Title:
Method and apparatus for processing envelopes containing contents
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
A mail processor and a method for processing mail is provided. The mail processor severs envelopes along one or more edges and transports the envelopes to a work desk where an operator removes contents from the envelopes. A feeder draws envelopes from the bottom of a stack of mail placed in a hopper. The envelopes are serially fed by the feeder to a cutting assembly that severs each envelope along one or more edges. A transport assembly tilts each envelope in an inclined plane and presents the tilted envelope to an operator. An extractor opens the severed faces of the envelope to expose the contents to the operator and permit the operator to remove the contents from the envelope. In one embodiment of the invention, the envelope is discharged from the extractor to a verifier that confirms that the envelope is empty prior to disposal of the envelope.



Inventors:
Sammaritano, John M. (Marlton, NJ, US)
Dewitt, Robert R. (Marlton, NJ, US)
Forbes, John R. (Media, PA, US)
Huminski, David J. (Medford, NJ, US)
Kojouri, Kazem (Maple Glen, PA, US)
Melber Jr., Joseph G. (Delran, NJ, US)
Minbiole, Eric P. (Cherry Hill, NJ, US)
Sullivan, Michael C. (Ewing, NJ, US)
York, Michael E. (Cinnaminson, NJ, US)
Application Number:
10/348358
Publication Date:
05/12/2005
Filing Date:
01/21/2003
Assignee:
SAMMARITANO JOHN M.
DEWITT ROBERT R.
FORBES JOHN R.
HUMINSKI DAVID J.
KOJOURI KAZEM
MELBER JOSEPH G.JR.
MINBIOLE ERIC P.
SULLIVAN MICHAEL C.
YORK MICHAEL E.
Primary Class:
Other Classes:
53/381.3
International Classes:
B43M7/02; B65B43/26; B65B69/00; B07C; (IPC1-7): B65B43/26
View Patent Images:
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Primary Examiner:
TRUONG, THANH K
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
DANN, DORFMAN, HERRELL & SKILLMAN (PHILADELPHIA, PA, US)
Claims:
1. A device for processing envelopes containing contents, comprising: a feeder for receiving a stack of envelopes and serially feeding the envelopes, wherein the feeder comprises an input bin angled downwardly so that the envelopes in the stack are angled downwardly; a cutting area disposed forwardly of the feeder, having a substantially planar horizontal base for receiving an envelope from the feeder in a generally horizontal orientation, the cutting area comprising three cutters separated from one another, each of the cutters being operable to sever an edge of the envelope so that the envelope can be opened along three edges, wherein the cutters are positioned around the cutting area so that the envelope follows a u-shaped path in a substantially horizontal orientation over the base as the envelope is conveyed past each of the three cutters in the cutting area; a justifier disposed adjacent the cutting area, having a base that is substantially co-planar with the base of the cutting area, wherein the justifier is operable to receive the envelope from the cutting area in a substantially horizontal orientation and justify an edge of the envelope; an extractor operable to pull open the edge-severed envelopes, to present the contents to an operator while the contents are in the envelope, so that the operator can manually remove the contents; a document transport operable to receive the envelope from the justifier and convey the envelope to the extractor, wherein the transport is operable to twist the envelope so that the envelope forms an angle relative to horizontal.

2. The device of claim 1 comprising a gate associated with each of the cutters in the cutting area, wherein the gates selectively impede movement of the envelope in the cutting area.

3. The device of claim 2 wherein each gate is pivotable between a raised position in which the gate impede movement of the envelope in the cutting area, and a lowered position in which the envelope can be moved forward through the cutting area.

4. The device of claim 3 wherein each gate is selectively controlled to dampen the noise made when each gate is pivoted between the raised position and the lowered position.

5. The device of claim 1 wherein each gate operates to justify an edge of the envelope.

6. The device of claim 1 wherein the input bin is configured to receive a vertical stack of envelopes.

7. The device of claim 1 comprising a work area positioned in front of the extractor, wherein the work area is configured for the operator to be stationed in front of the extractor to remove documents from envelopes, and the cutting area is positioned adjacent the work area so that an operator can grasp an envelope at any of the three cutters while remaining at the work area.

8. The device of claim 7 wherein envelopes in the cutting area, justifier and transport remain readily accessible to the operator, so that the operator can readily remove envelopes in the event of a jam.

9. A device for processing a stack of envelopes containing contents, comprising: a feeder operable to feed an envelope from a stack of envelopes, wherein the feeder comprises: a feed belt having an engagement portion having at least one hole through the belt, and a smooth section extending substantially the entire length of the belt wherein the smooth section has a lower coefficient of friction than the engagement portion; a manifold having at least on hole to cooperate with the hole in the engagement portion of the feed belt; a vacuum source for providing negative pressure to the manifold, so that when the feed belt rotates to align the belt hole with the manifold hole, negative pressure is provided through the aligned holes to pull the envelope from the stack, wherein the vacuum source provides a constant negative pressure to the manifold; a cutter configured to receive the envelope from the feeder and sever the envelope along one or more edges; an extractor operable to open the envelope along one or more severed edges to present contents of the envelope to an operator so that the contents can be manually removed.

10. The device of claim 9 wherein the feeder comprises a retard element to impede the feeding of two envelopes simultaneously.

11. The device of claim 10 wherein the retard is pivotable upwardly away from the belt.

12. The device of claim 9 wherein the engagement portion of the belt comprises a plurality of spaced apart holes and the manifold comprises a plurality of holes spaced apart to align with the holes in the engagement portion of the belt.

13. The device of claim 12 wherein the surface of the belt adjacent the engagement portion comprises a low friction surface so that after the engagement portion of the belt engages the envelope, the low friction portion of the belt engages the next envelope in the stack to impede the feeding of two envelopes simultaneously.

14. The device of claim 9 wherein the belt has a single engagement portion, such that a complete rotation of the belt feeds a single envelope.

15. A device for processing envelopes containing contents, comprising: a feeder operable to feed an envelope from a stack of envelopes; a cutter for cutting the envelope along an edge; a pivotable gate adjacent the cutter operable to selectively impede forward movement of the envelope past the cutter, wherein the gate is operable between an opened position in which the envelope can be readily displaced past the gate, and a closed position in which the gate impedes forward movement of the envelope; a controller operable to control operation of the gate to decelerate the gate as the gate is displaced between the opened and closed positions to dampen the noise made by the gate as the gate is displaced between the opened and closed positions.

16. The device of claim 15 wherein the controller controls the gate by providing a driving force to drive the gate between the opened and closed positions, and then temporarily discontinuing the driving force while the gate is being displaced between the opened and closed positions.

17. The device of claim 16 wherein the controller is operable to reapply the driving force after the gate has been displaced between the opened and closed positions to maintain the gate in either the opened or closed position.

18. The device of claim 15 comprising a cushion positioned adjacent the gate to cushion the gate when it is displaced into the opened or closed position.

19. The device of claim 15 comprising a biasing element biasing the gate toward either the opened or closed position.

20. A method for processing envelopes containing contents, comprising the steps of: providing a stack of envelopes; feeding an envelope from the stack of envelopes; cutting the envelope along an edge; selectively impeding forward movement of the envelope past the cutter with a gate, wherein the gate is operable between an opened position in which the envelope can be readily displaced past the gate, and a closed position in which the gate impedes forward movement of the envelope; controlling the operation of the gate to decelerate the gate as the gate is displaced between the opened and closed positions to dampen the noise made by the gate as the gate is displaced between the opened and closed positions.

21. The method of claim 20 comprising the step of providing a driving force to drive the gate between the opened and closed positions, and then temporarily discontinuing the driving force while the gate is being displaced between the opened and closed positions.

22. The method of claim 21 comprising the step of reapplying the driving force after the gate has been displaced between the opened and closed positions to maintain the gate in either the opened or closed position.

22. The method of claim 20 comprising the step of cushioning the gate when the gate is displaced into the opened or closed position.

