Mailing Equipment

The key to providing a successful and profitable mailing service hinges on a printing company’s ability to clean, sort, and manage address data files in a way that minimizes client postage costs and gets mail delivered in a timely manner. As such, our first primer article in the November 2010 issue of The Magazine dealt with mailing software.

Adding mailing services also demands an investment in mailing equipment. There are many types of equipment used by commercial printers. However, three essential pieces of equipment are tabbers, address printers, and inserters.

Making intelligent equipment purchases depends on knowing the type, run length, and frequency of mailings. The least expensive option for those anticipating low volumes at the outset is to purchase tabletop equipment. It may take about $30,000 to outfit a company with a tabletop tabber, addresser, and inserter. In general, tabletop models are slower and less appropriate for medium- to high-volume work, but may be ideal for a start-up mailing operation that is unsure of volume demands and wants to invest as little money as possible at first.

Categories of Mailer Volume





Typical Mail Run Size (appx. # of pieces)

< 20,000


> 100,000

Monthly Mail Volume
(appx. # of pieces)

< 1 mil.

1–5 mil.

> 5 mil.


Of course, purchases need to be made with an eye on future business opportunities, and this may cause a company to lean to rugged, floor-standing equipment that can more easily accommodate expected future volumes. In that case, the total investment may rise to more than $200,000. Whatever the decision, it is wise to stay with all tabletop or all floor-standing models, allowing the pieces to be moved in-line, when appropriate.

Currently, the market is flooded with used mailing equipment, just as it is with used printing equipment. Companies can probably cut their initial investment by more than half if they are willing to take the risk of purchasing previously owned and presumably older technology that may or may not have been well cared for. A less risky option is to purchase certified or refurbished used equipment directly from vendors. Printing companies get equipment at lower cost than new systems, while getting a warranty and updated components.

Let’s take a look at each piece of equipment and the issues and capabilities important to investigate prior to purchase.


Tabbing equipment is required for mass mailings of brochures, newsletters, double postcards, booklets, and other self-mailers. Tabbers automatically apply adhesive tabs or wafer seals to mail pieces. Simple tabletop models can apply one tab, while more substantial models can apply up to three 11⁄2-in. tabs in-line—necessary to meet new USPS specifications for self-mailers and booklet tabbing regulations.

Floor units can be operated in-line or standalone, as can some of the tabletop units. Many of the tabletop tabbers don’t come with an integral feeder, requiring that one be purchased, unless the machine is only going to be hooked up in-line with other devices.

The more you invest in a tabbing machine, the more likely it is to have a programmable interface, run faster, and accommodate a wider range and size of materials. Most of this equipment is also capable of applying labels and stamps, as well as tabs and seals.

Your decision will also hinge on the format of the pieces you’ll be mailing. If you print and mail booklets, for example, it would be advantageous if your tabber could meet the two tab/one tab requirement for leading and trailing edges for booklet mail in a single pass, without having to reorient the piece. Some tabbers, known as dual tabbers, can do this when hooked together or the units can be unlocked and used as standalone units. The low-end approach is to simply run booklet-sized pieces through a tabber several times, a perfectly suitable approach for companies that infrequently process this type of mail.

Tabber considerations:

Speed.Low-volume devices can apply 10,000 single tabs per hour, depending on format size. High-speed devices can handle up to 40,000 pieces per hour. Productivity declines when multiple tabs are applied.
Media Size and Shape.Typically the minimum size is 3.5×5-in., the maximum 13×17-in. The thickness of pieces also needs to be considered. Some units can accept pieces up to one-half inch thick.
Tabs/Label Types.Be aware of the range of materials the tabber being considered can apply. The most flexible devices can apply tabs (single, double, triple—including perfed and unperfed—and clear and translucent tabs), wafer seals, labels, stamps, repositionable notes, and customized stickers. Large labels require a widehead configuration, which is available on some models.
Tabs/Label Size.Some machines can run larger (2-in.) tabs.
Roll Size.Higher-volume devices can take larger-diameter rolls (up to 30,000 1-in. tabs, for example). Some units can be configured with a splice unit for uninterrupted production.
Tab Placement Accuracy.You should know the placement accuracy. Advanced microprocessor controls can result in +/- 1⁄8-in. repeatability.
Other Considerations.You should evaluate both the required amount of operator training and setup time required to move from one production run to another. As always, it is important to be confident your prospective supplier can meet your service requirements.
Additional Equipment.If you plan to move your tabber in-line with inkjet addressing systems, you may need to purchase a conveyer that bridges the gap and height difference between the different devices.
Price.New, low-end tabletop tabbers start for several thousand dollars, going up to $15,000–$50,000 for fast floor models. Used equipment is available from many distributors.

