In our last two articles, we've looked at some of the issues relative to today's most capable, complex and speedy high-end inserters. We've seen that there are two great issues that must be addressed: how much speed do you need measured against how much speed you can use, and its corollary, how much integrity do you need, and how much integrity can you reasonably afford?
Where Have We Been?
In the earliest days of inserting, it was common to print statements in either a continuous or cut-sheet format, burst the documents, if continuous, fold them and then insert them along with any marketing materials out of an insert station on a traditional inserter. As far back as the early '60s, inserter manufacturers began equipping their machines with "electric eyes" to allow for a variable number of pages to be inserted into each collation, and it wasn't long before the functionality was expanded to offer integrity checking between pages or collations. This was most typically accomplished via optical mark recognition (OMR), and for example, page count information was included at a collation level, or sequential binary numbers were encoded from set to set. This technology served the mailing community well for many years, but as the drive for quality is relentless, integrity tracking technology had to improve, too.
While the earliest integrity verification technology was inserter centric that is, the integrity systems existed to ensure the inserter chassis didn't unknowingly merge two statement sets or split statements, for example the notion of "zero defect capable" production began to emerge in the early 1990s. Telecom mailers and forward-thinking service bureaus led the industry through their demand for inserters that offered the ability to track each mailpiece to the individual document level, and much of what has become known today as the automated document factory concept emerged in response to this market requirement.
Where Are We Now?
The most significant advance in inserting today's technology, other than raw speed, is that the chassis of today's advanced inserters are far more capable than ever before. · The level of integrity checking built into the chassis is typically sufficient to ensure that statement sets are not split or double stuffed, as they say, and integrity schemes like page count information and set sequence numbers are embedded into barcodes as a routine matter.
One of the benefits of rich 2-D barcode technology is that it is easier than ever to build a link between an individual customer statement and meta information regarding its production on the inserter. A small 2-D barcode can contain 256 bytes of data, so it is possible to tell the inserter on an account level what document it is processing. This same information can be used to build a record of accounts that were processed and more importantly, a record of accounts that did not process for whatever reason. This approach, sometimes known as account record reconciliation (ARR) is a fairly straight-forward way to generate a list of processed accounts and a reprint list without the overhead associated with a true file-based or database-driven inserting environment.
What about Database-Driven Inserting?
As noted previously, the telecommunications industry led the way with inserters that were designed to track and report on the production of each mailpiece produced in their shops. The notion was that a file would be prepared concurrent with the physical statements that described the attributes of each and every mailpiece. This file typically contains a job number, a sequence number, the total number of pages from each feeder or input device as well as any other relevant production information like postal sort, manifest or tray label data.
The benefit of such a system is that the mailer essentially builds a mail plan and then instructs the inserters to act against that plan. Any items that deviate from the plan are noted and outsorted, and any items that do not show a record of completion can be automatically tagged for reprint. Late pulls can be accomplished by updating the file any time before the document is produced, and very detailed reporting on a job, machine, operator or mailpiece-level can be produced on demand or on a schedule or on an event-driven basis.
Although file-based insertion was the beginning of true zero defect capable systems, the technology has advanced to encompass database technology. While a simple flat file was used for machine control in the past, as production and reporting requirements become more complex, SQL database technology has emerged as today's leading edge. While a flat file is sufficient for most machine control tasks, it is less than flexible when other complementary software systems are working in conjunction with one or more inserters, such as when postal manifesting or tight integration with print management tools is required. A database-driven system offers a common repository for mailing production data, and each system takes what it needs to perform its function and updates the database upon completion.
The largest benefit of database-driven inserting over file-based inserting is not only that disparate systems can work together, it's that reports can be generated in a way that was impossible with a file-based system. Using a report query tool like Crystal Reports, the user can gain insight into virtually any aspect of production that is recorded in the database. If your inserter vendor will share the database schema, the user can begin to use the database not only to report production metrics, generate reprints and produce a record of completion, but rather, you can use the contents of the database to better understand your operating environment, identify problem areas and fine tune production. As an example, you could produce a report showing jam rates at critical areas of the inserter chassis and use this information to either fine tune your material or to communicate more effectively with your vendor.
Why Isn't Everyone Doing It?
While the benefits of file- or database-driven inserting are many, the downside is that it requires a significant investment not only in inserting hardware but also in system development to produce a statement stream and the corresponding statement stream. File- or database-driven inserting is best implemented when your business needs demand a very high level of integrity or when you are looking to squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of your production environment.
The most important success factor, in our experience, is a close working relationship with the IT group responsible for statement preparation prior to physical production. If you have shared goals and objectives, so much the better as with any quality process, the results you achieve are a direct result of upstream quality, and a willing partner is an absolute pre-requisite. Ideally, you are looking to create an end-to-end ADF, but at an absolute minimum, you should be prepared to work closely with your IT group both on feeding the system and processing the output (i.e. reprint files).
What about Cameras?
While an advanced inserter typically is bristling with sensors to track document movement and presence throughout the chassis, and file or database software can provide a record of completion for each mailpiece, sometimes your applications are sufficiently complex or reporting requirements are sufficient to demand that a final check be made as the mailpiece exits the inserter. In this case, only a camera will do BÖWE Bell & Howell, Videk, Axode and others offer systems that can either be bolted onto an existing inserter or tightly integrated with a new cutting-edge file or database control system.
In a typical high-end application, a camera can be trained to recognize multiple regions of interest, i.e. a sequence number, a delivery point barcode (DPBC) and a postal indicia. Typically, the system is configured to record or compare sequence numbers to a data file while checking for duplicates or missing documents.
Additionally, a valid DPBC denotes that the address piece is front facing and readable, and a readable indicia indicates evidence that postage was correctly applied. Camera systems are good when used as an add-on component, but they are absolutely superior for performing a final "quality assurance" check on each and every mailpiece when working in conjunction with an integrated integrity system.
As mailers continue to drive to new levels of quality, we see that integrity systems will become tightly integrated with a new generation of seamless USPS acceptance systems, including evidence of postage. If you think about it, a USPS manifest mailing statement is really a quality report, and if you can reliably produce, track and report on each and every mailpiece, you've already done the heavy lifting necessary to produce manifest mail.
Beyond that, we're excited about the potential for RFID technology to revolutionize postal preparation; we see that trays will be tagged with a passive RFID device in the short term, and that USPS acceptance will occur when the tray is scanned out of the mailer's inventory and into the postal delivery stream. It's an exciting technology and one to watch stay tuned as new developments occur in this area.
Peter Somu and Jeff Sutton are automated document factory consultants with a wide range of experience with inserters from several leading vendors. For more information, contact them at 908-369-0225 or by e-mail at email@example.com.