23. A device for processing envelopes containing contents, comprising: a feeder operable to feed an envelope from a stack of envelopes; a cutter for cutting the envelope along an edge; an extractor comprising: a pair of arms pivotable between a first position in which the arms are pivoted away from one another and a second position in which the arms are pivoted toward one another so that an end of each arm contacts the envelope; a vacuum source for selectively providing negative pressure to the end of each arm; a controller operable to control the displacement of the arms and the vacuum source, wherein the controller is operable to decelerate the arms as the arms are displaced toward the second position, and the controller operates to control the vacuum source to provide negative pressure while the arms decelerate toward the envelope; and a transport for conveying the envelope from the cutter to the extractor;

24. The device of claim 23 comprising a drive element connected with the arms for driving the arms from the first position to the second position, wherein the controller is operable to control the drive element to provide a drive force to drive the arms toward the second position, and wherein the controller is operable to control the driving element to temporarily discontinue the driving force before the arms are displaced into the second position.

25. The device of claim 24 herein the controller is operable to control the driving element to provide a further driving force after the driving force is discontinued and before the second arm is disposed in the second position.

26. The device of claim 23 comprising a collapsible bellows attached to the end of each arm, wherein the negative pressure from the vacuum source is provided through the bellows.

27. A method for processing envelopes containing contents, comprising the steps of: feeding an envelope from a stack of envelopes; cutting the envelope along an edge; conveying the cut envelope to an extractor comprising a pair of arms pivotable between a first position in which the arms are pivoted away from one another and a second position in which the arms are pivoted toward one another so that an end of each arm contacts the envelope; pivoting the arms from the first position to the second position while the envelope is positioned between the arms; decelerating the arms as the arms are pivoted toward the second position; and providing negative pressure to the arms while the arms decelerate toward the envelope.

28. The method of claim 27 comprising the step of providing a drive force to pivot the arms toward the second position, and temporarily discontinuing the driving force before the arms are pivoted into the second position.

29. The method of claim 28 comprising the step of providing a further driving force after the driving force is discontinued and before the second arm is disposed in the second position.

Description:

FIELD OF THE INVENTION

The present invention relates to mail processing, and more specifically to an apparatus that opens envelopes on one or more sides, presents the opened envelopes to an operator so that the operator can extract the contents from the envelopes, and discards the envelopes.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

Automated and semi-automated machines have been employed for processing documents such as bulk mail. Due to the large quantity of mail received by many companies, there has long been a need for efficient opening and sorting of incoming mail. Envelope opening and document sorting have become particularly important in the area of remittance processing.

Utility companies, phone companies, and credit card companies routinely receive thousands of payment envelopes from their customers on a daily basis. Typically, a customer payment envelope contains an invoice stub and some type of customer payment, usually in the form of a bank check or money order.

Frequently, the envelopes received in the incoming mail have varying characteristics. For instance, the height, length and thickness of the envelopes may vary. In addition, the opacity of the envelopes may vary significantly due to the differences between standard envelopes and privacy envelopes commonly used for financial documents.

In accordance with the present invention, an apparatus and method are provided for processing mail that can accommodate a batch of mail containing envelopes having different characteristics.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

In a first aspect of the present invention, a mail processor is provided which cuts open envelopes and conveys the opened envelopes to an extraction station where an operator can remove contents from the envelopes. The mail processor has a feeder that feeds envelopes from the bottom of a stack of mail placed in a hopper. The envelopes are serially fed to a cutting assembly that severs each envelope along one or more edges. The severed envelopes are sent to a transport assembly which presents each envelope to an operator. The transport assembly is operable to twist each envelope in an inclined plane and present the twisted envelope to the operator. An extractor opens the severed faces of the envelope to expose the contents to the operator and permit the operator to remove the contents from the envelope. The envelope is discharged from the extractor to a verifier that confirms that the envelope is empty and discharges the empty envelope to a waste container.

In a second aspect of the invention, a method for processing mail is provided. An envelope is drawn from the bottom of a stack of envelopes and fed to a first cutting station where the first envelope is justified and cut along a first edge. The envelope is then transported from the first cutting station to a second cutting station where the envelope is justified and cut along a second edge. The first envelope is then transported from the second cutting station to a third cutting station where the first envelope is justified and cut along a third edge. The first envelope is discharged to a transport assembly that delivers the envelope to an operator and twists the envelope at an inclined angle so that a cut edge on the envelope faces the operator. The severed faces of the envelope are opened to facilitate removal of the contents from the envelope. The envelope is then measured to verify that the contents of the envelope are removed.

DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

The foregoing summary as well as the following description will be better understood when read in conjunction with the figures in which:

FIG. 1 is a perspective view of a mail processing apparatus.

FIG. 2 is an enlarged fragmentary perspective view of the apparatus of FIG. 1, showing details of a feeder.

FIG. 3 is an enlarge fragmentary perspective view of the feeder shown in FIG. 2.

FIG. 4 is an enlarged fragmentary plan view of the apparatus illustrated in FIG. 1, showing details of a cutter area.

FIG. 5 is an enlarged fragmentary perspective view of the apparatus illustrated in FIG. 1, showing details of a transport section.

FIG. 6 is an enlarged side view of the apparatus illustrated in FIG. 1.

FIG. 7 is an enlarged fragmentary side view of the apparatus illustrated in FIG. 1, showing details of an extractor.

FIG. 8 is a side view of the extractor of FIG. 7, showing the extractor in a closed position.

FIG. 9 is an enlarged perspective view of a verifier of the apparatus illustrated in FIG. 1.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENT

Referring to the drawing figures generally, and to FIGS. 1-4 specifically, a mail processor in accordance with the present invention is shown and designated generally as 20. The mail processor 20 serially feeds envelopes from a stack and severs one, two or three edges on each envelope. The edge-severed envelopes are transported to an extractor and presented one at a time to an operator seated in the front of the extractor 70. The operator manually removes the contents from each envelope and sorts the contents as desired. After the contents are removed from an envelope, the envelope is advanced to a verifier 80, which verifies that the envelope is empty before the empty envelope is discharged into a waste container 27.

The mail processor 20 has a plurality of staging areas. In each staging area, individual envelopes are processed and temporarily held before being sent to a subsequent staging area. Envelopes are passed through eight staging areas, which include: (1) a feeder 30, (2) a first cutting station 40A, (3) a second cutting station 40B, (4) a third cutting station 40C, (5) a justification station 50, (6) a transport assembly 60, (7) an extractor 70 and (8) a verifier 80. The work desk 21 is centrally located in proximity to all the staging areas. In this way, all of the staging areas are within the operator's reach, permitting the operator to access most areas of the mail processor 20 without leaving the work desk.

Unopened envelopes are initially staged in a hopper 32 that holds the envelopes in a stacked arrangement. The bottommost envelope in the stack is drawn into the feeder 30, which is configured to draw one envelope from the stack at a time. The feeder 30 discharges the envelope to a cutting assembly 40 that contains the first cutting station 40A, second cutting station 40B and third cutting station 40C. The envelopes pass through the cutting stations and are severed on one or more sides. The envelopes are then passed to the justification station 50 which justifies a rear edge on each envelope. The justification station 50 discharges each envelope to the transport assembly 60 which tilts the severed envelope to an inclined position. The envelope is transported in the inclined position to the extraction area 70, where the envelope is opened along the severed edge or edges to permit the operator to remove the contents from the envelope. From the extraction area 70, the envelope is transported to the verifier 80, which confirms that the contents of the envelope are removed. If the envelope is empty, the verifier 80 discharges the envelope to the waste container 27, which is located beneath the verifier.

The mail processor 20 has a central controller 120 which controls the processing of envelopes through the various staging areas. The controller 120 communicates with a plurality of sensors placed in the staging areas. Each sensor monitors conditions at a staging area and sends an input signal to the controller 120 based on those conditions. Based on the input signal from the sensor, and based on parameters set by the operator for the particular job, the controller 120 sends an output signal back to the staging area to control operation at that location. For instance, a sensor in the second cutting station 40B monitors the second cutting station for the presence of envelopes. When the sensor detects no envelope in the second cutting station 40B, the sensor sends a signal to the controller 120, and the controller responds with a signal instructing the first cutting station 40A to discharge an envelope to the second cutting station. In the preferred embodiment, an LCD display panel 112 is connected to the mail processor 20 in proximity to the work desk 21 and displays information regarding the operating status of the mail processor.

