When we talk to our customers about streamlining their production processes and improving the overall quality of the mail, we get on the topic of postal manifesting and the conversation usually goes something like this:

    Zen: Have you considered postal manifesting?

    Customer: Yeah, but we decided against it. We'll do CASS and PAVE, but manifesting is too much work. Our postage meters work just fine.

    Zen: That all depends on how you do it and what you're looking to get out of it. Can we talk about it a little more?

    Customer: We can talk about it, but we're not gonna do it because there aren't any discounts for manifesting like there are for address hygiene and presort. It's just not worth the trouble!

    When the U.S. Postal Service first offered a manifest mailing option in the 1980s, it was slow to gain acceptance for one simple reason: Unlike other workshare programs like postal address hygiene or presorting, there are no discounts involved. The old adage that compensation drives behavior is true, and while companies have gladly invested in software and hardware to improve address quality and presort outgoing mail, there just doesn't seem to be a clear and compelling reason for most mailers to think twice about postal manifesting.

    Unless, that is, you're focused inward on the quality of mail you generate in your shop and are looking to eliminate production bottlenecks as vendors role out the latest generation of high-speed inserters. With today's privacy and accounting regulations like HIPPA and Sarbanes-Oxley, it's increasingly important for mailers to be able to account for every mailpiece, and with the fastest inserters operating at speeds in excess of 22,000 cycles per hour, traditional postage meter options are more limited than ever before. And that's why we ask our customers the question: Have you really considered postal manifesting?

    A Quick Overview of Postal Manifesting

    A manifest mailing system is an automated, computer-supported system that allows a mailer to document postage and fees for all pieces in a mailing paid via permit imprint. Each piece in a manifest mailing is labeled with a unique identification number, and a manifest is prepared that lists each piece by ID number and shows the amount of postage claimed for that piece. The pieces may be identical or non-identical in weight, and more than one class of mail may be reported on a manifest. The mailer submits the mail, a manifest and a postage statement along with the mailing, and the manifest is randomly checked for accuracy. If all is in order, the total postage amount shown on the manifest is deducted from an advance deposit account held by the mailer, and the mail is accepted by the USPS for dispatch.

    Easy to Say, Harder to Do

    The traditional argument against manifesting, aside from the lack of postal discounts, is that the manifest must accurately describe and represent the mail that has been submitted for acceptance. If you say that there is a piece of mail with a particular serial number and a particular rate in a particular tray, it better be there when the USPS acceptance clerk checks for that piece. In the past, postage meters allowed an automated mailer to print and insert statements and apply postage in real time, typically with one or more postage meters in-line with the inserter. The inserter doesn't care how many pieces are actually processed; it's just going to run until it's out of paper. And the postage meter, typically operating under control of the inserter, doesn't care how many pieces it meters, it just knows that it's getting a "fire meter one" or "fire meter two" signal from the inserter and does what it's told.

    The practical benefit of this is that as pieces drop out in production, you only meter those items that exit the inserter, and postage fees are calculated based on the ascending and descending registers on the meter heads themselves. This is a relatively painless way to apply postage, and limitations of current meter technology aside, meets the needs of most mailers. By comparison, a manifest mailing is more complicated: to prepare a manifest, the mailer must be able to describe the rate, weight and location of each item in the mailing as well as apply a keyline, and that's not always easy to do, particularly when pieces drop out in production due to jams or late pulls from the production stream.

    And that, in our experience, is the real reason more mailers don't take advantage of the postal manifesting option it can require a lot of work for the mailer. The good news, though, is that there is an even bigger reward to those who implement a postal manifesting system it's all about quality and productivity.

    Manifesting as a Quality Process

    In our last article, we talked about "Predictive Inserting," where an inserter is driven by data in a database as opposed to marks on the page. Document production is increasingly process based, and integrity and workflow systems are built in, not bolted on, to document production devices. Our customers increasingly look to us to drive finishing equipment with mailpiece-level instructions from a database for two key reasons. This approach combines total production control with the flexibility to uniquely finish each mailpiece. Each mailpiece is finished according to a unique set of instructions generated as the document is composed, and rich data on jobs, operators, mailpieces and even media such as forms, envelopes and inserts is gathered during production.

    And as it happens, this is a perfect environment in whichto implement a postal manifesting solution. As the needto document the disposition of each mailpiece increases, forward-thinking mailers will leverage postal technology to improve quality, and manifest mailing is a critical step in integrating postage management, quality validation and delivery confirmation into a cohesive process. It's not about the discounts; however, it's about the process and even more importantly, the absolute level of quality that is achievable when manifesting is tightly integrated within a predictive inserting environment.

