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Feb 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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We have been hearing about the potential for variable data publishing for some time, yet we haven't seen as much adoption of this process as might be expected. Currently, the bulk of variable data publishing is limited to larger printers doing personalized addressing, specialized advertising, large directories and other high-volume printing projects.

While this slow adoption rate can be attributed partially to a lack of understanding of how to market this service, an equal, if not greater factor, is a lack of knowledge about the necessary processes and tools required for variable data publishing.

With the vast amounts of information bombarding us each day, it is becoming increasingly important to tailor information to a smaller audience or single individual. Look at the number of new magazines to emerge specifically targeted to specialized interests. Variable data printing is a solution that can address this need to target print to a smaller audience.

The demand for variable data printing is increasing as the benefits of targeted marketing are beginning to be implemented using venues such as the Internet. Some manufacturers find they can be more successful if they match products to individual customers.

The benefits of variable data printing, however, aren't necessarily dependent on the highly touted one-to-one marketing techniques. These same tools also can be used to create products that benefit from automated print manufacturing processes.

Template-based print manufacturing lends itself to products such as business cards, upon which size and basic layouts are constant but logos and text change. These same tools can be used to produce greeting cards, sports cards, sales sheets, invitations, etc.

Individual applications of variable data printing can be as simple as a mail merge, or can be more complex such as greeting cards processed through standard templates on the fly or multi-page product catalogs where images and text are tailored to a set of preferences.

The four basic components to variable data publishing include organized data, layout templates, rules, processing and output. Currently most of the tools available to create variable data publishing are part of total packaged solutions. The same solution that includes design tools and a processing engine will drive a specific output device. However this will undoubtedly change as new software solutions evolve. At that point users will be able to mix and match solutions from different vendors. Today, information exists on both people and businesses. It is collected from credit card puchasing histories, product warranty forms, telephone surveys, etc. Readily available for purchase, this information has a huge potential value in sales and marketing environments. However, all of this data not only exists in different places but in different formats.

Even data within your own company (residing in an accounting system perhaps) may not be compatible with other internal data such as sales tracking or production systems. While it may seem as if this shouldn't be a problem, compatibility issues will remain difficult to deal with as graphic arts firms make the move toward implementation of variable data printing.

Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) is a standard developed to enable database interaction, although compliance with this evolving standard doesn't always ensure complete and easy compatibility. Complicating the problem is that a great deal of information resides in pre-ODBC databases that use proprietary data formats. This compounds the problems of aligning or even preparing the data for use in variable data printing systems. For those interested in purchasing variable data printing services, an IT professional who can work with disparate databases is an important resource.

Collecting data is a relatively simple process--complete the forms and populate a database. However, a bigger problem is defining and coordinating data with the marketing intent. For example, although it is easy to define common items such as name or address, defining preferences such as an affinity to purchase blue bathing suits is infinitely more difficult. Is this information gleaned from past purchases of blue bathing suits or is it intimated based on a preference for the color blue and warm vacations?

If all the information is available from one source, it is easier to construct definitions based on the controlled set of data. However, if data comes from multiple sources, the information must be aligned using a well-thought system. Is the "name" field in one database the customer's name or the name of the product purchased? Is the "date" field the date of the purchase or the date that the database record was started?

As this illustration shows, the process of aligning data sources can be difficult and time-consuming. As a result, you will need to determine to what degree each record and all of the fields need to be verified.

Once a good data source exists, the basic layout and rules for variable print production can be prepared. Unlike fixed layout printing, the layout of a variable printing document must be designed to take into account the variability of the information itself. Instead of creating a fixed page, you create a template.

This page template can be composed of fixed elements that will not change and/or variable elements that can change in each version. These variable elements include both images and text. In the case of images, consideration must be given to different sizes, or orientation or each image. In many cases, image variability in templates needs to be closely controlled in order not to affect other image and text placements. When designing a fixed layout, users create specific spaces for images and text. In a variable document, designers must prepare for the exception, since there isn't always a fixed size to the variable copy or image. For example, the designer may have to accommodate descriptive text boxes that have anywhere from three lines of copy to 20 lines of copy. To address this problem, Barco's VIPLine and Bitstream's PageFlex allow templates to be made of "flexible containers." These containers can be text boxes and/or image boxes. These technologies allow the picture and text boxes to grow or shrink to fit the contents. In addition, the page layout itself can change dynamically to accommodate the element size changes based on sets of rules and priorities. While basic template flexibility isn't completely new, these two technologies offer more creative control than has historically been offered by SGML (Standard Graphic Markup Language) solutions.

While many of the template solutions for variable data printing are based on extensions to QuarkXPress, VIPLine and PageFlex have their own tools for defining the layout variability outside of Quark. The main advantage of having a template solution that works within XPress is that it allows designers to make the transition from creating static pages to creating variable data templates easier.

Rules determine what data cause changes in the template's content, as well as what those changes are. The actual process of creating and using rules varies among the different variable data printing solutions, but are all based on similar principles. The big difference is the rule development flexibility. When shopping for these product solutions it is wise to check that the software will handle the types of applications you are targeting.

Once templates are created and rules set, the pages are ready for processing. While each of the currently available tools handles processing differently, there are two basic approaches. In one, the "form" and the "content" are kept separate until the actual imaging. The other approach maintains that pages need to be pre-constructed before imaging. Other systems utilize a variation on these two approaches--elements are pre-processed but kept separate until imaging.