The staging areas are functionally separate, and the controller 120 generally controls the operation of the staging areas independently from one another. For example, when the sensor in the second cutting station 40B sends a signal to the controller 120 indicating that there is no envelope in the second cutting station, the signal does not prompt the controller to send a signal to the first cutting station 40A to send an envelope to the second cutting station, and a simultaneous signal to the feeder 30 to send an envelope to the first cutting station. Instead, the controller 120 simply sends a signal to the first cutting station 40A to send an envelope to the second cutting station 40B. After the envelope is sent from the first cutting station 40A to the second cutting station 40B, a sensor in the first cutting station sends a signal to the controller 120 indicating that the first cutting station is empty. The controller 120 then sends a signal to the feeder 30 to send an envelope to the first cutting station 40A. The independent operation of the staging areas allows several operations to proceed simultaneously or asynchronously. In this way, if one staging area is backed up by a jam or other condition causing a stoppage, the controller 120 continues to run other areas of the mail processor 20.

The mail processor 20 and its various staging areas will now be described in more detail.

Feeder

Referring to FIG. 2, envelopes to be processed are initially placed in the hopper 32 which is configured to hold the envelopes in a stacked arrangement. The hopper 32 has a rear wall 33 and a side wall 34 joined perpendicularly to the rear wall. A bottom wall 35 is connected to the rear wall 33 and side wall 34 to form a generally rectangular receptacle with the rear wall and the side wall 34. Referring to FIG. 1, the hopper has a sloped orientation that urges the envelopes toward the rear wall 33 and side wall 34 under the force of gravity. The rear wall 33 and side wall 34 are substantially flat and act as stops that justify the envelopes along a rear edge and a side edge. However, the side wall 34 preferably has at least one ridge 38, and preferably has a plurality of ridges projecting outwardly from the side wall. The ridges 38 are configured to operate as ledges supporting the mail in the stack to reduce the weight of the stack of mail that weighs down on the envelopes in the bottom of the stack. Reducing the weight on the envelopes at the bottom of the stack reduces the likelihood of double-feeding envelopes and improves the feeding of the envelopes.

Accordingly, the ridges 38 are configured so that they project outwardly a sufficient amount to support the right-hand edge of the envelopes. For instance, the ridges may project outwardly approximately ⅛-⅜″. At the same time, the ridges are preferably configured so that the envelopes do not get hung-up on the ridges, which could prevent the stack from laying down properly on the bottom of the feeder after the bottom envelopes have been fed. Therefore, preferably, the ridges 38 project outwardly having a flat portion, and terminating in a rounded edge. The rounded edge will limit the likelihood that the envelopes will get hung-up on the ridges 38. The ridges are spaced apart from one another vertically along the wall, and preferably the spacing between the bottom-most ridge and the bottom wall 35 of the feeder is greater than the spacing between the ridges.

Preferably, the hopper 32 also includes an upper stop 37 projecting from the rear wall 33 of the hopper, laterally spaced from the side wall 34. The upper stop 37 limits the height of the stack of envelopes that can be placed in the hopper 32. Specifically, since the upper stop is spaced from the side wall 34, the upper stop limits the amount of long envelopes that can be placed in the hopper. For instance, the upper stop 37 is preferably spaced apart from the side wall a distance that is slight greater than the length of a standard #10 envelope, which is approximately 9.5″. In this way, the hopper can accommodate a stack of #10 envelope that is as high as the height of the rear wall 33. However, for envelopes that are longer than #10 envelopes, the upper stop 37 limits the height of the stack.

The bottom wall 35 has a generally rectangular aperture or cut out 36 in the bottom wall 35 of the hopper. The feeder 30 has a conveyor belt 92 that projects up through the cut out 36 of the bottom wall 35 in the hopper 32. In operation, the conveyor belt 92 draws the bottom envelope from the stack of envelopes staged in the hopper 32 and passes the bottom envelope through the feeder 30.

The feeder 30 is configured to feed envelopes one at a time from the hopper 32 and transport each envelope to the cutting assembly 40. Referring to FIG. 3, the conveyor belt 92 is driven by a drive pulley and supported by an idler pulley. During operation, the conveyor belt 92 engages and removes envelopes from the bottom of the stack in the hopper 32. The belt is divided into two sections, a smooth section 96 and a rough or gripping section 98, and includes a central layer, such as a nylon fabric. Along the smooth section 96 of the belt, the central layer is coated with an outer coating. Along the gripping section 98 of the belt, the central layer is not coated; it is exposed. In addition, in the gripping section, preferably the central layer has one or more holes, so that the gripping section is perforated. Therefore, suction can be applied through the perforation(s) in the gripping section to pull the bottom envelope in the hopper toward the belt, as discussed further below. Preferably, the gripping section 98 has a higher coefficient of friction than the smooth section. Therefore, the central layer may be formed of a material having a relatively high coefficient of friction, or the gripping section may be coated with a layer of material having a relatively high coefficient of friction. In addition, preferably the coating that covers the smooth section 96 is formed of a material having a relatively low coefficient of friction to provide a durable smooth surface. For instance, the low friction coating may be formed from HYPALON® polyethylene coating manufactured by Colorado Lining International. It should be noted that although the belt 92 preferably has a single gripping portion 98 as described above, in certain applications it may be desirable to use a belt having two or more gripping portions separated by low friction solid portions.

The input bin or hopper 32 has a pair of optical sensors that are used to monitor the feeding of the envelopes. The first sensor 100 is a sensor that detects the presence of envelopes in the hopper. If there is an envelope in the hopper, the envelope blocks the sensor indicating to the controller that there is an envelope in the hopper that can be fed. When the hopper is empty, the sensor is not blocked, indicating to the controller that the hopper is empty. The controller then sends a signal to alert the operator that the hopper is empty. Preferably, the controller 120 displays a message on the LCD panel 112 that alerts the operator that the hopper is empty.

The second sensor in the feeder 30 is a belt sensor 101 that the controller uses to control the operation of the belt 92 of the feeder. As described above, preferably the belt has a single gripping portion 98, so that a full revolution of the belt feeds a single envelope. Therefore, the controller monitors the location of the gripping portion 98 to control the feeder so that the perforations in the gripping portion are aligned with the holes in the manifold. The controller uses the belt sensor 101 to monitor the position of the gripping portion. Specifically, the belt sensor preferably comprises an I/R emitter positioned on one side of the belt and an I/R receiver positioned on the opposite side of the belt. Therefore, if the sensor is blocked, the solid portion of the belt is located over the belt sensor. Conversely, the perforations of the gripping portion allow the beam from the I/R emitter to be received by the I/R receiver, so that the gripping portion is located over the belt sensor if the belt sensor is not blocked. In this way, the controller can monitor the leading edge of the gripping section so that the controller can determine how much farther to drive the belt to align the gripping section with the manifold.

As stated earlier, the belt 92 is positioned to engage the bottom envelope in the hopper 32 and convey the envelope through the feeder 30. As shown in FIG. 2, the hopper sensor 100 is located adjacent to the belt 92 and is operable to detect the presence of an envelope that comes to rest over the belt. If an envelope should be fed, and the hopper sensor 100 indicates that an envelope is positioned over the belt, then the controller controls the feeder to feed an envelope. For instance, if the sensor in the first cutting area 40A indicates that there is no envelope in the first cutting area and the hopper sensor indicates that an envelope is located on the belt 92, then an envelope should be fed from the feeder to the first cutting area 40A. In response to these sensors, the controller 120 sends an output signal that activates a motor to drive the conveyor belt 92.

As the belt 92 is driven, the belt draws the detected envelope from the bottom of the stack using a combination of friction and suction pressure. Friction is provided by the gripping section 98 of the belt 92. The high friction material engages the bottom face of the envelope and drags the envelope through the feeder 30 as the belt is displaced. The engagement between the detected envelope and the belt 92 is enhanced by suction applied through the holes 94 in the belt. A vacuum manifold 102 is mounted directly beneath the belt 92 and is connected to a source of negative pressure, such as a vacuum pump. The vacuum manifold 102 is maintained under negative pressure and applies a vacuum through the holes 94 of the belt 92 when the gripping section 98 rotates into a position above the manifold. As such, the detected envelope is pulled down into engagement with the surface of the belt by the suction pressure applied through the holes of the belt.

The vacuum and frictional force applied to the bottom face of the envelope by the moving belt 92 is significantly higher than the frictional resistance between the top face of the envelope and the overlying stack. As such, the belt is operable to slide the bottom envelope out from under the stack without drawing the next envelope from the stack. As the belt draws the detected envelope into the feeder 30, the coated section 96 of the belt moves into place beneath the stack and above the vacuum manifold. Since there are no holes 94 through the belt 92 in the coated section 96, suction pressure in the manifold no longer penetrates through the belt. In addition, the smooth surface of the coated section 96 slidably engages the next envelope so that the next envelope does not frictionally engage the belt and gets pulled into the feeder 30.

