Remember that conspiracy story in the run-up to the 2020 election? Trump was going to cripple the Postal Service by somehow defunding it while his henchman, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, dismantled operations of the vote by mail system so Trump could justify his claims that vote by mail was inherently fraudulent.
There were even widely circulated pictures of postal equipment being dismantled and tossed onto back lots for salvage trash collectors.
And then silence. The Postal Service trundled on, and Trump’s pre-election protests that the Service was untrustworthy, disappeared. And so did the mail-in voting problems.
I recognized some of the equipment in the pictures of junked equipment. They looked like output racks and chutes from sorting machines.
The postal service has three basic categories of mail: envelopes, flats and packages. Each category has its own processing equipment.
“Flats” are mostly magazines and other periodicals plus oversized political flyers and junkmail, although they also may include other “flats” like vinyl records, artwork, and thin books.
In the 1980s I worked for a company in San Jose which had the first contract to build flat sorters in the United States. Early versions of flat sorters were designed and developed in Germany, and the first USPS flat sorters were built in Canada.
But by the 1980s the USPS had decided they wanted to see if any American companies wanted to make flat sorters. The management at our company, Engineered Systems and Development (ESD), thought that if we could get a flat sorter contract it would open up an entire new line of inventory handling and shipping markets for us.
ESD had been the industrial engineering division of FMC, Food Machinery Corporation, a name they kept even though by the early 80s FMC had shifted its focus from food processing to the more lucrative public money from defense industry contracts. FMC had decided that its industrial equipment engineering operation was a money loser and put it out for bid.
A multi-millionaire Cleveland-based entrepreneur named Robert Thomsich ended up buying FMC’S Engineered Systems Division and renaming it Engineered System & Development. Thomsich had no experience in Engineering and over time his “leadership” led to the hiring of mostly incompetent executives who took the company into ill-fated and largely fantasy developments and dying markets.
I started work at ESD as a staff logistics engineer in 1982. ESD had an engineering staff of about 50 mechanical, electrical, industrial and electronics engineers and a huge manufacturing facility with several hundred employees trained in the fabrication trades: welders, machinists, sheet metal workers who worked at industrial-size machine tools and shop equipment. But it was a prototype development operation, not a high-volume assembly line manufacturing plant.
When I started work there we were the only company in the US that made the machines that mass-produced floppy disks, at first the 5.25 inch size used in early PCs and later the 3.5 inch smaller versions. Those now obsolete and largely forgotten projects are stories in themselves but they can wait until another day.
ESD’s self-aggrandizing management became enamored of getting the USPS flat sorter contract even though we had no experience in that line of equipment. So they intentionally underbid the job, ignoring our engineering cost estimates, with the assumption that if problems cropped up, our team of experienced engineers could solve them, and follow-on orders would make up for initial overruns.
But ESD’s lack of experience with the postal service, its equipment requirements and its facilities, didn’t keep the Post Office from awarding a contract for 180 flat sorters to the lowest bidder, ESD.
Problems began immediately when the engineering drawings arrived. All the dimensions were metric and much of the text on the drawings was in German. Our facilities, and those of our US suppliers, were in English. There were thousands of drawings to translate and convert to metric before they could even be reviewed for the “make-buy” decision.
The translation process set us back several weeks and it wasn’t long before the postal service's contracting office starting wondering what was taking so long.
After the dimensions were converted and key sections of the text translated, the engineers then discovered that the backbone of the machines, a long series of metal frames made of welded square steel tubes, required extremely tight tolerances to keep the machine carefully aligned so that the sorting mechanism was accurate and reliable.
Our first attempts at consistently welding to those tight tolerances — checked by precise laser measurements — told us that making those frames straight enough for the run of 180s flat sorters seemed nearly impossible. And, since there were nine frames per flat sorter, that meant we had to build over 1600 frames (ESD was used to making a few units at a time, not hundreds) to tolerances we couldn’t maintain without hand tinkering every frame after it was measured — way too slow and expensive.
Managment then decided they needed to hire a welding consultant to help set up the fabrication line for the frames. The first two “consultants” were retired mechanical engineers whose skills were not as advertised in their resumes. They couldn’t come up with any more than our own in-house engineers had tried — at several hundred dollars an hour each.
Finally, we found a grizzled old retired engineer from South Carolina who had designed the manufacturing line for a dumpster factory there. At last we had a guy who knew his stuff! Although in his 80s at the time, he quickly saw that what we needed was precise fixturing to hold the steel tubes for the welders to weld on, and he got it done.
Meanwhile, we were busy on everything else. Putting the thousands of custom parts and components out to bid and setting up the remainder of the fabrication and assembly process, re-programming the computer that ran the whole sorting machine and planning for manufacture and delivery and installation in about 100 Post Office sorting facilities around the country.
Needless to say, this all cost more than what we had estimated and a lot more than we bid.
The start up delays also got the USPS contracting office so annoyed that they started to think we had bid a job we knew we couldn’t deliver and had perhaps committed outright fraud.
Our progress meetings took on such an adversarial tone that the USPS management teams were accompanied by armed postal inspectors, essentially the USPS’s own FBI agents.
But, with the old welding guy’s expertise we finally solved the key alignment problem and things got back on track, albeit delayed and over-budget.
When it came time to deliver and install the first batch of flat sorters we had to send out an advance man to each postal facility to make sure it was properly prepared with all the required space, utilities, smooth level flooring, lighting, and trained operators.
During this time I had become ESD’s de facto Engineering Services Director. I set up the system to computerize the materials lists, keep track of the thousands of design and engineering changes, and produce manufacturing and assembly diagrams for the shop techs to work to.
So it was no surprise that I was picked as the advance man for one of the installation crews. I was assigned to visit about 20 postal processing facilities in medium sized towns in the midwest, from Missouri to Indiana to Illinois to Michigan.
During these two field surveys, each about two weeks of driving and flying from town to town, one of my tasks was to make sure that the facilities where the flat sorters were to be installed were prepared to run an operational test to make sure things ran correctly, at speed, with both test mail (hundreds of hoked-up manila envelopes with fake addresses that I had organized) along with real mail that was supposed to be on hand for testing.
The machines had to be installed to the same precision as the manufacturing process, so the testing was to make sure things were lined up, again using laser calibration to make any final minor adjustments as necessary.
As the installation crews were deployed, we occasionally ran across a problem which we hadn’t anticipated. Installations at some facilities were being delayed due to insufficient test mail.
And here’s where we circle forward to the Trumpian scare stories and pictures of sorting equipment being dismantled and scrapped in the fall of 2020. I recognized some of that tossed out equipment as newer versions of the flat sorters that ESD had installed back in the 1980s.
If the Trump administration was trying to undermine the election via Postal Service tampering why was the Post Office throwing away flat sorters which do not process ballot envelopes anyway?
Our installation crews had been told by mail processing staffers that the shortages of test mail had occurred either because the mail counts that the facilities had based their equipment needs on were outdated and higher than current mail volume, or the facility managers had re-sorted some mail to get their counts up so that they could retain their budget allocations and the higher management salaries that went with those budgets.
But these days, with the number of mailed periodicals way down while package delivery from on-line orders is way up, both due to the internet, it seems as though somebody at USPS HQ probably realized they no longer needed all those flat sorters and the space they took up. Out it went as unneeded so the Post Office could re-allocate that space to package handling equipment.
Instead of Trumpian conspiracies, given the lack of apparent mail-in-voting problems in the election just past, the more obvious explanation for what we saw on the scrap heap was that we were seeing yet another fallout from the death spiral of all kinds of periodicals, not including, we hope, the AVA.