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Variable-data software update

Jan 1, 2004 12:00 AM


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A slew of variable-data software makes the process of converting database records into customized marketing materials easier and faster than ever before, for a variety of printing systems. Offerings range from inexpensive plug-ins to systems that can automate an entire corporation's publishing processes. To understand how variable-data printing (VDP) has changed and where it's headed, let's separate the most commonly used software into three categories: printer-language programs working with post-RIP data, plug-ins and XTensions, and standalone applications that typically generate PostScript/PDF.

Printer-language programs

PostScript is such an ubiquitous part of the graphic-arts industry that there's a tendency to forget it's not the native language of most output devices. In addition to using a RIP for interpreting PostScript input, printers may also be driven by a proprietary printer control language. In this case, the data streaming to the printer directly instructs the marking engine what type of marks to make and where, and also controls that printer's available options, such as which paper drawer to select and where to bind the sheets with the printer's built-in stapler.

Perhaps the most common example of a printer language, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Printer Control Language (HP PCL, often referred to as simply PCL) drives laser printers from HP (Palo Alto, CA), Canon (Lake Success, NY) and others without the need for a PostScript RIP. IBM (Boulder, CO) was the source for Advanced Function Presentation (AFP), a device-independent print architecture that converts to a device-specific Intelligent Print Data Stream (IPDS) to drive the output device.

Speaking the same language

Xerox developed Metacode as the proprietary language for its LPS line of printers, which is still an acceptable input format for many digital printers. Most Xerox printers can also be driven by Creo's (Burnaby, BC) Spire Color Server using the Variable Print Specification (VPS) language developed by Scitex (Dayton, OH).

While printer languages lack some of the sophisticated graphic capabilities of PostScript reproduction, they eliminate additional processing prior to print-engine submission, a substantial benefit.

Many modern VDP solutions combine the speed of printer-language data with the complexity of PostScript output, merging static PostScript background elements with variable text and simple graphics delivered in the printer's native control language. The potential problem for any printer-language VDP application is compatibility — the language used must be compatible with your output device, which may limit your printer choices to a single vendor's product line.

Canon's imageWARE Publishing Manager, bundled with Canon's imageRUNNERs, is one example of a printer-language solution; although the application can export merged documents in PDF format, it normally drives Canon's output devices via PCL print drivers.

Enterprise-level systems

Other offerings in the printer-language category tend to be enterprise-level systems for corporate applications. Since its introduction more than a dozen years ago, the Autograph suite from Document Sciences (Carlsbad, CA) has been used by insurance, banking and healthcare organizations to produce statements, bills and other corporate correspondence. Both Autograph and the new xPression VDP application can produce PostScript and PDF output, but are more often used to create AFP, Metacode or PCL data streams.

Recently updated, Group 1 Software's (Lanham, MD) enterprise-level DOC1 Series 5 allows users to build variable-data projects on a Windows desktop client before sending the design to the composition server — mainframe, UNIX, AS/400 or Windows NT — for rendering. (Client/server architecture is a hallmark of enterprise-level VDP solutions.) DOC1 includes Web-enabled tools for online document production, electronic payments and archiving. As evidenced by its $150,000 price tag, this is a high-end product.

DOC1 can drive high-speed printers via proprietary printer languages, such as Metacode, AFP and VPS. Group 1 has also joined the growing number of vendors able to produce Personalized Print Markup Language (PPML), a non-proprietary printer language based on XML (see sidebar, “What is PPML?” on p. 23).

Plug-ins and extensions

Design studios and print shops can retain the comfort of their favorite page-layout applications by employing one of a handful of variable-data XTensions for QuarkXPress or plug-ins for Adobe's (San Jose, CA) InDesign and FrameMaker. These products work with external databases, but often lack the more sophisticated data-sorting and editing functions available in other VDP programs. Ease of use and low cost are the key selling points for plug-ins and XTensions, with options starting as low as $199.

If you're using a plug-in for complex jobs, however, you'll have to process a torrent of PostScript, a potentially time-consuming task. High-speed networks and a fast RIP can be the difference between success and frustration.

Other options include applications that can produce “optimized PostScript,” a workflow that takes advantage of the PostScript Level 2 forms cache (an area of the RIP's memory that can store repeating page elements). VDP applications that can produce optimized PostScript need only include the document's static background elements once during the print session; the RIP processes this data, then stores the results in its forms cache for reuse as needed. By comparison, “fat” PostScript workflows must repeatedly RIP the entire set of background graphics.