The proper amount of suction pressure to apply through the belt 92 is largely dependent on the nature and thickness of the envelopes being fed. Preferably, the mail processor 20 has a pressure regulator that is adjustable to increase or decrease pressure as needed. The mail processor 20 may be programmable to apply a specific suction pressure in response to a parameter set by the operator that corresponds to a specific type of envelope. Accordingly, the suction force applied by the vacuum manifold 102 is preferably adjustable so that the suction force does not penetrate through the bottommost envelope and pull additional envelopes into the feeder 30.

To reduce the likelihood that the feeder 30 will draw more than one envelope from the stack at a time, the feeder has one or more retarding blocks 104 above the conveyor belt 92, as shown in FIG. 3. The retarding blocks are configured to permit passage of the bottommost envelope that engages the belt while substantially preventing passage of additional envelopes that are carried or “caught” on top of the bottommost envelope. Specifically, the retarding blocks 104 are biased into engagement with the belt by tension springs. The blocks 104 are supported by linkages that permit the blocks to be pivotally displaced away from the belt against the bias of the tension springs. When a single envelope is drawn by the belt 92, the envelope is pulled by the belt such that the forward edge of the envelope abuts the retard blocks 104. The suction force and frictional engagement between the belt and the envelope overcome resistance from the retard blocks 104. As such, the forward edge of the envelope passes under the retard blocks 104 and through the feeder. The belt 92 is driven with sufficient velocity to drive the forward edge of the envelope beneath the bottom edge of the retard blocks 104. As the envelope is driven under the retard blocks 104, the blocks are displaced upwardly from the belt and swung a small distance away from the belt on their respective linkages to create clearance for the envelope between the retard blocks and the belt.

When one or more envelopes are drawn into the feeder with the bottommost envelope, any envelopes that rest on top of the bottom envelope do not frictionally engage the gripping section 98 of the conveyor belt 92. In addition, the suction from the manifold does not penetrate through the bottom envelope and exert significant pressure on the other envelopes in the stack. As a result, the envelopes on top of the bottom envelope are generally not retained on the belt by the friction or suction forces acting on the bottom envelope. As the envelopes on the bottom envelope contact the retard blocks 104, the envelopes are restrained by the retard blocks as the bottom envelope passes beneath the retard blocks and through the feeder 30.

Cutting Assembly

The feeder 30 discharges envelopes into the cutting area 40 where the envelopes are severed along one or more edges. Referring now to FIG. 4, the cutting assembly 40 has a generally horizontal platform or floor 41. The floor 41 is divided into three cutting stations: a the first cutting station 40A, a second cutting station 40B and a third cutting station 40C. The cutting stations 40A, 40B and 40C have rotary cutters 45 that are each operable to sever an edge of an envelope as the envelopes are passed through the cutting stations. Envelopes are transported through the cutting stations 40A, 40B and 40C by a plurality of drive wheels 44 that project through the floor 41 of the cutting assembly 40. The drive wheels 44 are oriented to convey each envelope toward the rotary cutter 45 in each cutting station. The drive wheels 44 contact the underside of envelopes to carry the envelopes through the cutting assembly. A motor continuously rotates the drive wheels 44 during operation of the mail processor 20. In this way, envelopes are readily passed through the cutting stations by the drive wheels as soon as the envelopes enter the cutting station. In the preferred embodiment, the drive wheels 44 run continuously and are switched off only in the event of a stoppage. For example, the drive wheels 44 may be stopped in the event of a jam or if the hopper sensor 100 detects no more envelopes in the hopper 32. In such a case, after a predetermined delay, the system controller switches off the drive wheels 44. The delay allows the drive wheels 44 to continue running for a brief period until envelopes are cleared from the cutting assembly 40.

Envelopes are serially fed from the hopper 32 to the cutting area 40, as discussed earlier. The cutting stations are configured to sever one envelope at a time on a different edge. Referring to FIG. 4, cutting stations 40A, 40B and 40C have gates 46 that control the passage of envelopes to the cutting stations. Each gate 46 is configured and operated in a substantially similar manner. Accordingly, the following description of one of the gates is applicable to each of the gates in the cutting area.

Each gate 46 is generally rectangular and connects to a solenoid-actuated arm that extends and retracts to pivot the gate between a raised position and a lowered position. In the raised position, the gate 46 is disposed in a generally vertical orientation, which prevents the envelope from being transported out of the cutting station. In the lowered position, the gate 46 is disposed in a generally horizontal or flat orientation against the floor 41, permitting passage of envelopes out of their respective cutting stations. The gate 46 is biased toward and retained in the raised position by a biasing element. The biasing element may be a torsion spring, compression spring or tension spring formed of stainless steel or other resilient material. The gate 46 is pivotable to the lowered position by a solenoid that pivots the gate against the upward bias of the biasing element. The floor 41 has a rectangular recess 43 with dimensions slightly larger than the dimensions of the gate 46. The recess 43 is adapted to receive the gate 46 in a flush position against the floor 41 when the gate is pivoted to the lowered position. In the lowered position, the gate 46 rests inside the recess 43, permitting envelopes to be discharged from the cutting station without contacting the lowered gate.

As described above, the gate 46 is driven downwardly into an opened position by a solenoid, and is released so that a biasing element displaces the gate upwardly into a closed position. However, the gate may be operated in alternative ways. For instance, the gate may be biased downwardly into the opened position and the solenoid may be used to drive the gate upwardly into the closed position. Alternatively, rather than a solenoid, the gate could be driven by a linkage that is rotated by a motor or other drive element. Accordingly, the operation of the gates is not limited to a particular linkage or drive element.

The solenoid actuated gate 46 is operated in response to activity at other staging areas of the mail processor 20. As discussed earlier, the cutting stations 40A, 40B and 40C and justification station 50 have sensors that detect the presence and absence of envelopes. When a sensor at a particular staging area detects the absence of an envelope (i.e. when the station has “cleared”), the sensor sends a signal to raise the gate 46 at the preceding staging area. This prevents an envelope from being discharged prematurely from one staging area to a subsequent staging area, resulting in accumulation of multiple envelopes at a particular location.

The cutting stations 40A, 40B and 40C will now be described in greater detail. Envelopes are fed from the feeder 30 to the first cutting station 40A. Cutting station 40A has a guide rail 42 and a plurality of drive wheels 44 that are oriented at an angle of approximately 45° with respect to the guide rail and the gates 46, so that the drive wheels convey the envelope both forwardly toward the gate, and laterally toward the guide rail. When envelopes are fed into the first cutting station 40A, the envelopes land on top of the drive wheels 44, which urge the envelope against the guide rail. As the envelope is urged against the guide rail 42, the envelope is justified against the guide rail on a first edge.

If an envelope is present in the second cutting station, the solenoid connected to gate 46 is switched off, permitting the biasing element to pivot the gate to the raised position. In the raised position, the gate 46 temporarily blocks passage of the envelope from the first cutting station 40A. Although the drive wheels 44 continue rotating, the envelope is maintained in place by the gate 46. When the second cutting station 40B is cleared, a signal is sent to the controller 120. In response, the controller 120 sends a signal to the solenoid arm connected to gate 46 in the first cutting station 40A, and the gate is pivoted to the lowered position. In the lowered position, gate 46 rests in the recess 43 so that the gate is flush against the floor 41 to permit the envelope to be discharged from the first cutting station 40A with minimal obstruction or contact with the lowered gate. Specifically, the gate 46 is below the top edge of the drive wheels 44 so that the envelope does not contact the gate as the envelope is conveyed on the drive wheels. The drive wheels 44 advance the envelope over the lowered gate 46 while keeping the first edge justified. A rotary cutter 45 is positioned in the path of the envelope with a rotary blade positioned transversely to the direction in which the envelope is advanced. As the envelope advances past the blade, the blade severs the first edge of the envelope. The blade severs a narrow strip from the envelope and the severed strip drops through an opening in the floor 41 into a scrap chute. The scrap chute discharges the strip into a scrap bin 25.

