Introduction to Letter Folding Equipment
Letter folding equipment handles the mundane task of folding documents so you don't have to. With letter folders, you can create different types of folds, track the number of documents being folded, and streamline your mailings.
If your company sends large quantities of mail, you could improve worker efficiency and productivity with letter folding equipment. In addition to folding letters to place inside envelopes, letter folding equipment can fold flyers, brochures, newsletters, and almost any other documents that require a neat, uniform appearance. To eliminate another manual step in the mailing process, you can purchase a letter folder/inserter which folds the documents and then places them into envelopes for you.
Why buy letter folding equipment?
The primary benefit to purchasing letter folding equipment is that it helps businesses save money and increase productivity. Instead of paying employees to fold thousands of documents by hand, you could use a letter folder and complete the job in a fraction of the time. Here's a typical example:
Your company needs to fold 5,000 letters for a monthly mailing. Without a letter folder, an employee making $10 per hour can neatly fold 350 to 450 documents per hour by hand. The job would take 12 to 14 hours, costing you $120 to $140 for the labor, not including benefits.
A basic letter folder costs about $1,500 and completes the job in less than two hours. In one year - 12 mailings - you would have made up the cost. You've also freed up 10 to 12 hours per month for your employee to perform other tasks.
This BuyerZone Letter Folding Equipment Buyer's Guide will explain what you should look for in a letter folder, which features are available, how to choose the best vendor, and what it all costs.
Letter Folder Considerations
Before you purchase a letter folder, it's important to think about your folding needs and how you expect the machine to perform. Here are some of the main considerations to address.
Understanding duty cycles
You'll need to look for letter folders with the appropriate duty cycle for the number of documents you expect to fold each month. This lets you know how many documents you can fold without overworking the machine. You'll find duty cycle ratings as low as 3,000 folds per month on very small letter folders, and as high as unlimited for industrial-sized machines.
As a rule of thumb, your actual monthly volume shouldn't exceed 75% of the machine's duty cycle. If you need to fold 100,000 documents each month, for example, you should look for a duty cycle of at least 125,000.
Duty cycles also assume you will evenly spread out your usage over the month. Just because a letter folder has a rating of 100,000 folds per month doesn't mean you should process all 100,000 documents in a single project. Be careful not to exceed 35% to 40% of a letter folder's duty cycle at one time.
Manual vs. automatic setup
Another important consideration is whether you want equipment with manual or automatic settings. This determines how it will process the type of fold you want ("c-fold", "z-fold", "engineering fold", etc.) and how it works with different-sized documents.
Low- to mid-range letter folders require manual setup, where you need to physically reposition fold plates for your desired fold and readjust settings when you work with different paper sizes. With an automated letter folder, you can program both tasks on a control panel.
Manual letter folders are inexpensive, but require you to do more work by hand and may limit your fold type options. Automated letter folders come in handy when working with large volumes of documents with different folds or paper sizes, but they cost considerably more than manual folders.
Here are some other considerations to look for when shopping for letter folders:
- Capacity - In-feed capacity is how many unfolded sheets the hopper can hold before it needs to be refilled; out-feed capacity notes how many folded documents the machine can collect before you need to remove them.
- Stapled documents - Regardless whether you use manual or automatic setup, you always have to hand-feed stapled documents into the machine. Find out how many sheets of stapled paper the equipment can handle at once.
- Loudness - Since most letter folders are quite loud, you want to place the machine in a dedicated copy room or mailroom to avoid distracting your staff.
- Batch counters - This allows you to keep track of how many sheets were folded and prevent the machine from folding more than it can handle
- Project memory - Instead of programming your folder for a new job every time you use it, you can preprogram different types of folds so you only have to set up your most frequent projects once.
- Conveyer belt: This quickly moves folded documents towards the catch tray at the other end of the machine.
- Sound-deadeners: Since letter folders can be loud, this add-on muffles the noise so it doesn't disturb fellow employees.
Folding Machine Basics & Types
Letter folders are popular for two reasons: First, its versatility allows you to find an affordable solution for different folding needs. Second, it's easy to use. You simply place paper in the hopper, set the fold plates or program the control panel to select the type of fold, and turn the machine on. The equipment then folds the documents to your specifications and neatly moves them to a catch tray at the other end.
