Scanning system speeds mail processing

Dec. 1, 2003
Processing large volumes of outgoing mail-from customer invoices to order-fulfillment functions-can be a major corporate burden. Many firms have installed automated document-processing systems or have outsourced mail processing to achieve greater efficiency.

High-speed 2-D data-matrix reader sorts and routes documents.

By Lawrence J. Curran, Contributing Editor

Processing large volumes of outgoing mail—from customer invoices to order-fulfillment functions—can be a major corporate burden. Many firms have installed automated document-processing systems or have outsourced mail processing to achieve greater efficiency. Equipment manufacturers such as inTelmail USA (Sacramento, CA, USA) have addressed the need for mail-processing systems with high-speed mail-processing systems that include a barcode/2-D data-matrix scanner to help sort and route the documents.

In need of faster, more-efficient mail-processing capabilities, Veritas Document Solutions (Arlington Heights, IL, USA) installed an inTelmail system and linked it to automated inserter equipment from Kirk-Rudy (Woodstock, GA, USA). Michelle Steinberg, president and owner of Veritas, says her company provides volume-mailing services for Fortune 500 companies and has been using the inTelmail/Kirk-Rudy system. The system has allowed her firm to take on additional work because now only three employees are needed to work a job instead of the 30 formerly required for manual operations.

Kirk-Rudy manufactures paper-handling equipment for the direct-mail, printing, newspaper, and card industries. Its equipment completes the sorting and envelope stuffing after a scanner in the inTelmail equipment reads the data-matrix codes on the documents. Those codes control document movement to and through the inserter and into envelopes (see Fig. 1).

FIGURE 1. Operator monitors VAF folder/feeder in foreground. The camera/scanner is the upward aimed black box (with the red label) at lower left, where it is positioned to read coded symbols on documents in the feeder. The VAF sends documents to the inserter equipment in the background.
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Veritas uses the inTelmail VAF system, which sells for about $60,000 in a baseline configuration. Most of the company's equipment is PC-based, using software written in-house by developers at the company's home office in Sydney, Australia.

Scanner integration

The inTelmail systems have barcode/2-D data-matrix readers integrated into the on-board PCs via RS232 links. The system at Veritas incorporates a Quadrus EZ barcode/2-D data-matrix scanner supplied by Microscan Systems (Renton, WA, USA). The system uses intelligent document processing to separate papers coming from a single print stream into the sheets that belong to each customer within a print job.

Each customer has its own 2-D data-matrix identification code. From its mount beneath the VAF paper tray, the Quadrus EZ reads the code, and the document is routed according to the decoded data. The Quadrus EZ is a self-contained smart camera with built-in lighting and processing.

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FIGURE 2. Using the I/O driver board, the inTelmail feeder PC board (lower left) applies a discrete trigger signal to the Quadrus EZ camera (bottom right), which, in turn, captures the image of the 2-D code symbol. Immediately after the first successful capture and decode step, the Quadrus outputs the ASCII character string contained in the 2-D symbol to the feeder PC, where the operating software takes over to control the subsequent flow of documents. The IB-150 is a breakout box that makes all the connections linking the power supply, camera, I/O driver board, PC, and operating software.

The Quadrus EZ scanner tracks 8.5 x 11-in. documents, which are marked with a 20 x 25-mil data-matrix symbols and move at more than 200 in./s. The mail is tracked to ensure that the document is the correct one and that no document is improperly orientated, such as upside down. In subsequent steps, the mail is fed to the Kirk-Rudy inserter for folding, stuffing into envelopes, and eventual mailing.

The system will feed a stream or streams of documents at high speed, scanning the coded instructions laser-printed on the underside of each sheet in the run. One section of this code line enables the system to separate the sets, accumulating the multiple-sheet sets as they occur during the run. Another section of the code line instructs the inserter to add selected inserts to the envelope with each set, or to ink-mark or divert envelopes using a diverter option.

