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Personalizing Your Client's Graphics

(October 2006) posted on Thu Oct 26, 2006

Variable-data opportunities for wide format are out there.


By Nancy Hitchcock

Dressed in black from helmet to cleats, the young athlete scoops up the ball, rushes down the field, dodges around his opponents, and hammers the ball into the net for the winning goal of the lacrosse game. On the sidelines, the parents eagerly look at one another and ask, "Who was that stellar athlete?"?


If the player had been wearing a jersey customized with his name printed on the back"?rather than blending into a sea of black team shirts and helmets"?the fans could have recognized the superstar.


Of course, individualizing team jerseys and similar merchandise has always been possible with certain non-digital methods and tools. But, today, using variable-data technology, print providers can produce a range of customized projects, including promotional items, point-of-purchase signs and posters, labels, and even sports jerseys and/or bibs"?so that star athletes don"?t go unnoticed. With variable-data tools, printers are generating customized products in a more efficient workflow. Furthermore, with the capability to customize print jobs, companies are gaining new sources of revenue and those that are taking advantage of the variable-data capabilities are reaping rewards.


In the last few years, variable-data printing in the graphic-arts industry has indeed been showing strong growth, according to a report from consulting firm TrendWatch Graphic Arts. The report, "Variable Data Printing 2006: Growth and Changes in the Marketplace,"? reveals that 37% of graphic-arts firms, including printers and trade shops, are producing VDP jobs.


In the wide-format market, though, adoption of variable-data printing (VDP) has been slow in comparison to the narrow-format VDP market. Although the technology is now available to produce customized prints with variable data for large-format applications, only a small percentage of print providers are actually taking advantage of those capabilities.


Get spreadsheet, press "?go"?


Some savvy leaders in the market are finding their niche and experiencing the benefits of variable, however. Mt. Borah Designs (www.mtborah.com) in Coon Valley, WI, for example, creates athletic outdoor apparel, and has spun off a division called Customsublimation.com (www.customsublimation.com), producing custom, made-to-order sports apparel (customers can even design their own jerseys). By using two Mimaki JV4s and Wasatch SoftRIP software, the company can print numerical sequences for race bibs for different sporting events or add names to team jerseys, for example.


In the past, the company created individual files for the variable information, a time-consuming task that included both making and RIP"?ing the files. In some cases, Mt. Borah outsourced the jobs. "We used to spend quite a bit of money having another company create the files in Adobe Illustrator, and we had to have a discreet file for each number, which was very cumbersome,"? explains Kenny Crook, Mt. Borah vice president and general manager. "Now, customers provide us with a spreadsheet with the names in it and we import that into Wasatch and press "?go."? We basically paid for the software with the first job we did, so the return on investment was almost instantaneous."?


The technology improved efficiencies in production. "The RIP time can be pretty significant in a variable-data job,"? says Crook. "I still create 200 bibs"?it"?s just that I"?m creating the 200 from a single Illustrator file. The nice part about it is that I can start the process and walk away and do something else.


"Whereas if I have to RIP individual files, then I"?ve got to have someone sitting there opening and RIP"?ing each file. It does take computer time, but not necessarily individual time. It"?s both savings in money in creating files and savings in time. And in our business we have the inevitable rework, so in the past if we had a huge file containing all these numbers in it, someone would have to find the right number, crop it out, and RIP that. Now, we just call up the template and tell it the number. It"?s a tremendous savings."?


Furthermore, in its all-digital shop, the company has gained new revenue: "The technology is giving us an opportunity to pause and rethink our business model,"? says Crook. "It gives us a growth opportunity where customization wasn"?t possible before. It gives us an up-sell opportunity now. If somebody places an order for 30 jerseys and our sales rep suggests name tagging and all they have to do is provide a spreadsheet, then we get extra revenue we wouldn"?t normally have gotten."?


Offering up solutions, analyzing the curve


"Speed improvements are a major reason that people would want to do variable data,"? says Walter Noot, president and CEO of Onyx Graphics. The company has recently added a variable-data tool optimized for large-format printing in version 7 of its ProductionHouse software. Users can create batches of print jobs because the software RIPs the background image only once and can import variable information such as images, text, logos, or bar codes.


Variable data is still in its infancy in this market, Noot points out, and people are not completely taking advantage of it yet. The software, he says, will help printers sell more signs because they can quickly and inexpensively create signs customized for every location. "P-O-P is the hot market,"? he declares. "I believe that"?s where variable data will be used the most."?


