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The Real Benefits of Piece Level Tracking from Printing to Mail

March 31, 2010
Piece level document tracking was first introduced nearly 20 years ago. The systems at that time were comprised of very expensive reading devices, typically line scan cameras, and high speed computers. These old systems were difficult to set up and configure and were not very reliable. The cameras required very bright near white light to function and changes in paper brightness and ambient light required a new configuration. Slight changes in print quality or registration would create frequent misreads which would stop or slow the print process and negate their value. These issues combined with the system investment turned many a print production manager away from deploying piece level tracking.

However, today many markets are requiring piece level tracking. HIPAA for a patient’s medical information, Sarbanes Oxley for financial information and Transpromo related document production and fulfillment nearly mandate that print production facilities must deploy industry best practices. Piece level tracking guarantees that all critical client documents are printed, combined into a proper packet and mailed.

The technology has advanced significantly since the 1990’s. Expensive line scan cameras are no longer required. In their place inexpensive barcode readers and CCD cameras are used that enjoy exceptional reading accuracy, repeatability and useful life and are a breeze to install and set up. Gone also are the high powered computers that were needed to process the line scan cameras data being replaced with standard off-the-shelf computers with standard Microsoft operating systems. Overall the investment required has fallen by 65% to 70% making a piece level tracking system affordable to almost every print mail house.

So, how does a piece level tracking system work?

To provide 100% end-to-end print production tracking of every individual printed piece, at every stage in the production process, one needs to track the piece from print to mail. This requires that a reading device be placed on the output of the printer, on the output of the finishing device and the output of the inserter. If there are several pieces, unique and/or generic, being combined into a packet one more reader may be required at that point.

Print file data is parsed and sent as an electronic job ticket to the automated production tracking system. This would include the job, the number of pieces, service level information, etc. As the documents leave the printer, the tracking system logs that they have been printed with a date and time stamp that is archived for both real time and future reporting. The printed documents may then be sent to a single or multiple finishing stations which have reading stations as well. As the documents pass through finishing, each document is tracked and logged with a time and date stamp. So to, as the documents flow through the inserting process each document is read and logged with date and time stamp. Thus, complete reconciliation of the end to end print-finish-mail production process can be done automatically and with the highest degree of accuracy. Error prone manual audits are replaced with dedicated technology systems.

Any documents that were damaged or are missing or that were duplicated at the print, finishing or insert stations are noted by comparing the read results with the production data sent to the system at the beginning of the process. The automated production tracking system then sends a reprint file to the print process, automatically. In this way the production manager is assured that every document was printed, finished and inserted properly. To handle duplicate documents the automated production system at the insert station will automatically initiate a divert action sending the duplicate document into a waste bin.

Today’s automated production tracking systems leverage common place technology in reading devices, computing power and factory networks. In multiple print, multiple finishing and multiple inserting operations, all reading stations are connected to a central server with Ethernet. This allows a print job to be run on several lines simultaneously without the worry of missing a single piece. Every reader communicates with the server, in real time. The production manager can see the status of any job on the production floor. This comes in very handy when working with demanding service level agreements (SLA).

The benefits of a piece level tracking system are huge!

The obvious benefit is a substantial improvement in the quality of the production process, but it doesn’t stop there. A closed loop piece level tracking system can:

1. Increases customer retention:

Accuracy is vital! Printing, finishing and inserting errors can compromise SOX and HIPAA compliance and cause a print facility to appear undisciplined and careless. Federal Compliance statutes mandate complete audits, and customers’ demand accuracy and complete fulfillment of jobs.

2. Reduce costs:
If you select an automated production tracking system that works in a multi-vendor shop, tracking work-in-process in real time and at the piece level, defects are detected immediately, reprint files generated automatically which reduces/eliminates spoilage and improves the production flow.

3. Upgrade your existing equipment:
If you select an automated production system that installs on any make of printer, finisher or inserter, one can increase the useful life of the equipment currently owned. And, there is no additional operator training needed as a result of new equipment.

4. Respond to customer inquiries immediately:
Think how customers will be impressed by being able to respond to production status requests immediately and with detail to the piece level. And, this same real time information gives your staff total visibility to your work in process.

5. Increased revenue:
An automated production tracking system is a tool that makes your company more competitive by guaranteeing 100.0% print mail accuracy and creates new cross-selling and up-selling opportunities. Printing has changed, and variable data printing requires accuracy and detailed audits to compete effectively — and surpass competition.

An automated production tracking system should work in harmony with the print mail facilities automated document factory (ADF) — augment not replace it. The systems should easily interconnect and share information to provide the production manager with more robust and granular reporting. Regardless of what level of ADF is implemented, the automated production tracking system will be able to provide real time, up to the second, reporting across multiple production lines.

Real time reporting should include two categories, Productivity and Work-in-Process.

Productivity reporting should include:
• Productivity report for the whole print mail facility
• Productivity reports by production lines
• Productivity report by operators
• Productivity comparison among production lines
• Productivity comparison among operators
• Jobs completed ahead of time
• Jobs completed on time
• Jobs completed late
• Jobs to be processed in next 3 days
• SLA Hit/Miss

Work-In-Process reports should include:
• Report the production progress for a specified period for specified customer
• Progress of all jobs
• Production progress for a specified period for all jobs in the system
• Specified job production status

The benefits of knowing the status of every individual printed piece within every job spanning multiple production lines with mixed vendor equipment are huge. Knowing that inserting system A produces 32% fewer inserts of the same type than the average of the same type of inserters suggest that maintenance is needed. Knowing that operator B, regardless of where she works is able to do 21% more than the average operator suggests learning how she works and replicating her “best practice” plant wide.

Automated production tracking clearly has benefits for the print mail shop beyond becoming compliant with SOX, HIPAA or GLB regulations by protecting personal and sensitive information. It gives management the information and control needed to become a ‘best in class’ print mail facility. These statistics help you to measure and improve your production efficiency. Additionally, this modern technology is positive proof of real world technology investments – which help you to attract new customers, and protect legacy business. You are better able to manage the risks associated with any variable data job, including managing and meeting tight SLA terms.

Automated production tracking provides everyday production tools to better manage your shop to better margins, with lower risks and higher value to existing customers and prospects.
By Bill Riley

About the Author
Bill is a 1973 graduate of Boston College, from where he began a 25+ year career with Wallace Computer Services (later to become Moore and RR Donnelley). Bill specialized in high volume transactional printing sales, and he helped to develop the Wallace entry to direct and transactional print and mailing products and services. Later Bill went into technology and software sales management for Inspectron and Formscan. There, he led the world busdev teams providing print and mail technology solutions world wide. In 2007 Bill co-founded Ironsides Technology to deliver a new and unique print mail productivity software suite, Ironsides APT.

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