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Jan 1, 2000 12:00 AM

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In an era of mass marketing, it's a breath of fresh air to open a mailer and find that it's personally tailored. "Imelda," it might read, "we know you like pricey shoes that cost $220 even on sale. Guess what? Your favorite department store is having a one-day sale--and those very expensive boots you've been eyeing will be marked down to only $219.99!"

If you were Mrs. Marcos, you might rush off to see if those boots were available in your size.

That, of course, is the effect companies want from their marketing materials. They want to send colorful, graphically appealing messages that speak personally to the recipient and to his or her preferences. And they want the promotion to move a targeted prospect to action.

Welcome to the world of variable data printing.

Graphic arts professionals likely have heard about the wonders of variable data printing. "The market is booming." "All marketing professionals want to create personalized materials." "It's a great value-added, money-making service for printers."

That all sounds plummy indeed. But what do printers need to make money on variable data?

Customers. Printers need to find variable print customers first and worry about logistics later. According to Tom Murphy, a senior applications manager for Xeikon (Wood Dale, IL), the most successful companies are those who come into the digital press purchase process with a business plan and clients already targeted. "If printers have a 'build it and they will come' mentality, the first months can be rough," Murphy says. "You'll have to learn the ins and outs of selling variable print, on top of training people and building an infrastructure."

Variable data printing also requires a long sell cycle, explains Retha Petruzates, director of marketing for Padgett Printing. For this Dallas printer, which also does sheetfed and mini-web printing of promotional materials, a typical variable print sale takes six to 18 months. It can take this long for customers to develop a marketing campaign and figure out what data they need to implement it.

Guy Thompson, product manager for Indigo (Woburn, MA), observes, "Printers are not going to have people beating a path to their door demanding a one-to-one marketing program."

Chromapress digital press manufacturer Agfa (Ridgefield Park, NJ) actually cites overall market awareness as one of the challenges of variable data color printing. Bob Barbera, senior business line manager, digital printing systems, says customers first need to be informed that this type of service is available.

Padgett, for example specifically hired Petruzates to educate customers about one-to-one marketing. The firm even created a digital print brand to push the service.

"Variable data printing requires market education," Barbera explains. Agfa offers Fast Start, a market development program. It also offers a Printing for an Audience of One kit, which includes educational guides and videos to illustrate successful variable data campaigns, background information and testimonials.

While print buyers may normally evaluate the cost of a job on a per-page basis, variable print services should be pitched to marketing managers who understand response generation. "Customers have to look at the overall cost of the program and its effectiveness," Barbera explains. "Digital printing is a fixed cost per piece, while offset costs decline as you print more copies. But do you want to print 10,000 copies of the same piece and get a one percent response rate, or do you want 10,000 personalized pieces and a five percent response?"

Spire (Boston), a 135-employee company with annual revenues of about $20 million, has been doing variable data printing since 1994 when it received one of the first U.S. Chromapress shipments. Skip Dyer, executive vice president of Spire, says a key to winning accounts is to understand customers' business needs and objectives. Spire typically courts long-time clients whose business the printer already understands.

"There's still education taking place in the market," comments Dyer. "The people who know of this technology may not have the database to take advantage of it. Others may have better organization on the data side but don't understand what they can do with variable data."

A database. The customer is responsible for cleaning the database and presenting it in the proper format for variable data printing, notes Frank Romano, professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY). But printers still deal with problem databases on a regular basis. According to Indigo's Thompson, "All the printers I've talked to agree on one thing: A client's database always needs cleaning. Do all of the records have the same number of fields and is the format correct?" Romano suggests that at the very least, printers understand how a database works and educate firms to provide their data in tab-delimited formats.

"Variable data is more IT-intensive than anything the industry has done in the past," says consultant Dave Zwang. "Publishing is almost a second thought."

Variable print providers therefore need to have data manipulation expertise. "Users are concerned about how to make variable data printing work," cautions Zwang. "The big issue beyond that has to do with the customer's legacy data. Can all the collected data be utilized?"

Japs-Olson (St. Louis Park, MN), a heatset web and sheetfed printer, has been doing black-and-white variable work for years and only began variable data color printing on a Xeikon press this past February. Operations manager Michael Murphy says customers have a conceptual idea of what they want to do but Japs-Olson generally takes the technical lead.

