A year ago, MERLIN brought to mind the medieval tale of Merlin the Magician wizards, King Arthur and Camelot. Since September 17, 2001, when the U.S. Postal Service's MERLIN arrived at my company, the images are different! Barcode Error Codes, bars per inch and terms like encoder, pitch and rotation loom large and make me wish for my own wizard's wand to navigate through the Postal Service's land of MERLIN.
So why am I writing to my fellow mailers about MERLIN? To help you avoid the MERLIN "pain" I encountered which included being placed on blood pressure medicine (that happened two other times to me involving the death of my father, and divorce). Good news is that I'm off the meds, and MERLIN and I share a much better understanding of mail verification.
I've focused on learning, training and customer awareness this past year. I was "live" with presort verification when my MERLIN was installed, and my barcode penalty for letters was not "active" until March 11, 2002. So I had the pleasure of six months to come to this understanding that I'd like to share with you.
When you process approximately 650 million pieces of mail a year and don't hear any negative feedback from the Postal Service, you can imagine the frustration when MERLIN indicated we were not following DMM specs and were not eligible for the postage rates we were claiming. While MERLIN settings are somewhat relaxed from the DMM, barcode placement is exact. Driving on an interstate highway, your lanes are somewhat larger than the size of your vehicle - you have a little "wiggle room" to avoid accidents. MERLIN does not allow ANY wiggle room for barcode placement so you must work with the mailpiece designers, envelope manufacturers and mail owners so you can still achieve the automation rates for them when MERLIN's "looking." For example, the multi-million-piece inserting job that came to us already imaged. The pieces looked great! The barcode was in the correct location, with the proper clearances around the barcode. When I took some samples to test on the MERLIN in our Postal Service · District, MERLIN said, "ZERO" for barcode read rate. The tall bars were too tall. Just looking at a barcode with your naked eye won't be a good test anymore.
Or, how about a standard No.10 window envelope, with a five- or six-line address. That will fail because part of the window is within the 5/8 inch area on the bottom of the piece where NO part of an address or barcode can be placed. And what type of envelope do customers most often order? You need to get the window position moved up and make it larger.
How about a postcard-sized piece we addressed with the rightmost bar of the barcode exactly half an inch from the right side of the piece? When placed on the automation template, a bar that falls on the line is a failure! I guess "on the line" only applies to horseshoes and hand grenades! Remember, no wiggle room.
When you look at postcard-sized pieces, some flats and self-mailers, often times there's not a lot of room to print the address and barcode with the proper clearances. I'd recommend working toward at least a two-inch by four-inch clear address area that's at least half an inch from the right side and 5/8 inches up for a letter-sized piece, and at least 1/8 of an inch away from any edge on a flat.
I thank my Postal Service Mail Piece Design Analyst and the other Postal Service folks in my district and area who assisted me during the initial start up. What also helped was being a member of the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC) and working with the MERLIN Technical Advisory Group. Bob O'Brien of Time Customer Service, Inc. and Michele Denny with the Postal Service co-chaired this group when it was formed as full MTAC Workgroup. That Workgroup developed 20 recommendations to improve the MERLIN implementation process. You can review the recommendations, along with a great deal of information that relates to MERLIN at www.usps.com/merlin.
I served as the industry co-chair, and Scott Hamel was the postal co-chair for The Mailer Barcode Quality Industry Best Practices MTAC Workgroup. This group was recommended as part of the original MTAC effort to develop industry best practices to improve the barcode quality for both letters and flats and identify value-added reports for diagnostics of mailer quality. The workgroup, comprised of members from 26 companies, first met in May and was sunset in November.
Many of the suggested improvements to the MERLIN reports were incorporated into the July release of the MERLIN software, (2.04); others were scheduled for December 2002, while the remainder, currently identified, will be in the March 2003 software. You may have read the initial efforts of this group in the September issue of Mailer's Companion. It contained a much improved and updated Barcode Error Reference Guide, Industry Best Practices (that will include some guidance from three inkjet manufacturers), and A Mailer's Guide to MERLIN. These documents will also be available on the Postal Service MERLIN Web site. As a result of feedback from the members of this workgroup, the current automation template for letters, Notice 67, is going to be redesigned, and there will be a new automation template for flats.
In summary, be aware of mailpiece design requirements. Let your customers know what MERLIN is and when it will be used in your area to verify mail during the Postal Service acceptance process. Prepare a disclaimer to use with your quoting and job acknowledgement process. If you receive material that you feel could be questionable in obtaining an automation discount, contact your Postal Service Mailpiece Design Analyst or test them. Ask for knockout areas located in the proper location on mailpieces and get the windows on the envelopes in the correct location and make them larger. Be concerned about glossy stock or coating that may make it difficult for the pieces to dry. Let your customers know prior to production if there are concerns. Conduct MERLIN training sessions for your customers to review these issues.
Train your salespeople, customer service representatives, management, IT/data processing personnel, machine setup and operators. Make sure your operators know when to stop production! Are they keeping their hands off the address and barcode areas of newly inkjet-addressed pieces as they remove them from the line? Do your IT and data processing people know about the required 1/25-inch clearance above and below the barcode, as well as the 1/8 inch from each edge and other print? How about the color of the stock and background used in the mailing to inkjet or laser address? Prepare and monitor a "MERLIN process" to use the reports and information you are compiling thru the MERLIN tests. (Even through MERLIN may not be in your area, you can send samples to be tested now.)
Wanda Senne is the manager of Postal Affairs for ACE Marketing Services, A World Marketing Company She has presented at many National Postal Forums, for MFSA and PCC events. You can reach her at email@example.com or 770-590-8432. For more information on the MFSA, visit www.mfsanet.org.