Parcel Vocabulary - Common Terminology and What It Means

Many terms are used in the parcel industry and some can be overlapping, abridged or abbreviated and therefore confusing. To ensure operators and suppliers in the Courier, Express and Parcel Services (CEP) industry have a common understanding of the terminology used, BEUMER Group has created this parcel dictionary. In aligning our language and understanding of CEP definitions, we believe we can deliver proper systems design and performance.


Conveyable items

Conveyable items are items that have a dimension, shape and weight that are within the range defined for a certain material handling system. If a parcel’s profile in terms of its size, shape and weight meets the system’s defined range, it will be a conveyable item.

So, the shape, weight and size of the parcel matters.

If we take the dimensions of a parcel, for example, a standard postal organisation’s system handles parcels from 140x100x10mm to 1200x600x600mm – and this would be defined as the ‘conveyable’ range. But another operator might specify its conveyable parcel size as 1300x800x800mm. In both examples, the systems are designed to handle what the operator defines as standard, or ‘conveyable’.

In practice, classical parcel sizes that can be transported on a flat or roller conveyor are typically conveyable items.

Parcels that fall within a system’s defined specifications will cost less to ship than a non-conveyable item, reflecting the amount of work associated with handling the parcels.

Conveyable items are also sometimes called ‘machinables’, ‘regulars’, ‘compatibles’ or ‘coys’.

Non-conveyable items

Items that cannot be handled by the system due to their dimension, shape or weight and therefore must be handled manually are non-conveyable times. Drawings and posters that used to be shipped in tubes in the past were often non-conveyable items. This is because they rolled and could not be controlled while travelling through a sorting machine.

Sometimes non-conveyable items can be made conveyable by using auxiliary support methods. Small, non-conveyable parcels, for example, can be placed in a tray or a carton that holds or secures the item. The tray or carton is then accepted as a standard, conveyable item while journeying through the system.

Non-conveyable items are also referred to as ‘non-machinables’, ‘irregulars, ‘non-compatibles’ or ‘NC-items’.

To stay updated on non-conveyable items, read about odd-shaped parcels here and how to deal with them.

Rest mail

Postal organisations sort classical letters on special machines and letter machines can be used worldwide. This is because the Universal Postal Union (UPU, the United Nations’ governing agency for international cooperation in the postal sector) has defined the worldwide format of a letter as a C5 size. Equally, the postcard has a standard, international format.

But because letter machines are so specialised, anything that doesn’t fit into their format becomes rest mail (‘the rest’) and must be handled manually. And this includes many very small parcels. Rest mail can therefore also cover odd shipments that are too large to be considered letters and too small to be considered parcels by conventional standards.

Fortunately, parcel sorting machines for smaller sized parcels are also able to handle the rest mail and relieve the CEP facility from handling rest mail by hand.

Rest mail is sometimes also called ‘rest-hand-mail’.

For more information on how to handle rest mail, read our article ‘Small parcels or large letters?’ here.

Flats and flyers

The term ‘flats’ also comes from the letter business where operators differentiate between letters and flats. Flats are typically flexible envelopes or pouches that contain flat objects, such as magazines or passports. Like letters, flats have a standard size but a flats sorting machine will only accept a thickness of 20-30mm.

In the parcel industry, a small and flat parcel will be called ‘flats’ or ‘packets’.

The term ‘flyers’ comes from the parcel industry where the common belief is that parcels do not fly away (like letters in the wind). But because smaller and lighter parcels – flat items – do ‘fly’, to a degree, they have become nicknamed ‘flyers’ – referring to small and light parcels. The terminology is closely linked to the parcel industry’s version of flats.

If you need flyer sortation in a tight footprint, here’s a great example of high sortation accuracy in the tightest sortation footprint.

Small items

Small items are similar to flats and flyers in the parcel industry. Smalls are also handled as parcels but are often not big enough for the normal sorter (see more under the explanation of ‘non-conveyable items ’). As such, more and more parcel hubs are managing the situation with two sorters – one for parcels and one for smalls, known as a ‘smalls sorter’.

The term ‘small parcels’ is often seen in private CEP organisations.

If you want to find out more about smalls or other odd-shaped parcels read how to deal with them here or get updated on the advantages of parcel intelligence technology and how it will benefit the sortation processes.

Out-of-size/out-of-weight items

Out of size, out of weight or out-of-gauge items are non-conveyable items because they fall outside the specified size, weight or gauge (shape).

