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Variable Data Makes the Leap

Personalized Large Format POP

By Gretchen A. Peck

Commercial printers and their print-buying clientele long ago recognized the benefits of personalized print and built workflows that took in vast volumes of disparate data and blended it with static print images. The ability to customize each and every page that comes off a press changed the marketing and advertising game forever—for the better.

For example, consider email marketing. Experian Marketing Services’ 2014 publication, 2013 Email Market Study, found that personalized emails inspire six times the response, transaction, and revenue rates than non-personalized messages. And the effectiveness of personalized print is equally compelling. The study reports that customized promotional mailings may garner as much as 29 percent better open rates.


Now, digital large format print service providers (PSPs) are taking a page from the commercial print playbook and rolling out variable data print (VDP) for their own breed of print projects. 

“VDP has been hugely popular for a long time in the smaller format space, as it enables brands to easily and automatically personalize everything from postcards to brochures and catalogs,” notes Jeff DiToro, senior global software product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.

“We see a strong trend toward personalization in wide format as well,” continues DiToro. “Personalizing your marketing message is a powerful way to grab your audience’s attention. And what works for brochures and direct mail pieces also works for signage, point of purchase (POP) displays, and vehicle graphics. Increasingly, print providers are employing VDP to maintain a strong brand presence while talking directly and meaningfully to a given consumer.”

Print providers serving businesses with multiple locations can produce graphics that feature a different address or phone number on each set of prints. This includes kitted up POP rollouts with everything from window signs to floor graphics.

Large format inkjet might also be leveraged to produce custom apparel with not only repetitive graphics, but personalized text. DiToro offers an example of a little league team looking to easily incorporate the players’ names in the design of a graphic. In addition, that capability can be carried over to team photos, awards, and stickers.


When you think beyond the typical one-off type of output that many PSPs produce day in and day out, the opportunity for VDP doesn’t seem narrow or niche.


“Retail and restaurant chains can deploy signage across multiple locales with a consistent look and feel, while including the specific sale items or lunch specials at each location,” expounds DiToro. “Entertainment venues, such as sports arenas, museums, and amusement parks can present a unified look while advertising events that change from one day to the next. Perhaps one of the top applications for VDP is in the world of real estate, where individual agents need their own contact information displayed on a standard corporate sign.”


Even interior décor on adhesive-backed materials finds itself ripe for the VDP treatment, in multi-site scenarios, according to Ken VanHorn, category manager, high-volume industrial and workflow, Hewlett-Packard (HP).


“The Hilton in St. Louis, MO may have graphics in the elevators, and wall art that depicts the Arch or different landmarks around the city. Then you go to Los Angeles, CA, and you may see the iconic LAX airport sign and control tower, or the Hollywood sign,” shares VanHorn.


Larry D’Amico, VP, digital imaging, Agfa Graphics, suggests that variable data for large format work —such as POP—mostly arises among print service suppliers using production-level devices that produce as many as 200 boards per hour. D’Amico notes these types of printers give PSPs the fire power necessary to produce the variable data being fed to them.


“With slower devices, it may be easy to make a change to each PDF file and re-RIP it on the fly because you’re still keeping up with the pace of the print engine, without the need for an automated tool,” explains D’Amico.


“With variable data, where it really becomes beneficial is in the cache. You don’t want to re-RIP files every time if you don’t need to, because that can slow you down. That’s the real benefit we’re talking about with automated VDP,” he continues. “Many products on the market cache the variable data to the output, and then you’re only modifying that amount of the graphic, so it speeds up the whole RIP process.”


Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, says that print service suppliers of all sizes look to VDP as not only an added service, but as a market differentiator. “We have large customers already doing personalized print. For example, some use our Acuity flatbed printers for small and large format pieces or customers use industrial printers like the Inca Onset to produce variable data,” he explains.


Nelson shares one example of a customer who produced 32,000 banners—all variable. Another printer works with a retail chain that has 1,800 stores; it produces personalized menu boards that allow store managers to set their own pricing with corporate guidelines. An Inca Onset prints 1,800 boards, with six variations.


Building the Pipeline
In the large format print segment, the technologies to support VDP are accessible and seemingly uncomplicated.


DiToro explains how Roland’s VersaWorks RIP software supports variable data output for digital print. “When setting up the print file, the main graphics are created outside of the RIP, in a design program, and serve as the template for the print job. Variable data elements are generated outside of the RIP as well—typically in a spreadsheet using a .csv file. This data can include text, graphics, images, or any combination of these elements.”