"The database is the key; it's everything," Murphy declares. "We are managing dynamic pages, and different layouts, templates and color elements. Customers supply us with the database, and we do all the programming and formatting to accomplish the job. There's also a lot of conditional logic on the database side--depending on the conditions, a printer may have to pull in this particular copy or that logo or map."

Thompson advises service providers to either have data management skills in house or contract with a third party that deals with databases. He suggests a program such as Microsoft Excel for those doing simple in-house database work, and Microsoft Access or Filemaker Pro may be good starters for jobs that require filtering and cleaning data. There are bigger, better programs, but the more complex ones will, not surprisingly, require more advanced skills.

Petruzates says Padgett was highly computerized before it entered the variable print market and didn't have to build up its digital infrastructure to accommodate the new service. It did, however, hire a database manager to work with clients. A typical workflow now begins with the customer electronically sending data to Padgett in a tab-delimited or spreadsheet format. The database manager then imports the data into Agfa's Personalizer-X QuarkXTension software that allows creation of variable data fields on a document. The data and design are then merged on-the-fly to the Chromapress digital press.

Prepress capabilities. According to Japs-Olson's Murphy, the prepress and page layout stages are tough on all variable print jobs.

The Minnesota printer runs two separate operations at the prepress stage. The final database first is run through a mail presorting program that arranges data into postal order. It is then brought into the design through a Varis front-end. "Varis software is what drives the printer. It combines the database with the page elements on-the-fly, then outputs the page," Murphy explains.

Because all digital presses operate on proprietary languages, each brand will require a particular document-generation tool. These are often front-ends to design programs that generate the personalized elements. The Chromapress, for example, uses the Personalizer-X front-end. Xeikon's Private-I creates customized documents on Power Macs, which then must be printed on Xeikon digital color presses. Indigo presses have either a Yours Truly Designer front-end, a Quark extension, or Yours Truly Express, a standalone Windows application.

Pageflex Inc. (Cambridge, MA), an independent provider of personalization software, offers the Mpower suite of products that can run variable pages to Chromapresses, Indigo or IBM digital presses. Mpower features a Designer module that creates a design template; Producer, which applies variables to the template; a Server module, which outputs the personalized document in print, PDF or from the Web; DesignOut, which can import Adobe InDesign applications into the Mpower Designer module; and Web Form Wizard, which creates a Web submission page in which consumers can choose information on a website that is then used to generate a personalized document.

Darwin software from Scitex (Bedford, MA) can be printed as standard PostScript on any PostScript printer. Or, users can print jobs as a Scitex VPS, implemented in the Scitex color servers connected to the Xerox color systems. Scitex VPS only RIPs elements of a page once and caches any images or data that will be used multiple times during a job.

While graphic arts professionals are generally forced to use the same brand front-end as their digital press, the industry is working toward a standard protocol that all machines can understand (see sidebar). This means printers will be able to buy a digital press and choose whatever front-end best suits their variable design needs.

What's still a potential problem is production bottlenecks. Barbera says finding a front-end solution that processes information and feeds presses in a productive manner is still a challenge of variable data color printing. Where a bottleneck occurs depends largely on the particular job, its customized elements and the workflow.

"The whole process is a bottleneck," quips Murphy of Japs-Olson. "RIPing and data storage are always issues; that's two bottlenecks right there."

But "the production time is in the RIP," asserts Thompson. That's because variable data printing is based on the notion that the printer will regenerate an image each time it's to be printed. Explains Xeikon's Tom Murphy, "If you're merging a database with a Quark design, you might use photos that vary, a name and address, and paragraphs with variable text. For each record you send to the digital printer, you will have to RIP all of those features. A four-color photograph could be a 5 MB file. If you're RIPing a thousand of them, you have a pretty hefty file that will slow down production."

According to Murphy, RIP times depend on the press' front-end, RIP and workflow solutions. Those factors can drastically affect throughput on a system.

"With any of these digital technologies, you need to have a good working relationship with your hardware and software supplier," asserts Petruzates. "Our digital press was a bit buggy in the beginning. Our manufacturer worked side by side with us to get it right. We now have faster RIPs and better color consistency."

