Today's fastest inserters run in the 22,000-26,000 cycle per hour range, and the cost justification for these machines is that you can potentially replace several slower legacy systems with significantly fewer high-speed machines. Many have successfully made this leap in their shops, but most have found there are significant challenges to overcome to gain maximum productivity. Issues such as logistical efficiency, operator ability and the impact of unscheduled downtime all must be carefully managed to get the best out of today's most advanced systems.

How Much Speed Do You Need?

The first challenge is determining how much speed you really need. While a cycling speed of 22,000 cycles per hour certainly looks attractive, you need to evaluate two things. First, are your jobs well suited to high-speed production? Second, is your operation ready for the impact that high-speed inserters can have in your shop?

At the most basic level, high-speed inserting is ideally suited to lower page count, lower complexity applications. On the input side, speed can be measured two ways: by the cycling speed of the inserter and equally importantly, by the speed of the input device (i.e. the cutter or sheet feeder). If, for example, your primary application has an average page count of, say, four pages per statement, you may find that a 22,000 cycle per hour inserter is speed-limited by the input device. Let's say that the cutter on your inserter is capable of producing 60,000 cut sheets per hour divide that by four (the average page count), and you'll see that the inserter is "input bound" at theoretical maximum production level 15,000 filled envelopes per hour.

Given this scenario, you may find that you're actually better off with a lower cost 12,000 cycle per hour inserter rather than a 22,000 per hour screamer. Be sure that your vendor is aware of your average page counts on an application by application basis, and be sure you understand the throughput speed of the input device as well as the inserter chassis itself.

Are You Ready for More Speed?

Ideally, high-speed inserters are at their best when they are optimized for long runs of the same materials day in · and day out. At its heart, an inserter is a manufacturing device and document production is an assembly line operation. In manufacturing, "breaking the line" is avoided whenever possible, and the same holds true in document production. If your applications are very similar in terms of page size and counts, envelope construction and insert types, you're an ideal candidate for high-speed inserting. If not, but you want to move your shop to the next level, you've got some work to do. As speeds increase, it's critical that you gain control of the document, and you should be prepared to work with stakeholders within your organization to standardize applications and materials wherever possible. The more your jobs resemble each other, the greater the productivity you'll enjoy from your new systems.

If you do run multiple jobs but feel you're a good candidate for high-speed inserting, be sure to ask your vendor to describe the features they've built into their systems to speed system changeover and then ask them to demonstrate those features on your work. Some vendors pride themselves on having designed machines that are forgiving and easy to set up, while others have automated much of the setup process to ensure a predictable and repeatable result. Be aware, however, that paper is essentially an organic material that can grow or shrink and some fine tuning will always be required when changing jobs.

Speaking of Materials

One characteristic we've seen of the most successful high-speed shops is that the operations management team is in close contact with their forms and envelope vendors as well as their internal stakeholders. Forms and envelope vendors will gladly work with you to optimize their products to your production needs, and you might find that a very small change to small details of your mailing envelope, for example, can have a major impact on productivity. A "gotcha" in high-speed inserting is that if, for example, you're running a machine that produces seven envelopes per second, a jam that takes 45 seconds to clear has just cost you 315 filled envelopes. Multiply that by, say, 10 jams per hour that could be eliminated through material optimization and you've added 3,150 envelopes per hour, per machine, to your net throughput. However, the reverse is also true; failing to optimize your materials can rob you of productivity, and you might find that your 22,000 cycle per hour inserter will never exceed 18,000 per hour in actual production.

One of the greatest challenges in implementing high-speed inserters lies in logistics; if you're going to make more mail on fewer machines, you need to be sure that you have systems in place to ensure that you never have a time where the systems are idle while waiting for materials. If you can lose 315 filled envelopes while clearing a 45 second jam, imagine what you'd lose if your operator spends 10 minutes looking for the right marketing insert.

Staging materials, both on the input side as well as the output side, becomes critical to the success of a high-speed inserter. What some have found is that the role of the operator becomes more focused it's about keeping the machine running at all times, and responsibility for staging materials is assigned to another employee in the shop. Although most vendors will state that their high-speed machines can be operated at speed by a single operator, experience shows that you may find 1.5 functional equivalent operators are required to keep materials flowing into the system and to clear the output.

And speaking of the output, be sure to consider trayer/stacker units or an auto-tray product to reduce the frequency of intervention that is required to clear the output. Productivity is a function of running time, and anything you can do to increase running time between operator intervention will pay big rewards in daily production. Likewise, consider the capacity and capability of insert feed stations if you're running several inserts, you might find that insert capacity can bind throughput in much the same way that the input device can limit throughput, although many vendors offer innovative capabilities that allow insert feeders to work in tandem, for example.

No Pain, No Gain . . .

As you look to implement high-speed inserters, be aware that the ultimate success is on you your vendors can provide the systems, but you need to be willing and able to make changes to your applications, materials and operations to get the most from those systems. The payoff, however, can be big some of our customers have reduced the number of inserters by over 50% while reducing their staff levels by 35%. Remember the old saying "no pain, no gain" when it comes to high speed inserters, that old saying can be very true.

Next month we'll look at inserter integrity systems sometimes the need to be able to prove that an individual statement was mailed is as important as actually mailing the statement itself, and we'll look at several ways to make that happen using high-integrity inserters.

Peter Somu and Jeff Sutton are Automated Document Factory consultants. For more information, you may contact them by phone at 908-369-0225 or e-mail them at