Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series on the benefits of adopting an Automated Document Factory (ADF) strategy.
The advantages of the next generation of Automated Document Factory solutions include a number of gains that were not possible just a few years ago. Open connectivity across platforms has joined the gaps between printing and mailing operations and systems from multiple vendors and has given new viability to using a factory-like approach across the entire document production process. Broad, flexible acceptance of diverse data streams and reader technologies provide the opportunity to share and manipulate data like never before resulting in a host of previously out-of-reach process improvements. Whereas integration and flexibility were once considered the Achilles' heel of an ADF operation, current solutions are more open and adaptable, allowing far greater levels of automation and optimization.
Data Integration and Manipulation
High-end data integration and manipulation are among the key advantages of an ADF, as the system can create a connected print/mail center where information is reused across applications and processes to ensure efficiency, integrity and quality. The ability to assimilate and manipulate this data is an integral improvement that helps printing and mailing operations work smarter, faster and with more agility. Some available gains include:
- Pre-qualification of mail for postal discounts
- Dynamic modification of print layout to add customized messages
- Application of barcodes and integrated control files for integrity and tracking
- Extraction and analysis of production data for reporting and process optimization
- Electronic document delivery and online viewing for customers and customer service agents
In print centers, ADF capabilities have been heightened by the introduction of new document composition and print stream manipulation tools. With greater flexibility and openness, users can perform a variety of vital enhancements before releasing a job to a printer. Activities such as adding barcodes, cleaning addresses or creating custom messages are now performed dynamically without the need for expensive legacy programming. The abilities to compose and design documents and flexibly capture and manipulate print streams prior to printing are primary advantages of an ADF, allowing organizations to make incremental improvements in their applications over time and build better strategies to reduce costs and inefficiencies in the overall production process.
Data integration drives ADF mail center efficiency by allowing companies to proactively stipulate what elements need to be tracked on an inserter, instruct a sorter for optimum setup or inform the post office of the specifications of soon-to-be delivered mail. Additionally, an ADF's reach can be extended beyond the boundaries of the host organization with the ability to track outbound mail and discern exactly when mailpieces arrive at their intended destinations. Tracking the progress of business replies (e.g., inbound payments) can broaden the value of ADF data integration even further.
Software tools can help unify data upstream, but downstream flexibility in mail-handling systems creates additional alternatives and expands the viability of older applications and systems.
For instance, no two barcodes are created equally, as any mail industry veteran will testify, and efforts to track mailpiece integrity are fraught with the neverending development of new and diverse codes. Everything from legacy OMR marks to the recent introduction of the Intelligent Mail Barcode makes the integration of optical reader hardware a primary gain.
Camera-based readers, frequently referred to as vision systems, provide the ability to interpret any barcode. Users are no longer held captive by proprietary reader technology or vendor-centric systems. With more flexible and comprehensive hardware integration, an ADF enables the viable optimization of a mixture of independent and vendor-supplied systems. Some available gains include:
- Open architecture supports the widest range of potential configurations
- Increased asset utilization improves productivity and efficiency
- Comprehensive management brings multiple systems and locations under a single structure
- Full integration significantly reduces complexity and manual processing
The same techniques used to track items in finishing can extend upstream into the printing process. Vision technology now being installed on production printers typically, regardless of brand or model can eliminate the black hole between printing and mailing operations. Once isolated and often unknown, print production attributes, like page counts, paper stocks, color and barcode quality and print processing time, are tracked, monitored and integrated directly into overall ADF management.
An efficient workflow is critical to the productivity and profitability of any operation, and ADFs introduce the flexibility to support a range of applications reaching beyond printing and mailing to include manual processing in staging areas, the loading dock and special handling teams. This opens the door to a variety of scenarios that encourage broader efficiencies and greater economy.
Integrated Piece Tracking
Regulations impose increasingly strict standards on how confidential and sensitive mailpieces are handled. Integrated piece tracking is essential, and an ADF enables truly integrated piece tracking by virtue of increased data integration and more flexible hardware options. Vision technology, unique identifiers and comprehensive management software provide the levels of visibility into the production process needed to insure the integrity and security of sensitive documents and information.