Many vendors are continually addressing the bottleneck issue. Agfa has established Intelliprep stations, offline RIP workstations that allow one set of files to be RIPed while another job is being printed. The Intelliprep stations use Intellicache protocol, which denotes whether an element is used multiple times in a variable print job, RIPs them once and caches them. Therefore, if an automobile piece requires a photo of a green car for some consumers and a blue car for others, the images don't have to be RIPed each time they're used.

Xeikon's new eXpert Plus digital front-end also dissects documents and RIPs the small components onto the press. The variable pieces are merged back together at print time. According to Murphy, a base layout with possibly different graphic files and logos will be processed on the press once. When a database is run through the eXpert Plus system, it will then notify the press which graphics to print with which record. "You can almost start doing the document composition on the press itself. You're removing the process from the prepress station," he says.

Indigo, for its part, introduced its Swift Native Accelerated Personalization (SNAP) technology for TurboStream presses at Graph Expo '99. SNAP relies on precached bitmaps to minimize the RIPing process. ASCII text is composed straight from a database, and dedicated image conversion software produces printable bitmaps directly from TIF or JPEG images.

"We're using the RIP upfront," explains Thompson. "If the document calls for a Helvetica 12-point capital A, for example, SNAP uses the RIP to create that bitmap. But it does it in advance and caches it. It's a bit like downloading a font to an imagesetter and pressing a button, and that creates a bitmap that stores the data."

Print engine. Past the prepress stage, there is of course the digital press. RIT's Romano says what's on market today are robust digital output devices. Graphic arts professionals currently have a handful of brands to choose from --Xerox, Canon, Xeikon, IBM, Agfa and Indigo. But Drupa 2000 should see that number increase exponentially.

Finishing. And, lest printers forget, a variably printed job is not necessarily finished once it's pulled from the digital press. If multiple pieces were printed for one job, then they will need to be matched by name and address. And what of the pages that got mangled on the press or in the binder, or simple got lost?

"If one piece gets damaged in the bindery in a regular printing operation, it's not a problem because you're printing thousands of copies. If you have a personalized piece that gets crumpled, on the other hand, you have to regenerate the personalized data for that one person. That involves searching for the data, reRIPing, merging with the design and outputting it," comments Romano.

Printers can combat these problems in several ways. Romano tells of a company that assumes 100 percent damage, prints every piece twice and builds that into the cost structure. For jobs that involve multiple pieces, Thompson asserts that matching pieces and stuffing envelopes by hand is often the most flexible option available to print providers. Another option is to print a unique barcode on each piece of a multipiece job. "You can use barcode readers," he suggests, "or adapt an envelop insertion machine that will take six stacks of objects and match them by optical character recognition."

At Japs-Olson, each job incorporates a great deal of automated quality control. When a job gets to the mailing step, staff automatically knows which pieces didn't make it through the process and reprints those.

Spire also has an electronic inspection process built into its printing and finishing stages. The company uses Inspectron cameras at the bindery to check the pieces. It's a necessary process, as 62 percent of the pages printed on Spire's Chromapress are variable.

Planned workflows and communications. In the end, printers and vendors agree that the greatest challenge of variable data printing may be the workflow. All staff involved in a project needs to understand the details of the job and the production process. According to Xeikon's Murphy, that can include the employees who control the database, the marketing department, the designers responsible for the layouts and even the production department.

And because projects will differ, planning needs to start at the beginning of the process. Murphy of Japs-Olson says its focus is at the front-end, finding out what clients' needs are and deciding which resources are necessary to do the project.

"When you go from a static to a variable page, the number of issues that become crucial increase exponentially," says Dyer. "On an offset sheetfed job, you can feasibly deliver a disk and most likely efficiently execute a great quality project. It would be highly unlikely that a customer could do no advanced planning with its service provider and achieve optimum success. A change in the design could make the RIP time significantly less. A change in the printing could make the finishing significantly easier. It's not that it's not doable. It just requires planning everything to the end."

So what does all this mean? In a nutshell, you can't just plug in your digital press and go. Be prepared to plan out your entire workflow, from your sales calls through the finishing department. Expect knowledge gaps, either on the customer end or on your end. Know that you'll need database experts.

"Variable data printing is like having 500-lb. weights on your legs, and little bits are being taken off," sums up Zwang. "Eventually the pain will be gone, but we're not there yet."