Let's analyze the IMb and see how it will contribute both to the USPS' vital automation object, but also a quick start up of a private sector alternative distribution network.

It will be interesting to see if the modest postal discount, i.e., 0.3¢ for first class and 0.1¢ for standard mail, is economic incentive enough to entice the mainstream mailing service providers to invest in IMb proficiency. The current economy at the very least is eliminating much corporate "investment" perceived to be of "longer term" benefit. Keep in mind that mail owners will be pressing to have this modest discount passed along to them while mail service providers are the ones incurring the IT expense. Since the discount will be debited to the permit account owner, the MSPs don't have much incentive at all, particularly if enough competitor MSPs likewise choose not to anti-up the IT investment.

Let's get back to basics. The Intelligent Mail Barcode replaces all previous five barcodes, many with their own objective. This IMb 31-digit barcode in five fields has the combined objective of sorting, tracking, and address correction (feedback to mailer) in one barcode. Initially offered as a "basic" version with no discounts. The "full service" IMb version carries the discounts and the added benefit of enhanced "eDoc" of electronic communications with the USPS.

These Internet communications allow the cash management efficiencies of funds transfer and to make appointments for mail induction into the postal system. Presumably these appointments will prevent the MSPs trucks from waiting in line to be processed. A flashback to the analogy of dental and family physician appointments is inevitable. Presented to customers as a means to minimize their waiting room time, they ultimately maximize the service providers' productivity. Hopefully in this instance it will prove to be mutually beneficial.

This two-way "eDoc" communications has three design features. It includes the Confirm service, which has been available for a decade and has proven to allow retailers to better manage their call centers saving labor expense and hopefully improving their own perceived customer service. Confirm will continue to be an extra expense.

"eDoc" will facilitate the automated address correction feedback to the mailer to update their mailing lists. Under "basic" IMb there is a charge for this address correction service (ACS) while ACS is "free" to "full service" IMb. It's free, but the mailer has 30-days to incorporate these changes in subsequent mailings or they lose various portions of their "IMb efficiency" discounts. Another carrot with a cat-o'-nine-tails on the end

Finally eDoc allows MSPs the transparency of observing the operational efficiencies of the various USPS supply chain touch points. There have always been the accusations by some MSPs, perhaps on behalf of the largest mailers, of unnecessary or certainly unexplained kinks-in-the-hose of mail delivery. So now blame will be more easily placed which will lead to quicker correction?

The two-way communications feature will create a storage and transmission burden on these computer systems involved due to the present size of the mail.dat files. IDEAlliance, which designed the original mail.dat specifications, has followed that up with a mail.XML file format, which will be more efficient for large volume full service IMB practitioners. Mail.dat, which is followed by most MSPs, will continue to be accepted after the November 2009 implementation of mail.XML but obviously not preferred by many full service IMB practitioners.

One technical IMb nuance that may take time to implement to its fullest potential is that fact that each intelligent barcode must be unique for at least 45 days. One of the five data fields totaling 9 of the 31-digits can be prescribed by the mailer to add enhanced historical logistical information to the chosen pieces of mail. Helping mailers to understand, design, and apply this logic will be an IT consultant's dream or MSPs' nightmare, if the MSP provides the mailing list processing services. Mail.dat Version 9.1 will be required of the full service folks.

The nightmare comes in when the mailer chooses to apply logical identity to a fraction of the list and the mailing list processing service provider must program the "select" random assignment of unique numbers to the balance of the list within the constraints of a deadline. All it takes is a more robust IT mailing program to minimize the labor input, which translates to higher investment. This will probably be at the realistic economic exclusion of more and more small to medium-sized MSPs.

Basic to the IMb implementation will not only be the printing of a unique IMb on every mail piece but the printing and application unique IMb tray and container/pallet labels.

While nearly half of what is printed is mailed, the highest margin and fastest growing printing, i.e., variable data digital printing, is nearly all mailed. So compliance with changing and potentially more stringent - at least perceived to be so by smaller converters - postal regulations is concerning. IMB will definitely be more stringent if optimum discounts are desired by mail owners and therefore mail service providers.

Vice President of USPS Customer Service, Steve Kearney announced that there would be "no new mailing standards instigated until the end of November." This was in reaction to the mailers agonizing over both the continued evolving standards landscape as well as the perceived fast track implementation schedule of IMb.

This article may imply that choosing the IMb service for small to medium-sized mailing service providers and full service regional printers could be an uphill battle. However, there will definitely be a core group that see the underlying uncut diamond and make the commitment. The problem then becomes, who is going to help them. The USPS will be available by phone and offer basic webinars but do not offer on site custom consultative handholding.

The opportunity appears to exist for some trade association to step forward and serve as a facilitator between small software vendors and their forward thinking association members. Or is there a student submitting a business plan to his entrepreneurial class in college to incorporate the public domain IT infrastructure for mail distribution management into a series of shared logistical contracts. It's happened before. That's how FedEx started. The college professor gave the founder of FedEx a "C" for this idea.

An added incentive to this start-up entity is the USPS trend away from meaningful economic incentives for mailing service providers to assume more difficult mailing production tasks. Instead the USPS is stating their MSP "partners" will lose their discounts if their work does not meet a minimum level of perfection. MERLIN successfully applied this appropriately so in many instances when select MSPs were printing out addresses in poor alignment and contrary to pretty simple manufacturing specifications. To project the MERLIN cat-o-nine-tail model to higher and higher levels of sophistication could drive a segment of the market to the new competitor. Another example is the USPS stating that all mailers must convert to the "basic" Intelligent Mail barcode format by May 11, 2011 or risk losing all automation discounts. That's what free enterprise is all about. Free enterprise does not exist in a monopolistic service model.

A full-time printing consultant for the past 25 years, Bolte has earned a reputation for excellence in the areas of top management assistance in strategic technology assessment, product development planning for fulfillment and mailing, in-plant printing studies, operations assessments and the various industrial engineering disciplines of plant layout and development of engineered methods and production time standards. He can be reached at (717) 263-5768 or clint@clintbolte.com.