For VDP on a budget, ARTS PDF (Melbourne, Australia) offers Variform Lite ($199) and Variform Plus ($349), plug-ins for Adobe Acrobat V6 and earlier that allow database records to be imported into PDF form fields. According to Chris Dahl, ARTS PDF's chief technology officer, solutions, Variform's hot-folder automation lets users take input from Web forms, e-mails or other sources and automatically convert them into multiple personalized documents, such as invoices, statements and packing slips. Every record creates a duplicate PDF page, allowing for easy proofing or output on any PostScript-compatible printer.

Variform Lite works with both Macs and PCs but only accepts tab- or comma-delimited text files as database input. The Windows-only Plus version offers Open DataBase Connectivity (ODBC) input as well as PDF forms data (.fdf files).

Established XTensions

Among the oldest QuarkXTensions for variable-data workflows is Personalizer-X from the Netherlands' TechnoDesign, available in six languages. Compatible with XPress 4.1 through 5, this plug-in is available for Mac OS 9 only (including Classic mode). An XPress 6/Mac OS X and a Windows version are both under development. Database input must be in the form of ASCII text (tab-delimited, comma-separated values or fixed-width). The base price is for PostScript output only, but print drivers for PPML and Xeikon's (Itasca, IL) Intellistream printer languages are also available.

Creo's Darwin Desktop, a Macintosh-only application, has also been widely used to add VDP capabilities to QuarkXPress, and is often bundled with Creo's Spire Color Server. Naturally, VPS is a supported output format in addition to PostScript and PDF; Darwin also supports Creo's Automatic Picture Replacement (APR) workflow for use with Brisque RIPs.

Darwin can insert personalized text and images, but can also treat text colors, text boxes or entire document pages as variable elements. The latest feature, Darwin Driven Graphics, offers the ability to create pie charts, bar graphs and other customized graphics during the XPress print session.

Shannon Kreamer, design and prepress manager for Central Reproduction (Toronto), a full-service commercial printer, touted Darwin's ease of use as an important factor in the company's decision to go with this application: “We had to get up and running right away, so we needed something that was easy to learn and fast,” notes Kreamer. “Our plan was to upgrade to a more expensive variable-data package right away, but we've been surprised to find that Darwin can handle everything we've needed so far.”

Standalone applications

This category features the widest selection of variable-data software, from single-user packages starting at several thousand dollars up to enterprise solutions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. These options offer the common thread of PostScript output, as well as the idea that input documents can come from any source — not just typical publishing packages, such as QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign. Offerings typically run on the Windows operating system, but Datalogics (Chicago), Lexigraph (Harwick, PA) and Saepio Technologies (Kansas City, MO) are among the vendors that have Mac OS X-compatible products.

Lexigraph recently acquired the assets of Think121, whose pdfExpress Pro product has gained popularity for personalization of PDF documents since its 1998 introduction. Using a plug-in for Adobe Acrobat, any PDF can be tagged for variable-data production. After tagging, the PDF is sent to a high-speed, server-based merge engine along with user-defined scripts to control the resulting output. In addition to PostScript and PDF, printer languages, including PPML/VDX (Variable Data eXchange) and VPS, are among the supported output data formats.

What you see is what you get

Desktop Designer and ProForm Designer from Lytrod (El Segundo, CA) target Xerox VIPP users looking for a layout tool that's easy to use. These PC-based tools offer a drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG approach to developing variable-data projects for DocuPrint, DocuTech and DocuColor printers.

Bob Daley, chief technology officer for Fidelity Communications (Everett, MA), the largest integrated direct-marketing company in New England, has found the Lytrod products to be a good fit for most applications. “Using Lytrod makes variable-data printing easy,” he says. “For 90 percent of what we do, it works fast. We also use it for more complex projects, which require some programming.”

E-mail messaging

XMPie (New York City) offers the PersonalEffect software suite. Three discrete components make up the PersonalEffect variable-data tool: uPlan for database management, uCreate for document layout and uProduce for controlling output format. “Most everything else we looked at had a single tool for formatting pages and placing data,” observes Jay Cappis, chief technology officer of BrainStream Digital Services (Houston), a provider of digital printing, large-format printing and electronic document management services. “XMPie is more modular, allowing us to have one part of the organization working on each part of the job.”