Available gains include the ability to:
- Track the individual document sets as well as mailpieces through the entire printing, finishing, sorting and delivery process
- Verify that mail was actually sorted and sent to the USPS
- Confirm that high-value mail has reached the intended recipient
- Access tracking reports in real time via a secure web server
- Segment tracking data for specific customers or departments
- Automatically reconcile a mail run
- Generate reprints on the fly
- View online versions of statements
Integrated piece tracking is important for process management as well. Real-time visibility of tracking data helps shop supervisors better optimize their workflow and capacity. Trend reporting and resource planning encourage greater return on investment in existing hardware and improved utilization of labor. Additionally, the development of hand scanners and desktop document feeders enable convenient tracking of manually processed mail in an ADF system from activities performed in staging areas and between production stations all the way out to the shipping dock with full integrity.
Reprints are the bane of most printing and mailing operations. It is inevitable that mailpieces will occasionally become damaged, but the effort required to complete a reprint of the missing piece is expensive and time-consuming. Often, reprints expose a company to increased risk in terms of lost or mishandled information. An ADF eliminates the costly constraints associated with reprints by allowing more open integration and more flexible response. Some available gains include:
- Automatically initiate and schedule reprints
- Issue reprints on-demand at a local printer
- Schedule a complete re-run, or a reprint of just a few pages
- Automatically direct reprints to printers based on criteria, including volume, color and finishing requirements
An ADF provides the flexibility to respond appropriately to real-world situations, quickly recovering damaged pieces and closing out the entire mailing run without delay. Because fewer people are involved, integrity and security are more tightly managed and the likelihood of compounding errors is minimized.
Visibility of Data
In response to shrinking margins and growing competition, organizations typically seek new ways to optimize their operations. Clearly, the main roadblock is the ability to identify internal inefficiencies, make the necessary changes and monitor and analyze those changes to ensure the achievement of desired results. Increased visibility of data within an ADF meets these demands with the ability to monitor and analyze current production activities: data processing, print management, finishing, sorting and delivery. Real-time visibility of data provides a number of gains:
- Operator and resource optimization
- Reduction of inefficient or duplicate efforts
- Operational productivity tracking and reporting
- Increased profitability through production cost management
- Trend analysis
- Multi-site support
In the past, collecting production data across multiple vendor platforms was problematic, if not impossible. But new reading and vision technology allow the development of a comprehensive view of print/mail workflow, regardless of the makes, models or brands of machinery used. Via a web-based interface, ADF shop supervisors can administer multiple facilities in different locations, manage equipment downtime and optimize capacity to meet a variety of production requirements. Managers also find that an ADF's increased visibility of production data aids in the setting of proper thresholds for staffing especially during periods of peak demand.
Integrated Customer Service
Customer service can be greatly improved with ADF integration. In an Automated Document Factory, document images can be presented online and tracking data fed to customer service agents who can then resolve questions more quickly. The reach of an ADF may even extend to include mailpiece tracking as pieces are processed by the post office literally giving customer service agents visibility into the mailpiece's lifecycle from creation, through USPS delivery, and back via business reply. An ADF also allows end users to satisfy their own requests without engaging live service agents, viewing statements and requesting reprints, for example, all performed transparently to a company's normal support hours. Some of the available gains of integrating customer service are:
- Document images are available online to resolve customer inquiries
- Tracking data confirms address, date sent and time the piece was mailed
- Missing documents are automatically scheduled for reprint, either on a local printer or via production printers
- Reprints can be faxed or emailed directly to customers
- Documents can be posted on a secure website and archived for later download
In all, the advanced levels of integration and tracking inherent within an ADF can foster superior customer service.
In our final installment, we'll look at the drivers toward an ADF model and critical considerations when implementing an ADF solution.
Mike Maselli is executive director of business management for BÖWE