If you were in the mailing business before 1936, letters sent out in envelopes were stuffed by hand. Albert Williams of the Inserting and Mailing Machine Company in Tatamy, PA changed that with his invention of the mechanical inserter. Other companies joined the fray, and the following decades introduced important changes:

  • Folding and inserting in a single pass
  • Optical mark and optical character readers
  • In-line metering
  • Barcodes for specificity of handling
  • Matching stations for special inserts
  • Computerized piece weighing
  • Job information files to track pieces on the machine
  • Printing on the envelope after inserting
  • Speeds over 20,000 pieces per hour


When buying an inserter, the principles of Mr. Williams’ invention remain important today – efficiency, accuracy, and reliability. Additional considerations include systems integration and reporting.

To understand how to calculate and apply those standards, a manager first needs to classify their current documents, including print software, total volumes, number of jobs per shift, physical characteristics of completed pieces, and service level agreements with customers.

There are multiple types and components of print software. Most intelligent inserters require barcodes, while others also use job information files (JIF). Having the capabilities on an inserter isn’t helpful unless there’s software to utilize those features. An operation must have the tools that can create the proper barcodes in the correct placement along with any JIFs.

Inserters are machines with limits, so total volume is the first limit to consider. Not just the volumes for a shift, but the total volumes per day and per month. The equipment has to have the capacity to complete the required volumes, while allowing time for job set-ups, cleaning, and preventive maintenance.

If different jobs require different set-ups, that will further influence the type of machine selected. Managers should attempt to consolidate jobs where possible. However, for multiple reasons, jobs may have to remain separate. The inserters should be able to easily switch from one job type to the next, with minimal operator intervention.

Physical characteristics includes paper stock, envelopes, inserts, and pages per envelope. With the advent of color printing, the types of substrates used to create documents have grown. Treatments and ink may impact how an inserter handles the paper. The flaps and throats of preferred envelopes may further restrict choices. Companies that haven’t moved to white-paper processes will require multiple insert stations for additional materials. These factors combine to influence how many pages will fit into an envelope.

In the past, service level agreements (SLAs) with internal or external customers allowed for a small percentage of mistakes. Operations would be expected to get 95% of the work done correctly. Today’s SLAs demand 100% accuracy, accounting for every page of every piece of every mailing.

With these requirements in mind, managers can select the model of inserters by examining the following characteristics:

  • Speed – number of pieces per hour
  • Capacity – number of pieces per month
  • Turnover – minutes to change jobs
  • Throughput – number of envelopes per shift
  • Flexibility – types of paper and envelopes accepted
  • Adaptability – options to selectively insert, divert or add messaging
  • Expansion – number of pockets for additional inserts
  • Accuracy – methodology to track pages and pieces
  • Accountability – reporting system that provides information on every job, and every piece

Until recently, many managers would think these complexities were limited to large production facilities producing transactional mail. Smaller organizations using desktop equipment didn’t have the ability to add barcodes or reporting. Direct mail companies didn’t see the need for high levels of machine integrity.

Advancements in technology have changed the options that are either required or available. Affordable software can add integrity barcodes and JIFs. Accuracy in mailings, as measured by the US Postal Service Mailer Scorecard, requires accounting for every specific piece, not just counts. Actionable reporting to clients adds value to services provided.

But value at what cost? Every additional option adds to the price of the inserter and the software required to support the system. Faster inserters will reduce labor costs in the mail operation, often enough to justify the additional expense of the new equipment. Sometimes, the savings are elsewhere.

We’ve had clients save considerable money in other areas. One bank had account managers hand-stuffing statements because the mail operation couldn’t process multiple-page statements. An insurance company had adjusters printing and mailing claims documents from their desks. A healthcare payer faced a penalty when personal health information (PHI) was compromised.

An improvement in a business process can significantly impact a company’s bottom line. Account managers and adjusters are paid considerably higher salaries than inserter operators. A single PHI violation fine can range from $100 to $50,000 per violation. Automation and integrity solve those problems.

Service providers can leverage the investment in new technology when selling to clients. Having the lowest cost-per-piece doesn’t guarantee a sale. Customers are looking to their partners to bring innovation and improvement. Companies look to increase responsiveness through better looking mail pieces and provide secure customer communications with tracking and reporting.

Smart managers involve their best employees and operators in the decision-making process. The people who process the work every day can provide helpful feedback on new equipment and software. During reference calls, they can speak with other operators and understand the challenges and advantages of the proposed system. Participation in the evaluation will promote acceptance with the required adjustments of the new procedures.

A lot has changed since Mr. Williams introduced his new invention. With each generation, technology has made inserters faster, efficient and accurate. Managers have more options when choosing the right equipment for their operation. Knowing their operation, the characteristics of their mail, and the needs of their customers remain integral to making the right purchase.

Mark M. Fallon is President & CEO of The Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document processing strategies. You can contact him at mmf@berkshire-company.com, or visit his blogs at www.berkshire-company.com/the-berkshire-company-blog or www.markfallon.com/blog