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 Variable-Data Printing: Personalized Delivery of Information for the 21st Century

Following the prospects for variable-data printing (VDP) is like following a roller coaster: Up one year; down the next.  Originally touted as a "killer application" that would sweep old-fashioned offset printing away in a tide of innovation and technology, the industry watched prospects boom, shrink, and come to life again.

By Don Monkerud

The idea of personalized printing is too exciting and the prospects too promising to die. Thanks to digital equipment manufacturers, software developers, database visionaries, and others, VDP is finding some significant successes and developing an infrastructure to address many of the difficulties that need to be overcome before it can become widespread.

While it remains to be seen whether the promise of VDP will come to fruition, forward-looking companies are adopting strategies to help VDP become more popular. They are developing crucial infrastructure to support VDP and building software to make it work as easily as most desktop applications. After the economy works out the excesses of the 1990s, industry observers expect to see significant advances. 

Making Variable Data
Work More Easily

Over a year ago, PODi began talking about templating variable-data jobs so they would work as part of a normal standard workflow and the activity began. Although PODi is only in the process of developing a standard around this, templating could soon provide a solution to VDP-based workflow. Experts from major digital companies discussed creating a new standard, based on the Hewlett-Packard's (HP) templating experience (already in pilot stage with a customer), at a Digital Print Applications and Workflow Workshop in San Francisco in November.


While unable to disclose the name of the company, a senior solutions workflows architect in digital publishing solutions at HP revealed that the company is using a templating program with a large national retail chain. The aim is to develop a distributed print solution for POP materials that promotes special offers. The national chain faces the problem of printing prices on promotional items in a fast and convenient way with materials varying from store to store. The retailer develops the special offerings in conjunction with the manufacturer, and different types of POP materials need to be printed in different sizes from price tags to self talkers to large posters.

The solution is part of HP Production Flow, the HP digital press front-end server. By adding the ability to consume PPML templates to Production Flow, the solution is quite versatile. Because Production Flow already supports HP output devices in sizes ranging from A-1 to A-6 to large format. the templates and a highly automated workflow turns jobs around in eight hours. Print jobs are even separated with cover sheets for tracking and shipping.

The customer doesn’t have to redesign a job every time. Jobs are created on a central server, accessible over the Internet, and sent to different locations for printing and then shipped to the stores. A PPML template library embedded in the system handles manipulation, merging and sending of multiple templates on the same job. By developing such templating processes, HP is using its experience with other PODi members and hopes that, by sharing, it can develop a new standard which will move the industry forward.

"Variable-data printing is a big name for multiple types of applications: Some complex, some simple," says the workflow engineer. "To be successful, users need to be more educated and knowledgeable about the process and tools. We have some tools today, but we need more applications. One of the biggest barriers today is that the graphic designer, the IT person, and the database people all have to use different tools. To grow the market, we need to enable the graphic artists to stay in their environment, the database people to use their data module, and business people to have their own modules. We hope to define the standards with interchangeable modules that use the same workflow, and allow them to choose different modules from different vendors."


A Knowledge-Based Play

The difficulties of realizing the dream of personalized printing are easily understood. Three disparate technologies need to be meshed for the concept to work as a whole. Experts from three areas that traditionally didn’t exist or didn’t deal with each other must join forces to put a new marketing concept into play, and the areas involve expertise that printers haven’t normally possessed.

Knowledge in database development and mining must be coupled with information technology to deliver output to a digital-printing device. Seldom does anyone have skills in all three areas. Such a project goes beyond the old develop-a-test-mailing-and-print SPACE model. Slowly, knowledge is developing as printers and marketers gain experience coupling these three areas. Those on the cutting edge of technology are reaping the benefits, and luckily, those with a stake in the market are sharing information.

Personalized Data Today

At Graph Expo, 17 companies demonstrated state-of-the-art VDP. PODi, the Digital Printing Institute that combines the resources of virtually every major digital printing player, brought these companies together. Working to create standards such as PPML, JDF, and most recently, templates, PODi is a major focus of the budding VDP market. Such standards allow customers to escape the ghetto of proprietary formats and give them more freedom in choosing printers.

