Simpler and less expensive systems are being developed for service bureaus that mail large volumes of documents. Most major manufacturers of mailing systems for this market offer systems with significantly higher levels of complexity. The same capabilities can be offered for a lower total cost of ownership by using an image-based integrated code reader with lighting, positioning and software in one package.

High volume mailing challenges

High volume mailing systems are primarily used by service bureaus that print and mail statements and invoices for mortgage servicers, credit card companies and other high volume mailers. One of the greatest challenges of designing these machines arises from the fact that statements and invoices can often have several pages. Therefore, it becomes important to ensure that each customer gets the correct number of the pages for his or her statement. In some cases, sending a statement page to the wrong customer can lead to a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), which protects the privacy of healthcare information.

Mailing systems meet this challenge by reading a code on every page that provides a unique identifier for each statement or invoice. In the past, this was typically an OMR or 1-D barcode but today most mailers are using a 2-D code because they can store more information in a smaller space. The codes are read just before folding the documents and inserting them into an envelope; this makes it possible to ensure the integrity of each statement or invoice. Often the barcode is read again through the glassine window of the envelope to provide a final check that the document has been completed and mailed.

The established companies in this market make systems that can sell for up to $1,000,000. One of the reasons for the high cost of these machines is that most of them use a vision system consisting of a high-speed camera, an image processing card and image processing software running on a personal computer. These modular machine vision systems are relatively expensive and also involve the expense of integrating components during the design process. Finally, there is the responsibility of maintaining these machine vision systems, such as replacing components that have failed and installing software upgrades, which is a burden for the service bureau that operates the system.

Simpler and less expensive approach

The market is looking for a high volume mailing solution that is simpler and less expensive to purchase and operate. New entrants to the market have developed feeder/folders that are fully integrated with reliable intelligent inserters. One typical system handles 24,000 documents per hour ranging from 8.5" x 11" to 8.5" x 14" and 10,000 envelopes per hour. Another system handles 40,000 documents per hour ranging from 8.5" x 11" to 8.5" x 14" and 11,000 envelopes per hour.

The inserter solutions feature a simple design and user-friendly software. This makes them more durable, dependable and easier to operate and service than the leading cutting-edge systems. Output verification solutions read and report each document as it is processed, providing correct sequence assurance and producing a full audit trail confirming each envelope's completion.

These solutions were designed from the very beginning to take advantage of the new generation of barcode readers that provide a camera, image processing hardware and software within a protective enclosure. The integrated approach is considerably less expensive than buying and integrating the components required for the traditional method. The integrated readers are also simpler to operate and maintain.

New reader makes a difference

One of the leading integrated barcode readers was successfully used in the first few products. This changed, however; as mailings became more complicated, the previous reader was unable to meet the requirements for many of its applications. The manufacturer of the mailing systems switched to a new generation of image-based ID readers because these systems are faster, more configurable and the manufacturer of the ID readers offers a higher level of service.

The new design uses an encoder to track the paper's leading edge position. The encoder communicates with a programmable logic controller (PLC). The PLC fires a digital trigger output to the reader when the reader is positioned over the code. Servo motors that can achieve top speed in milliseconds are used to drive the rollers that move the paper through the machine. The paper speed can exceed 150 inches per second. As a result, each page passes through the machine between 50 and 75 milliseconds. Within that time period the image-based readers need to read the code and send it to the PLC. Despite its low cost, the new ID reader can capture and decode a 2-D Data Matrix code in under 15 milliseconds and transfer it to the PLC in 10-15 milliseconds.

There is no standard in mailing in the United States; consequently the mailing system manufacturer frequently runs into applications that stretch the limits of its code readers. There are laws as to when mail needs to be sent so it often faces tough time constraints. The company now has over 100 systems in the field using image-based code readers. The code reading manufacturer provides high quality support on a very timely basis.

Migrating to the next level

The mailing systems company is planning to migrate to a new image-based code reader that will provide substantially higher speeds than its current products. This system is the first ID reader to be powered by a proprietary vision chip. The chip enables the reader to offer unprecedented speeds on 1-D barcode reading with up to 90 decodes per second and ultra-fast image acquisition with auto-exposure up to 1,000 frames per second. The new reader decodes at twice the speed of other readers and is easy to use; it does not even have to be optimally positioned to achieve high read rates. Trigger-free reading and ultra-high frame rates make it easy to set up new applications. It also offers flexible lens options and field-interchangeable lighting; this provides a greater depth of field than other image-based barcode readers.

A simple design and user-friendly software makes the new generation of mailing systems easier to operate and service than other leading systems. These technologies can integrate with existing inserting equipment while delivering high productivity with less expensive and faster feeding modules, reducing cost per piece. Image-based readers play an important role in delivering these benefits. Their configurability makes it easy to handle a wide range of mailing applications. The reader is an industrial platform designed for ease of use and troubleshooting, which means that problems rarely arise. When they do, mailers can usually fix the problem themselves; the code reader manufacturer also provides a high level of support, making it possible to configure the machine to handle virtually any application.

About the author: Kasey Tipping is an ID product marketing specialist at Cognex; she is responsible for the factory automation fixed mount line. She has been involved in factory automation, particularly machine vision and identification products, since 2011. She has held positions in both marketing and technical support and holds a B.S. degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Rhode Island.

For more information, contact Cognex, One Vision Drive, Natick, MA 01760-2059 USA. Tel (Toll Free): 1-877-COGNEX1 (1-877-264-6391), Fax: +1 508 650-3344, Email: or visit