Automation is helping to speed up Utah's mail service and is cutting down the number of employees needed to process mail, Salt Lake postal officials say.

Millions of dollars were spent recently to purchase and install state-of-the-art computers, bar code sorters and optical character reader machines that read addresses on envelopes and print bar code ZIP codes at the rate of nine to 12 per second.Dennis Dierks, automation readability specialist at the Salt Lake Post Office, 1760 W. 21st South, said optical character readers can read a six-line address, including the name of a person or firm, the suite or apartment number, city, state and ZIP code and print a five- and often a nine-digit bar code ZIP on the envelope faster than you can blink your eye.

The machines cannot read cursive, but they can read neatly hand-printed ZIP codes.

"As the machines read each envelope, they send it speeding along its way to a special container in which envelopes with the same ZIP code are awaiting delivery - or, if they can't read the ZIP code, the envelop is sent to a section of the post office where employees manually read each address and use mechanical sorting machines.

"The optical character reader, which costs about $500,000, requires only two employees to operate. The mechanical sorting machines require 18 people."

Mail that has been preprinted with a bar code ZIP does not have to go through the optical character reader, but is automatically sent to a bar code sorter. The Salt Lake Post Office has three sorters, each costing $250,000 to $300,000.

Someday, Dierks said, machines may be able to sort letter-size mail according to a letter carrier's walk sequence so the carrier will no longer have to sort mail but can simply pick up a presorted package of mail and go out on his route.

"As the carrier arrives at each succeeding home or business, the letters in the package will correspond to each new address."

For the best service, Dierks said, use capital letters. Punctuation is not required and common address and state abbreviations should be used. Black type on white paper envelopes works best. Use single spacing between lines in the address and if you are using window envelopes, make sure the address appears in the window. Avoid non-address information below the delivery address, such as "Attn: R. Jones."

"Use a return address, and place the destination address so that the bottom line - city, state and ZIP code - is at least five/eighths of an inch but no more than 21/4 inches from the bottom edge."