After being severed, the envelope is advanced by the rollers into the second cutting station 40B. As with the first cutting station 40A, the second cutting station 40B has a guide rail 42 and a plurality of drive wheels 44 oriented at an angle of approximately 45° with respect to the guide rail 42. The envelopes ride on top of the drive wheels 44, which urge the envelopes against the guide rail 42. As the envelope is urged against the guide rail 42, the envelope is justified against the guide rail on a second edge. The angled rollers 44 also convey the envelope toward a gate 46, which separates the second cutting station 40B from the third cutting station 40C. As with gate 46 in cutter section 40A, the gate 46 in cutter section 40B is maintained in a raised position by a biasing element, preventing the envelope from being passed to the third cutting station 40C until the third cutting station is cleared.

When the third cutting station 40C is cleared, the sensor in the third cutting station sends a signal to the controller 120. In response, the controller 120 sends a signal to activate the solenoid connected to gate 46 in the second cutting station 40B and pivot the gate to the lowered position. In the lowered position, gate 46 rests in a recess 43 and flush with the floor 41 of the cutting assembly 40. The rollers 44 advance the envelope over the gate 46 while keeping the second edge justified. A rotary cutter 45 is positioned in the path of the envelope with a rotary blade positioned transversely to the direction in which the envelope is advanced. As the envelope advances past the blade, the blade severs the second edge of the envelope. The blade removes a relatively narrow strip from the envelope which drops through an opening in the floor 41 into the scrap chute. The scrap chute discharges the strip into the scrap bin 25.

After being severed, the envelope is advanced by the rollers 44 into the third cutting station 40C. As with the first and second cutting stations 40A and 40B, cutting station 40C has a guide rail 42 and a plurality of drive rollers 44 oriented at an angle of approximately 45° with respect to the guide rail 42. The envelopes ride on top of the drive rollers 44, which convey or bias the envelopes against the guide rail 42. As the envelope is biased against the guide rail 42, the envelope is justified against the guide rail along a third edge. The angled rollers 44 also convey the envelope toward a gate 46, which separates the third cutting station 40C from the envelope justification station 50. Gate 46 is maintained in a raised position by a biasing element, preventing the envelope from advancing to the justification station 50 until the justification station is cleared.

When the justification station 50 is cleared, a signal is sent to the controller 120. In response, the controller 120 sends a signal to activate the solenoid connected to gate 46 in the third cutting station 40C to pivot the gate to the lowered position. In the lowered position, the gate rests in a recess 43 and flush with the floor 41 of the cutting assembly 40. The rollers 44 advance the envelope over the gate 46 while keeping the third edge justified. A rotary cutter 45 is positioned in the path of the envelope with a rotary blade positioned transversely to the direction in which the envelope is advanced. As the envelope advances past the blade, the blade severs the third edge of the envelope. The blade removes a relatively narrow strip from the envelope which drops through an opening in the floor 41 into the scrap chute. The scrap chute discharges the strip into the scrap bin 25.

The three cutters 40A, 40B, 40C are operable to cut three edges of the envelopes, as discussed above. Preferably, the envelopes are fed from the feeder 30 such that the first cutter 40A cuts the right-hand or trailing edge of the envelope. Then the second cutter 40B cuts the top edge of the envelope (i.e. the edge facing the operator when the envelope is located at the extractor 70). Finally, the third cutter 40C cuts the left-hand or leading edge of the envelope.

A build-up of scraps in the scrap chute can interfere with the operation of the cutting blades, causing a jam. To reduce the potential for jams, a sensor is preferably mounted in the scrap chute to monitor the presence of scraps. If the sensor detects an accumulation of scraps beyond a threshold level, a signal is sent to the controller indicating that a build-up of scraps exists. The controller shuts down operation of the mail processor 20 in response to the signal, and a message on the LCD display prompts the operator to clear the scrap chute. The operation of the mail processor 20 resumes after the operator clears the scrap chute.

When the gates 46 are pivoted to the lowered position, noise may be generated from the gates as they contact the floor 41 of the cutting assembly. The gates 46 preferably comprise noise reduction features to dampen and minimize the sound created when the gates are pivoted to the lowered position. The floor 41 of the cutting assembly preferably comprises a plurality of stops 108 that project from the floor. The stops are operable to contact the gates as the gates are lowered and prevent the gates from contacting the floor 41. Each stop 108 is formed of a soft resilient material, such as soft plastic or rubber, that dampens noise when the gates are lowered against the stops.

Additionally, the controller 120 preferably controls the operation of the gates in a manner to minimize noise generated when the gates are lowered. In particular, the signals are preferably timed to switch on the solenoid and apply the force necessary to pivot the gates downwardly to a position just above the stops 108. When the gates reach a position just above the stops 108, the solenoid is deactivated so that the solenoid stops driving the solenoid arm forwardly. The momentum of the arm continues to drive the gate downward, but the biasing force of the spring counteracts the momentum of the moving arm to slow down the arm, allowing the gate to come to rest. Optimally, the gate comes to rest just as it reaches the stop as the force from the biasing element gradually counteracts the downward displacement of the gate. However, the gate may come to rest just before hitting the stop. In this way, the gates are slowed and preferably stopped upon contacting the stops, or immediately prior to contacting the stops, substantially eliminating noise created when the gates are lowered. After the gate contacts the stop, the solenoid is reactivated to hold the gate against the stop. In other words, the controller 120 controls the operation as follows. The solenoid is activated to drive the gate downward. Before the gate contacts the stops 108, the solenoid is deactivated briefly to allow the gate to coast to the down position against the stops. The solenoid is then reactivated to hold the gate down against the stops.

The deactivation and reactivation of the solenoid can be controlled in one of several ways to minimize noise associated with the lowering of gates. For instance, the position of the solenoid arm can be monitored and the solenoid can be deactivated and reactivated in response to the position of the solenoid arm. However, preferably, the solenoid is time controlled. Specifically, the solenoid is activated for a set period of time, and then deactivated for a set period of time before being reactivated. Preferably, these time periods can be varied to control the speed of the gate and the amount of noise dampening.

Preferably, the gate is also controlled to dampen the noise made when the gate is pivoted back up into the up position. Specifically, to raise the gate, the solenoid is deactivated and the spring displaces the gate to the raised position. Preferably, just before the gate reaches the raised position, the solenoid is activated briefly to slow down the gate. The solenoid is then deactivated again to allow the spring to maintain the gate in the completely raised position.

Similar to the lowering of the gate, the solenoid is preferably time controlled during the raising of the gate. Specifically, the solenoid is deactivated for a set period of time and then briefly reactivated for a set period of time before being deactivated again. Preferably, these time periods can be varied to control the speed that the gate is raised and the amount of dampening when the gate is raised.

Thus far, it has been assumed that envelopes passing through the cutting assembly 40 are severed on first, second and third edges. The mail processor 20 is configured to sever up to three edges of the envelope, and may be set to sever only one edge or any combination of edges, as desired. For example, the cutting assembly 40 may be operated to sever an envelope along the right edge and top edge or along the left edge and the top edge. Additionally, the cutters may be adjusted so that none of the cutters cuts an edge of the envelopes.

Edge cutting is controlled by adjusting the position of the guide rails 42 at each cutting station. The guide rails 42 are infinitely adjustable in response to rotation of adjustment dials 49. Referring to FIG. 1, each guide rail 42 is connected to a manual adjustment dial 49 that projects above the cutting assembly 40 within reach of the operator. The adjustment dials 49 are operable to move the guide rails laterally toward or away from the cutting stations to set the justified edges at a desired position relative to the cutting blades 45. By setting the position of the rails 42 relative to the blades 45, the operator can select the depth of cut along the justified edges, or select no cut along the edges. To set the depth of cut at a cutting station, the guide rail 42 is moved to a position relative to a line representing the cutting line of the blade 45. To sever the envelope edge, the guide rail 42 is adjusted to a position outside the blade line. To select no cut, the guide rail 42 is adjusted to a position inside the blade line. In the latter case, the envelope passes through the cutting station without contacting the cutting blade 45.

Justification Station

After passing through the cutting area 40, the envelope is advanced by the rollers 44 into the justification station 50. The justification station 50 justifies the bottom edge and leading edge of the envelope so that the envelope is properly located in the transport when the envelope is stopped at the extractor 70. Referring to FIG. 4, the justification station 50 comprises a rear justification wall 52 and a gate 56 that operates in a similar manner to the gates 46 in the cutting area 40. The justification station also includes a plurality of rollers 54 oriented at an angle of approximately 45° with respect to the rear justification wall and the gate 56. The rollers 54 are operable to transport the severed envelope toward the rear justification wall 52 and the gate 56 so that the envelopes are justified against the rear wall 52 and the gate 56 to justify the bottom edge and leading edge of the envelopes, respectively.

