The Ups and Downs of Inline Production
Answering the question of whether to go inline or offline when planning how to process mailings may seem simple. Particularly when thinking in terms of run size. It's fairly well known that it generally makes more sense to run jobs consisting of 250,000 pieces or more through inline, while it's more cost-effective to run smaller jobs conventionally.
But there are other issues to consider before going inline. For instance, while marketers may not be overly satisfied with certain inline imaging or design issues, they may be swayed by its high level of personalization and cost advantages. Either way, understanding the basic advantages and disadvantages to inline production will help marketers produce better direct mail efforts.
Probably the most well-known advantage to inline is its one-pass procedure. "In virtually one pass through the press, you can print, personalize and finish at full press speed, resulting in cycle times that are reduced, and allowing for the quick production of high volumes, better consistency and reduced labor," says George Zengo, president of catalog and direct services for printing company Quebecor World North America.
In fact, Gayl Curtiss, general manager of The Hacker Group/FCB, a direct marketing agency in Bellevue, WA, reports that inline can shorten manufacturing schedules by at least one weekpossibly more. Add to this the built-in benefit of time-deprived marketing managers not having to coordinate multiple suppliers, says Bill Mattran, vice president of Banta Direct Marketing Group, a printing company based in Chanhassan, MN.
"This also means that there are no more worries about trucks getting stuck on the side of the road or concerns about dealing with old, spoiled pieces that have been sitting in a warehouse," says Phil Brown, director of product development, Moore Response Marketing, an inline printing company headquartered in Lincolnshire, IL.
The Cost Advantage
Along with this one-pass approach comes a few added perks. One of which is costa perk that piques the interest of most marketers. "The larger the mailing, the more money that is saved," says Curtiss. "While conventional mailings of large quantities reach a number where the cost per thousand (CPM) flattens out and is low, production budgets for inline flatten at lower costs, allowing savings of 10 percent to 15 percent over conventional manufacturing," she says.
Not only can money be saved on production, but it can be saved on postage as well. Says Clint Humphrey, executive vice president for Quebecor World Commercial/Direct, "The cost savings of postage are pretty significant when creating versions by imaging in color or black. This can mean reductions in postal streams with resulting increases in postal penetration."
There is one downside to inline costs, howeverset-up charges. According to Curtiss, the equipment used to produce inline is massive and expensive to set up. There-fore, set-up costs and make-ready paper waste are considerable, pushing the price of test quantities with less than 100,000 per version very highalthough, she adds, inline's superior personalization benefits may outweigh some of those possible high costs. "This process allows the use of personalization on all elements of the mail piece, thus offering the opportunity to decrease the number of versions and, therefore, the number of mail splits. The possibility of increasing the response rate with additional personalization is an important consideration for one-to-one marketers," says Curtiss.
She notes that understanding what the personalization restrictions are, based on the configuration of the equipment, is important. "Inline packages are personalized via inkjet and usually in four-inch bands, so you have to find out how many heads the equipment offers, and what elements can be personalized and exactly where," she says.
To Flex or not to Flex
Of course, along with personalization comes a certain level of creativity, and Curtiss reports that inline processes offer an almost limitless flexibility of format size and configurations that marketers can use. In addition, the number of folds, pieces and piece sizes widely varies.
"Any traditional package can be produced as an inline package. Plus inline offers some production options that are either not available in a conventional package or are too expensive," Curtiss says. "This includes imaging in multiple colors, dimensional pop-ups and other fun involvement devices."
Banta's Mattran adds that inline packages do not have to be closed face, as some might believe. Windows can be die cut, but the challenge comes with patching them.
On the other hand, applying special effects or value-added items to the mailing, such as labeling, inserting, specialty coatings and kiss cutting, is a limitation with inline, according to Zengo, since these additional processes may require slower speeds, thereby reducing the number of pieces that can be produced each hour.
