It's no secret that businesses of all sizes face a significant challenge in finding and keeping qualified staff, especially in specific sectors. A prime example is print/mail operations. As experienced employees age out of the workforce, businesses struggle to attract younger, tech-savvy replacements. So, what's the solution to this persistent problem? Automation could be one of the answers – especially if your operation has been slow to invest in some tools that have been available for quite some time.

Sometimes I forget that not everyone has upgraded their equipment and workflow. I just assume that print operations have done away with pre-printed forms and mailers are using file-based inserting and rely on cameras for quality control. Then I run into someone who tells me about their document workflow, and I realize their operation lacks some of the newer technology. Companies often rely on outdated document production methods because they work for them. The applications they run do not demand more robust production and quality control solutions.

The role of mail has changed, however, and print/mail service providers are working on projects that are more complex. The time-tested workflows of the past may not meet the needs of highly personalized and targeted content prevalent in many of today's mailing campaigns.

Just a smattering of automation applied at the right points can make a big difference to your business. If staffing is the problem you need to solve, you can improve productivity and efficiency in ways that allow you to eliminate some shifts or run equipment with fewer operators.

Let's look at a few things you can do.

Automation Ideas for Mail Insertion

The key to higher productivity in the mail inserting operation is to keep the equipment running as much as possible. Fortunately, you have lots of ways to accomplish this goal. The steps you take will differ depending on the documents you process, the equipment on your production floor, and other factors.

For this article, let's focus on things that will reduce manual intervention by taking tasks frequently performed by people and turning them over to an automated solution.

Quality Control

If your quality control (QC) processes rely on human operators, then look for ways to transfer those tasks to machines and software. Back in my service bureau days, we used batch totals to make sure every letter or statement got inserted. A report from the computer room told us how many envelopes should be filled and we used counters on the inserters to verify the work got finished as planned. The method was crude and had obvious flaws. It also caused us to stop the inserter at the end of each batch and reconcile. If the batch did not balance, we spent more time trying to document reasons (like jams) that caused the discrepancy. Sometimes, we examined finished mail pieces to locate a double-stuffed envelope, all while the inserting machine sat idle. We processed financial and legal documents. Sending two accounts in the same envelope was a major error we did our best to avoid.

No one should use those methods today to verify item integrity for high-value mail pieces. Now we have 2D barcodes and cameras that can, at the very least, sense when an item is missing or out of sequence. These camera systems shut down the equipment so operators can correct the errors quickly.

Another quality control process I have seen in many operations has to do with matching personalized inserts. On older equipment, matching inserts to letters relied solely on the sequence of the material. A missing or duplicated item would cause envelopes to have mixed materials. The remedy in some shops, still, is to stop the inserter at regular intervals and manually inspect the contents to be sure the materials are still in sync. Sometimes operators also slow down the inserter on these jobs to reduce jams that might occur at high speed.

A better solution is to mount cameras at the insert feeders and verify matching accuracy for every mail piece, instead of relying on spot checks that won't catch all the errors.

You can see how manual QC slows down the operation. By implementing automation, your shop can process more mail in the same amount of time, perhaps reducing the need for a second shift to complete the work. You may also do away with QC teams that manually search for inserting errors and end the reruns that are mandated when the QC people can't find the mistakes within a set time limit. Simultaneously, you add value by getting items into the mail sooner.

You can reduce production interruption episodes with cameras and software on the inserter. Most times, you can bolt on a solution that will work for you. You don't always need to invest in a new inserting platform to boost productivity in the inserting process.

Machine Set-Up

Time spent at the beginning of a job adjusting fold plates and insert feeders, unloading material from the last job, and loading new material happens when the machine is idle. In some operations, inserter operators are also responsible for fetching the envelopes and inserts from the warehouse. Regardless of the machine's top speed, you are inserting zero pieces per hour between jobs. The more times your operators complete these steps, the greater the impact on productivity.

Job change-overs are part of the business, but you may eliminate some of them, or shorten the idle time. Start by observing what happens at these critical times in the workday and look for solutions that can speed the process for every job.

Methods to Reduce Inserter Downtime

· Standardize on folding specifications and outbound envelope window placement.

· Replace paper-based job tickets with electronic versions.

· Use workflow software to track job progress and have materials pre-staged at the inserting lines.

· Upgrade to inserting equipment that automates the machine changeover adjustments.

· Use file-based inserting to control selective insert-feeding and stop splitting jobs based on inserts.

Automation Ideas for Print

Ideas for improving productivity and lessening the reliance on human operators in print operations follow many of the same themes that apply to inserting. Keep the printers running by eliminating or shortening the time spent on non-printing activities.

White Paper Workflow

Eliminate the warehousing and movement connected to pre-printed paper stock. Switching to full-color toner or inkjet print devices allows you to print the forms, letterheads, logos, and signatures as needed during print production. Stopping the printers to load and unload custom paper stock will no longer be necessary.

Besides the efficiencies connected with printing all jobs on the same, plain white paper stock, a white paper workflow also allows you to combine small jobs. Take advantage of uninterrupted high-speed printing by changing the digital form overlays dynamically and reduce the starts and stops that normally happen between print jobs.

Intelligent Job Management

Move away from manually allocating work to print devices or remote sites. Use workflow software to provide managers with real-time information about work in progress, future scheduled work, and progress towards deadlines. These systems may also be helpful in automating reprints–still a manual and disruptive process in many companies.

Print/mail workflow systems may also track each mail piece individually. Operations managers can easily determine the status of any job or document by referring to the digital dashboard. No longer will it be necessary to walk the floor to assess the status of work in the shop.

Automation and Staffing

Finding qualified people to work in the print and mail industry is difficult. Automating as much of the process as possible can allow you to operate efficiently with a smaller staff. Qualified employees manning the machines is still important, but automation may allow you to absorb a staff reduction caused by retirement or competitor head-hunting without immediately hiring hard-to-find replacements.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants creates content that helps attract and retain customers for companies in the document industry and he assists companies as they integrate new technology. Learn more about his services at Follow @PMCmike on X, or send him a connection request on LinkedIn.