Variable data printing can be best described as a form of on-demand printing in which elements such as text, graphics and images can be changed from one printed piece to the next, without stopping or slowing down the printing process while using information from a database. Over the past few years, variable data printing has become well established in the world of small-format printing. It has also become a high-caliber marketing tool. Ideal for the companies looking to hit a specific demographic, it can generate a high return on investment.
Agfa’s :M-Press TIGER, a high-speed UV-curing flatbed inkjet press, offers variable data printing capabilities via Agfa’s Apogee Vibe software. (Image courtesy of Agfa)
Variable data printing works because it enables businesses to precisely pinpoint and tailor all aspects of the direct mail campaign to their customer. A marketing message targeted for an audience of Gen Xers will differ greatly from one aimed at Baby Boomers. Every facet of printed materials can be personalized to a particular demographic. Thanks to recent advances in RIP software technology, this process is now available on a grander stage to include wide-format printing.
There are currently a number of variable data print software options available to the wide-format sector; they include Roland’s VersaWorks, Agfa’s :Apogee Vibe, ONYX ProductionHouse, HP’s SmartStream Designer, EFI’s Fiery XF and Wasatch’s SoftRIP.
A CUSTOMIZED MESSAGE
“While variable data printing has been very common for years in the small-format world for items such as T-shirts, sports jerseys, labels, name badges and awards, we see a definite move toward customization and personalization in the wide-format market,” says Eric Zimmerman, Product Manager at Irvine, Calif.-based Roland DGA Corp. “As a result, more sign businesses are using variable data printing than ever.”
Zimmerman points out that some applications for the technology include window advertisements for large retailers like Macy’s and Target, and even for franchise businesses with multiple locations, such as McDonald’s.
ONYX ProductionHouse has a variable data feature within Layout Tool that enables a user to select an image and add customized text, bar codes, and images to that original image. This feature will then generate a layout with each of the required images with the unique data applied. (Image courtesy of Onyx)
“These types of businesses market on site at their retail locations, with a chain of stores sometimes extending across regions,” he says. “And while the high-level goal is to maintain a well-defined brand, these businesses may need to present a slightly different message from store to store.”
He adds that variable data printing can also be applied to direction signage, which may follow a visual theme while including variable text and graphics to guide visitors around stadiums, campuses and other public venues.
“Other applications include real estate and shopping mall signage—really any series of visual graphics or displays with consistent overall look and varying features,” Zimmerman says.
MORE PRINT OPTIONS
“Many of our customers are moving toward more print-on-demand and customization in the marketplace,” says Tom Green, National Sales Manager, :M-Press Products, Agfa Graphics. “We see trends of print providers focusing on reducing inventory to better control costs and print buyers looking for creativity and shorter runs with quick turnarounds.
Agfa’s :M-Press Tiger can handle variable data jobs even on high-speed runs.
“Our customers are asking for ways to utilize variable data to help them better sell themselves to the end user and provide cost-effectiveness to their production workflow. There is growing awareness among brands and printers alike regarding the enhanced revenue opportunities afforded by focused, variable data imaging. This is true in various applications ranging from signage to packaging.”
SIGN SHOPS MAKING THE SHIFT
“We are seeing the initial phase of these hybrid (wide-format and small-format in the same shop) print service providers investigate solutions that provide them with a unique selling point of offering these services in wide format,” says Danielle Mattiussi, Director of Product Marketing, ONYX Graphics.
Mattiussi says that there are a couple of opportunities in using variable data in wide format.
“The first is versioning wide-format printing, which take the shape of localizing languages, pricing or images to meet a need of a shared group of print viewers,” Mattiussi says. “This is common in P.O.P. signage, where the viewers are a group of buyers who need to be informed of a price point or daily special.”
She points out another very interesting use of the concept of managing variable data inputs is in mass customization, or the ability to provide individual customization of text, art, or colors for a mass-produced product.
“For example, automation wide-format print production for cycling jerseys, custom sleeves of golf balls, or sunglasses with custom color combinations and graphics,” Mattiussi says. “With ONYX ProductionHouse software, it is possible to bridge the gap between a website where the buyer can custom design artwork, colors, and text; prepare the file for print; and output to a wide-format device automatically. In certain geographic regions of the world, customization is king and the ability to customize product at a negligible cost premium over non-customized product is certainly a competitive advantage for print service providers.”
Diversified Data produced a number of printed pieces for this marketing kit project for a summer camp utilizing variable data wide-format technology. (Image courtesy of Diversified Data)
Sarah Burton, marketing coordinator at Wasatch Computer Technology, is also seeing sign shops and wide-format printers using variable data more and more in personalized printing and web-to-print applications.
