Aug. 11 2011 02:06 PM

After visiting with industry vendors and analysts at some of the trade conferences this spring I'm encouraged. Despite the financial constraints imposed by the economy the last couple of years, companies who provide products and services for the document industry have continued to develop new offerings and bring them to market. They are exhibiting at the conferences and showing off their hard work.

I've been especially impressed with products that allow document operations to implement automated document factory (ADF) functionality. There are many choices available today that allow an organization to choose the portions of their workflow where additional automation, tracking and control make the most sense for them. It is no longer necessary to buy a package that does more than you need. This makes it a lot easier to attain a reasonable return on investment. And todays ADF systems are easily expandable as requirements change.

Drivers for ADF Investments
Companies will invest in ADF technology for a variety of reasons. Two of the most common are the desire to track individual mail pieces through the production process, as well as automating reprints. Of course there are numerous other benefits as well (see sidebar).

Organizations are realizing that the batch balancing methods of the past are no longer adequate. Print and mail service providers and in-house operations alike are finding that their customers expect them to be able to report on the disposition of individual pieces of mail, not just statistics compiled at the job level.

For financial and health applications, the benefit of additional integrity enabled by piece-level tracking is an obvious necessity. But other applications such as direct mail advertising are becoming much more personalized and targeted. And physical direct mail pieces are frequently integrated with campaign elements delivered via additional communication channels. These trends are now driving more organizations to consider adding ADF functionality to their workflows to make sure these highly targeted messages reach the correct recipients at the expected time. ADF isn't just for bank statements and checks anymore.

Reprints have been difficult and expensive since the early days of data processing. Even today there are plenty of organizations that maintain reprint procedures that are mostly manual and extremely time-consuming. In fact, very few of my clients have truly automated reprint capabilities. There are usually some manual steps and they often lack reconciliation processes. The ability to positively verify when a specific damaged document was reprinted and then mailed is a challenge. It is no wonder that reprint automation is high on the list of improvements companies seek to achieve with ADF systems.

None of the organizations I visit have integrated every single step in their document production workflow. Instead, companies today apply ADF technology to those portions of the workflow where they need it the most. They may be tracking folded mail but not flats. Or they may be monitoring printers on a job level, but inserters at the piece level. Manual operations may or may not be included in the automation strategy. Finishing steps such as bindery are frequently uncontrolled, but in some shops, control and quality in bindery are considered mandatory.

ADF for Everyone
Choosing the best parts of the workflow to apply ADF hardware and software may depend on the equipment in the shop, the types of documents being processed, the level of personalization, your exposure to risk, the budget and many other factors. A careful analysis of your objectives and your workflow is necessary. Only then should you start looking at the solutions now available to nearly any document operation.

With the integration capabilities and hardware agnostic aspects of some solutions, organizations can implement selected features of ADF without replacing their printer or inserter fleet. Organizations no longer have to settle for having only part of their shop reporting into the ADF databases. A gradual implementation, without large capital expense, is entirely possible today, and highly recommended.

Mail Piece Tracking
Automated Reprints
Production Statistics
Automated Reconciliation
Performance Monitoring
Hardware Integration
Workflow Automation
SLA Monitoring
Automated Production Alerts
Improved Visibility for Customer Service
Legal/Regulatory Compliance
Customer Job-Status Inquiries
Error Reduction
Workload Balancing
Penalty/Fine Avoidance
Enhanced Document Personalization
Extended Equipment Life
New Business Opportunities

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants; a consulting firm that helps companies get the most out of their document operations. He welcomes your comments and questions. Visit or email Mike directly at