Illustrating the value of barcodes to direct mail companies and mailing fulfillment houses can be as simple as taking a drive through the countryside. There, one may happen upon a fenced-off meadow full of cows, all of which have ear tags with barcodes. Livestock is a valuable asset to the owner, and the information contained on each tag tells everything there is to know about a particular animal.
Like livestock, each mail piece is valuable to a mailing company, not just because of the collective cost savings it can bring through printing and postal automation discounts, but also because of data the barcodes can provide to the customer. For example, retailers use barcodes developed solely for commercial use to gather information about specific customers to craft future promotions that are customized just for them.
There are dozens of barcodes available today, both for commercial use and those mandated by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The latter include the well-known POSTNET and PLANET Code barcodes and the new Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB), which will be required for postal automation discounts starting in 2009. With so many barcodes available, a mailing company may have a customer request for a specific commercial barcode with which it has little to no experience or a custom barcode that requires a font creation tool.
Thus, preparing for the IMB may be the perfect opportunity for a mailing company to evaluate whether its inkjet printing systems are able to print both the IMB and other commercial barcodes at acceptable throughput speeds.
Before purchasing new printing equipment, mailing companies should review their customers' current and expected barcode requirements and formulate key questions for suppliers that will help determine what functionality is necessary. Those questions include:
What barcodes does the printing system's controller support? Mailing companies should verify that the IMB and the most requested commercial barcodes are pre-loaded onto a new printing system's controller. For example, the new Videojet BX6500 and 6600 Series of binary array printing systems from Videojet Technologies Inc. feature the Crescendo System Controller. This controller supports 18 barcodes, including IMB, PLANET Code and POSTNET, as well as commercial barcodes such as Data Matrix, Code 128, PDF417, Code 39, EAN 8, EAN 13, UPCa and UPCe.
Does the printing system include font creation capability, and how easy is it to create a custom barcode? The ability of a mailing company to incorporate a unique barcode used exclusively by an individual customer can weigh heavily in the negotiation process for a printing job. Thus, identifying whether a controller has font creation capability is important, but just as important is making sure that process is as seamless as possible. That's why it may be helpful for key decision makers to include affected personnel in a printer demonstration and ask the supplier to walk them through the code creation process, to make sure they are comfortable with the system. Also, they should make sure that a system can accept fonts downloaded from third-party vendors for custom codes. Keep in mind the IMB entered the industry less than two years ago.
What impact, if any, will the controller have on throughput? A new printing system should not negatively impact throughput speeds on a printing line. Thus, identifying the optimum throughput speeds needed for current and future projects is important information to know before a printing demonstration.
In 2006, mailing companies and commercial printers were introduced to the IMB, the next generation of USPS barcode technology to track letters and flats. In a single code, it combines the tracking capabilities of PLANET Code with the routing information offered by POSTNET.
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 ability to apply a nine-digit sequence number or a unique mailing identifier to printed pieces. Therefore, a mailing company can track whether mail pieces were delivered within their expected delivery range, helping improve quality control, particularly for time-sensitive material.
Though the IMB is not required for mailing automation discounts until 2009, mailing companies have the option of printing it today to receive additional tracking information from the USPS that can be leveraged as extra value to customers, thus setting a mailing company ahead of its competitors. For example, it can be valuable for customers to be able to track the progress of particular mail pieces throughout the mail stream to know when pieces in a given geographical area will be delivered. Alternatively, printing-line information could be included in a barcode in order to track any quality concerns about that barcode back to the line that produced it.
USPS-mandated barcodes like the IMB are only half of the equation for mailing companies. The other half is commercial barcodes that customers use to gather information about recipients of a direct mail piece. For example, a direct mail piece from a local retailer may have a PLANET Code, POSTNET or IMB barcode, as well as a linear or two-dimensional (2D) commercial barcode. The latter may contain information about what the recipient purchased in the past, when those purchases were made and what payment methods were used. If lured by the offer on the direct mail piece which was developed based on the information contained within the commercial barcode the recipient may visit the nearest outlet and redeem the offer. The information gathered by the retailer during that purchase is automatically fed back into a database, continuing the cycle.
Often, a company will have specific requirements for the type of commercial barcode it wants printed on mail pieces. For example, a new customer may require Code 128, which can support upper- and lower-case text, symbols and numbers. Another may require Data Matrix, a 2D code that can contain numbers, text and more sophisticated data such as small photos. Still another customer may request a custom code that requires a font-creating tool incorporated into a variable data printing system's controller.
Printing System Upgrade Considerations
Though the need to print dozens of commercial barcodes can be challenging, the ultimate role of a direct mail company or mailing fulfillment house is to provide the best services and solutions to its customers. To stay competitive, a mailing company should be able to print whatever a customer requests. At the same time, the USPS IMB mandate also demands attention, particularly as 2009 gets nearer. As a quick solution, it may be possible to acquire all the necessary barcodes through a third-party vendor and load them into a printing system, but the larger issue may be whether that's a satisfactory long-term approach.
An alternative option may be to upgrade printing systems. To that end, it's worthwhile for mailing companies to meet with a printing system supplier to discuss business objectives for today and the near future. Such a discussion may reveal that the current printing systems are adequate for a mailing company's current workload and customer demands, but it may also confirm that an upgrade is more appropriate.
Be Proactive Regarding Barcodes
Now is the time to be proactive in optimizing barcode printing capabilities. The ability of a direct mail company or mailing fulfillment house to meet customer requests as seamlessly as possible is what makes any business stand out in a competitive market. The utilization of the IMB and other commercial barcodes, including custom codes, can provide a wealth of information about customers and translate to increased sales, discounted postal rates and, ultimately, lead to more printing business from that satisfied company. But it takes time and preparation to start that evolutionary process. A mailing company that proactively investigates its ability to print the full gamut of barcodes, both USPS-mandated and commercial, is making an important first step.
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 Videojet online at www.videojet.com.