Although modern systems designs seek to maximise efficiency by handling a higher percentage of conveyable parcels through the automated sorting system, there will always be out-of-gauge, out-of-size and out-of-weight items that have to be automatically discharged for manual handling at an early stage of the inbound process. Or, as some operators require, they must be manually pre-sorted at the place of origin and then handled immediately and separately when arriving at the hub.

Look here as we go through why it’s important to define the parcel mix at your distribution centre.

Odd-shaped items and polybags

The term ‘odd-shaped items’ refers to non-conveyable items and out-of-size, out-of-weight and out-of-gauge items.

Odd-shaped items can be round, uneven and oblong in shape. Think of round objects such as footballs and tubes. These move uncontrollably at any given time and don’t move as anticipated. Or parcels with more than one natural surface, that the system is likely to confuse as two parcels. Also consider long, unevenly-shaped parcels, such as exhaust pipes. These odd-shaped items all have the potential to create jams and blockages on the conveyors.

Long items, too, can cause difficulties and cannot be processed on a standard machine. And if the items are too small, they are at risk of getting lost or stuck somewhere in the sortation system.

To read more about odd-shaped parcels and how to deal with them, click here.

No reads

The CEP industry usually distinguishes between parcels by whether or not they can be automatically sorted – they become ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ items.

A ‘good item’ flows through sortation, from door to door, with just two manual touches – the first, when the item is placed onto the sortation system and the second, when it’s loaded into the delivery truck. What happens in between is handled automatically. In these instances, parcels contain clear information about where they’re coming from, where they’re going, and how they’re getting there.

But when automated flows are interrupted, it’s usually because the sortation system can’t find this information, causing the parcel to be unsolvable.

Operators tend to think of no reads as one category of parcels, but in reality, a parcel may be flagged as a ‘no read’ for several reasons:

  1. The parcel has no label or barcode at all. This is a kind of no read, although this is not seen very often.
  2. The barcode is damaged or otherwise unreadable due to a number of reasons: the contrast is too low; there are ratio problems; or the bar code width or height does not comply with specifications (which are available through the American National Standard Institute (ANSI)). Barcodes that are covered with foil can also sometimes be hard to read due to reflections. A damaged or unreadable barcode is also an instance of a no read.
  3. The barcode is readable, but the structure of the data contained in the barcode is not compliant. This causes the parcel to be unsolvable.
  4. The barcode is readable but doesn’t contain sufficient data that enables further processing. This also makes the parcel ‘unsolvable’.

To learn more about no reads and how to handle them, read here.

Ghost items

Ghost items are often caused by an error in the parcel detection or if the sensors detect an item that doesn’t fit the required specifications, as defined by the system (see conveyables above).

Take, for example, a very loose bag with two items that are spread widely inside. The sensor may register the bag as two parcels because the beam is broken twice. This confuses the system and may lead to the system control trying to sort the parcel as two items, which is impossible.

Or, on rare occasions, a parcel can run through the scanner undetected because it is too small or as thin as a thick postcard. Or it could be because the parcel’s surface is so special it isn’t picked up by the sensors – glass, for example, can sometimes be troublesome and black items are known to absorb the light. Sensor system companies are working hard to make sensors better.

In very modern and digital networks where parcels are registered en masse, a parcel can ‘disappear’ in the system and arrive at the next terminal as an unexpected ‘ghost item’. To discover more about these types of ghost items, and how hubs can work around this problem, read our article ‘How to deal with no-reads parcels?.

Another kind of ghost item used to sometimes appear in older versions of tilt-tray sorting systems, referred to as a ‘stray item’. This was where a parcel could be detected as still being on the tray after the tray had been discharged, because the item got stuck to the tray and didn’t slide off. Fortunately, due to the advances of automation, this type of ghost item is now a thing of the past.

Unsolvable items

Put simply, if you can’t identify a parcel, you can’t solve it!

Being unable to identify a parcel can occur for a number of reasons. It could be that the barcode is readable but the data structure is not compliant. Or the barcode is readable but the data is insufficient. Both problems will cause the parcel to be unsolvable.

Unsolvable items are commonly referred to as ‘no reads’. But no reads actually cover a wider type of parcel than the unsolvable parcels. They also include parcels that have no label or barcode or there is a barcode but it’s damaged or unreadable. Unsolvable parcels have readable labels but it is the data that makes it unsolvable. If you want to gain a better understanding of ‘no reads’ and other unsolvable items, see this article.

Our parcel terminology illustrates how some parcel types are easier to handle than others and that insufficient parcel data, poor packaging or label quality and other issues can cost distribution centres precious revenue. But there are many optimisation points that can help overcome these issues and prevent revenue loss. For more information read our 5 suggestions on how to protect revenue in parcel distribution, here.

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