Welcome to the Electronic Age. E-business, e-learning and, of course, e-mail. Documents will no longer be printed and mailed through the U.S. Postal Service. Instead, statements and bills will be transformed into digital documents and transported instantaneously to recipients via the Web. Paper processing will be a thing of the past.


Well, maybe you shouldn't throw away those printers and inserters just yet. Physical mail remains the preferred method of receiving bills and statements. In fact, online bill presentment and payment seems stalled at the five percent to eight percent adoption rate. Consumers may be shopping online, but they still want to receive their bills the old-fashioned way through the mail.


And even other forms of communication are strongly resistant to the migration to electronic copy. Last year, the Electronic Document Systems Foundation (EDSF) released a study in the traditional book format entitled Printing in the Age of the Web & Beyond. The study tracks the recent changes in printed material due to technology and the Internet, predicting what will happen to certain types of documents (periodicals, newsletters, books, newspapers, catalogs and financial documents) over the next 20 years. In fact, the study states, "By the year 2020, the printing of newsletters will decrease or disappear" Well, last month the Postal Service delivered Volume 1, Issue 1 of a hardcopy newsletter published by whom else? The EDSF. (I just love irony.)


To be successful in production mail, an operation needs to have quality in three areas people, equipment and materials. Quality people who are aware of industry guidelines and Postal Service regulations. Quality equipment that ensures high integrity at high speeds. And quality materials that conform to industry specifications and Postal Service publications.


To ensure that your materials meet industry specifications, you'll need to test certain characteristics. Some testing is easy and can be performed in your shop. However, some of the testing requires sophisticated equipment and should be performed by an external provider. Potential sources include your forms vendor, your printer vendor and your inserter vendor.


The precise definitions and measurements for some of these characteristics are quite technical. You may have worked in the print and mail industry for years, unaware of these technical terms. However, as a true professional, you should learn more about this essential topic.


Seven Characteristics of Paper

There are seven primary characteristics of your paper and forms that will have a direct impact on the efficiency of your equipment:


1.         Grain direction

2          Paper curl

3.         Paper weight

4.         Moisture content

5.         Stiffness

6.         Porosity

7.         Perforation strength


Grain direction Refers to the direction of the paper fibers in relation to the sheet. "Cross grain" means the paper fibers run the width of the sheet. "Long grain" means that the paper fibers run the length of the sheet. The most important aspect of grain direction is that it should always be oriented in the same direction as the paper flow on your equipment.


Paper curl How the paper edges curl toward or away from the printed image. Curl exists with all paper due to the manufacturing process and, while unavoidable, should be minimal. Curl is measured by the difference of the position of the center of the sheet when compared to the position of the edges. The range for acceptable edge curl is zero to 20 mm. Any curl greater than this range is unacceptable and will cause equipment jams.


Paper weight A measurement most people are familiar with. Paper weight is determined by how much a 500-sheet ream of 17-inch by 22-inch paper weighs. Most printer and inserter vendors recommend using 20-lb. or 24-lb. paper, and accept ranges between 18-lb. and 30-lb. paper. When paper is too light, it curls and bends excessively at high speeds. When paper is too heavy, it's not flexible enough to be manipulated by the equipment.


(Note: Paper and equipment manufacturers are moving to metric measurements for paper weight. The new standard is "gsm," or grams per square meter. For comparison purposes, 20-lb. paper stock is equivalent to 750-gsm stock.)


Moisture content Exactly what it sounds like. How much moisture is in your paper. High-moisture content causes a reduction in paper stiffness and an increase in paper curl. Very low-moisture content also causes paper curl as well · as static electricity. A paper moisture meter costs less than $250 and is a worthwhile investment. For best results, moisture content should range between four percent and six percent.


Stiffness Determined by the amount of pressure required to bend the paper. The measurement used is known as a Gurley unit, named after W.E. and L.E. Gurley, two brothers who were engineering alumni of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1800s. Testing for Gurley units is a sophisticated process that you should request from your vendors. For long grain, 20-lb. paper, stiffness should be between 175 to 200 Gurley units and, for cross grain paper, 80 to 100 Gurley units.


Porosity Porosity is calculated by another Gurley measurement: Gurley seconds, the amount of time it takes 100 cc of air to permeate one square inch of paper. Too much porosity causes moisture to be absorbed too quickly. Too little porosity doesn't allow enough moisture to be absorbed. In both cases, the end result is paper curl. For optimum results, porosity levels should be between 20 and 25 Gurley seconds. (Though ownership has changed, the Gurley brothers' company is still in business as Gurley Precision Instruments. Mention that bit of trivia at your next party and amaze your friends!)


Perforation strength The last characteristic, perforation strength, is especially important for remittance and check mailers as well as those who burst and trim continuous forms. Strength is measured by the amount of force needed to break the perforation. Internal perforations (remittance stubs and checks) should have a strength of at least 10 lbs. per linear inch. Page perforations should have a strength of about seven pounds per square inch.


Storage and Handling

Your quality paper and forms also need to be stored properly. If you use an offsite warehouse, ensure the warehouse has some type of climate control. If your operation is located in an area with extreme weather conditions (e.g., very cold or very hot), climate control is especially important.


Keep the storage area's climate consistent. The temperature should stay between 64°F and 80°F. Relative humidity should be maintained between 40% and 60%. Invest in a wall monitor that displays and records temperature and humidity readings. Report any significant fluctuations to facilities management, and schedule quarterly meetings to discuss any improvements.


Materials should be stored in their original packaging for as long as possible. The cardboard and shrink-wrap provide added protection from climate changes. Also, the covering will minimize any damage when moving paper from storage to the production area. You should also store material up and away from concrete floors and walls. Install shelving with at least a four-inch clearance from the walls. If shelving is not an option, use the pallets on which the papers and forms were delivered.


You'll need to recondition material after moving it from storage to the operations area, allowing the paper to sit in the same environment as the equipment to adjust to the climate change. The greater the temperature change, the more time the material will need for reconditioning. Vendors recommend at least four hours for every 10° in temperature change. However, whenever possible, allow 24 hours of reconditioning for optimum performance.


Monitoring and Metrics

It's important to establish a method of continuous monitoring of material quality. Set up a quality control station to test all new applications and forms. Train the receiving area to spot and report any damage as shipments arrive. Work with the Postal Service, consultants, paper suppliers and equipment vendors to set standards and testing procedures. Track and report the effects that poor quality materials have on production time.


And remember that paper suppliers use different mills and factories to produce your forms. While the bulk of the forms may come from one facility, the vendor may need to redirect work due to time constraints, capacity issues or disaster recovery. Require that testing be done at each mill/factory, using the same standards. Ensure the paper source is identified on all packaging and bills of lading.


For the immediate future, paper will retain its importance as the preferred method for receiving bills and statements. Printer and inserter manufacturers are "pushing the envelope" on how fast their machines can process a piece of paper. But that technology is dependent upon using quality paper and forms. Start a quality program now for your paper and forms, and take advantage of new technology to produce superior documents for your customers.


Mark M. Fallon is president and CEO of the Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document-processing strategies. For more information, visit www.berkshire-company.com.