The type of paper used in your folding projects can affect the type of equipment you should use:
- Size: Most low-end machines only work with 8.5" x 11" letter or 11" x 14" legal paper, so you may need specialized equipment if you work with other paper sizes.
- Weight: This refers to the thickness of the paper stock - heavier stock requires equipment strong enough to fold it properly.
- Finish: The surface of the paper you use (smooth, glossy, textured) will indicate if you need to use equipment with rollers that pull the paper into the machine (friction feed) or a vacuum that sucks the paper in (air feed).
Friction feeder vs. air feeder
Friction feeders are standard on most low-to-mid-range letter folders. They guide paper through the machine with rubber rollers. Friction feeders are inexpensive and work best for quick, low-volume folding needs. However, the constant friction between the rollers makes the mechanism wear out over time and can damage the paper. You also can't use friction feeders for glossy or transparent paper stock, as the rollers will smudge the ink.
Letter folding equipment with air feeders uses a vacuum system that pulls the paper into the machine. It's best for high-volume folding and working with coated or glossy paper stock. Since the suction feed prevents long-term damage to the gears, these machines last longer - but they're much more expensive than friction feeders.
It's common for businesses that process different quantities of mail to use both types of letter folders. A mail house or print shop, for example, can handle smaller jobs with a friction feeder machine to help preserve the life of air feeder machines for more intense folding project.
If you want to further streamline your mailing process, a letter folder/inserter can do more of the work for you. These machines take folded documents, insert them into envelopes, and seal them shut. In addition, you can connect folder/inserters with other mailing equipment like postage meters and addressing equipment for a completely automated mailing solution.
Folder/inserters are slower than dedicated folders and also more expensive. If you need folder/inserters that work with different paper and envelope sizes or additional mailing inserts, you'll pay even more.
Other types of letter folders are more application specific. Folder/pressure sealers transform paper into self mailers by folding a sheet in half and sealing the edges, which can then be torn off to reveal the contents. These machines are commonly used for such mailings as tax refunds or debit card PIN notices.
With folder/tabbers, you can select the type of fold you want and seal the back with a small sticker (like takeout menus or church bulletins).
Letter Folding Sellers
When you're ready to purchase letter folding equipment, you generally have three options: retail superstores, manufacturers, and sellers.
Retail superstores offer basic folding machines at the lowest cost. These machines allow you to address low-volume folding needs, but they can't handle heavy workloads. More importantly, your options may be limited, access to knowledgeable sales staff will be minimal, and white-glove repairs are likely to be scarce when the equipment begins to fail.
Mailing and office equipment manufacturers are probably the most knowledgeable about how their technology works, but few actually sell direct. If they do, they'll only offer their brand of equipment so you won't have much of a selection. It could also be difficult to get service and support from a manufacturer.
With mailing equipment sellers, you may pay the highest prices for a letter folder, but you'll get the most dedicated customer service and the widest selection of products. Dedicated letter folding equipment sellers can visit your location to perform a demonstration or invite you to their facilities to test out the product. They can also offer maintenance agreements to provide service and repairs when you need them.
Regardless of which type of seller you work with, make sure they work closely with you to find the right equipment with the features you need.
Choosing the right seller
Shopping around is the best way to find the right seller to work with. Begin your search by meeting with several different sellers is a good start). They should take the time to ask questions about your letter folding needs so they can suggest the appropriate products. If they don't, you probably shouldn't work with them - you risk buying equipment insufficient for your needs or paying more than necessary.
One way to locate the right seller is to contact companies you already do business with. If you rent or other mailing equipment, find out if they also sell letter folders. Since you have an established relationship with that company, they'll be familiar with your business and may be able to give you special deals.
Customer service and support is always an important attribute to look for. You want a seller who will be there for you after the sale. Investigate how to get support if there's a problem: do they offer support by phone after work hours? Do they respond quickly to email requests? Will a technician arrive promptly if you need service?