Wasatch Computer Technology introduced a RIP with a VDP option in 2005, and has been improving the product ever since. Wasatch SoftRIP enables users to create customized products by adding changing text or graphics to a standard file; users can import data from a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or any database that exports to ASCII text format.


"The people that it"?s very easy to sell this kind of tool to are the ones doing the exact same thing in a very hard way,"? explains Alison Johnson, marketing manager. "We had one customer doing limited-edition NASCAR prints and for each of the 500 prints, they had to change the numbers 1 to 500 by hand. There was no real easy way of doing it except for saving the base file 500 times. So we had to help them understand how the product could benefit them."?


"In this market, people haven"?t really thought about how much value it would be for people to get highly customized output,"? she goes on. "And so it"?s taking a while for people to say, "?What would that business model be, and how would I implement it in my shop?"? "?


SA International (SAi, formerly Scanvec Amiable) listened to its customers"? requests for the need to improve productivity, then added templates and auto serialization (variable-data) features to its latest version of PhotoPrint Server Pro, a client-server RIP solution.


"With PhotoPrint 5, customers are able to automate many tasks that used to be several steps, and achieve a more production- oriented workflow to get their output,"? says Matthew Scher, director of product management. "Serialization is used for hotel room numbers, ID cards, and parking passes, for example. It will take any text in the file and increment it. You can choose by how much to increase it, or if you have a text file that has names and titles, for example, it will automatically lay it out. So, in the time that it takes to normally create one or two name tags, you can have 100 or 1000 different name tags."?


In the past 12 months, says Mark Hilger, product marketing manager at Printable Technologies, "We"?ve seen that we"?re entering a stage of mass adoption of variable-data printing."? Printable"?s FusionPro VDP software, consists of a suite of tools including FusionPro Desktop, FusionPro Designer, FusionPro Server, and FusionPro Web, and the company hopes to futher fuel the adoption of VDP: "The business opportunity for wide-format VDP makes perfect sense,"? says Hilger. "There"?s no real one-to-one opportunity for VDP for wide format, it"?s more about personalizing a message to a subset of people in a particular region"?such as 300 versions of transit posters and billboards for different cities. From the technology perspective, we have a product that can create files that are compatible with the different wide-format workflows out there."?


XMPie"?s VDP solutions"?PersonalEffect, uDirect, and uImage, for example"?are popular in the narrow-format market for producing targeted one-to-one marketing campaigns that offer high response rates.


"XMPie is doing very well in that space to print personalization in high speed,"? says CTO Jacob Aizikowitz. "When you look at wide-format printing, the speed of printing is not so high. The huge benefit for wide-format applications is changing a very cumbersome creative, design, and approval process and making the process more automatic. With software like XMPie, you create one file and use rules to define what will change from version to version and you"?re maintaining one file and making changes in one file.


"In wide format, we don"?t see such a big push in growth because I don"?t think people are seeing the connection that the difficulties of creating and managing the whole production process can be solved with software for variable-data printing,"? he continues. "It"?s our challenge to help them realize that software can solve the inefficiencies. I expect that the curve for wide format will progress faster than traditional digital printing because now people realize the tremendous benefits."?


Taking on previously impossible jobs


Another example of variable-data use in a wide-format scenario is the O"?Donnell Corporation (www.odonnellcorp.com). A full- service print provider in Orlando, FL, the company operates three Inca Digital flatbeds, an HP Scitex XL grand-format printing system, and an HP Scitex TJ, as well as several HP 5000s. It uses Wasatch"?s variable-data software.


"Right now we use the variable-data tool for the Incas,"? says Bruce Anderson, O"?Donnell"?s prepress digital manager. "Because they"?re flatbed, they"?re a little more flexible with the substrates you can print on, and a lot of the signage we do has to be extremely high quality, so it"?s almost photo quality."?


For about a year, the shop has been producing projects such as point-of-purchase signs. For clients including Fortune 500 companies and restaurants, the printer uses variable data for changing prices on menus, numbering on warehouse bays, and specific information"?opening and closing times"?for store signs, for example. In addition to being a big time saver for O"?Donnell, variable data has enabled the company to take on numerous jobs that wouldn"?t have been possible without the VDP tools.


One O"?Donnell job involved printing 500 different signs for numbering warehouse bays. "Instead of setting up 500 different PostScript files, we just set up one document"?an Excel file with the numbers. It"?s impossible to do the job the old- fashioned way because every piece is different. It"?s one-offs, but one-offs of 500 different pieces."?