"There are lots of big players in the market now," says Rab Govil, president of PODi. "The market was being driven by smaller players, but now the major companies are driving innovation. There’s nothing like competition to get people moving."

According to Govil, the convergence of three traditional areas of print will lead to the realization of the VDP dream. They are direct marketing, transactional, and fulfillment-on-demand, with other print segments such as labels, packaging, publishing, point-of-purchase, posters, greeting cards, business identify, and manuals making up a fourth tier.

Assisting this integration is the migration of applications from low-resolution B&W printing to high-resolution color printing, boosted by hardware and software introductions. That means traditional transaction printing, with its demands for high accuracy and redundancy, is considering moving to full-color printing with important marketing messages based on each customer’s separate profile. Whether customers will consider a purchase when paying their monthly bills remains to be seen, but the technology exists to open new vistas to transactional printers who seek to grow their market.

Bright Future for Direct Marketing

Because of the volume and the ability to deliver specific, desired information of a personal and unique nature, direct marketing with variable data could prove to be the most exciting. Take the example of a department store that allowed engaged couples to sign up for their favorite Mikita dinnerware as wedding presents. After the wedding, the information sat in a database for six months before being thrown out. Then someone thought of a new idea. The store printed a photo of the pattern the newlyweds received and gave them a discount on pieces they hadn't been given as presents. The marketing idea produced $54 in sales for every mailing—more than offsetting the cost of the project.

Another illustration involves Knapp shoes, which had a warehouse full of odd-sized shoes that it was going to sell for pennies on the dollar just to take them off its books. Someone had the idea of using a three-year-old inactive database of customers who had bought shoes. After sending a variable data postcard to individuals who had bought odd-sized shoes, including three photos of the shoes on sale, Knapps needed to generate $1 for each postcard to break even. Instead it generated $7.50 for every postcard—an 11 percent response rate from inactive customers. Although Govil says the reasons for every successful use of VDP can’t be so easily determined—sometimes researchers cannot determine exactly why a project was a success—PODi is tracking over 130 such programs currently.

No Ordinary RIP

The former barrier of RIPs being unable to operate fast enough to feed data to a print engine to produce VDP is long gone. Today companies such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Creo, and EFI are building print servers around VDP. Such servers offer many functions specialized for producing one-off pieces with 100 percent variable data.

Kathy Wilson, senior manager of product strategy and marketing for EFI, explains that EFI offers a complete VDP solution that includes Fiery FreeForm, PPML plus legacy languages, PageFlex Persona, PrintShop Mail-Fiery versions, and the new Fiery Q4000 color server. This color server integrates consistent color, network connectivity, centralized management, and a PDF-based workflow. A data center package (see illustration) connects to IBM mainframes or AS/400s while production features allow mixing of media, insertion of blank pages, subset finishing, such as stapling, sorting and collating, and tab printing and insertion of up to 40 tabs.

"People are interested in new business opportunities for variable-data printing," says Wilson. "We are working with many companies to open up variable-data printing possibilities for mid-range print engines from around 11 ppm and to high-end and full production print engines of 25 ppm and up."

Software Solutions

By incorporating an open source solution, such as PPML, a number of software companies are offering packages that make VDP easier than ever to use. The companies are too numerous to name in this article, but they include Banta Integrated Media, which has DesignMerge 4.0; Creo and the Darwin Desktop authoring tool; Exstream Software with Dialogue; GMC Software with a suite of GMC PrintNet personalization software; IBM with AFP workflow for complex variable content documents; Printsoft with tools to create personalized documents and messages for print, email, fax, Internet, XML, and SMS; Xeikon with the new IntelliStream data workflow; Atlas Software’s PrintShop Mail that supports all major RIP technologies; and Think

These software companies have formed a number of alliances and partnerships with the major equipment manufacturers such as IBM, Oce, Xerox, HP Indigo, Canon, Ricoh, Xeikon, VersaMark, NexPress, Hitachi Koki, Man Roland, and Epson. While most software providers support open standards through PPML, they also support formats such as VIPP, VPS, FreeForm, PrintStreamer, PDF, PostScript, and XML.

