BackgroundA leading UK mail delivery company wanted to allow its users to transmit mail from the convenience of their computer, laptop or iPhone to a print and finishing depot closest to the recipient where it would be printed, inserted into a pre-paid envelope then posted.
ChallengeThe UK mail delivery company required a hybrid mail system that would allow them to offer new and existing customers a convenient and easy-to-use facility for posting UK-destined office mail and direct mail.
Without a suitable server and data communications infrastructure of their own, the company also requested the customer-facing system was coupled with backend technology that would be capable of securely processing and managing up to 100,000 pieces of mail a day.
It was also requested that support, maintenance and management resources were available post-development to ensure the system continued to operate efficiently and enhancements could be integrated to satisfy future internal and customer demands.
SolutionWith a 25 year history of developing and integrating enterprise output management and printing solutions, IDS, with the help of it's controlling company Funasset, were well placed to provide an end-to-end hybrid mail system that would be capable of handling the requirements and mail volumes stipulated by the UK mail delivery company.
IDS and Funasset were also familiar with the already commissioned printer provider- Konica Minolta - following the integration of output management and connectivity solutions for a number of their customers.
After extensive consultation with the UK mail delivery company and provision of a detailed specification, IDS began the development and implementation of the customer-facing and backend systems in 2008. Following completion, procedures were put in place to support, maintain, enhance and manage the hybrid mail solution.
A team of IDS developers and support engineers spent twelve months creating, testing and implementing the following customer-facing systems:
- Web application
- Print client
- API and AutoLink
- iPhone app
Each system provides the UK mail delivery company's customers with a different mechanism for transmitting mail documents such as letters, postcards and mailshots to depots where printing and finishing is performed.
The Web application also has a facility to verify recipient postcodes, create and manage user accounts, track mail, and purchase postage credits using a credit/debit card or PayPal account.
The UK mail delivery company realised that many customers who could benefit from using their hybrid mail system would already have mail pieces in document formats such as Word and PDF. IDS therefore developed a print client using C# that is accessed in the same way as a printer driver.
Users select the print client from their application’s print dialog then use its intuitive interface to specify output settings and transmit their mail to the backend system.
IDS developed an application programming interface (API) to allow documents produced by user’s own applications to be seamlessly transmitted to the backend system.
The API runs as a Windows service on the server and is invoked by a simple web reference. It is then controlled using a range of functions and associated arguments that allow operations such as mail merging and processing of print-ready PDF documents.
To facilitate users who are unable to modify their own applications for use with the API, a client-side Windows service called Autolink was also developed. This monitors file system folders for PDF documents, pre-processes them then transmits them to the API service for further processing and printing.
With the popularity of iPhone apps, the UK mail delivery company wanted to provide its customers with a facility to compose then transmit postcards from their iPhone to the hybrid mail system. IDS developed then released a Postcards app on iTunes so users can use their own photographs to form the front of a postcard, write a typical “wish you were here” message on the reverse then transmit it to the backend system.
In September 2011 the app was awarded “Travel App of the Week” by the Sunday Times.
The backend system consists of the following components, all of which work together to process, print then finish the mail documents received from customer-facing systems:
Central Mail Processing Application and Server
The Web application, print client, API, and iPhone app transmit mail pieces to a central mail processing application. The component was developed using C# alongside the customer-facing technologies, and is installed on a Microsoft Windows server within a Tier 2 data centre managed by South West Communications in Exeter (UK).
Processes such as conversion of mail pieces to PDF, splitting, address checking and OMR insertion are carried out by the application. Mail pieces are also sorted into Standard Sortation Code (SSC) order then combined into PDF consignments before they are saved in a folder continuously monitored by a Funasset TN Interface.
When a specific number of mail pieces are accumulated in a consignment, the TN Interface automatically transmits it via secure VPN ADSL to a print and finishing depot associated with the SSC. Alternatively, operators at any depot can use a Web interface to transmit a consignment to their depot prior to the specific number of mail pieces being accumulated.
Regional Output Management
Each print and finishing depot receives PDF consignments throughout the day from the central mail processing application. Upon arrival each one appears in a Funasset SpoolQ print queue after which it is manually released by an operator to the most appropriate printer.
Printing and Finishing
Three or four Konica Minolta printers were installed at each of the print and finishing depots to ensure the printing of mail is uninterrupted and daily volumes are always completed. If printing becomes impossible at a depot (e.g. a power cut) consignments can be routed from the hybrid mail system's server to other depots for printing and finishing.
IDS worked closely with Konica Minolta to ensure each printed piece of mail is of a high standard and matches the original document presented by the customer.
Letter-based mail pieces are printed on A4 sheets, folded then inserted in A5 envelopes by folder inserter equipment. Postcards and mailshots are printed four-up, laminated then trimmed. After mail pieces are printed and finished they are placed in SSC post bags ready for delivery by the UK mail delivery company to Royal Mail depots.
Support, Maintenance and Management
A team of IDS developers and support engineers continue to enhance, maintain and support the customer-facing and backend systems. An IDS analyst is also assigned to liaise with the UK mail delivery company so new features and enhancements to existing functionality can be discussed.
During initial consultation with IDS, the UK mail delivery company insisted the system was open and flexible enough to have new functionality integrated when required. IDS met these demands without compromise and have developed and integrated many new features, the most significant of which are:
Allows customers to buy focused business or consumer mailing lists using a range of criteria including business type, size, location or consumer profile. The address data can then be used seamlessly with the mailing functionality of the hybrid mail system.
Allows customers to buy post code focused mailing lists so marketing correspondence can be targeted to an entire post code area or even a single street. The address data can then be used seamlessly with the mailing functionality of the hybrid mail system.
- With over 25 years of experience developing, integrating and supporting output and mail management solutions, IDS and Funasset had the skills to develop a robust hybrid mail system that met the UK mail delivery company's demands and much more.
- As a medium-sized solutions provider and software developer, IDS and Funasset have the resources and flexibility to develop and manage the system to a high standard within strict timescales and budgets.
- With a team of IDS and Funasset developers and support engineers assigned solely to the project, fixes and enhancements are implemented quickly.
- IDS and Funasset’s ISO 27001 Information Security Management certificate and McAfee PCI compliance certification means procedures and processes are in place to ensure customer data is secure and the system remains functional.
- A close working relationship with Konica Minolta ensures ripping and printing problems that may occur (because of the almost limitless ways clients can create their documents) can be resolved quickly.
- Flexible server hosting plan with South West Communications means new hardware and the latest technology can be easily integrated to deal with the annual doubling of mail volume.
- UK-based head office close to the M5 and main rail links means face-to-face meetings with the UK mail delivery company are logistically practical.
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