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Forecast: Variable Winds

(October 2008) posted on Thu Oct 30, 2008

Tackling variable data? Be sure you know your shop's capabilities.

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By Stephen Beals

Variable-data printing has always been a specialized field, but today it’s more specialized than ever. If a service provider is asked "Do you do variable printing?" today the answer is probably, "Yes."

But that answer could mean totally different things. Anyone executing digital printing can easily produce "one-off" prints and call this "variable printing." But that might not be what the questioner had in mind. In fact, it most likely is not. After all, simply putting different addresses on a printed label is certainly an example of variable-data printing, but your customers can do that easily enough on their desktop computer with a very basic mailing program.

We really need to find out what the question is before we can answer it, and before we can find out what services we can provide as print providers. What does the prospective customer mean by "variable printing?"

These days, there are several unique categories and subcategories of variable printing, each requiring its own unique infrastructure and capabilities. The software and hardware needed to create different types of variable-print output also run the gamut, which is a major reason print providers have sought specialized niches in the marketplace: It’s simply not cost effective for small and mid-sized print shops to try to be all things to all people.

The economics of variable success
The key to success in variable print is economics. Two essential economic factors come into play here:

The first factor is the cost of delivering the client’s message: the base cost of time, materials, assembly, storage, and shipping costs. Rising real-estate and transportation costs have had a significant impact here. Companies simply don’t want to print large quantities of printed materials and store them for future use. The Internet has helped escalate the demand for timeliness and quick turnaround as well. As a result, it’s little wonder that press runs continue their downward spiral. But short-run printing and cost savings found in digital production doesn’t necessarily mean that every piece needs to be different. So this economic factor alone does not necessitate investing in a variable-data workflow-but it does provide the digital-workflow backbone on which a variable solution can be built.