While creative options seem to be fairly limber, schedule adjustments are not. At least, according to Curtiss, who says a problem that she's encountered is the inflexibility of inline manufacturers to make minor schedule adjustments should a project get delayed. "A one- or two-day delay may move your project out a week or more, depending on the schedule for that piece of equipment," she explains.
Curtiss notes, however, that Joe Casciator from Quebecor World Commercial/Direct and Peter Nelson of Moore Response both disagree with her assessment. "This issue has been addressed by inline producers who design redundancy into their equipment base. Some producers have focused on the issue of versatility ... so last-minute scheduling changes can be easily accommodated," says Casciator.
Nelson adds, "Our clients feel that our process is more flexible than their standard lettershop processes. We're not preprinting anything at Moore, that way one could go up to one hour before press and still make changes."
Design Issues and Limitations
So how advantageous is inline in terms of design? According to Curtiss, there are limits on the number of colors and paper stocks that can be used. She specifically notes that the number of webs of paper used for a package has a huge impact on price. The least expensive inline package is one on which all elements are printed on the same stock. "If this doesn't work for a marketer's package, then another web of paper needs to be added, which will increase cost," she says.
Another pitfall Curtiss believes exists is that inline packages don't look as dark and crisp as conventionally produced packages, since an inkjet, not a laser, is used to image. However, she concedes that Ted Gaillard, vice president of sales and marketing at printing company Vertis Direct Marketing, in Lanham, MD, reports differently. "There is presently a small difference in resolutions, but this can be mitigated by the font that is selected for the personalization," he explains. "Available font styles and colors have dramatically increased over the past two years, offering an area of personalization techniques to intrigue the reader and enhance response rates. Handwritten fonts, angled fonts and color flexibility that mirrors a PMS [Pantone matching system] book are all elements that marketers have at their disposal to improve the appearance and effectiveness of the mailing."
Finally, marketers should also consider the wrapthe envelope seal. "The most common complaint of inline is that sometimes the reader gets confused about how to open the wrap," says Curtiss. "Some equipment produces a continuous glue strip, while others use spots of glue."
Zengo adds, "If the right edge of each envelope is glued, the potential for it to be torn or jammed in the postal automation equipment is reduced. However, the choice is yours; inline finishing allows you to seal the package completely or leave it open on the sides [of the envelope]."
While pros and cons exist for all production methods, those offering inline services are continually working to diminish the cons. In fact, Curtiss reports that Moore Response is now just releasing a MICA 3an inkjet, 300dpi (dots per inch) imaging device that images in four colors. This new equipment will provide four-color variable imaging at 350 feet per minute, she notes. Another technology breakthrough for Moore is capacity. "They now have the ability to run simple lettershop formats four at a time off the press, equating to 1 million pieces a day off one press," she says.
In addition, Gaillard says a huge advancement for Vertis is the quality and capability to match PMS spot color with imaging ink, thus allowing for versioning with imaging in a specific PMS color.
Moore Response's Brown says it best: "If there are advancements within the inline market and its technology, I would say there are better imaging systems than five years ago. ... Now we can introduce more color, and can produce disturbing images that have more stopping powerthe key to a great marketing piece."
Is Inline Production Right For Your Job?
According to Gayl Curtiss, general manager of direct marketing agency The Hacker Group, inline production makes the most sense when:
#1You have a very limited number of litho versionsor you can use imaging to create versions and, therefore, limit the number of printed versions.
#2Your quantity is more than 250,000 pieces.
#3Your package is "closed face" (with personalization) or you want a personalized envelope and a conventional package is too expensive.
#4The elements in your package are printed on just two or three paper stocks, or can be, without a negative impact on the integrity of the package.
#5Your package requires highly personalized messages on multiple components. Even though there are multiple components in this package, all can be personalized as well as produced from just a couple of paper stocks, with different die-cuts and finishes applied to create a distinct look for each.
One of the major perks of inline production is the ability to economically customize messages on each effort, as seen here by BMG.