Today’s sophisticated transactional and direct mail offers a complex logistical challenge that has more in common with consumer product manufacturing than it does with most people’s idea of printing and mailing. It may be bank or credit card statements, investment portfolio performance reports, insurance documents or customer loyalty programs, but typically tens of thousands or even millions of separate parts are involved. Some are standardized, some are personalized, and they are likely to be printed using two or more different technologies. The entire mailing list has to be printed without error, brought together at the right time and place, picked and inserted in the correct sequence, mailed, tracked and invoiced.

It’s a task that would be impossible without automation, but although the various production and assembly stages are highly automated, the software components that support or enable the various component processes tend to be something of a ragtag collection from different vendors, and often with no single control point from which a clear view of the entire workflow is available.

Complex Kits

A typical customer mailing kit, such as an airline’s frequent flyer club, might include several pieces: an individually addressed but otherwise generic cover letter, a brochure detailing customer rewards, a membership or loyalty card, and a fully personalized flyer or insert detailing an offer specific to each recipient according to their status, membership level and other demographic attributes. Some parts might be offset printed, some digitally printed, some a hybrid of the two (inkjet personalization on an offset-printed carrier, for example), and a plastic membership card might have to be outsourced, but for each recipient, the right version of all the different components has to be available, correctly picked and inserted. To further increase the complexity of the task, the envelope may need to be manufactured and printed too.

In addition to the print production aspects, there are data issues to address, such as generating, exporting and cleaning the mailing list, removing duplicates and correcting incomplete or incorrect addresses. These also feed in to the financial aspect of the mailing job, in that post office deposits are paid on anticipated numbers of mail items, which may change subsequent to the mailing list clean-up. Discrepancies like this have to be accounted for, with refunds or credits to the mailing client.

Again, there’s a further complication in that any one mailing may involve more than one class or type of mail service. On top of that, there are discounts available for presenting the mailing to the United States Postal Service in a specified manner, which may not be the obvious match to the easiest way of producing, assembling or delivering it to the postal facility.

One piece of software may be used to import that mailing list, clean the data and sort it; another to estimate, plan and control the manufacture of the various components, more production-specific systems will be used to send the relevant artwork to offset production plate-making or to digital presses, and that’s without the assembly, packaging and dispatch to the mailing center. While each component in the chain may be well optimized for its specific purpose, delays and errors can arise at the point when one hands off to another.

Integration to Address Interdependencies

Interdependent parts of the process can be hard to manage efficiently in this sort of set-up, such as coordinating window envelope design and production such that the recipient’s name and address printed on the letter that sits within the envelope are clearly visible and meet the mail service provider’s specifications. Another manufacturing planning challenge is getting the various pieces to nest correctly when the mailing is assembled so that the recipient sees the various items in the order that the sender’s marketing team intended.

What’s needed is a means of integration that sits above the various islands of automation and links them in order to provide complete end-to-end visibility and control without having to constantly switch between different applications or systems throughout the process. Ideally this would include the ability to link into industry-standard mailing tools to consume the presort process output of the final mail list files, the Mail.dat file and create all other tasks and postal reporting. Equally, it would be useful if a customer’s mail list file could be read, cleaned and sent along with an execution workflow to the mailing tool for processing so that the software could return the Presort Mail List, all postal documentation including the Mail.dat file, a list of all activities performed with time, for costing and billing purposes.

Linking mail lists with specific projects, jobs or orders, as well as linking the mail recipients with the relevant versions would provide important information like the print order quantities needed for production. Differences in numbers between initial estimates and actual production quantities can then be calculated for postal deposit credits or refunds. When a job is completed, automated archiving or destruction of the files would be another time-saving step.

A Central Repository for Mail Workflow Efficiency

The need for simpler process controls is well known in the industry, and it is the reason behind the development of products EFI Monarch Mailing, an award-winning component in the Monarch-based EFI Enterprise Print Productivity Suite ERP platform. It was developed specifically for the needs of commercial mail producers and facilitates an automated mailing and production workflow for both envelope and transactional mailings. The component’s product-based specification tools include full production planning, process planning for sheet-fed and web-based print, full imposition capabilities with automatic imposition generation for complex self-mailers, and calculation of waste generated and time taken for complex inline operations. The workflow also handles scheduling of all tasks and real time data capture of the actual production time and materials consumption, allowing accurate comparison of estimate versus actual production time and costs.

Users benefit from this type of workflow functionality because it gives them the power to make their ERP the central database repository of all the files related to mailing jobs. Machine operators, in turn, can get direct access to all job-specific files via its ability to store, search and manage different file types relevant to mailing planning, processing and production. The Monarch mailing component also gives users a streamlined capability for full invoicing, ensuring that print providers capture all mailing and postage costs on their work.

This type of automation addresses direct mail workflow needs that had been ignored too long in the past. For most mailers the workflow advantage is paramount: reducing errors while eliminating manual steps in otherwise time-intensive list management and postal processing creates a vital competitive advantage that helps businesses counter many of the challenges to growth and profitability in the direct marketing industry.

Nick Benkovich is Senior Director, Portfolio Product Management, EFI Productivity Software.