Inkjet Addressing

For mail pieces not addressed on a digital press, a commercial printer will require inkjet addressing equipment that can print fixed text, variable text, and barcodes like the Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb®). There are many approaches to inkjet addressing, including moving portable inkjet heads in-line with folders, stitchers, and inserters, which are solutions favored by larger-volume direct mail and publication printers.

For printers just getting involved with mailing, the choice will normally be a standalone tabletop or floor-standing model. The most popular choice is a thermal drop-on-demand inkjet (TIJ) unit in which the ink cartridges also contain the print head. Cartridges quickly snap into place, so you can switch to a spot color or other different ink types in seconds. The print heads are 11⁄2- to 2-in. wide, and two to four of them can be ganged together to produce a larger print width. Systems based on the cartridge technology are the least expensive initial investment compared to continuous inkjet (CIJ) and binary array systems. However, the ink purchases (about $25 per cartridge) make the per-piece operating cost more expensive. Even so, there has been a trend to TIJ because of their simplicity, up to 600×600 dpi, and relatively low maintenance.

One drawback of TIJ systems compared to other inkjet technology is that they primarily use aqueous inks. This results in either a slower running speed or the addition of an in-line infared (IR) dryer when printing on non-porous substrates. Given the range of stocks printed on by commercial printers, a dryer is probably a wise investment.

Addressing equipment considerations:

Speed.Speed will range from 2,500 per hour (simple address on #10 envelopes) in the highest resolution to 30,000 per hour in lowest resolution. TIJ technology causes print speed to drop when print resolution is increased.
Print Resolution.The resolution of TIJ units can be adjusted to print in increments between 150 and 600 dpi horizontal with vertical resolution fixed at 600 dpi. Speed slows as resolution is increased.
Ink Type.TIJ devices use water-based inks that often require an IR dryer to help dry inks on glossy surfaces. Other inkjet technologies can use solvent inks, which eliminates the need for a dryer.
Media Size and Thickness. 3.5×5-in. letters to 9×12-in. (and larger) flats can be handled. Maximum thickness ranges 0.5 to 0.75-in. The printhead-to-substrate distance for TIJ heads (or “throw” distance) is less than other inkjet technologies. Regardless, this thickness range is sufficient for almost all direct mail work.
IR Dryer.This is necessary to address non-porous stock. Choose a dryer that has sufficient power to keep up with the speed of your equipment.
Print Area.The number of printheads dictates the print area. With multiple printheads linked together, devices can print a 3- to 6-in. print width so addresses, USPS® barcodes such as the Intelligent Mail barcode (IMb®), return addresses, logos, indicia, and personalized teaser messages can be printed in a single pass. A device with one or two printheads may limit you to an address and barcode. The number of printheads is optional on some equipment so the print swath can be expanded to twelve inches and more, whereas tabletop units may not have as much flexibility.
Other Considerations.For longer runs, instead of frequently stopping to replace cartridges, some systems offer an optional bulk ink system, in which ink is supplied from an ink tank to the ink cartridges.
Additional Equipment.Equipment can be customized with a larger-capacity feeder, a longer conveyor capable of bundle sorts for improved handling and drying time, and different sized drying tables.
Price.With base, feeder, dryer, controller, and conveyor, new thermal inkjet models are $35,000–$45,000, faster continuous inkjet models $50,000–$60,000, and the fastest binary array models $100,000-plus. Tabletop units are considerably less. Used equipment is plentiful, although you need to make sure that the equipment is capable of applying an IMb.



