One of the more unusual outings on offer over this year’s European Heritage Days weekend was a guided tour of the PIC, or Plate-forme...

Inside Cestas’s PIC (Plate-forme industrielle du courrier)

One of the more unusual outings on offer over this year’s European Heritage Days weekend was a guided tour of the PIC, or Plate-forme industrielle du courrier, the massive postal sorting office that can be found in Cestas, just off the A63 motorway to the west of Bordeaux.

Having often driven past this massive facility, I was particularly looking forward to enjoying the inside view, so there was a definite sense of anticipation as we joined a group to be ushered inside in scenes reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

First though, let us digest some raw data about the PIC which is, in short, La Poste’s regional hub for the sorting of business, private and industrial correspondence. The €55-million project was delivered in 2009, occupies a 100,000-square-metre plot and represents 31,000 square metres of workspace for its 500 staff, who keep the place running day and night between 9:30pm on Sundays to 10pm on Saturdays. 

A model that clearly shows the PIC's two main halls: large-format mail is processed in the left-hand hall, regular-sized correspondence on the right.   
Most of the time, there are 150 people beavering away, making sure that 3 million items of mail are processed every day. Ferried by 250 vans daily, those items come in from and are dispatched to one of thirteen PPDCs (Plate-forme de préparation et de distribution du courrier) located throughout Dordogne, Gironde, Lot-et-Garonne, Landes and Pyrénées-Atlantiques, i.e. the former incarnation of the Aquitaine region. The PPDCs then feed a wider network of PDCs (Plate-forme de distribution du courrier), where the mail processed by the PIC is merged with parcels, and newspaper and magazine distribution, ahead of being delivered to our letterboxes by uniformed postal staff on yellow bikes or mopeds. Simple, really. 

The PIC is essentially split into two main categories of correspondence: regular-sized correspondence and large-format mail. Each has its own dedicated hall, with a wall separating the two more or less in the middle of the facility. The machines which are used to automate the sorting process – top-quality equipment built in France, Germany, Sweden and Japan – have their own codenames. For instance, there are eight MTI PFs (Machine de tri industriel petit format) which can each process 40,000 regular-sized envelopes per hour, splitting the mail into 256 designated destinations. For larger mail, there are two MTI GFs (Machine de tri industriel grand format), which sort through 32,000 items per hour and split the output into 480 designated destinations. When boxes on the MTI GF conveyor belts are full, they are ejected by a robot known locally as R2D2!

This is an MTI PF...
...whereas this is an MTI GF.
The machines are as high-tech as you might imagine in such a state-of-the-art installation, using lightning-fast optical recognition technology to scan addresses and postcodes. There can be the occasional mishap though: when an address is illegible or impossible to interpret for the machines, a “vidéocodage” team steps in to manually read or rectify the address on screen and send the mail on its way. And a team of real, live humans is also on hand to sort through misrouted mail (which amounts to less than 1% of overall volumes). 

Meanwhile, in amongst the high-tech machinery, a number of low-tech innovations have also been rolled out, such as the “Palombière”, a raised platform surrounded by baskets, which enables staff to physically sort bulky batches of brochures and catalogues being sent out directly by businesses and retail firms. 

The vidéocodage team at work under the watchful eye of some Heritage Days visitors!
Cestas's in-house innovation: la Palombière.
During our tour of the facility, the guide shares a few insider secrets. For instance, one of the more unusual, occasional delights of working here is welcoming customs officers with their sniffer dogs, whose sole, spectacular assignment is to go checking for drugs in amongst the mail. He also kindly reminds us that it is illegal to send cash by mail, not that there’s much risk of it being stolen when in transit at the PIC: there are 130 closed-circuit cameras keeping watch on proceedings at all time. 

Scenes from the PIC.
In an age of digital communication (when was the last time that you wrote a letter?), seeing inside the PIC was a reminder that snail-mail is not dead, even though there is a steady 3% drop in activity year-on-year at the sorting office. For the foreseeable future though, there is no sign of there being any end to the constant to-ing and fro-ing of big yellow vans transporting incoming and outgoing mail to and from Cestas.

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