The gate 56 is connected to a solenoid actuated arm that pivots the gate between a raised position and a lowered position. In the raised position, the gate 56 is disposed in a generally vertical orientation, which prevents envelopes from being advanced from the justification station 50 to the next staging area. In the lowered position, the gate 56 is disposed in a generally horizontal or flat orientation against the floor of the justification station 50. The gate 56 is biased toward and retained in the raised position by a biasing element, which may be a torsion spring, tension spring, or compression spring formed of stainless steel or other resilient material. The gate 56 is pivoted to the lowered position by a solenoid which pivots the gate against the bias of the biasing element when the solenoid receives a signal from the processor 20. The floor of the justification station 50 has a recess 53 with dimensions slightly larger than the dimensions of the gate 56. The recess 53 is adapted to receive the gate 56 in a flush position against the floor when the gate is pivoted to the lowered position. In the lowered position, the gate 56 rests inside the recess 53, permitting envelopes to be discharged from the justification station with minimal contact with the lowered gate.

Transport Assembly

Referring now to FIG. 5, the transport assembly 60 receives envelopes from the justification station 50 and transports the envelopes to the extractor area 70 where the contents of the envelopes are removed by the operator. The transport assembly 60 has a first end which receives envelopes from the justification station, and a second end that discharges envelopes to the extractor area 70. A transport sensor 64 is mounted at the second end of the transport assembly 60 and is operable to detect the presence or absence of envelopes at the second end. When the sensor at the second end of the transport assembly 60 indicates that the second end is cleared, a signal is sent to the controller 120. In response, the controller 120 sends a signal to the solenoid arm connected to the gate 56 to pivot the gate to the lowered position. Since the gate 56 no longer restricts passage of the envelope from the justification station 50, the rollers 54 in the justification station advance the envelope into the first end of the transport assembly 60.

The transport assembly 60 comprises a pair of belts 62 that extend from the justification station and terminate prior to the extractor area 70. For clarity, one of the belts 62 is not shown in FIG. 5 so that other features may be shown. The transport belts 62 are mounted on vertical pulleys 63, 65, respectively, and extend in parallel engagement with one another. The vertical pulleys 63, 65 are located at the first end of the transport assembly 60 and are operable to receive envelopes discharged from the justification station area 50.

The belts 62 are fed around a pair of inclined pulleys 66, 68 located at the second end of the transport assembly. The inclined pulleys 66, 68 are oriented at an acute angle with respect to a vertical axis through vertical pulleys 63, 65. As such, the transport belts 62 undergo angular rotation, or twist, as they extend from the first end of the transport assembly to the second end of the transport assembly. As the belts 62 are displaced around the vertical pulleys 63, 65 and the inclined pulleys 66, 68, envelopes carried between the belts are rotated from a generally horizontal or flat orientation at the first end of the transport assembly to an inclined orientation at the second end of the transport assembly.

Ordinarily, the operator is seated at the work desk 21 looking downwardly on the extractor area 70. The inclined pulleys 66, 68 are configured to rotate the envelope so that the envelope is conveyed to the extractor 70 with a severed edge raised upwardly toward the operator, as shown in FIG. 6. In this way, the operator can comfortably look down and see into the interior of the severed envelope, enabling the operator to identify and extract the envelope contents. The inclined pulleys 66, 68 may be oriented at a large range of angles to accommodate the operators at the work desk 21. In the preferred embodiment, the inclined pulleys are oriented at an angle between 45°-60° with respect to a vertical axis.

Extractor

Referring to FIG. 5, the transport belts 62 are positioned adjacent to the extractor area 70 and discharge envelopes into the extractor area from the second end of the transport assembly 60. The extractor area 70 has an extractor belt 71 operable to receive envelopes as they are discharged from the second end of the transport assembly 60 and convey the envelopes to a pair of extractor arms 74a, 74b. The extractor arms 74a, 74b, as described in more detail later, are operable to pull apart each envelope along severed edges to present the contents of the envelope to the operator. The extractor belt 71 is driven by an extractor drive roller 73 which is oriented at the same angle as the inclined pulleys 66, 68 in the transport assembly 60. Envelopes are pinched between the extractor belt 71 and a plurality of idler rollers 75 above the belt. Like the drive roller 73, the idler rollers 75 are oriented at the same angle as the inclined pulleys 66, 68 in the transport assembly 60. In this way, the envelopes are generally maintained in the same twisted orientation as they are passed from the transport assembly 60 to the extractor belt 71.

The extractor belt 71 conveys envelopes between the extractor arms 74a, 74b and stops each envelope at a point when a preselected area on the envelope is positioned between the extractor arms. Passage of envelopes through the extractor area 70 is controlled by an extractor sensor 77 mounted beneath the extractor arms 74a, 74b. The extractor sensor 77 is operable to detect the presence or absence of envelopes between the extractor arms 74a, 74b and stop the belt when the envelopes reach a desired position between the arms. The leading edge of each envelope is detected by the extractor sensor 77 as the envelope is conveyed by the extractor belt 71 through the extractor arms. The stopping position of the envelope is determined by the transport sensor 64. When the transport sensor 64 detects the trailing edge the controller stops the motor that drives the extractor belt 71. The belt 71 is stopped when a predefined time has elapsed after the transport sensor 64 detects the trailing edge of the envelope. In this way, the envelope passes between the extractor arms 74a, 74b, and is stopped so that an interior portion of the envelope is positioned between the arms. As will be described in more detail below, the predefined elapsed time is programmable as a parameter based on the configuration of the envelopes being processed.

The foregoing description is applicable to the control of the envelopes when the device is set to be used by a right-handed operator. Specifically, for a right-handed operator, the position of the trailing edge is generally an important consideration to optimally position the envelope in front of the operator (i.e. to make it easiest for the operator to extract the contents). Alternatively, the device can be set to position the envelope for a left-handed operator. When set to position the envelope for left-handed operation, the extractor sensor 77 detects the leading edge and in response to detecting the leading edge, the controller stops the motor that drives the extractor belt 71. The belt 71 is stopped when a predefined time has elapsed after the sensor detects the leading edge of the envelope. Preferably, when the device is set for right-handed operation, the cutters are set so that the top and right-hand edges are cut open; and when the device is set for left-handed operation, the cutters are set so that the top and left-hand edges are cut open.

When the extractor sensor 77 detects the presence of an envelope between the extractor arms 74a, 74b, the sensor sends a signal to the controller 120, and the controller stops the extractor belt 71, as stated earlier. In addition, the controller sends a signal to stop the transport belts 62 in the transport assembly 60. When the extractor sensor 77 detects that the extractor area 70 is cleared, the extractor sensor sends a signal to the controller 120, and the controller activates the transport assembly 60 to convey a subsequent envelope to the extractor belt 71.

The extractor 70 operates to pull apart the faces of the edge-severed envelopes and present the contents so that an operator can easily remove the documents. After the operator removes the contents, a sensor sends a signal to the controller that the contents have been extracted. The empty envelope is then transported to the verifier 80 and another envelope is fed to the extractor 70. Referring to FIG. 1, the mail processor 20 has a sorting rack 110 located above the work desk 21. The sorting rack 110 is configured for use with a plurality of bins or shelves, which are omitted from FIG. 1 for clarity. After the operator removes the contents from an envelope, the operator can manually sort, reorient and place the contents in a bin or shelf on the sorting rack 110.

Referring now to FIGS. 7-8, the extractor 70 includes a pair of vacuum suction cups 72. The suction cups 72 are mounted on the extractor arms 74a, 74b, which are oriented toward one another so that the suction cups generally oppose one another. The extractor arms 74a, 74b are hollow and have central conduits that connect to a vacuum pump. The vacuum pump is operable to apply negative pressure through the conduits in the extractor arms 74a, 74b and through the suction cups 72. The suction cups 72 engage the faces of an envelope in the extractor 70 and pull the faces apart under the influence of the negative pressure. In FIGS. 7-8, the extractor 70 is shown in two alternative positions. Specifically, the extractor arms are pivoted away from one another in an open position in FIG. 7, and pivoted toward one another in a closed position in FIG. 8.