System design

Matt Allen, Microscan product manager for the Quadrus EZ line, says his company's optical engineers in Australia designed and built the smart camera to read data-matrix symbols at high speeds. The fully integrated package includes custom optics, internal lighting, and digital signal processing. Pushbutton autocalibration makes it easy for the operator to set up.

Microscan designed the lenses used in the custom optics and uses red LEDs for lighting. The camera's sensor is a frame-transfer CCD chip from Texas Instruments (TI; Dallas, TX, USA), which is paired with a TI digital signal-processor chip as the processor platform. The Quadrus EZ is fitted with a 25-pin connector, which has groups of pins linked to the 24-V power supply, pins accommodating RS232 communications to and from the inTelmail equipment computer and operating software PC, and other groups of pins designated for software program outputs. The equipment computer is a board-level DOS-based PC that uses an Intel (Santa Clara, CA, USA) Pentium III or 4 CPU, depending on when the board was designed. Signals to and from the Quadrus EZ are routed to and through connectors in the Microscan IB-150 breakout box, which Allen says is essentially a dumb distribution box (see Fig. 2).

Image capture must occur when the 2-D matrix symbol is within the camera field of view. Allen says the Microscan C-language ESP (Easy Setup Program) software was designed to help the user dial in the proper time-delay value so that the Quadrus EZ captures the 2-D symbol in the field of view upon receiving the trigger signal (see Fig. 3).

FIGURE 3. Microscan smart camera scanner reads laser-printed data-matrix codes on the bottoms of documents moving at up to 200 in./min.
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When inTelmail's sheet feeders are running in continuous mode, the operator applies a discrete trigger from the inTelmail Pentium PC board, using the I/O interface to the Quadrus unit, which, in turn, captures the image of the 2-D code symbol. Immediately after the first successful capture and decode step, the Quadrus EZ outputs the ASCII character string contained in the 2-D symbol to the feeder PC, where the software takes over to control the subsequent system flow of documents.

In the Veritas application, the camera reads the 2-D code on the bottom page in the paper stack. If the VAF motors are running and the inserter is cycling, the VAF software recognizes that the system is in continuous mode. The software then goes through a continuous cycling process, issuing triggers to the camera repeatedly, and advancing sheet-by-sheet to separate the pages of the individual customer packages as long as the received data meet the logic criteria.

Scanning operations

Smith says adoption of the Quadrus EZ resulted from the biggest challenge inTelmail typically faces when trying to use vision systems in the field: the limited experience most operators have with sophisticated electronic equipment. "We had searched for a long time for a self-contained unit that requires minimal manual intervention, and the Quadrus EZ has met that criterion."

Lighting is also critical at a processing speed of 200 in./s. Microscan's Allen says setting the proper shutter is required to eliminate image blur at that speed—the shutter speed for inTelmail document-processing task is 1/7000 s. Managing the shutter speed to eliminate image blur is also important because an other-than-optimum shutter speed can lead to inadequate light capture. As for the custom optics, Allen will say only that "the optics are designed to maximize light capture while the system controls shutter speed in a manner that doesn't compromise light capture."

Allen says the $3000 list price of the Microscan subsystem is attractive in contrast to the estimated $15,000 to $20,000 cost of more-complex vision systems used for similar applications. He says those systems usually require a dedicated PC and many separate components such as a frame grabber, camera, lens, and external lighting.

While there is only one Quadrus EZ in the Veritas application, Smith points out that in inTelmail solutions for other applications, there could be as many as three to deliver complete intelligence. One would be in the VAF for intelligent accumulations, one could be at the point of insertion as the documents are inserted into the envelope, and the last one would be on the back end prior to a conveyor if a third verification check is required. The latter is often needed when doing personalized ink-jet printing on envelopes or even for file-based inserting.


inTelmail USA
Microscan Systems
Texas Instruments
Veritas Document Solutions

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