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April 29 2012 05:54 PM

I've spoken with a few mailing operations that are still using optical mark recognition (OMR) to control their mail inserters. Of course I'm familiar with OMR. That's what we used back in the 80's! There were not a lot of other options back then. But it is surprising how many mailing operations are still relying on OMR as a mail piece integrity strategy.

Today, the limited intelligence and control available through the series of hash marks that make up an OMR code is adequate in only the simplest types of document applications. Continuing to utilize this legacy method when better alternatives exist keeps inserting operations from achieving maximum productivity.

We understood the drawbacks of OMR technology back in my service bureau days when we were processing variable page-count financial statements, insurance documents, and checks. All were printed in a cut sheet environment. So we developed some procedures to help prevent mistakes or catch them when they happened - well, most of them, anyway. Because with OMR, there really isn't any way you can be 100% sure.

Jumping Through Hoops
At the service bureau we added some extra production steps to compute and store the page count of each customer statement, and then we sorted and separated each print job based on page count. We'd print all the one-pagers, then all the two-page statements, etc. This page-count sorting helped us compute balance totals for the inserting operation. But it had a negative effect on our postal presort density.

We also had to create control sheets that displayed the number of pages and number of envelopes in each group as we printed them so that the inserter operators could balance each group separately. And, because mistakes were still possible, we broke the groups down even further so that if a batch didn't balance we would have a manageable number of envelopes to inspect while we looked for the one with an extra page.

That all sounds pretty inefficient today, but the ability to read and process more complex barcodes at production speeds just hadn't been developed back then.

But there is more. Sometimes we had jobs that featured variable inserts. It is true that even 30 years ago insert feeders could be controlled with OMR marks. But our customers didn't like the look of the long string of hash marks that were necessary to tell the inserter which feeders to activate for each customer statement. And unless the pre-printed forms had a consistent background in the area reserved for the OMR string, read errors could cause the inserters to stop or the wrong feeders to fire.

So we split those jobs too, based on the inserts to be included with the statements. To keep the work manageable, we had to limit the number of variable insert combinations, which sometimes affected our customer's ability to communicate the way they wanted.

As you can probably guess, all that job-splitting and inter-job balancing meant our inserting machines were at rest during a good portion of the work day. Throughput could be pretty dismal - especially when errors were discovered and we had to find and correct them.

Is All That Extra Work Really Necessary?
The trouble with OMR is that there is no mail piece identification in the code. The OMR marks on the second page of one customer's statement can look the same as the marks on page two for a different customer. If the pages get mixed up because of a paper jam in the printer, or a gust of wind that blows in while transporting cut sheets from the print room to the mail room, the inserter operator may never know and mixed documents will be the result.

The job-splitting and balancing measures described here will catch some errors, but cannot prevent them all. If you are processing documents with any kind of private information, OMR is a risky proposition. But even if the information is not sensitive, making inserting mistakes has financial consequences including re-running jobs or even losing a customer.

We Don't Need an ADF - But We Might Need Something
Not every operation needs to be an iron-clad automated document factory. But mailing businesses of the future are going to require a higher degree of efficiency, accuracy, and accountability. A more robust method of document control is going to be necessary.

Not having adequate mail piece accuracy systems prevents mail center management from implementing cost-saving strategies for their customers such as householding or co-mingling. They may not be able to fully exploit the added flexibility enabled by free postage for the second ounce because of concerns about accurately including all the intended contents in the envelopes. This puts organizations that rely on old technology at a competitive disadvantage.

Your customers that use the traditional mail stream have made a strategic decision that the extra expense is worth it. This opinion can change if errors generate unacceptable results. Mailing service providers must continually make investments in hardware, software, and personnel. They can't afford to process mail in an inefficient manner. And they certainly can't afford to make mailing mistakes caused by antiquated technology.

Sophisticated document control alternatives now exist, and vendors offer them at a variety of prices, depending on the requirements of the mailers. We recommend that our clients who are using OMR for inserter control assess their current risk, compute their actual costs, project future requirements, and start planning for the necessary upgrades.

Mike Porter is President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm that helps companies nationwide be more productive, adapt to changing requirements, and lower costs in their document operations. For more ideas about how to maximize your investment in document operations, connect with Mike directly at Or visit and sign up for Practical Stuff - the free newsletter for document operations.