“For example, a sign shop might offer a number of banner templates online and allow clients to add text and images in specified locations on the banner,” Burton says. “With products such as Wasatch SoftRIP’s Variable Data Printing (VDP) Option, the sign shop could then take the variable data provided by the client and apply it to the template that has already been created and loaded into SoftRIP. They can then quickly and efficiently print one banner or multiple banners with different variable data information.”
Zimmerman says the production of variable data is setup in the RIP software.
“For example, Roland VersaWorks RIP software allows the user to add variable data to files within the software’s workflow,” Zimmerman says. “It works by merging text or comma separated value (CSV) data fields with a pre-defined template to create customized results, supporting popular design packages such as CorelDRAW and Adobe Illustrator. Once set up in VersaWorks, Roland printers and printer/cutters automatically process the job, producing a series of prints in which text and/or graphics change from one to the next.”
Diversified Data created this pinboard job for a client specializing in employee recognition. Each piece included the first name, last name, and a personalized message was printed on a rigid substrate on their Fuji Acuity HD flatbed printer. (Image courtesy of Diversified Data)
He reports that sign shops that serve local customers are good candidates to take advantage of the technology by personalizing marketing messages through variable data and adds that larger companies and organizations can benefit from the technology as well.
“Some great examples of customers that use variable data printing include stadiums, commercial real estate firms, grocery stores, campuses and any facility having the need for volume signage with varying messages,” Zimmermans says. “Large retail shops that operate across multiple locations can benefit from the technology as well by addressing the needs of local markets with targeted messaging.”
Agfa :Apogee Vibe
“Variable data definitely is a growing segment of the wide-format market in that print providers are seeing the advantages of utilizing it, given the proper workflow solutions,” Green says. “With Agfa’s experience in workflow and specifically in variable data printing, printers are getting a one-stop solution for optimizing print flexibility.”
Green says Agfa’s :M-Press and :Dotrix industrial inkjet presses are both capable of recording variable data. The presses can accept variable input in a variety of ways including, PDF/vt, PPML or through Agfa’s :Apogee Vibe software. Whether the requirement is for multi-language, regionalized or event driven variable run applications the presses are capable of recording customized images based on variable inputs.
Green says that Agfa’s :Apogee Vibe variable data printing solution has a proven track record with :Dotrix presses for direct integration into the :M-Press line of products. The product concentrates on wide-format printing and P.O.P./P.O.S. applications (specifically on applications variably altering text, vector elements and line art and pictures). It simplifies prepress production time (reduces RIP time, simplifies printing and reduces printing time), is PDF and Apogee Prepress based, and ultimately is driven by an established database (e.g. excel).
“The digital front end on the :M-Press and :Dotrix can accept several variable data input formats. In the case of Agfa’s Vibe software, we can take input from a database or even an Excel spreadsheet as the means for defining that portion of the print that will carry variable data,” Green says. “The variable portions of the print can include images, text, smart text, markers or barcodes. We’ve seen it used in applications for billboard or outdoor advertising for changing phone numbers or retail locations, changing prices, changing addresses or even changing language.”
Diversified Data produced this self-promotional piece printed on 6 mm Kommerling Komatex sheets and was approved by the USPS as a postcard. The card was used to direct customers to a personalized URL once they received it, so all of the information front and back on the card was highly variable and all produced using wide-format technology. (Image courtesy of Diversified Data)
Mattiussi says that there is a simple solution to create wide-format variable data jobs using RIPs such as ONYX ProductionHouse software. ONYX ProductionHouse has a variable data feature within Layout Tool that enables a user to select an image and add customized text, bar codes, and images to that original image. This feature will then generate a layout with each of the required images with the unique data applied.
“Users can import data, select an image and output directly to the targeted printer. This solution is useful for the occasional variable data job,” she says. “If a print service provider is building a cross-media marketing and print fulfillment business, and is planning on developing a significant revenue stream, the provider will want to invest in professional tools to prepare cross-media variable data jobs.”
SmartStream from HP
HP SmartStream Designer allows users to create, integrate and preview all personalization jobs—whether they contain fixed data or variable text and image elements. Diversified Data Services in Grand Rapids, Mich., has integrated SmartStream Designer into their workflow and was one of the first print providers in the country to offer wide-format variable data printing. Diversified Data opened for business in the 1980s as a data-oriented mailing company, over the last five years they have added short run digital printing to their list of services.