Referring now to FIG. 7, the extractor arms 74a, 74b straddle the extractor belt 71. Before an envelope passes in between the extractor arms 74a, 74b, the arms are pivoted away from one another. When the envelope enters the extractor, the arms 74a, 74b pivot toward one another and negative pressure is supplied to the suction cups 72 so that the suction cups engage the faces of the envelope. The arms then pivot away from one another, pulling apart the faces of the envelope. The suction cups pull the faces apart along the severed edges to allow the operator to remove the contents of the envelope.

The pivoting motion of the extractor arms 74a, 74b is controlled by an elliptical cam 76 and a pair of cam followers 78. The cam 76 is mounted on a cam shaft located beneath the pivot arms 74a, 74b. Each extractor arm 74a, 74b is connected to a follower arm 78 mounted on opposite sides of the cam 76. A motor 104 rotates the cam 76, which in turn displaces the followers 78. The followers 78 each have a circular hub 79 that cooperatively engages the profile of the cam 76. As the cam rotates 76, the hubs 79 are displaced by the profile of the cam, which in turn displaces the followers to pivot the extractor arms.

In FIG. 7, the position of the cam 76 corresponds to a position in which the extractor arms are fully opened. In this position, the hubs 79 on follower arms 78 engage the major diameter of the elliptical cam 76. In FIG. 8, the position of the cam 76 corresponds to a position in which the extractor arms are completely closed. When the extractor arms are completely closed, the hubs 79 on follower arms 78 engage the minor diameter of the elliptical cam 76.

The extractor arms 74a, 74b are biased toward the closed position by a tension spring 106, as shown in FIGS. 7-8. The tension spring 106 is connected between a lower end of one of the follower arms 78 and the cam shaft 79. The lower ends of the follower arms move toward and away from the cam shaft 79 as the extractor arms pivot. When the extractor arms are in a closed position, the hubs 79 engage the minor diameter of the cam 76, so that the lower ends of the followers are positioned closer to each other and to the cam shaft. In this condition, the spring 106 is in the contracted condition, so that tension is released from the spring 106. When the extractor arms are in an open position, the hubs 79 engage the major diameter of the cam 76, displacing the lower ends of the followers outwardly from the cam shaft. This extends the spring 106 so that the spring is in the tensioned condition, as shown in FIG. 7. In this condition, the spring biases the lower ends of the followers 78 toward one another so that the extractor arms are biased toward the closed position.

If negative pressure is applied after the suction cups 72 are pivoted into contact with the envelope faces, negative pressure may bleed through the envelope faces and pull the contents of the envelope against the faces of the envelope when the arms are pivoted away from one another. Therefore, the pivot motion of the extractor arms 74a, 74b and the application of negative pressure are preferably timed so that suction does not penetrate through the envelope and pull on the contents of the envelope. In the preferred embodiment, operation of the extractor motor is programmed to switch off as the pivot arms 74a, 74b converge upon the envelope. When the motor is shut off, the moving pivot arms 74a, 74b decelerate until the cam 76 and followers 78 come to rest. The motor is timed to shut off so that the pivot arms decelerate and preferably come to a stop within a short distance of the envelope faces. After the motor is shut off, negative pressure is applied through the suction cups 72 to pull the envelope faces outwardly in contact with the suction cups. By applying suction pressure in this manner, the suction pressure is applied to the envelope from a small distance. This distance or gap reduces the potential for suction to bleed through the envelope and pull on the contents of the envelope. After suction is applied, the suction pulls the faces of the envelope up against the suction cups. Since the suction cups are bellows-shaped, the suction cups collapse when the envelope faces contact the suction cups. When the suction cups collapse, the envelope faces are pulled away from the contents in the envelope.

After the extractor arms slow down and/or stop, the motor is resumed and the pivot arms continue to converge a short distance until the followers 78 engage the minor diameter of the elliptical cam 76. After the minor diameter of the cam 76 rotates past the follower, the pivot arms 74a, 74b and suction cups 72 move apart and pull the envelope faces outwardly. Outward movement of the pivot arms 74a, 74b continues until the followers 78 engage and rotate past the major diameter of the cam 76.

The extent to which the extractor arms 74a, 74b are pivoted away from each other is a parameter that can be varied and adjusted for a particular job. The amount that the extractor arms open is controlled by the extractor motor. When an envelope enters the extractor 70, the extractor arms 74a, 74b are fully opened. The motor drives the cam 76 so that the extractor arms 74a, 74b converge toward one another and stop just short of contacting the envelope. The distance through which the extractor arms pivot away from each other to open an envelope, and thereby expose the contents to the operator, is controlled by how much further the cam 76 is rotated after the arms are fully closed. To fully open the extractor arms 74a, 74b, the cam 76 is rotated another ninety degrees past the point where the arms are fully closed, and then stopped. To open the extractor arms 74a, 74b to an intermediate position, after the extractor arms are fully closed, the cam is rotated less than ninety degrees before being stopped.

When the extractor arms are opened to an intermediate position, the bias force of the tension spring 106 on the follower 78 and cam 76 may cause the cam to rotate in a reverse direction. To limit the reverse rotation caused by the tension spring 106, the rotary motion of the motor is preferably transmitted to the cam by a ratchet-type clutch so that the cam can only rotate in one direction.

As stated earlier, the extractor belt 71 is stopped when a predefined time has elapsed after the transport sensor 64 detects the trailing edge of an envelope. In this way, the envelope is stopped so that an interior portion of the envelope is positioned between the extractor arms. The predefined elapsed time is programmable as a parameter based on the configuration of the envelopes being processed. More specifically, the elapsed time is programmed so that the suction cups 72 engage the envelope at a generally central location and away from windows or other features that interfere with extraction. Many envelopes have open windows or apertures through the front face of the envelope. If a suction cup 72 engages the envelope at or near the window, the suction pressure may pull on the contents of the envelope and interfere with extraction. Similar results can occur if the suction cups 72 engage plastic covered windows on envelopes. The elapsed time between initial detection of an envelope at the extractor 70, and stoppage of the extractor belt 71 is programmable as a function of several variables, including the location of windows relative to the leading edge of the envelope, and the velocity of the belt. As such, the extractor operation can be modified when necessary to accommodate specific envelope designs.

As noted earlier, the extractor belt 71 and idler rollers 75 engage and pinch the envelope as the belt transports the envelope through the extraction area 70. Preferably, the envelope is positioned so that the top edge of the envelope is optimally positioned for convenient removal of the contents. To properly position the envelopes in the transport, the bottom edge of the envelopes are justified by the justification station 50. The bottom edge of the envelope may be controlled by adjusting the rear justification wall 52 in the justification station 50. The rear justification wall 52 is adjustable to set the bottom edge of the envelope at a desired alignment relative to the extractor belt 71 and idler rollers 75.

The extractor 70 has one or more sensors operable to scan the envelope and detect when the contents of the envelope have been removed. When the sensor detects that the contents have been removed, the sensor sends a signal to the controller 120, and the controller activates the extractor belt 71 to convey the envelope to the verifier 80. In addition, if an envelope is sitting at the second end of the transport assembly 60, the controller activates the transport belts 62 to advance that envelope to the extractor belt 71.

The extractor 70 operates in three different modes for determining whether the contents have been extracted from the envelope: removal mode, differential mode, and content activation mode. The simplest mode is the removal mode. A pair of optical sensors 196 (see FIG. 1) are located on the work desk 21 in front of the extractor area 70, as shown in FIG. 1. The sensors 196 are offset from one another, with one sensor disposed to the left side of the extractor area 70 and the other sensor disposed on the right side of the extractor area. When the operator removes the contents from an envelope, the contents are passed over one of the sensors 196, depending on whether the operator removes the contents with his or her left hand or right hand. In particular, the contents are generally passed over the left sensor when removed with the operator's left hand, and over the right sensor when removed with the operator's right hand. Preferably, the mail processor 20 is programmable so that the operator can enter a parameter to designate left-handed extraction or right-handed extraction. In this way, the controller 120 can be programmed to switch on the sensor 196 corresponding to the hand used during extraction, and leave the other sensor deactivated.

