Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Santa's $100-million helper

Behind the scenes of Canada Post's new mail-processing plant on its busiest day of the year

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Santa's pre-expeditionary force is reporting greatly improved logistics for the Manitoba region since Canada Post built its newest mail-processing facility beside Richardson International Airport two years ago.

It was especially appreciated this week because Thursday, Dec. 13, was the busiest day of the year for Canada Post.

By the end of the midnight shift (early this morning) close to 2.7 million pieces of mail and close to 75,000 parcels will have passed through the kilometres of conveyor belts that squirrel their way through the 270,000-square-foot plant and out the door in one day.

Computerized optical character scanners zip the letters through the system so fast, elfin eyes cannot even detect motion.

But even more impressive at the $100-million plant is the automated parcel-sorting system.

Scott Hall, the director of plant operations, said the airport campus facility was designed to accommodate a dramatic shift in Canada Post's business -- letter mail is dramatically declining, but parcel processing is on the rise.

Canadians may have been a little delayed in embracing e-commerce but it's now happening in a big way.

In 2012, the e-commerce market in Canada is expected to be about $21 billion. Four years from now, it's forecast to be up to $35 billion.

Watch a trailer being unloaded onto the parcel conveyor at the 1870 Wellington Ave., plant with package after package featuring labels from e-commerce retailers such as Beyond the Rack, Indigo, Amazon.ca, and you get the point.

That dynamic meant the former industrialized sorting process, such as at the old Winnipeg plant at 266 Graham Ave., hauling mail and packages up multiple floors, bringing large highway trailers into a downtown location with little room to manoeuvre, physically handling parcels three or four times -- was not going to work.

The airport facility is the first new plant Canada Post had built in 20 years and it has served as the model for redesigns that have since taken place in Toronto and Montreal, and one that is underway in Edmonton. A new Vancouver plant is scheduled to open in 2014 -- all modelled on the Winnipeg design.

"The difference is that this is a single-floor, cross-dock operation where the pieces come in one door, go through the process and are dispatched out the other end," said Hall.

Handling more parcels means more physical labour and Hall said ergonomic features are added to the designs throughout the plant -- work tables can be raised or lowered, letter trays are not as wide as they used to be and injuries were reduced by 50 per cent in the first year the plant was open.

He pointed out staff physically unload the brick-piled trailers of parcels onto a conveyor belt -- that can be raised or lowered depending on the stature of the worker -- which easily extends right into the truck that's being unloaded and workers load them into cages at the other end.

In the middle, the parcels travel along automated conveyor belts read by optical scanners and are automatically knocked off the line into designated chutes where they are handled for the second and last time before they are put onto trucks and delivered to their final destinations.

Witnessing the process in which they are handled makes it very clear why loose wrapping paper, dangling string or obtrusive bows would gum up the system and force those items into the realm of manual sorting.

Hall said human resources are always applied when the package does not conform to automated systems requirements. That includes occasions when customers choose to ship oversized or awkwardly shaped items.

Early in the day on the busiest day of the year, there were plenty of big-screen television sets, commercial-grade printers and a whole skid full of basement heaters ready to be delivered.

With the plant virtually next door to the airport where nightly Canada Post-owned Purolator cargo planes take off and land, there are greater efficiencies.

As one of the first new residents in CentrePort, Canada Post is already experiencing the benefits of easier truck movements.

And Santa couldn't be happier, especially since he convinced Canada Post to guarantee delivery of all his cargo by Dec. 24.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2012 B6

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Updated on Friday, December 14, 2012 at 6:53 AM CST: replaces photo, adds fact box, embeds video

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