To protect your purchase in case of problems, sellers should offer maintenance agreements in addition to the equipment's standard 90-day warranty. As you'll read in our "Pricing" section, this will cost extra, but you'll avoid the headaches and expense of service calls and major repairs.
Always have sellers perform a test run of the letter folder you're interested in. Most letter folding equipment has a sample setting that allows you to see what the finished fold will look like before full production. Have them show you how it works in person, either at your office or at their location. If they can't meet in person, have them send you a few samples of folded documents using the same type of paper you work with.
Finally, find out what kind of training the seller offers. While most letter folding equipment is intuitive, you want the seller to walk you and your staff through the functionality and answer any questions that come up. It's also a good opportunity to learn how to troubleshoot quick problems on your own and keep the machines clean for optimal performance.
The cost for letter folding equipment ranges widely depending on the machine's speed, rating, and available features. Most sellers include the cost of the equipment, delivery, setup, and training in their price, but they may elect to charge separately for those fees.
One important thing to note: it's important to buy a machine that keeps pace with your company's growth. If you expect your folding needs to increase over the next year or two, it's best to spend a little more up front so you don't risk overworking your equipment or needing an upgrade down the line.
There are different levels of pricing based on how much folding you need your equipment to perform:
- Very low volume - $200 to $300 for a small tabletop folder. These folders are sold in retail superstores and online, and best suited for the smallest businesses.
- Moderate folding volume - $800 to $1,500 for a manual, friction-feed letter folder that handles 3,000 folds per hour and about 20,000 folds per month, works with standard-sized documents, and includes a limited number of fold settings.
- Frequent folding volume - $1,800 to $2,500 for heavy-duty, manual equipment that can fold 10,000 sheets per hour and about 125,000 folds per month, works with different paper sizes and fold types, and includes other features to help streamline folding jobs.
- Automatic letter folders - $2,000 to $4,000 and more for faster setup and quicker speeds.
- Air-feed folders - $4,000 to $10,000 and more to quickly process paper of all sizes and different finishes.
- Production-level equipment - $10,000 to $15,000 and up to process 100,000 folds per hour and millions of folds per month.
The entry point for letter folder/inserters is much higher than standalone letter folders - prices for quality folder/inserters start at $4,000 and can reach as high as half a million dollars.
Basic folder/inserters can process 3,000 mail pieces per month with standard sized envelopes and limited features. Mid-range folder/inserters can handle 15,000 pieces per month and include additional features. Large-scale production equipment provides the most flexibility and allows you to process unlimited monthly mailings at speeds of 20,000 to 25,000 per hour.
Vendors offer annual maintenance contracts to ensure your equipment stays up and running. If your equipment requires service, the seller will send a technician to your location without charging you for parts and labor. They will also thoroughly clean your equipment each year.
Standard maintenance contracts cost 10% to 12% of the purchase price of the equipment and generally start after the manufacturer's warranty expires - about 90 days from the date of purchase. Depending on the seller, the contract will permit you to make service requests either as often as needed or up to a fixed amount each year.
Keep in mind that the terms of a maintenance contract are tied to your equipment's rating. For example, if your equipment has a rating of 30,000 folds per month and you overwork it by performing 50,000 folds, any damage to the machine won't be covered by your maintenance agreement.
Alternatives to purchasing new equipment
If you need high-end letter folders but can't afford the expense, a lease allows you to spread your costs out over time.
Depending on the market value of the equipment, the length of the lease, and whether you intend to purchase the equipment at the end of term, your annual lease payments can be 10% to 20% of the cost of the equipment. You can also tack on a maintenance contract for an additional 10% of the equipment's value to protect yourself against repair costs. For more information, read our Equipment Leasing Buyer's Guide.
Another way to cut costs is to buy used letter folding equipment. Vendors may offer used high-end letter folders or mid-level letter folders with a lot of life left in them. These machines are refurbished to look and perform as good as new for 20% to 40% below the cost of new equipment.
However, used low-to-mid range letter folders are generally more difficult to refurbish. Since most businesses use their equipment for many years, the machines are usually so worn down by the time they replace them that it isn't worth the hassle of fixing them up for resale.