“Our digital printing focus allows us to execute projects quickly with a consistent focus on helping clients print exactly what they need, not what we need,” says Diversified’s co-owner Peter M. Houlihan. “From very complex variable data printing jobs to static printing projects to wide-format digital output, we are passionate about all things digital.”
He points out that about 50 percent of the jobs they do in their wide-format division includes variable data printing.
“We quickly identified wide-format technology as an area that had a lot of potential in the market we were in. Integrating variable data into wide-format technology was a natural fit for us,” Houlihan says.
Diversified’s printing arsenal includes a Fujifilm Acuity HD flatbed printer and an HP Indigo 7000 press.
“Our whole world is short run, high end digital work. Adding the Acuity flatbed gave us greater variety of things we could do and still maintain our core focus,” he says.
Roland VersaWorks RIP software allows shops to add variable data to files within the software’s workflow. (Image courtesy of Roland DGA)
Both Diversified and its client base are seeing major logistical benefits from wide-format variable data printing capabilities.
“We are achieving a streamlined prepress process for existing jobs that used to involve setting up multiple files,” Houlihan says. “Now, we build a single template and using HP SmartStream Designer software plug-in to Adobe’s InDesign, link it to a database to create the multiple versions, saving significant preparation time.”
Many of the recent projects they have produced combine wide-format printing technology and variable-data printing. In each case the data is processed using SmartStream. The data is formatted and then processed into single-page PDF files. The PDF files are then RIPped using ColorGate, which drives the job to their Fuji Acuity HD.
“We utilize HP SmartStream software to do our wide-format variable data work. Essentially once you prepare the data, you just output single page PDFs and then drive them to either a sheetfed digital device or wide format printer,” he says. “Once the single page PDFs are RIPped, you can handle imposition through ColorGate.”
Houlihan says his shop is doing a lot of work in the corporate space as well as high-end marketing kits.
“We produced a project for a summer camp that wanted customized marketing kits available to partners promoting their events,” Houlihan says. “The individual orders were generated via web-to-print, then all of the posters and boxes containing variable-data specific to the person ordering it and the outer shipping carton were all printed on the Acuity. The kit also came with a variety of other variable-data pieces that were printed on our Indigo 7000. The data template was set up using SmartStream. We performed a batch-import to bring the CSV file associated with each order into a template, and then the single-page PDF files were sent to our flatbed. We embed an invisible code in the artwork so that we could cross-reference the data to make sure that all of the unique pieces were being assembled into the proper kit.”
Houlihan says they were able to bring lenticular technology into a project for a corporate client. “Lenticular name tags were generated by pulling in all of the employee’s names and their own individual hobbies, then combining them in HumanEyes to interlace the images, and then the lens material was direct-printed on our flatbed. The end result was unique office sign that flips between the employee’s name and their hobby,” he says.
One other job was a personalized pinboard project for a client that specialized in employee recognition.
“Each piece included the first name, last name, and a personalized message for each employee. It was printed on a rigid substrate of 3/8-inch thick and output in lengths varying from 5 to 75 pieces, running these personalized pieces and output on our Acuity flatbed,” he says.
Burton points out that now print jobs have become more specialized, short-run shops are using Wasatch SoftRIP’s VDP Option to automate their printing workflows.
“This feature allows shops to charge a premium price while cutting costs and lead times,” Burton says. “The more an item is personalized, the more a shop can charge for it. With a minimal additional cost, variable data printing can easily be added to Wasatch SoftRIP, creating another option for a sales team to provide to their clients.”
She adds that a sign shop might provide signage for a fast food restaurant in 10 different cities with different weekly specials and addresses.
“With Wasatch SoftRIP’s VDP Option, the sign shop can open one base graphic with a variable data template and then quickly apply the variable data for the 10 different locations,” she says.
Fiery XF from EFI
EFI’s Fiery XF RIP supports a simple form of variable data for wide-format printing in their current version, called Job Merge.
“Job Merge allows users to define master and content jobs,” says Roland Campa, Fiery XF RIP product manager at EFI. “These two job types will then automatically be merged into one job that can be printed with variable content.”
Users can define one job to be the master job (e.g., a PDF file with a single page), and one to be the content job (e.g., a PDF file with multiple pages of varying content).
“EFI’s Fiery XF then combines these two jobs into one, so that you will get a multipage document that contains the combination of the master job and the varying content of the content job. The merge can either be done manually or you can also automate the process by importing jobs that are named in a way that XF understands how to sort them into the master job and content job category,” Campa says.