PersonalEffect can also manage personalized e-mail campaigns. The product integrates with Adobe GoLive or Macromedia Dreamweaver for HTML design on both PCs and Macs. Capabilities include not only graphic-rich e-mail marketing, but website personalization as well — what XMPie has labeled the “Welcome back, Joe” experience.

Due to debut in January 2004, V4 of Objectif Lune's (Bloomfield, NJ) PlanetPress Suite of applications can be used for both transactional and variable-marketing workflows. This tool can personalize any EPS or PDF document for output on any printer with a PostScript RIP. By developing its own twist on the PostScript Level 2 forms cache, Objectif Lune optimizes the production speed of graphics-intensive projects. Job tickets, business rules and controls for a wide variety of finishing equipment differentiate this product line, as does the volume-based pricing.

Multichannel publishing systems

On the enterprise level, major corporations have found the value in managing their communications efforts through a multichannel publishing system. Exstream's (Lexington, KY) Dialogue combines with Dialogue Webverse to control Internet marketing campaigns in addition to digital printing and finishing equipment. “You're really seeing the marketing and IT departments merge with programs like marketing in the margins, using up the extra areas of white space on statements,” says Robert Reddinger, president of Pinnacle Data Systems (Birmingham, AL), a full-service document management and distribution company. Optional modules address a variety of interests, including dynamic charting, output sorting, XML input and a wide variety of printer-language extensions for output.

Conclusion

Sharp increases in postal and other distribution costs are driving increased interest in VDP. Tried-and-true software applications are available, but new products, enhanced with standards-based file formats, also bring a fresh perspective to established workflows.


Hal Hinderliter is president of Hal Hinderliter Consulting Services. Contact him at hal@halhinderliter.com.

What is PPML?

The Personalized Print Markup Language (PPML) was developed under guidance of the Digital Printing initiative (PODi) (West Henrietta, NY) as a royalty-free, vendor-neutral language for digital printing devices.

Initially released in 1999, the PPML process was recently revised and is now widely implemented by major RIP manufacturers. PPML input is compatible with devices from Creo, Electronics For Imaging, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Heidelberg, Kodak Polychrome Graphics, Océ, Xeikon and Xerox.

In addition to offering a vendor-neutral alternative to the device-specific printer languages of the past, PPML print streams are more efficient than PostScript files, making them smaller and faster to process. This open standard for non-PostScript printing processes has led to a rapid blurring of the lines between printer language solutions of the past, intended for transactional printers and business organizations that had little need for PostScript, and standalone variable-data applications that initially offered few output language options beyond PostScript.

As might be expected of an open standard based on the eXtensible Markup Language (XML), the base PPML specification may be too flexible for successful standardization between printer companies. Fortunately, most vendors have given up their own PPML recipes in favor of PPML/VDX (Variable Data eXchange), in which a PDF-formatted VDX “package” delivers the PPML data to the output device. PPML/VDX was developed by the Committee for Graphic Arts Technologies Standards (CGATS) and given approval from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in early 2002.

I want candy (and cookies and chips)

Walking the aisles of Graph Expo is enough to make anyone hungry, and Xerox (Rochester, NY) and XMPie (New York City) turned this need for nourishment into a one-to-one marketing opportunity. Potential customers received an invitation to visit the Xerox booth during the show and were asked to select from a menu of candy bars, cookies and potato chips that would be provided for them at the booth. A personalized confirmation postcard was later mailed to respondents, featuring an image of the exact snacks they had selected. Attendees picked up their goodie bags (with personalized labels) during a specified time at the show.

Rochester's Roberts Communications designed the campaign and massaged the database using XMPie's uPlan and uCreate applications; print production and e-mail marketing was handled by Global Document Solutions (New York City) via XMPie's uProduce module.

Eastman Kodak to acquire Scitex Digital

Eastman Kodak Co. (Rochester, NY) has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Scitex Digital Printing, Inc. (SDP) (Dayton, OH), a wholly owned U.S. subsidiary of Scitex Corp. (Tel Aviv, Israel), for $250 million in cash at closing. Nachum “Homi” Shamir, president and CEO of Scitex Corp. and SDP, along with his management team, are expected to continue to lead the business under the Kodak corporate structure. For more details, see the industry news section on p. 10.