An inserter is generally the largest and most expensive piece of mailing equipment a company will own. It takes folded sheets of paper, inserts them into an envelope, and then seals the envelope. Everyone has probably spent time manually stuffing envelopes— these machines automate the process. In fact, there is now equipment entering the market—enveloping systems—that go from roll stock to finished mail pieces without the cost of traditional envelopes.

A main factor to consider when choosing an inserter is its speed, or the number of mailings it can process per hour. Application handling and flexibility is at least as important as speed, since an inserter must be chosen that can easily handle the expected range of applications.

Tabletop models are often called folder/inserters because one or two of the feeder stations are capable of also folding the insert. This is obviously useful for an in-house mail department but less so for a commercial printer who already owns folders.

Floor model inserters are somewhat akin to saddle stitchers in that they have a moving belt, a number of feeders, and can run the spectrum of automation options, from all manual settings to pocket adjustments driven by servo motors, diagnostics to spot and account for misfeeds, the ability to selectively insert materials, and vision systems to ensure a correct match between inserts and envelope. There is generally a computer interface and the ability to generate a variety of production reports. Unlike saddle stitchers, you can add feeders to many inserters to boost capacity and the ability to include hard-to-feed material like CDs.

“Swing arm” style inserts have dominated inserting technology since the mid-twentieth century. Although most inserters in use at commercial mailing operations are still of this type, new equipment is based on friction and rotary feeding technology which can consistently feed a wider range of materials, including inserts with unusual folding configurations. These “continuous flow” machines are also considerably more productive, with a price tag to match.

Inserter considerations:

Inserting Speed.The fastest and most automated and expensive inserters are running up to 30,000 pieces per hour (pph), based on #10 envelopes. Typical speeds for mid-level floor models are 8,000–14,000 pph. Tabletop models handle 2,500–5,000 pph. Be sure to check monthly and annual volumes for tabletop units, as they are not expected to run nonstop for days on end.
Envelope Sizes.Most inserters can handle all envelope sizes through 6×9-in. Some can handle larger flats.
Insert format sizes.This is tied to the maximum envelope size. Insert size is smaller since they must meet the minimum clearance (the distance from the edge of the insert to the edge of envelope), 1⁄8-in. or more, to prevent jams.
Envelope and Insert Feeder Capacities.The longer the mail runs, the more important the capacity. Typical capacity is 200–500 pieces. Optional equipment is often available to increase capacity.
Packing Thickness.The maximum packet thickness determines the variety of mail items that can be stuffed into an envelope. The range is up to 0.25–in. for #10 or 6×9-in. envelopes; larger envelopes can be up to 0.5-in. thick.
Number of Feeders.Inserters typically come with two to six feeders. Purchasers have some ability to customize the number at time of purchase. Feeders can be added to many models, giving users peace of mind for challenging job requests that
might lie ahead.
Mailing Integrity.Depending on the clients and type of work, this may be a big issue. Some units support the ability to read optical mark recognition (OMR) and barcodes to ensure the proper inserts go into the proper envelope. Camera systems can even be added to validate some aspect of each finished envelope as it exits the inserter. High-integrity work must be taken into account when purchasing an inserter.
Other Considerations.Operator skill will make a big difference in productivity, particularly if the inserter requires a high degree of manual setup before each new job. Automation to speed setup, including programmable job settings, is available on many models.
Additional Equipment.Many options are available, including adding in-line folders, higher capacity feeders, inkjet addressing, selective inserting, output conveyer stacking, software to indicate bundle breaks, and a range of management reports.
Price.New floor inserters run from $35,000 to $500,000 for fully equipped high-end systems; higher-volume tabletop models run from $8,000 to $20,000.


Final Comment

The decision to bring mailing services in-house requires careful thought from many perspectives, including that of equipment. Does available floor space exist? Will you have the volume to justify a substantial capital investment, or will tabletop or used equipment suffice at first? How will you staff the equipment?

Mailing is anything but a simple business. However, the equipment needs are fairly clear at the outset. It will take at least an inserter to get started, and many printers will invest in all three equipment types to provide as much mailing flexibility as possible.

Published on Thursday, September 20, 2012 (updated 06/19/2015)