Dec. 29 2006 12:21 PM

In less than a decade, print stream engineering software has become an essential tool in virtually every high-volume print/mail finishing operation. Yet despite its wide acceptance, the software tool remains sorely underutilized.


Most customer messaging shops have barely scratched the surface of its vast capabilities. In fact, many seem content to use it for just one or perhaps two fairly routine applications. Knowledgeable industry observers report that "the overwhelming majority of print stream engineering users exploit less than 20% of its capabilities."


Versatile Yet Underutilized

How can a technology that is used so widely and valued so highly be so poorly understood? The answer hinges on the way the software tool has evolved in response to new demands along with the traditional "silo" mentality that impedes information sharing in many large organizations.


For many users, a print stream engineering tool is a single point solution. Once they implement the tool to solve a specific problem, they overlook its other functionality and the enhancements added over time as they focus on other work priorities. Plus, the tool's capabilities often cut across both functional areas and lines of businesses. So if managers don't share information, then the potential rewards that come from using the tool for other tasks and projects will be limited as well.


The key benefits of print stream engineering center on investment protection and improved efficiency and effectiveness. Companies use the tool to manipulate data and documents in the print stream to avoid the cost and delay involved in rewriting business applications at the mainframe or midrange platforms. As a result, firms can extend the useful life of legacy applications, initiate process improvements and easily customize the output from third-party software products.


Today, scores of business and government organizations use a print stream engineering tool to:


1)  Assure mailpiece integrity

2) Enable intelligent inserting by adding or changing fin-

 ishing control barcodes

3) Maximize the effectiveness of software used for address  

 cleansing and presorting

4) Consolidate multiple documents into one envelope that

 are intended for the same recipient

5) Customize documents and mailings for highly personalized  

 messaging and one-to-one target marketing

6) Facilitate the migration from one-up simplex to multiple-up

 duplex printing

7) Separate customer messages for distribution via a mix

 of electronic and paper-based channels, including the 

 Internet, handheld devices and call centers


But the technology wasn't always so robust and is part of the reason the tool isn't more fully utilized today. Users just haven't kept up with the innovations and added functionality. For example, our tool was created in the mid-90s to parse print streams, such as the fully composed AFP from IBM, for just a single customer. Before, companies with legacy business applications used programming languages, such as COBOL    and Assembler, to perform the document composition duties. Or they used tools or engines such as the Document Composition Facility from IBM. But these required highly skilled personnel and were labor intensive, which meant that it was both costly and time consuming to alter or update the legacy applications.


However, organizations re-engineered the IT function in the mid-90s and shifted away from more complex programming languages that required higher skills in favor of newer ones such as Visual Basic and C++. As a result, a gap emerged between the skill levels of the newer programmers and the requirements of the existing legacy applications.

Easy Programming


These organizations soon discovered that print stream engineering tools, which are in essence a simple programming language, were easier to code than COBOL or Assembler. So the tool soon grew in popularity among IT professionals as a quick and inexpensive way to make last-minute changes to print streams and the resulting customer messages.


When first developed, the tool was geared more toward processing line data, such as ASCII text or records-based information, also known as print image data. Later enhancements enabled the tool to parse page description languages such as IBM's AFP or Xerox's MetaCode, which allowed users to separate embedded formatting controls that are specific to output devices and make last-minute changes on those controls. For example, users could now alter the commands that tell a printer to draw a rule, shade a box or call in a graphic. This allowed easy updating or revising of a company logo, for example, without the need to alter the legacy business application.


While printers improved, the tool also emerged as an easy way for high-volume mailers to take advantage of the wider (11-inch by 17-inch or 11-inch by 30-inch) print path or duplexing capabilities to achieve two-up

or two-sided printing again, without the need to alter the legacy business application.


Other recent enhancements broadened the tool's print-related functionality, such as support for PCL PostScript and highlight color, while new features such as the capability to insert control and PostNet barcodes enabled users to bolster mailpiece integrity and speed delivery.


Easy Application Development

More recently, the launch of a visual engineering development tool set lowered the needed skill levels even more by giving users an easier and faster way to perform print stream analysis as well as application development and testing. Thanks to these innovations, print stream engineering tools are now being used to aid a myriad of tasks, including these high-value activities:

  • Encrypting data to provide an extra level of

    security for customer or financial or medical data that is transmitted to a service bureau or outsourcer for processing.

  • Reporting on job status by sending automated messages via e-mail to either internal or external clients on the various aspects of production, including factors such as the total number processed, number of pieces marred and regenerated, ZIP Code distribution and time completed.

  • Generating postal tray tags automatically

    to help speed processing by capturing and utilizing existing information about the print stream.

  • Converting currencies in real-time by retrieving up-to-the-minute exchange rates at the time of processing (or other specified time) for inclusion in customer documents.

  • Deploying content-rich 2-D barcodes and symbols for both better integrity and more discreet (i.e., less visually obtrusive) control.

  • Analyzing work performance by capturing data about environmental conditions (i.e., temperature and humidity), along with performance data related to equipment, operators, materials and applications.

  • Facilitating charge-back accounting or client billing by automatically capturing key details about a job.


    The key question users need to ask themselves is, "What else can be done at the last minute?" Once the need is identified, the print stream engineering tool can be used to accomplish it.


    John Lynch develops and integrates customer messaging software solutions. For additional information, please contact John via e-mail at

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