When I was at the Graph Expo this fall, I was amazed with the amount of booths selling envelope printers. I am the self-proclaimed King of Barcoding' (responsible for over 5000 companies barcoding their mailing during my 18 years in this industry) and felt it was duty to make it easy for customers to decide on the best system for their application. This simple guide will let you know how to compare units to find the printer that is perfect for your needs.

Production vs. Desktop - This should be an easy one for most companies. Production systems are typically found in mail houses and in-plant mail operations (Such as print services at a major University). Production units can interface with other equipment like tabbers and inserters where desktop printers are typically stand alone.

Printer Type - Not all envelope printers work the same ways. There are a few different types of print mechanisms and each has their own benefits:
1. Fixed Head Printers - These have one or multiple print heads that stay in the same position. The envelope travels under the heads to print. This is great for high speed applications. The limiting factor can be printing multiple items on the envelope in one pass. If you want to do a return address, permit, destination address and message line, it could require multiple passes through the printer.
2. Shuttle Head Printers - These units have one or two print heads that can move back and forth across the envelope to be able to print anywhere in one pass. These are great for smaller runs (Less than 10,000 pieces) because they are typically easier to set up and manage.
3. Hybrid Printers - This is not the official name for these units, but I feel it is the best way to describe them. They are laser printers or copiers that have been modified to be great at printing envelopes. Two popular companies that you will see a lot are Xante and Riso. The best part of these units is they can do things the typical envelope printer cannot. This includes duplex printing, higher resolution graphics and document printing.

Maximum Monthly Volume - All printers have ratings in them that are typically very generous and most customers will not exceed. It is important to look at this as a comparison tool when evaluating devices because it will show you if models are on an equal level between vendors.

Quality (DPI) -
This has become a more important issue with the improvements in quality. The standard Ink Jet Printers can print up to 600X600DPI but some of the newer models are going up to 1200! Higher quality is very important if you want to print return addresses, logos, message lines, QR codes and graphics. Most customers have their envelopes ordered from a printer and then only add a destination address. If this is the case, all units should work fine. If you want to be able to print the entire envelope on blank stock, place close attention to the quality and get samples from the vendors to make sure it meets your needs.

Speed -
I have timed many a mailing to know that most printers will not run at their rated speed and you should use this only as a comparison between models. This is because when the speeds are set by the manufacturer, they are using the lowest quality print settings with the fewest lines being printed. Also, when you are running mail in the real world, you need to stop to reload and clear your catcher tray. As a rule of thumb, cut the manufacturers speed in half and that will give you a good benchmark on what you can expect. The biggest issue on speed comes with Shuttle Head printers. If you are printing multiple items (Return address, Permit, Message Line, Graphic) it can cut the speed dramatically.

Thickness -
Most of the time this is not an issue because envelopes will run best when they are unstuffed. The entry level printers will all handle at least 1/16th of an inch which is fine for unstuffed items. The issue comes when you want to print items that have already been inserted or thicker catalogs and self mailers. Pay attention to the maximum thickness to make sure it will meet your needs.

Color -
This has become an increasingly popular option, but it needs to be used in the right ways. From my experience, most people only print the destination address on these printers, which have to be in black. It is fun to see all of the cool things that can be printed when you are in the demo room or looking at samples, but think if it will get used. Color is mainly for message lines, graphics and return addresses. It can be great to get people's attention and get your envelope opened, but make sure it will get used to justify the increased expense.

Network Compatible -
This is important if several people are going to be sharing the printer. It is important to note that these printers do not work like the office network copier. You will need to load your own stock ahead of time and make sure other jobs are not in the queue. Also, because of the speed of these printers, someone should be standing by the unit to load and unload as well as clear any jams or stalls.

Envelope Layout Utility - This can often get overlooked because the focus is being spent on the hardware, but this is the one of the most important items of any system. How easy is it to set up and move around print items on the screen? Also, how does it interface with your postal automation software?

Glossy Stock - If you run a lot of glossy stock, you need to pay close attention to the printer and ink that is used. Ink has a hard time adhering and drying onto glossy paper. Tricks that work are slowing down print, using special ink formulas that dry faster and having a stacker and dryer at the end of the unit. In the production space, there are many technologies that can do this effectively. Laser devices also work well.

Options - There are a few options that you will need to consider when configuring an envelope printer.
· Feeders - This is typically only an option on production and high volume systems. These feeders allow for more pieces to be loaded at once and will have better separation technology.
· Stackers - If you are doing any sort of volume, it is a great idea to add a stacker to the end of the unit. Most desktop systems will come with a catch tray that will only be able to hold about 50 envelopes. You will need to empty it multiple times per minute to keep up with the printer speed. Most customers will add a conveyer stacker to the end of the unit that can catch hundreds or thousands of pieces prior to emptying. On production equipment, these stackers can be designed to push out an envelope an inch at the beginning of the tray break, making it easy for the operator. It is important that you account for the extra space with the stacker to make sure it will fit in your environment.
· Dryers - This should be a necessity. It is typically built onto the stacker and will blow hot air on the piece giving allowing it to dry prior to being pushed into the stack.
· Bulk Ink System - Some production and high volume ink jet systems have the option to buy ink in bulk vs. expensive cartridges. These systems will pay for themselves if you are doing large volumes and should be considered.

When you break down all of the items above, it really comes down to what you are going to be printing when deciding on the best unit. The good news is that the technology has improved over the past few years to be able to print more than just the address, in higher quality and at faster speeds. I hope this guide is helpful and makes your buying decisions easier.

Adam Lewenberg, CMDSS is President of Postal Advocate Inc. with over 18 years of experience in the mail industry. Their mission is to help companies reduce mail related expense and streamline operations. He can be reached at (617)372-8653 or adam.lewenberg@postaladvocate.com.