This software, as well as more in development, cover a spectrum of applications, from desktop, lower volume, simple jobs that tend to be designed and printed quickly to complex, automated mainframe-based jobs that require extensive setup and operate with hands-off precision. Desktop applications are sometimes used to set up testing models for higher volume jobs, and some desktop applications will also handle large volume jobs.

From desktop jobs through complex jobs, Persona from PageFlex allows the user to design documents, including images, from scratch using standard GUI tool that support common design functions such as leading, kerning, justification, and hyphenation. The user can import Quark and PageMaker files and allow for changing window sizes for text, photos, and illustrations. Persona stores and reuses variable elements to maximize RIP speed to drive the printer at its rated engine speed. A librarian tool enables users to enter metadata for selecting rules to drive variable data as well as manage text and data. Jobs can be reviewed on the fly and, because it supports PPML, Persona works with many different print engines and servers.

"EFI offers a complete workflow from PageFlex EFI," says Nanette Lyons, Sr., applications engineer at EFI. "Our workflow begins with desktop applications, such as Pageflex Persona, and goes all the way through to a RIP with a printer hooked to it.. It all works together in a seamless package."

Because there are so many software choices on the market today, users need to determine which features are more important and how the software interacts with their backend and legacy databases. What tools does each application have and can they create variable documents that will put the most interesting information in front of the customer to make a personalized project work?

Only by examining each software package in detail can one choose the best solution. Successful VDP software needs to be able to define variable text or graphic elements, assign demographic fields in a database, and organize variable content into text and graphic directories. It needs to be able to set up conditional logic to determine the text or graphic elements to be printed for each different value found in a demographic field of a database. It must also create a print file to contain both static and variable elements. These and other elements must be considered when choosing VDP software.

Print Devices

Since the first digital print engines made their debut in 1995, digital print quality has steadily improved. Today, few nonprofessionals can tell the difference between digital and offset prints. Digital printers run the gamut of speeds, print different substrates, handle VDP, offer duplex printing and print 600 dpi, and many offer finishing solutions. These high-speed machines are designed to print long-run VDP jobs.

Several four-color digital devices fit the bill for high-speed production. The Xerox DocuColor iGen3 is a sheet-fed printer that is just rolling off the line and promises better VDP printing. The DocuColor 6060 runs 60 ppm on 75- to 135-gsm stock with an 8,000-page capacity and three RIPs: Xerox DocuSP, Creo Spire, and EFI EXP6000. The Heidelberg NexPress 2100 has sold fewer than 200 presses but, because Heidelberg has a strong foothold in the commercial print market, it will sell many more to commercial printers. Running at 70 ppm and on a variety of substrates, the NexPress handles 100 percent variable data through the first PDF/PJTF implemented NexStation front end.

Known for high-speed B&W machines, the Oce CPS700, a new seven-color machine that runs at 25 ppm in either simplex or duplex modes, can RIP and print at the same time. A new mono-layered system, which requires less heat to set toner to the page, prints the "look and feel" of 400 x 1600 dpi and doesn’t curl or distort the paper. Due to its quality, the CPS700 is expected to replace some faster machines in the VDP market.

Although it has a 300 dpi, the VersaMark Vantage produces 708 ppm, with a low operating cost. Its parent, Scitex Digital Printing, is working on a higher resolution print engine for printing utility bills, bank statements, and other high-volume consumer documents at high speeds for pennies per page. Experts expect this technology to be adapted by transaction printers to add marketing capabilities to their businesses.

The new HP Indigo line is the broadest in the market, with both six- and seven-color offerings with 800 dpi and up to 52 feet per minute production speeds. Additionally, some smaller digital printers from Canon, Epson, Konica, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, and Ricoh will handle variable data, and networking them can produce high-volume jobs. No matter how one dices resolution, speed and adaptability, digital-printing devices are ready to handle VDP.

Bright Future

Once oversold as the answer to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, VDP has come down to earth. Virtually all the digital printing players are working on perfecting the process. With this type of dedication and investment, the objections, and difficulties are being worked out. It isn’t perfect yet, as anyone who delves into the code and legacy databases knows, but to anyone willing to invest the effort to put together a VDP project, the rewards are huge.

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