In the differential mode, an optical sensor beneath the extractor arms 74a, 74b measures the thickness of each envelope immediately after the extractor arms pull apart the faces of the envelope. That is, the thickness of the envelope is measured before the operator extracts the contents. The optical sensor continuously measures the thickness of the envelope and its contents, and calculates the difference between the measured thickness and the initial thickness. If the difference in thickness is greater than a predetermined limit, a signal is sent to the controller 120 indicating that the contents were removed from the envelope. The controller 120 then advances the envelope to the verifier 80 and advances a next envelope from the transport assembly 60 to the extractor belt 71. Preferably, the work desk 21 includes a second optical sensor similar to the first sensor. The second sensor monitors the thickness of the envelope in the same way as the first sensor. When two sensors are employed, the measurements from the two sensors are averaged and compared against the predetermined limit to determine whether the contents were extracted. Use of multiple sensors decreases the potential for advancing an envelope based on an inaccurate thickness measurement.

If the operator removes all of the contents from the envelope, but the differential thickness is not greater than the predetermined limit, the envelope will not be advanced from the extractor 70. In such instances, the operator can advance the empty envelope by pressing an override button (not shown). Pressing the button activates the extractor drive roller 73 and belt 71 to advance the empty envelope to the verifier 80. Pressing the button may also advance any envelope in the transport assembly 60 into the extractor area 70.

The content activation mode is like the differential mode in that the sensor continuously measures the thickness of the envelope as the envelope sits in the extractor area. However, in the content activation mode, the sensor measures the thickness of the envelope after the contents is removed. In addition, the thickness measured by the sensor is compared to a thickness standard based on the thickness of an envelope and a variation tolerance. If the sensor detects a thickness that is less than the thickness standard, a signal is sent to the controller indicating that the contents were removed from the envelope. The envelope is then advanced to the verifier 80, and any envelope staged in the transport assembly 60 is conveyed to the extractor belt 71. Preferably, two sensors are employed, both of which monitor the thickness of the envelope, as described above. When two sensors are employed, the measurements from the two sensors are averaged and the average is compared against the thickness standard.

If the operator removes the contents from the envelope, but the thickness detected by the sensor is not below the thickness standard, the envelope does not advance. In such instances, the operator can advance the empty envelope by pressing the override button. When the override button is pressed, the controller 120 sends a signal that activates the extractor belt 71. The extractor belt then conveys the empty envelope to the verifier 80. In addition, if an envelope is staged in the transport assembly 60, the controller 120 sends a signal to activate the transport belts 62 which discharge the staged envelope to the extractor area 70.

The thickness standard used in the content activation mode can be determined in several ways. For example, the thickness standard can be based on the first envelope in a job. To do so, a job is placed in the hopper 32, and the mail processor 20 advances the lead envelope in the job through the cutting assembly 40, justification station 50 and transport assembly 60 to the extractor 70. The operator then removes the contents from the envelope, and the thickness sensor measures the thickness of the envelope after the contents are extracted. The thickness standard is then calculated based on the thickness of the empty envelope and a predetermined variation tolerance. To advance the first envelope to the verifier 80, the operator presses the override button.

Alternatively, and preferably, the thickness standard is calculated based on the average thickness of the envelopes processed in a job. To determine the thickness standard, a job is placed into the hopper 32, and the mail processor 20 advances the first envelope in the job to the extractor 70. The operator then removes the contents from the envelope. After the operator ensures that the contents have been removed, the operator presses the override button and the sensor checks the thickness of the empty envelope. The thickness value is stored and the thickness standard is calculated based on the stored thickness and a predetermined tolerance. The empty envelope is then conveyed to the verifier 80 and the second envelope in the job is conveyed to the extractor 70. The operator then removes the contents of the second envelope. If the thickness of the second empty envelope is less than the standard based on the first envelope, then the second envelope is assumed to be empty. The thickness of the second envelope is stored and the thicknesses of the first two envelopes are averaged to establish a new thickness standard. The second envelope is conveyed to the verifier 80, and a third envelope in the job is conveyed to the extractor 70. If, on the other hand, the thickness of the empty second envelope is greater than the standard based on the first envelope, then the operator must advance the second envelope by pressing the override button after checking to ensure the contents were removed.

As envelopes in the job are processed, each successive envelope is compared against a thickness standard based on the average thickness of the previous empty envelopes in the job. To reduce the amount of stored information, a maximum of sixteen empty envelopes are used to determine the average thickness. For example, if the 100th envelope enters the extractor 70 and its contents are removed, the thickness of the empty 100th envelope is compared against a standard based on the average of the thicknesses of envelopes 84 through 99.

The verifier 80 is located at the end of the extractor belts 71. The verifier 80 checks the thickness of each envelope to ensure that all of the contents have been removed from the envelope before the envelope is discarded into the waste container 27. The verifier 80 can use an optical sensor to check the thickness of the envelope, similar to the optical sensor or sensors used by the extractor 70. However, the verifier preferably checks the thickness of the envelope by measuring the distance between the outer surfaces of the envelope faces. To measure this distance, the verifier 80 includes a Hall effects sensor 82, as shown in FIG. 9.

The Hall effects sensor 82 includes a sensor board 83 disposed adjacent a magnet 84 that is mounted on a linkage that biases the magnet toward the sensor. The magnetic field created by the magnet 84 is measured by the sensor board 83 as a function of the distance between the magnet and sensor. The magnet and sensor are linked to a pair of rollers 87 between which envelopes are pinched when the envelopes enter the verifier 80. When an envelope enters the verifier 80, the arms are forced apart, thereby separating the magnet 84 and the sensor board 83 accordingly, changing the magnetic field intensity. To determine a zero thickness reference value, an empty envelope is fed to the verifier, and the sensor 82 takes a magnetic field measurement corresponding to the thickness of the empty envelope. The status of subsequent envelopes are determined based on the zero thickness reference value.

Alternatively, the reference value used by the verifier 80 to check the envelopes is calculated based on the average thickness of the previous sixteen envelopes and a variation tolerance, similar to the method described above for determining a thickness standard for the extraction step in the content activation mode. However, in the present instance, the calculation of the reference value differs from the calculation of the standard used in the extraction step. When calculating the reference value for the verifier 80, if the measured thickness of an empty envelope is greater than the current reference value, the thickness measurement for the envelope is not factored into the running average. For example, when calculating the thickness reference for the 100th envelope in a job, if the thickness of the 90th empty envelope was thicker than the reference value based on the previous sixteen envelopes, the thickness of the 90th envelope would not be included in the average used to calculate the reference value for the 100th envelope. Therefore, the reference value for the 100th envelope would be based on the average thickness of envelopes 83 through 89 and 91 through 99, assuming that the thicknesses of those envelopes were less than the reference value at the time they were measured.

If the verifier 80 measures a thickness that is greater than the reference value, then a signal is sent to the controller 120 indicating that the envelope in the verifier 80 is not empty. An indicator light (not shown) is lit indicating to the operator that the envelope at the verifier should be removed and checked to ensure that all of the contents were removed. A verifier sensor 95 adjacent the Hall effects sensor 82 detects the presence of the envelope in the verifier 80. Until the operator removes the envelope from the verifier, the extractor belt 71 will not advance any envelopes, regardless of whether the envelope in the extractor area 70 is empty. Further, as long as an envelope is staged in the verifier 80, the extractor belt 71 will not advance any envelopes past the extractor 70 when the override button is pressed.

If the verifier 80 detects a thickness that is less than the reference value, a signal is sent to the controller 120 indicating that the envelope at the verifier is empty. The controller 120 then activates the extractor belt 71 to advance the envelope out of the extractor and into a trash chute that discards the envelope into the waste container 27 beneath the verifier 80. If an envelope is staged in the extractor 70, the extractor belt 71 conveys that envelope to the verifier 80, assuming that the sensors in the extractor area detect an empty envelope.

The controller 120 controls the operation of the extraction transport belt 71 to ensure that the trailing edge of each envelope stops in the same position in the verifier 80 relative to the Hall effect sensor 82. By monitoring the trailing edge, the mail processor 20 ensures that an envelope is not accidentally fed past the verifier 80 and directly into the waste container 27 when a job of variable length envelopes is processed.

The terms and expressions which have been employed are used as terms of description and not of limitation. There is no intention in the use of such terms and expressions of excluding any equivalents of the features shown and described or portions thereof. It is recognized, therefore, that various modifications are possible within the scope and spirit of the invention. Accordingly, the invention incorporates variations that fall within the scope of the following claims.