All digital printing technologies share the unique feature of being able to print very short runs, down to one copy. This opens up a lot of interesting applications, like personalised print and print on demand. While this is a well-known capability of high volume toner-based digital printing systems, using variable data printing on wide-format digital printers isn’t quite so well developed or widely used. Variable data printing means that each page or sheet of output can have different content – a component, such as an image, name and address, that varies. You can use this to create personalised versions of your project, or simply to change some or all the content with each print. If implemented properly, variable data printing can both save time and money as well as offer unique opportunities for wild format projects.
Every successful variable data print project starts with a properly managed and maintained database. A much-hyped phrase today is “Big Data”, which refers to exploiting all the data available for a given topic or activity. The data are generally managed via the internet, but you can also build your own database, rich with metadata about your customers, or potential customers. The trick with variable data printing is to find or build such a well-managed database. For example, if you want to reach young women aged 20-30 with sales promotions about your product, of course the database you might be interested in needs to contain metadata about individuals’ gender and age.
Filtering out what is of interest to you in your variable data project is called “data mining”, and how well this is done depends on the quality of the database and how up to date it is. But the effectiveness also depends on the quality of the search engine, and the algorithms used to select the interesting and valuable data from what is often a huge database. If you manage your own database, you need to constantly update it and keep it relevant so that when you want to create a wild format project for specific interests, you can find the data you want. Such straightforward housekeeping is unfortunately often neglected, which can mean that the potential of the database is never fully exploited or the variable data project results are disappointing.
Dos and Don’ts
When designing a variable data project you need to strike a balance between addressing the receiver of the printed product in a personal way, and respecting their integrity. While it’s tempting to use an intimate and friendly tone, some people will just be put off if you try and pretend to be a close friend, when you are addressing a stranger. This is particularly true if you have access to what can be seen as confidential or private information. Instead of striking a personal tone you might find that the receiver is put off by what comes across as an intrusion. So, while we normally will benefit from creating a personalised message, we shouldn’t push this too far.
Some techy stuff to consider
Technically we now need to couple the extracted data with the artwork created for the print project. For small and very simple projects you can get along with a data file created in Excel and imported to, for example, InDesign. But for more complex and larger projects you will need a dedicated solution for variable data production. There are many software tools on the market to help with this, for example SmartStream Designer from Hewlett-Packard, PrintShop Mail from Objectif Lune and PersonalEffect and uDirect from XMPie, just to mention a few, because there are hundreds.
Your next technicality is to link the artwork and the data with the printing system, specifically the Raster Image Processor (RIP) which drives the output device. This is sometimes called the Digital Front End (DFE), or the workflow system. The EFI Fiery RIP is one of the most popular and successful DFEs for digital devices and is compatible with many, many variable data solutions. Your print service provider will know what features and functions their workflow system (RIP) supports, and can advise on the best approach for a successful variable data printing project.
So, what type of variable data applications using wide format printers are possible? Well, digital printing in general offers a huge plethora of opportunities and possibilities, and frankly the limiting factor is probably your imagination.
But let’s take a simple use case: name badges for an important conference you are planning. Name badges are normally printed one by one, often using analogue screen printing, or possibly a small digital printer dedicated to printing badges. But what if you have an idea of a snazzy badge in pink Plexiglas, in the shape of your company logo? This might be thought of as too ambitious and expensive a project, and written off as too wild an idea to pursue. But wait a minute! What if you treat it as a variable data project and use a flatbed large format printer? Now you can probably print all the badges on one sheet of coloured Plexiglas, positioned by the RIP system using the merged artwork and database info (let’s say the person’s name and company name and perhaps their title) and then cut to size using a laser cutting board. The final product is not a very large print, but the device that printed it certainly was. This is a very simple example, but it demonstrates what’s possible, once you have the tools and an idea of how to use them.
Whether you are a publisher, designer or print company owner, being aware of the opportunities and possible benefits of variable data printing means that you are ready and prepared when and if the opportune moment comes along. Needless to say, you will benefit both from unique, and what are perceived as “cool”, applications but also because applying variable data print technology can reduce cost and turnaround times in printing projects. These two aspects are surely of value. Go explore and go wild in some upcoming large format digital print project.
– Paul Lindström