Aug. 10 2006 01:07 PM

What is Mail.dat?

Hearing about Mail.dat for the first time can be a little overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be. Mail.dat is a standard created by the Graphic Communications Association (now IDEAlliance) with input from various segments of the mailing industry including mailers, list processors, publishers, transportation companies and the U.S. Postal Service.


It is a multiple-file format, which summarizes the make-up of a mailing. Each file contains a different level of detail describing the mailing. What makes Mail.dat a relational database is that each file within the set contains key fields that make it possible to cross reference other files within the set to capture higher or lower levels of data. Information such as the number of pieces, weight and destination of each container as well as the packages in each sack, tray or pallet are communicated in seven required and twelve optional files. Every aspect of a mailing, other than the addresses, is available.


Mail.dat's greatest impact has been its ability to facilitate efficient and process-enhancing communications. By sharing comprehensive mailing data readily, recipients and/or end-users can accept and interpret data for their own purposes and benefit from the resulting information, all with the knowledge that the information being received is in a uniformly accepted format.


How Can I Use Mail.dat?

Chances are that in whatever type of mail production area you work Mail.dat can benefit you. The following are a few of the many ways companies are using it. In all cases, some type of software is needed. There are tools commercially available or a programmer on your staff can customize a solution for your needs.


Distribution Planning

At the heart of distribution planning is the incentive to reduce postage, increase service or both by inducting mail into strategic postal facilities. These concepts have existed for many years, and many publishers, printers and mailing agents have been taking advantage of drop shipment opportunities.


Traditionally, distribution planning was done before the mail was presorted. Usually, an essential element wasn't considered when doing the entry-point planning freight charges. There is a cost associated with transporting containers from the mailing facility to each specific point of induction; and this cost may not be available to those doing the presorting. This is because many transportation companies need to know the actual weight and volume of the mailing to calculate an appropriate charge for transportation.


With Mail.dat and entry-point planning software, you can take advantage of its information, and a mailing/transportation agent can perform distribution planning in a real-time environment using actual amounts. A custom entry plan can then be created that yields positive results for every mailing.


Along with the Mail.dat, several other tables may be necessary to perform distribution planning. These include postal hierarchy and drop shipment tables, a zone table and freight rate tables if net postal savings are to be considered. These tables are external to Mail.dat but relate into the file set through its database design.


Mail.dat and the other necessary tables set the stage for distribution planning, but software is required to utilize the information. Such software should allow the user the ability to enter and maintain the freight rates, create entry plan scenarios that limit postal facility selection, generate planning reports and automatically update the Mail.dat with accurate information. The updating of the Mail.dat is essential, as you may want to export the Mail.dat from the distribution planning program to another user of Mail.dat.


Production Planning

The key to successful mail distribution lies in the ability to produce and ship mail to Postal facilities so that the mail gets delivered in the customer's desired window. It is · important from a printer/mailer standpoint that the mail be produced as close to the ship dates as possible, to reduce the need for warehouse/storage space. In addition, it is imperative that there be enough time to consolidate with other mail or freight in order to keep transportation costs down. All of this can be accomplished with planning and the help of Mail.dat.


After using Mail.dat to do entry-point planning, the next step is determining the ship dates and times of all containers based on the customer's in-home window. Once that has been established, this ship plan can be translated into a run plan for all containers through the use of the Ink Jet/Container Relationship File (ICR) within Mail.dat. The ICR file contains the information that allows the integration of inkjet systems and mailing/routing systems. Prior to running a job, a process is run that looks at all the containers' ship dates/times in the mailing/routing system. It then uses this information in conjunction with the ICR file to re-sequence inkjet files so that the job runs in the same order that it ships.


Postal and Production Documents

A Mail.dat file set can be used to accurately produce all required USPS documentation. Specifically, all container labels, postage statements, drop ship documents and presort reports can be created.


You can produce sack or tray tags, pallet labels and all postal reports and forms including but not limited to 8125s, 3541s and 3602s. In fact, many mailers and mailing agents are using Mail.dat files to produce the required U.S. Postal Service qualification reports online (see Mail.dat Viewer) as well as internal production reports. Besides convenience of just-in-time output in production sequence, this dynamic generation allows the customization of container labels to contribute to tracking or internal management systems. With the proper Mail.dat software or in-house programming and a Mail.dat file set, the time and cost consuming effort to manually generate these forms and labels can be easily avoided.


The Mail.dat Viewer

One of the earliest visions of Mail.dat was to replace the enormous amount of printed audit trails that are generated during the presort process. These stacks of reports can amount to thousands of pages for every mailing and must be stored on-site by a mailing agent, for up to one year. Moreover, the transportation costs of moving them from the service bureau to the mailing agent can also amount to thousands of dollars each year.


With Mail.dat, there is sufficient information to replicate these reports electronically. Software must be written, however, in order to extract this information. The software that generates the standardized postal documentation is referred to as a viewer. It is a tool that allows an acceptance clerk to search and browse through the details of an entire mailing and assess mail preparation and rate eligibility.


You will need to provide your local detached mail unit access to a computer to operate the viewer. Depending on the software, this may need special requirements. In all cases, the computer must be easy to operate and a user's manual must be provided as well as proper training. Once all the pieces are in place, contact your local rates and classification service center and notify it that you are ready for electronic auditing.


The process of electronic auditing is easy. The DMU simply imports or opens the Mail.dat file set needed, selects the requested report, chooses the specific information he or she wishes to view and instantly sees the results electronically on-screen without any paper involved. In the event that the containers are not adjacent to the viewer system, a printer should be provided allowing the DMU to print only the necessary pages for auditing.


Imagine the amount of time, money and effort electronic auditing can save you. Instead of waiting for printers to generate thousands of pages of reports, the cost to ship them and the effort to search through them to find the required information, the DMU can now electronically do everything. In just a short time, electronic auditing will more than pay for itself.


Other Uses

The USPS is working with the mailing industry on creating PostalOne!. This is part of a new electronic partnership with business customers, which includes the exchange of mailing information, payment and informational feedback between the USPS, mailing agents and mail owners. The electronic link will replace the hardcopy documentation currently required. Furthermore, it will support the verification process and help ensure uniform acceptance procedures nationwide.


These have been just of few of the many uses there are for Mail.dat. Others include Seed Name Tracking, ADVANCE Tracking Analysis, Phone Call Tracking, Co-Palletization, Manifesting, Distribution Comparisons, Rate/Presort Modeling and Historical Data Storage. In fact, the best is yet to come.


Todd Kintopf is the director of Postal Systems for Arandell Corporation, a large printer/mailer located in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, specializing in high quality retail and direct mail catalogs. He is responsible for monitoring compliance with current USPS requirements and anticipating the effects on the customer and manufacturing of proposed changes. For more information, please contact or call 262-255-4400.