With the design file, the user specifies the area where variable data will be printed, as well as any required design characteristics. “Then, both files are imported into VersaWorks, which automatically processes the data for production,” he adds.


“Quite frankly, in our environment—large format graphics—VDP is comparatively simple, with just the integration of an Excel spreadsheet,” notes Agfa’s D’Amico. The company created a tool that takes that Excel data and drops it onto the document, making for a straightforward process.


The greatest challenge to PSPs not already doing VDP work isn’t workflow or cost related; it’s culture, according to HP’s Ken VanHorn. “The biggest hurdle I see is deciding to make the change, because this goes beyond run lengths. It’s beyond even the book of customers the print supplier has. They have to retrain their sales team, and maybe their prepress group. So there are a lot of internal dynamics that have to happen to get them ready.”


Boutique Magic
Joshua Marquardt, owner, Art City Signs of Oshkosh, WI, describes his print shop as “boutique-y,” and often caters to an “artsy” local clientele, with personal, attentive service. He also produces a significant amount of work as outsourced projects from other print suppliers, including wraps and fleet graphics, decals, banners, murals, and other visual branding.


The PSP deploys a 52-inch Roland SOLJET Pro III XC-540 eco-solvent printer/cutter, with VersaWorks RIP software. VDP comes into play from time to time. “We caught wind of a Webinar about VDP, sat in on it, and then tried it,” recalls Marquardt.


“The Roland is so versatile and quick to work with, and with the variable data on top of that, it’s a nice fit for some of the things we do, such as invitations and picket-type signs, smaller format work for bands, weddings, special events, theatrical productions, and things like that,” he explains.


From a workflow perspective, VDP may seem daunting for print service suppliers who haven’t experimented with what the technology can achieve, but Marquardt says that it’s really quite simple for the large format specialist—not at all as complicated as the prepress workflow might be in long-run offset situations.


While variable data may seem to be an opportunity best suited for long-run work, Marquardt shares that even with smaller runs, automating VDP production helps leverage the lightning fast speed at which contemporary inkjet print engines run. He also notes how automated variable data prepress might be tied into a Web to print workflow, allowing print buyers to easily populate and vary text or graphics among print projects.


There may be a creative gap in the large format graphics space that needs to be bridged by education and collaboration. Generally speaking, print buyers are incrementally becoming more knowledgeable about what large format print equipment is capable of producing, but still require expert guidance on how consumables vary, how inks and substrates work hand-in-hand, and now, how VDP may be used to create more effective print messaging.


As it turns out, people are as critical a part of the workflow as the software and hardware. In offset printing, when variable data becomes very complex, it’s prudent for print businesses to hire data experts who know all about database integration and best practices.


Marquardt believes that the real magic in large format print happens when there’s synergy between highly skilled operators who know how to get the best results out of the print engines and creative marketing and graphics minds that can best exploit the technologies.


Investing in VDP Workflow
A common misconception about variable data is that it’s almost entirely driven by quantity. But print service suppliers shouldn’t allow run length to determine whether a VDP workflow is important to build.


“It is customer driven,” according to D’Amico. “I don’t think it’s a reflection of run lengths, and you shouldn’t assume that if you’re consistently producing longer runs that you’re ripe for variable data. It’s more often dictated by the customers you’re dealing with, and their desire to incorporate VDP into some type of marketing campaign.”


If a print supplier intends to roll out variable data output services, it should be for the right reason—return on investment (ROI).


“If you’re going to sell this, it’s got to be based on the higher return you can get by investing the time and extra effort it takes to personalize in some way,” suggests D’Amico. “And for the print buyer, there has to be a ROI, as well as better response and return rates. If those don’t exist, then you shouldn’t do it. But if you can demonstrate that personalization may bring a higher return rate—and that’s what it’s all about in advertising; that’s the ROI—then it makes the investment worthwhile.”


“The great thing about variable data is that it is an easy and inexpensive service to offer customers,” according to Roland’s DiToro. “For your shop, the benefits go well beyond the higher profit margins achieved per print. In the end, you help customers deliver more impactful marketing messages and position yourself as a valued partner in their growth and success,” he concludes.


Variable data is a large part of the buying culture. Studies prove consumers respond to targeted messaging. Digital wide format hardware and software are readily available to be used in VDP. As attested to above, integration of variable data into a file is relatively simple. Offering multiple-locale customers a unified look, while simultaneously populating certain components of a POP graphic with information more specific to a location helps vendors grow, and more importantly stand out from competition.


Apr2014, Digital Output

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