"The biggest benefit to variable is that you don"?t have to send over, say, 700 PostScripts,"? says Anderson. "You can basically send over one PostScript and then the variable-data tool will take over to do all the different information, so you"?re not sending file after file after file. Plus, you don"?t have to lay it out 700 times. It saves hours and hours. For 30 pieces, it might not be that advantageous"?you can set those up just as fast as separate PostScripts. But if you"?re doing hundreds of pieces, it makes a huge difference."?


Based in North Andover, MA, Nancy Hitchcock regularly reports on the graphic arts.

VDP Tools and Suppliers

Finding the right software is critical to success in variable-data printing. Here"?s a sampling of companies that offer tools and solutions to allow users to integrate database information into standard graphics applications:

Adobe (www.adobe.com): Its "Variable Data Publishing Resource Center"? website page offers an overview of the technology as well as case studies, a gallery of samples, and a look at tools that integrate with Adobe products.

Atlas Software (www.printshopmail.com): Drag-and-drop technology allows PrintShop Mail to integrate database information and documents; compatible with any database format and document created in any layout/design application.

Creo Print On-Demand Solutions (www.creopod.com): Its Darwin VI authoring tool for Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress is available in either Darwin Desktop or Pro editions. Capable of handling large databases and creating complex campaigns comprised of variable elements.

Elixir Technology (www.elixir.com): Opus offers a development and production tool for high-volume, personalized document publishing.

EFI (www.efi.com): Offers EFI Fiery versions of Atlas Software PrintShop Mail and Pageflex Persona; supports PPML. The company also makes available a free, 46-page guide on "The ABCs of VDP."?

Em Software (www.emsoftware.com): Xdata is an XTension for QuarkXPress, and InData is a plug-in for Adobe InDesign; both link data with graphics in documents.

Gassenhuber (www.gassenhuber.de): DataForm Add-on, an XTension for QuarkXPress or a plug-in for InDesign, sets up a bidirectional connection between a database and layout program on Mac OS or Windows.

GMC Software Technology (www.gmc.net): PrintNet is a modular system that supports batch and interactive applications for data handling and design, composition, and production of documents.

MC Research (www.mcresearch.co.uk): LinkUp creates documents and allows database information to be linked directly to tags in QuarkXPress; changes are updated bidirectionally.

Meadows Publishing (www.meadowsps.com): Features Quark XTension DesignMergefor bidirectional connectivity between documents and an external database, and AutoPrice (compatible with InDesign and QuarkXPress) for pricing, text, or picture updates in documents.

Onyx Graphics (www.onyxgfx.com): ProductionHouse 7 includes a variable-data tool for wide-format printing to permit users to add variable text, images, and bar codes to mass-customized batch-print jobs; it processesthe background image only once, so printing can begin almost immediately.

PageFlex (www.pageflex.com): Pageflex Persona enables a document layout to "flex"? to accommodate variable content within designer-specified guidelines.

Press-Sense (www.press-sense.com): iWay Prime offers e-procurement tools that simplify the creation and management of personalized jobs using informationfrom a database.

Printable Technologies (www.printable.com): FusionPro suite comprises variable-data and on-demand document-creation tools. FusionPro Designer is an entry-level production and template-creation tool that allows designers and prepress professionals to design and proof VDP jobs with sample data. FusionPro Desktop allows for the creation of multiple output files and digital press print streams. FusionPro Server allows job queuing and batch-processing functionality.

Quark (www.quark.com): QuarkXClusive, a QuarkXPress XTension module, lets print providers output customized, database-driven documents; compatible with Mac OS X systems.

SA International (www.saintl.biz): PhotoPrint Server Ultra and Pro versions include an Editor application for layout and design with templates and variable-data capability; variable-data technology is optional in PhotoPrint DX.

Sansui Software (www.sansuisoftware.com): XPublisha is an InDesign plug-in for variable-data publishing automation which flows XML from data files into placeholders in an InDesign document.

Techno Design (www.techno-design.com): Personalizer-X creates QuarkXPress documents on-the-fly that are personalized
with database information. Techno Design is owned by Atlas Software.

Wasatch Computer Technology (www.wasatch.com): The Variable Data Printing Option for its SoftRIP product streamlines the production of customized print runs such as signs, labels, jerseys, and promotional items. Users can change text or images printed over base graphics; data can be imported from any database that exports delimited ASCII text files.

XMPie (www.xmpie.com): Designed specifically for print providers, direct-marketing agencies, and corporate marketing professionals, PersonalEffect unites customer databases and creative content. Add-on applications include uImage, uEdit, uChart, and uStore.


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