Organizational consultant and author Warren Bennis said, "The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment."

We aren't to that point in corporate mail centers, but automation still presents plenty of opportunities. Organizations can lower expenses, improve productivity, and reduce errors, while continuing to provide employment for plenty of people.

The best ways to apply mail center automation depends on the organization and the mail they process. Some will find value in adding automation to their outbound mail operation, others to the inbound side. Many can automate several aspects of the services they provide to their internal customers. Companies must decide what mail center automation investments generate the most benefits for them.

Inbound Mail Automation

As you research automation strategies for the mail center, you'll encounter lots of information about inbound mail and package handling systems. The term "digital mailroom" has been around for a long time and generally refers to the process of turning incoming physical mail into digital documents or tracking packages. Mail centers can easily route and deliver electronic documents, nearly eliminating the need for human couriers dedicated to delivering letters and flats throughout the enterprise.

A big advantage of automated digital mail is trackability. Instead of a manual system (or no system) of recording the disposition of important mail pieces, a digital mail center solution can record critical data about inbound mail. The system might include captured images and date/time stamps that track the mail as it is processed. Significant events might include recording when the mail center initially received the mail piece, sorted it, routed it for delivery, and when the recipient accepted the item.

Mail center managers have lots of choices when considering a platform to scan and distribute incoming mail. Many vendors offer such solutions. Some systems turn the contents of every envelope into electronic images. Others scan the envelopes and leave the decision about handling each mail piece to the addressees. They can choose to have pieces opened, scanned, and delivered to them via email, have a piece physically delivered to them, arrange to pick up mail in the mail center, or ask to have a piece destroyed.

Business rules may control special needs, such as automating the handling of returned mail or processing invoices based on factors such as invoice amount, vendor, or purchasing entity. If you need to automatically extract and act upon data from inbound documents, look for solutions with such features built into the platform. In another use case, organizations that experience a high level of employee turnover may want a digital mail solution that can automatically route a former employee's mail to their successor.

Some inbound letter mail systems also handle the accountability and tracking requirements of parcels. If package handling is the main problem you're trying to solve, you may find a solution dedicated to parcels is the most appropriate choice for your organization.

The pandemic and the resulting work-from-home phenomenon accelerated a need for inbound mail automation at many companies. Suddenly, the long-standing practice of hand-sorting and delivering physical mail to corporate employees via mail center courier routes lost its effectiveness. The employees were at home, not in their offices! Post pandemic, some of those employees returned but they may be onsite only one or two days a week. If they need daily access to incoming correspondence, hand-delivery won't satisfy their requirements. A digital delivery solution may still be warranted.

Outbound Mail Automation

High-volume outbound mail automation has existed for decades. For a long time, only large mail centers could justify the expense of automated inserting equipment and allocate the space for mail inserters that folded, inserted, and sealed letters or flats. Today, most of those features are available on compact equipment. These economical units do not require costly maintenance contracts, special electrical connections, or experienced operators to adjust the machines and run the jobs. Even a corporate mail center with modest outbound mail volumes can benefit from an automated inserting solution that doesn't fit the description of "big iron".

Regardless of the sophistication they apply to repetitive high-volume mailing jobs, corporate print/mail facilities still deal with miscellaneous work that comes to them from internal departments. These jobs are not subject to the quality and efficiency processes the mail center administers for high-volume outbound mail projects, such as monthly bills or statements.

Departmental mail that shows up in the mail center can be a nightmare. Address blocks may not align properly for window envelopes, and the data has not been processed through CASS-certified address correction or move-update software. The pieces generated by internal departments lack intelligent mail barcodes, include no inserter control files, and probably need manual handling and quality control. Reprinting, should documents be damaged, means going back to the originating department. If outbound mail automation is your goal, this kind of mail can make things difficult.

Fortunately, the work-from-home trend prompted software developers to create solutions that allow remote or in-house employees to create documents that adhere to corporate branding standards and meet your guidelines for automated mail production. By printing through a special print driver, employees create documents at their desks or home offices that are automatically routed through the same workflow as high-volume jobs. At the end of each day, automated processes normalize these small departmental jobs, merge them to achieve greater postage discounts, and process the work efficiently in the corporate mail center.

Automating for the Future

Handling physical mail efficiently is more complicated than it seems. Lots of variables affect corporate mail centers and other entities often control characteristics of mail that must pass through the facility. We're not to the point where a man and his dog can handle the complexities of corporate letters, flats, and packages. But a little automation applied in the right spots can make a big difference now and prepare the corporate mail center to serve their internal customers as their needs evolve.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants creates content that helps attract and retain customers for companies in the document industry and assists companies as they integrate new technology. Learn more about his services at Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, or send him a connection request on LinkedIn.