Sept. 4 2007 12:06 PM

In 2006, direct mail companies, mailing fulfillment houses and commercial printers were introduced to the Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB), the next generation of U.S. Postal Service (USPS) barcode technology to sort and track letters and flats. Also known as the One Code or the 4-State Customer Barcode, the IMB combines the capabilities of the well-known POSTNET and PLANET Code barcodes with the USPS Address Change Service (ACS), which mailing companies have been utilizing for years.


The amount of information contained within the IMB can facilitate tracking an individual piece throughout the mail stream. This is made possible because the IMB's design offers the printer the ability to apply a nine-digit sequence number, or a unique mailing identifier, to printed pieces. With these nine digits part of the 31 total digits of numerical information available the printer is able to utilize up to one billion unique numbers when printing the IMB. That means a mailing company will be able to track delivery times of either random samples or entire mailings in order to verify mailpieces were delivered within their expected delivery range. This capability will improve quality control, particularly for customers who are mailing time-sensitive material.


The IMB will be required for postal automation discounts starting in 2009, though mailing companies have the option of printing it today in order to receive additional tracking information from the USPS. Some companies are currently printing the IMB with their existing stable of variable data inkjet printers; others are searching for pre-packaged solutions from software or printer manufacturers, or the USPS. For others, the IMB is an unfamiliar concept.


To stay current, mailing companies should learn as much as possible about the IMB's benefits, USPS requirements and, most of all, what equipment upgrades may be necessary for their operation. With the compliance deadline just over a year away, being proactive will shorten the learning curve and ensure that vital automation discounts won't be lost, come 2009.


Gary Rothenberger, Senior Vice President of Accommodata, Inc., a direct mail production company based in Indianapolis, decided to be proactive. He began printing the IMB in spring 2007. "Direct mail requires a very significant investment," Rothenberger says. "We use the Intelligent Mail Barcode to make sure direct mail is delivered in a timely fashion, and if it isn't, we can address problems proactively."


Creating, Printing, Validating

The USPS has specifications for printing the IMB. If incorrectly printed, mailing companies will face penalties, namely a loss of mailing automation discounts, which help many companies remain profitable.


Physically, the IMB is a string of 65 vertical bars, representing 31 digits of numerical information. That information includes:

  • Barcode identifier: a number assigned by the USPS to identify a mailpiece's type of tracking service.
  • Special services: a number assigned by the USPS to signify the services requested on a mailpiece (e.g., ACS or the USPS Confirm automation program). Other new service types are expected to be added in the future.
  • Customer number: a unique identification number assigned by the USPS to the mailing company.
  • Sequence number: a nine-digit unique identification number assigned by the mailing company for tracking mailpieces.
  • Delivery point ZIP Code.


Prior to the IMB, printers had to use both the PLANET Code (for tracking) and POSTNET (for routing) to achieve the capabilities the IMB provides in one code. Additionally, the IMB can incorporate the ACS service, thereby freeing up additional design space on the mailpiece because the address area doesn't have to be as large.

When incorporating the IMB into a production environment, the most important mantra is creating, printing and validating the code.


Creating the code A mailing company's software must be able to convert mailing data to the IMB format. There are two options in this area:

  • The USPS offers a conversion utility free of charge. Visit
  • Mailing software companies are offering customers the ability to create the IMB. This capability is available for purchase or may be provided for free, generally as part of a subscription agreement.


Printing the code A mailing company's variable data printers must have the proper font loaded so they can physically print the IMB. Multiple options are available:

  • The USPS offers the IMB font free of charge. Visit
  • Some variable data marking/coding suppliers offer the font.
  • The font can be purchased from Internet-based suppliers.
  • Using USPS specifications, a mailing company can also use the printer's font editor to draw the IMB font.


Validating the code Validation typically consists of placing a vision system toward the end of a printing line to verify the IMB has been printed within USPS specifications.


Depending on the line speed, a vision system can check every mailpiece or just a percentage of them. Faster line speeds may preclude verifying every piece because the production line would slow down considerably.


Taking into account creation, printing and validation of the code, there are several questions mailing companies should consider when investigating and implementing the IMB.

  1. What size printband do our current variable data printers possess? Printers with a one-inch printband may be able to print the IMB, but using them could require sacrificing one line on a mailpiece previously dedicated to addressing, which may not be desirable to customers.
  2. Can our printers deliver a high enough print quality to meet IMB specifications? Substandard print quality may cause codes to fail the validation process, thus possibly delaying delivery and interfering with automation discounts.
  3. Can our printers print the IMB at current line speeds? Verifying there will be no slowdown in printing, the IMB will confirm the printer's ability to achieve the multiple benefits of using the code without sacrificing production throughput.
  4. Can our software solution calculate and create the IMB? Verifying the current software solution can print the IMB is the first step; if it can't, acquiring the correct software or the USPS conversion utility is the second.
  5. How can vision systems be used to validate the IMB and improve overall quality control? In some cases, two vision systems are used one to verify that codes have been printed to USPS specifications and another to verify that the information has been coded correctly.
  6. Can being proactive win over customers? In certain cases, a printer's customer may value a proactive approach to incorporating the IMB, particularly if the customer sees the benefits of having additional tracking data and less USPS-specific data printed on the piece.


Further Considerations

Aside from USPS automation discounts, the sheer amount of information the IMB can provide may be motivating enough for mailing companies to consider early implementation. "Every time a mailpiece with an Intelligent Mail Barcode is processed on an automated piece of equipment, the result of the scan is captured and uploaded to a USPS database," Rothenberger says. "As a Confirm subscriber, we can download tracking data from the secure area of a USPS FTP web site, which we do several times daily."


There are multiple Confirm subscriber tiers available, based on the amount of scans a company wishes to purchase. For example, the Silver base-level program provides 15 million scans for $2,000 for a three-month period.


But Rothenberger also points out that printing the Intelligent Mail Barcode is only the first step. Every mailing company must be prepared to analyze all of the data it is receiving daily. If it's unprepared to do that, it will greatly limit the barcode's value. Those are important conclusions, knowledge that Rothenberger gained because he was proactive. That's perhaps the best piece of advice mailing companies can heed to achieve success with the Intelligent Mail Barcode.


Jason Lund is a Graphics Product Manager for Videojet Technologies Inc., Wood Dale, Illinois. He has been employed by Videojet since August 2006, and his responsibilities include managing variable-data printers, vision systems, line controllers and paper-handling equipment. Visit