....everything goes to Ottawa or one of the other processing plants across Canada depending on where you live........

  3. Wowzers! Really interesting. Good work, roving reporter Julie!! Still amazes me that a letter posted in Cobden on a Friday, before a long weekend, can be in a rural Kars mailbox the following Tuesday afternoon.

  4. Wow! What a fun opportunity to see all that's involved in that process! I wonder how similar or different the US Postal Service is.

  5. I am travelling to NYC this fall and I thought it would be very cool to check out the NYC Mail Processing Plant but I am going to assume they have even stricter guidelines when it comes to allowing non-US Postal workers into their facility :-)
    Any Us Postal workers out there??? Hook me up!!

  6. GREAT post! And Lisa's legs are BUFF.

  7. Loved it. I marvel at how machines can be that smart and efficient. Very cool read. And here I thought letters were hand delivered by Fairies....Thanks Julie!

  8. i worked a couple holiday seasons at a mail-sorting plant in toronto way back when. i was part of the hand-sorting crew for all the mail that didn't get sorted by the machines.

  9. Great post! So fun to see the mail sorting innards up your way.

  10. Jenni in EdmontonFriday, 15 October, 2010

    I worked at the Edmonton Main PO many years ago - city sortation, midnight shift - not long after we adopted postal codes - as I drive around the city now, I amaze myself by remembering the first part of the postal codes for the areas I am in. As I left that job, the sorting machines were beginning to be installed ... it was a nervous time for the employees who were still there, and there was a lot of training scheduled to teach them how to use the machinery.

  11. People say mailman have a easy job. How would you like to walk in the freezing forty below cold delivering mail? Didn't sound so easy now does it?

    -Zane of ontario honey


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