Achieving Production Efficiencies

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There's a time and place for eye-popping, unusual direct mail designs, but most of the time, direct mailing professionals need to produce good projects at the lowest possible cost.


Achieving production efficiencies depends on starting with machine capabilities and working backward to arrive at production-friendly layouts.


When planning laser-personalized direct mail projects, pay attention to mailing equipment limitations, because some formats are more conducive to long production runs than others. It's easy for designers to add 1/4 inch here and 1/8 inch there without realizing they are significantly increasing their production costs.


Production-unfriendly layouts can waste paper, machine time, effort and energy while increasing manufacturing costs and blowing deadlines. Unless there is a good reason to do otherwise, high-volume mailing professionals should design their projects to conform to common machine specifications.


Common press sizes. Some people think efficient production is limited to the printing press' cylinder circumference divided by two, which, in the case of the most common direct mail machine (22 inches), results in an 11-inch cutoff. This is wrong. Cutoffs of 7-1/3 inches or even 5-1/2 inches are just as efficient on a 22-inch cylinder.


When planning product sizes, take your cylinder's circumference and divide evenly. Just because 11-inch products are common does not mean you have to limit yourself to this size. Products that are 14 inches, 17 inches and all their derivative sizes are just as efficient to produce.


The circumference of the printing press cylinder determines efficient cutoff sizes. For example, a cylinder with a 28-inch circumference is efficient for products that are 14 inches, 9-1/3 inches and 7 inches. If your direct mail piece needs to be just a little taller than


8-1/2 inches, you might as well design it at a height of 9-1/3 inches, instead of


8-3/4 inches or any other production-unfriendly size. If you make a mistake and design a piece with a height of 9-1/2 inches, then you must use an 11-inch form, which wastes 13.6 percent of the available paper and slows production as well.


The most common cylinder circumference sizes used in direct mail are 17 inches (appropriate for 8-1/2-inch and 17-inch cutoffs), 22 inches (for 11-inch, 7-1/3-inch and 5-1/2-inch cutoffs) and 28 inches (for 14-inch, 9-1/3-inch and 7-inch cutoffs). Products of these sizes can be produced easily without requiring "takeout" (removal) of any paper, which is wasteful and inefficient.


Production inefficiencies caused by takeout. A lot of direct mail work is finished on Bowe-style document conversion machines. Two important settings on document converters determine how far paper advances and how much takeout is required.


A major production bottleneck is knife-cutting speed. If an 11-inch form without bleeds is being produced on a 22-inch circumference cylinder, the knife needs to make only one cut per form.


However, if you have a production-unfriendly format of 9-1/2 inches, for example, you need 1-1/2-inch takeout between forms. This requires the knife to travel twice, slowing production at least 30 percent. Moreover, you would waste about 15 percent of your time on printing presses and laser imagers, because only 19 inches of the available 22-inch circumference would be actually imaged.


Bottom line: It's important to avoid takeouts when designing high-volume mail projects.


The width of the form is also important. The maximum roll width on most laser imaging machines is 18 inches. After allowing for two 1/2-inch pin-feed strips, designers have a 17-inch roll width available for image use. Eliminating paper width roll waste is easy - just decrease the width of the paper roll. Ordering special roll sizes from the mill may cost more and take longer to receive. However, you are paying for production on 18-inch-wide machines, meaning that even though you are using only a 15-inch roll, you are still paying 18-inch machine rates for both printing presses and laser imagers. As in height, don't forget you can run your forms multiple-wide. In the case of an 18-inch roll (17-inch image area), 17-inch-, 8-1/2-inch- and 5-2/3-inch-wide forms all maximize roll width.


Image rotation: An example of a 16 percent productivity gain. In certain circumstances, rotating your image 90 degrees will save you time and money.


Consider a 17-inch-tall form that is 7-1/3 inches wide. If you run this project two-up on a 17-inch circumference cylinder, you will need a 15-2/3-inch-wide paper roll - 7-1/3 inches multiplied by 2 plus 1 inch for pin-feed holes. For every 17 inches of paper length, you will get two forms out. Instead, rotate your image 90 degrees to get three forms out of a 22-inch cylinder - a perfect fit resulting in nearly a 16 percent productivity gain.


There are other benefits. For example, you will be folding your forms with the paper grain - which makes a significant quality difference on heavier stocks. And you are being charged for less printing footage while maximizing the width of the machine.


If you are paying your laser personalization services company $1.50 per 1,000 pieces an inch, you will now get a form every 7-1/3 inches instead of every 8-1/2 inches, which amounts to roughly $1.75 per 1,000 pieces in laser imaging and $1 per 1,000 pieces in printing costs. In addition, there is the chance that ordering a special roll width also will increase your paper costs.


Rotating the image and shifting production to a 22-inch circumference cylinder will likely save you $3 to $4 per 1,000 pieces without sacrificing any image quality.


How you finish your projects is also important. For example, assume you need an 8-1/2-inch-by-11-inch personalized letter and a 3-1/2-inch-by-8-1/2-inch reply device. If you run it on a 14-inch form, gatefold it and slit it to the head, you will get a personalized letter and a free-standing, nested personalized reply device. Although gatefolding costs more than standard folding, it is far less expensive than outsourcing a matched mailing.


If you are producing a toner-only form, then offset printing is not needed, removing cutoff limitations. Combining black-only printing with holograms and LabelAire applications may achieve the design flexibility you need without sacrificing production speed.


There are many direct mail machines. This article has covered the most widely available cylinder sizes. You may find someone with 10-inch or 30-inch cylinder circumferences, but these are rare.


With the upcoming postal rate increase, high-volume mailing professionals need to focus on efficiency, now more than ever.


• Ken Boone is president of Harte-Hanks Baltimore, a full-service and high-volume direct mailing company.
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