Many print and mail operations are doing business today with old equipment, legacy software, and outdated processes. It's too expensive to update everything. My experience with print/mail service providers is they rarely invest in new technology until they have secured the business necessary to justify the expense–or conditions force them to upgrade.

But what if you could build your print/mail center from the ground up, using all the technology of the day? Without the need to support ancient applications that require outdated software and hardware, it would be exciting to build a super-efficient and automated document center.

Start With a White Paper Document Factory

The first thing I would do is set up the shop to be a white-paper document factory. Don’t stock any pre-printed shells, but use color inkjet printers to generate page overlays along with the variable data. Companies that have made such a transition are relieved from the chore of ordering and inventorying custom paper stock. They regain warehouse space, avoid waste due to form obsolescence, and eliminate the tasks of staging materials for print jobs and returning unused stock to the warehouse.

A key to high productivity in a white paper factory is minimizing the time that equipment sits idle. Continued drops in transactional document volumes will make it necessary to combine jobs for printing and inserting to make the best use of high-speed equipment. To insert documents from a combined print job, all must use the same outbound envelope. This means using a double-window envelope, installing envelope variable data printing capabilities, or implementing some other strategy that allows you to standardize on a single outbound envelope for all jobs.

If you combine jobs, return envelopes such as courtesy reply envelopes (CREs) will also need to feature windows, so you can use them for all clients and applications. For the greatest production flexibility, I’d configure as many jobs as possible to use a standard, windowed return envelope.

No Inserts

Also connected with the white paper concept is a transition from pre-printed envelope stuffers to onserts that are printed as part of the detail pages themselves. Promotional and informational messaging included as part of the print stream has several advantages over pre-printed inserts:

· No loading or unloading of inserts into the feeders on the mail inserters

· Never run out of inserts

· No chance of loading the wrong inserts into the feeders

· Targeted messaging vs. generic inserts

· No insert ordering, inventorying, or staging for production

Back in the days when I used to manage the production of statements for credit unions, inserts were my biggest headache. As statement processing time approached, printing companies serving our credit union customers would ship inserts to our facility.

· It often wasn’t clear which inserts belonged to which credit union

· Counts listed on the boxes were not always correct (or not present at all)

· Some inserts were troublesome during inserting, causing mis-feeds or jams

· We needed explicit instructions about what to do if we ran out of an insert

o Continue the run without inserts

o Pull the job and wait for more inserts to arrive

o Substitute with a different insert

· Segmented inserts caused extra work to split the print runs

Since we ran 24/7 during peak production times, it wasn’t possible to call the client and ask for guidance during off-hours. Lack of instructions forced us to pull unfinished credit union jobs from the inserters if we ran out of inserts, which interrupted production and triggered extra set-up and staging activity. We instituted a call to each credit union a week before production to gather insert handling information. The extra call often turned into a game of telephone tag that added to our labor cost and affected production scheduling.

A modern white-paper document production center would experience none of those problems. If I were to design a center today, it would focus on onserts. I’d support pre-printed inserts only as rare exceptions.

Print Manipulation and Automation

Changing to standard envelopes and onserts probably requires the application of post-composition document reformatting software. Clients will often send you composed pages to print and mail. You will need to move address blocks to match window locations or add data-driven promotional and informational messaging. This requires document re-engineering software and internal or external resources to reconfigure those composed pages.

Workflow automation is another area where my ideal print/mail center would shine. I’d want systems in place to recognize when data arrived and automatically perform all the steps and operations necessary to run the jobs. A dashboard would inform operations of the current status, compute projected volumes, and allocate work among available equipment. Any problems, such as bad data or late-arriving files, would generate an alert.

Reprints would be another area where automation would play a part. Traditionally, after a paper jam occurs, operators remove crumpled pages (or pieces of pages) from the equipment and place them in a box. At the end of the day, someone collects all the pages from the boxes. They identify which jobs generated those pages, find the pages for the damaged accounts in print archives, and reprint them manually. An automated environment would recognize when expected pages did not complete the production process and schedule them to be included in a future job. The automated system would record the disposition of each document.

All the features I described as part of my ideal print/mail facility are available today. Some companies are taking steps to modernize their operations by incorporating updated technology into their present workflows, but nothing beats an opportunity to start from scratch. If you’ve had the chance to do this for your company, I’d love to hear of your experience.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants creates content for the document industry and helps document operations build and implement strategies for future growth and competitiveness. Learn more about his services at and Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, or send him a connection request on LinkedIn.