The main issue in determining which of these approaches is most suitable for your applications is the ability of the output device's front-end RIP to handle the separate form and content, processing to a complete page. This is why most of the packaged processing solutions are not available separate from the output engine. Several exceptions include Scitex VPS (Variable Print Specification) and Bitstream. Ultimately, using these solutions, users will be able to pick and choose the processing and output engine separately.

The type of printing equipment that lends itself to variable data printing currently falls within the following broad technology groups: xerography (electrophotographic), on-demand offset and inkjet. Each of these technologies can provide for continuous variable print output.

The Xeikon DCP is a roll-fed perfecting xerographic unit that prints four colors on a wide variety of stocks. Agfa, Barco, IBM and Xerox have configured systems around the Xeikon DCP engine, creating products of their own, in addition to the Xeikon configurations sold through Prime Solutions.

The Agfa IntelliStream front-end, coupled with its Chromapress 50i printer, uses a Personalizer-X option to handle variable data printing. This QuarkXTension uses Quark to set up variable data printing jobs to feed the Chromapress. In addition, it supports ASCII data, allowing users to import data from most databases, no matter what their level of compliance to database standards. It also supports OPI to allow for better image handling and processing.

Barco's Xeikon DCP/50 implementation is called the DigiPress. VIP is its variable data printing product line. Barco offers two different solutions within this line, depending on your needs. The more basic solution, VIPDesigner, is a script that sits on top of QuarkXPress. VIPDesigner has all the functions to assign and link variable elements with the database. It utilizes PrintStreamer (a RIP buffer and electronic collator) and FastRIP/X to go directly to DigiPress output.

The more sophisticated solution is VIPLine, which works in conjunction with some of Barco's other prepress workstation products. This product was one of the first "packaged" variable print systems available. VIPLine supports dynamic layout in configurations where the position and size of the variable elements can depend on the content of other variable fields in the document. The automatic layout manager balances the layout, even if the number of variable fields differs from record to record.

IBM offers a number of variable data solutions. The top of the line uses Bitstream's PageFlex software. This software is based on the NuDoc page composition engine, a new technology developed for processing variable data. Using standards such as XML (eXtended Markup Language) and TSL (Template Style Language), this software is designed to handle cross media publishing to both print and the Web. It connects to any ODBC-compliant database. Like Barco's VIPLine, PageFlex allows automating and compensating for the differences in object data changes from page to page.

PageFlex uses an intuitive client visual design tool to create templates. Currently Version 1.0 of the software is exclusively sold through IBM, along with the IBM InfoPrint Manager and the InfoColor 70 press. It is expected that other implementations of PageFlex will be introduced over time.

The IBM InfoColor 70 also can be equipped with two scripting tools--MergeDoc and VIPDesigner. These software tools bring together variable text and image elements with master pages to create a single output file for printing.

Xerox' DocuColor 70 is supported by most of the same solutions used for the DocuColor 40. Xerox has tried to address some of the issues involved with non-ODBC-compliant data by developing VIPP (Variable Data Intelligent PostScript Printware). VIPP prints from ASCII text. This software option allows for "what-if" scenarios in the variable document production.

Xerox partners with both EFI (with its ZX-70 platform) and Scitex (with its SX3000 DFE) to develop front-end variable data solutions.

EFI's Fiery FreeForm software works in conjunction with its ZX family of color servers. These servers also support other machines beyond the Xerox DocuColor 70, including the DocuColor 40 and comparable machines from Canon, Minolta and Ricoh.

The Scitex solution is based on its Darwin variable information software. In conjunction with QuarkXPress, users can create a layout that automatically varies text and images on the output, based on selected data applied to defined rules. While the initial version of this software was sold as a front-end to the Spontane and DocuColor printers, the newly released Version 2.0 prints to any VPS-compliant device.

VPS is a Scitex-developed extension to PostScript that supports variable data printing. VPS recognizes static graphics and text and processes these elements only once, storing the RIPed elements for use as needed later. This reduces redundant processing. Darwin Version 2.0 also acts as a standalone product to produce variable data print. In addition to the VPS output, which requires specific RIP support, the software also can output standard PostScript.

The Indigo line of digital offset presses also offers software tools for variable printing. Since it supports many different substrates beyond paper, many recent applications have involved personalized phone cards. The Indigo variable data software is called Yours Truly and works in conjunction with QuarkXPress.

Varis Corp. also has developed software called VariScript, currently supported by Scitex Digital Printing and Oce printing systems. This solution includes "start to finish" job management using electronic job tickets, automatic generation of serializers, barcodes and time stamps. It even preflights jobs, controlling and monitoring in-line post processing, finishing and bindery equipment.

VariScript, in conjunction with the Varis high-volume output controller (HPO) and the Scitex print engine, can produce dynamic pages at speeds to 1000 fpm and widths to 136 inches with duplexing and variable spot color. The Oce implementation processes pages as fast as 932 images per minute.

Since these variable data tools represent a new and burgeoning technology, there are many entrants in the field, with more to come. Products such as Management Graphics EDOX Varidata, Atlas PrintShop Mail, Microsoft Word and others can offer a variety of tools for your variable printing needs.

Variable data publishing will play an important role in the future of the printing industry. So even if you are not ready to jump on the bandwagon today, it's time to start considering the way you set up your meta data for the objects in your asset management database. Think through the logical identification of objects, not only for the present but for future use. Work with your clients and their data on this important task. Such partnerships can only help develop a closer and stronger client relationship for the future.