Technology Revolutionizes Lettershops

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High-volume mail inserting technology has not changed much for 80 years. "Swing-arm" mail inserters have dominated the U.S. lettershop industry since the early 20th century.

Though swing-arm machines still rule in today's lettershop, a new design is about to ascend to the throne. These continuous flow inserters are faster, more flexible and just as heavy-duty as swing-arm-style machines. In short, there's a revolution going on in the lettershop.

Until recently, most high-volume, heavy-duty inserting machine manufacturers stuck to their tried-and-true formula of gathering product and pushing it into envelopes. Though a few speed, reliability and flexibility improvements have been made during the past half-century, they have been minor. Swing-arm machines have had basically the same design for a long time.

I should mention that a different mail inserter design has been on the market for decades. But this class of machine is appropriate for office equipment work environments, not industrial manufacturing. Though these lighter-duty machines have design advantages over swing-arm inserters, they are complex, difficult to maintain and poorly suited for everyday, high-volume production.

A recent design breakthrough will reinvent the mail inserting industry. These new continuous-flow machines differ from any other inserter.

Consider pocket orientation. When swing-arm machines insert material into No. 10 envelopes, the inserts travel lengthwise during collation and insertion. Continuous-flow machines gather product widthwise, enabling nearly twice as much material to be gathered at the same running speed. And unlike office-grade equipment, the envelope-opening device at the end of the production line is similar to that of the more rugged swing-arm inserter, allowing it to keep pace easily with pocket feeders during high-speed production.

These continuous-flow machines are appropriate for high-volume manufacturing environments for three primary reasons. First, many critical parts are manufactured with industrial-grade steel instead of lighter-weight materials such as aluminum. Second, like other heavy-duty machines, they are easily adjusted and maintained. And, third, the easy-to-use, well-designed computer interface uses state-of-the-art electronics.

Under the threat of rising postal costs and an advertising world exploding with competing media alternatives, savvy direct marketers know they should offer their clients better returns on their marketing investments. Direct marketers must be flexible and able to go from concept to in-home delivery in what seems like a nanosecond. On the data management side, they need to take full advantage of data mining and other front-end techniques to maximize response rates. But this is only half the picture.

Speed and flexibility are part of most successful companies' business plans. Continuous-flow inserting machines help ensure that increasingly aggressive in-home mail delivery dates are met. The following are specific ways this is accomplished:

• Continuous-flow machines cycle 30 percent to 40 percent faster than swing-arm inserters and have sophisticated electronic controls that reduce work stoppages by up to 90 percent. Much more mail can be produced in less time with higher yields.

• Continuous-flow machines have "downstream shut-off" cascading capabilities. If there is a misfeed, then downstream pockets and the envelope feeder are turned off for that one piece only. When misfeeds occur on swing-arm inserters, the whole line needs to be shut down, corrected and restarted, reducing productivity.

• Continuous-flow pocket feeding mechanisms are more forgiving than those typically used in swing-arm units. For example, continuous-flow friction-fed pockets allow you to insert components with just about any fold sequence. Sucker-fed swing-arm inserters cannot feed accordion-folded pieces efficiently, but friction-fed pockets offered in continuous-flow units can handle this type of fold with ease.

• When running mailings with generic inserts, continuous-flow machines allow operators to set up "backup" pockets. If the primary feeding pocket runs out of material or jams, the backup will start to feed immediately and will continue to do so until the primary one is reloaded or cleared.

• Continuous-flow machines have preprogrammed maintenance reminders scheduled into the controller. Ignoring mundane tasks like lubrication and the changing of wearable parts is difficult because messages flash on the computer screen at regular intervals describing what actions should be taken. Then, the controller automatically records what was done and sets a new alarm for the next scheduled maintenance item. Foolproof maintenance like this translates to less downtime and fewer missed customer delivery dates.

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