    How Does Manifesting Work in a Predictive Inserting Environment?

    In order to implement manifesting in a predictive inserting environment, the mailer must continue to build on the tight integration between data, software and hardware required in a process-driven automated document factory. The key incremental change is that the customer must understand the weight and thickness of each mailpiece, and this information must be passed to the presort program used to generate the mailing. Additionally, the presort program must be configured for a tray-based sort, rather than the more traditional package-based sort. The two changes are critical; weight and thickness data is passed to the presort program, tray-based presort is utilized to assign mailpieces into trays within mailing before production, and manifest keyline data as well as a "to be" manifest detail report is generated.

    At this point, the user has two options regarding how the manifest keyline information can be applied to the mailpiece. The preferred option is to pass keyline data back to the individual mailpiece prior to print; although this sounds daunting, tools like StreamWeaver and Transformer make this a relatively painless process. Alternately, the manifest keyline data can be directed to the inserter via a control file, and the keyline data can be printed on the outside of the envelope at time of inserting, utilizing an inkjet printer. In addition to the basic data required by the USPS for processing mail under a manifest, user data such as mail date, inserter, cycle, production environment, etc., can be appended to the keyline.

    As a quick review, in a predictive inserting environment, machine control data is passed to one or more networked inserters via a control file, and the machine control barcode, which traditionally contained processing instructions, simply becomes a pointer to the data that describes the processing instructions for each mailpiece. When manifest mailing is used in such an environment, keyline, presort and tray-level data is passed to the inserter network along with basic machine-control data.

    Once production commences on one or more inserters, a record of completion is generated for each mailpiece that successfully exits the inserter. In a manifest mailing environment, anytime a piece is damaged, it is noted as an exception to the original manifest. Depending on the software/hardware vendor you've chosen, you may have the option to combine two or more manifest mailings on a single postage report or end a manifest at any time. However, in every case, you have the ability to re-calculate the manifest based on actual production to true-up the manifest and postage reports generated before the first piece of mail was produced. In this way, you've gained total control of your mail and have created an auditable system of providing evidence of postage for both internal and external stakeholders. In fact, one insurance company that we've worked with uses such a system to enable it to absolutely trace a piece of mail from its mainframe to acceptance by the USPS whenever a customer disputes receipt of something like a policy cancellation notice.

    But Wait, There's More...

    In addition to the benefits we've described, there are several possible, hidden improvements, again, depending on the hardware and software vendors you've chosen to work with. Some vendors allow the mailer to pass manifest and presort information to individual inserters through the control file to drive a tray labeling system that produces custom labels, in real time, as each tray is completed. Additionally, major inserter vendors offer on-edge stacker/trayer units that can be controlled by the presort results to make complete "trays" of mail at the exit of the inserter.

    This approach enables rapid verification of the manifest mailing, and it also closes the loop one more time each mailpiece is sorted into a tray, the beginning and ending sequence number is known for each tray, and the inserter simply follows instructions. Decision making for the operator is greatly simplified. The operator and inserter are following a predetermined plan, and any exceptions are automatically noted and reconciled.

    As you've no doubt concluded, manifest mailing in a predictive inserting environment can be hard work to implement and requires a different mindset at run-time. However, if you're concerned about creating a high-integrity, highly auditable production environment, manifest mailing may be just the right approach for your shop. The discipline required to implement a manifest mail system drives quality processes throughout the entire document production environment, with the added benefit of eliminating cost and potential production bottlenecks inherent with postage meters on today's fastest inserters not to mention all of that messy red ink! Additionally, postage accounting is greatly simplified, especially if you run in an environment with multiple postal accounts or regions and must carefully track postage across multiple inserters.

    Manifest mailing isn't for everyone, but in our experience, the only absolute way to measure the quality of your work is to know exactly what you were supposed to do and then verify that you've actually done it. When predictive inserting is combined with manifest mailing, you'll gain total control over your mail, and you'll be rewarded with a level of quality, accuracy and consistency in daily production that more than offsets the initial start-up effort. What's more, you'll be well positioned to take advantage of emerging postal technologies... but that's a subject for another article!

    Peter Somu is principle and Jeff Sutton is consulting partner with Zen Systems, which has years of experience working with industry leaders. Contact the authors at contactus@zensys.com or by phone at 504-288-6202 or 908-369-0225.