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IDS Develop and Manage Hybrid Mail System for UK Mail

UK Mail instructed IDS to develop and maintain a hybrid mail system that would allow their customers to compose, manage and post mail using a Web application, print client, API and even an iPhone app.

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Background

UK Mail, part of the Business Post Group, is one of the leading parcel and mail distributors in the UK. Recently, with the help of IDS, they have become the UK’s foremost provider of hybrid mail that allows users to transmit mail from the convenience of their computer, laptop or iPhone to a UK Mail depot closest to the recipient. Here it is printed, inserted into a pre-paid envelope then posted.

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Challenge

UK Mail 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, UK Mail 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.

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Solution

With 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 UK Mail.

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 UK Mail 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 known as imail.

Customer-facing Systems

A team of IDS developers and support engineers spent twelve months creating, testing and implementing the following customer-facing imail systems:

  • Web application
  • Print client
  • API and AutoLink
  • iPhone app

Each system provides UK Mail customers with a different mechanism for transmitting mail documents such as letters, postcards and mailshots to UK Mail depots where printing and finishing is performed.

Web Application

Developed using a combination of HTML, JavaScript and .Net, the imail Web application allows users to conveniently compose and manage pieces of mail using their Internet browser before transmitting them to imail’s backend system.

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.

Click here to try the imail Web application.

Print Client

UK Mail realised that many customers who could benefit from using imail 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 imail print client from their application’s print dialog then use its intuitive interface to specify output settings and transmit their mail to imail’s backend system.

Click here to download and try the imail print client (13.6 MB).

API and AutoLink

IDS developed an application programming interface (API) to allow documents produced by user’s own applications to be seamlessly transmitted to imail’s backend system.

The API runs as a Windows service on the imail 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.

Click here to download and try imail AutoLink (8.49 MB).

iPhone App

With the popularity of iPhone apps, UK Mail wanted to provide its customers with a facility to compose then transmit postcards from their iPhone to imail. IDS developed then released an imail 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 imail’s backend system.

In September 2011 the app was awarded “Travel App of the Week” by the Sunday Times.

Backend System

The imail 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 imail 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 UK Mail 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 UK Mail 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 UK Mail 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 imail server to other UK Mail depots for printing.

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 UK Mail to Royal Mail depots.

Support, Maintenance and Management

A team of IDS developers and support engineers continue to enhance, maintain and support the imail customer-facing and backend systems. An IDS analyst is also assigned to liaise with UK Mail so new features and enhancements to existing functionality can be discussed.

Enhancements

During initial consultation with IDS, UK Mail insisted imail 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:

MyData

Allows UK Mail 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 imail.

iCanvas

Allows UK Mail 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 imail.

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Benefits

  • 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 UK Mail’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 imail 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 imail 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 UK Mail are logistically practical.
Click here to visit the UK Mail website and view a list of imail customer benefits.

Establish Your Own Hybrid Mail System

Click here if you are interested in establishing your own hybrid mail system.

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Article No:
700007
Date Added:
12/07/2012 14:50:31
Last Updated:
30/03/2015 13:32:38
Author:
Mark Williams from Funasset
Company:
1