Variable Data Printing

By Catherine Diamond, Associate Editor | November 29, 2012

An offshoot of digital printing, variable data printing offers the look and feel of conventional offset, but with the added convenience of digital capabilities.

Variable data, variable image, variable information – whatever you choose to call it – is a vital
part of today’s printing industry. An offshoot of digital printing, it offers the look and feel of conventional offset, but with the added convenience and control offered by digital capabilities. Variable data printing allows converters to go beyond the mass production of a single label to offer their customers the option of customization on a large scale.

Variable data labels from Dice GT
According to Jill Smith, marketing specialist at Mark Andy – a press manufacturer based in Chesterfield, MO, USA – market drivers for variable data printing include personalization, brand security and protection, and customization. “The ability to print variable data continues to be an increasing need for converters,” she says. “Having variable data capability may allow the converter to reduce inventories, being able to print the base graphics, then later add the variable portion of the data. This is in contrast to running multiple SKUs with all the variable data combinations.”

New opportunities
Variable data printing capabilities opens converters up to several new markets, including coupons, lottery tickets and brand protection. According to Danny Martens, director of segment marketing and business development document printing at Xeikon – which develops, markets and sells digital color printing systems and related consumables – variable data printing is prevalent in nearly every industry and in many vertical markets, including healthcare, financial services, automotive and retail, among others.

“On the document printing side,” he says, “Of course direct mail is one of the markets where it’s a dominant force. Our customers can vary direct mail messages in nearly any way you can think of, from different color pieces appealing to a particular gender, to different product offers and discounts tailored to a person’s age and purchase history.”

The level of customization required by a customer can vary widely. For example, direct mail pieces may only require a name change on each piece. Other products may require large sections of text or images to change. Imagine women’s shampoo, for instance. One product line may offer several different versions – color protection, anti-frizz, volumizing, moisturizing, and so on – each with its own text and color scheme.

Roland DGA Corp. is the US-based marketing, distribution and sales arm of Roland DG Corp., headquartered in Hamamatsu, Japan. The company provides inkjet printers for the durable graphics market. Steven Tu, color workflow specialist at Roland DGA Corp., says that, traditionally, variable data printing was used to add names, numbers, logos and other graphic elements to things like real estate signs, athletic jerseys, gift items, and the like. “Now, in addition to these applications,” he says, “We are seeing the technology embraced for all types of product labeling. With variable data printing capabilities, it is easy and cost-effective to brand products with specific labels that reflect their local market or retail outlet. The technology is finding a broad base of applications.”

Converter control
One of the major appeals of variable data printing is the control it offers converters. With some careful planning and the utilization of digital technology, converters are able to cut down on waste and, sometimes, cost. Atlantic Zeiser is a West Caldwell, NJ, USA-based provider of digital print products for industrial applications, including high-quality variable digital data. Dan Rhoades, sales manager at Atlantic Zeiser, says variable data printing benefits include waste and cost savings, zero-error production, high print quality and variability for frequently changing print data, all which meet the most stringent safety concerns. “With pharmaceutical and medicine labels in particular, the need for quality and high efficiency is paramount. It ensures maximum data security and can even be used for clinical studies,” he says.

The customization needed to serve increasingly competitive and highly regulated markets is the driving force behind technological advancements in variable data printing. According to Martens, the explosion of e-commerce has also fueled its progress. One of the most important advancements, he says, is the widespread acceptance of Personalized Print Markup Language (PPML) as the printing industry standard. “This made it easier to create variable data packages that could easily communicate with the raster image processor (RIP) of a digital press,” he says. “A lot of our customers that are predominantly into higher volume variable data printing are data centers and print service providers. Many of these players are not familiar with graphic-arts workflows and are historically very data-driven, using AFP/IPDS workflows.”

Glenn Toole, vice president of sales and marketing at MCS, a Chicago, IL, USA-based manufacturer of inkjet imaging systems, says there have also been sustainable advances, in addition to technological. “The print resolution has increased to 600 dpi, which gives printers the capability to handle fine graphics and small or dense bar codes and numbering. In addition, the print widths have increased to 4.25" modules, which can also be the foundation for larger heads. Previously, most print heads were smaller than two inches. UV curable inks are now prevalent,” he says, “And they give good adhesion characteristics without the need for controversial solvents.”

While the technology that drives variable data printing put converters in control of the printing process, it can also put pressure on a converter to adapt a painstaking prepress and proofing system. Leslie Gurland, president of LogoTech, a converter in Fairfield, NJ, USA, has produced variable data labels for wineries; LogoTech’s parent company has also used the technology to produce trading cards. Gurland says that, in her experience, setting up for a variable data print job can be very time consuming. “In addition, proofing the sequential numbering is challenging. You can easily miss something in images with numbers 1-100,000.” She adds, though, that “there may be new software out there that we are not aware of that can be helpful with this.”

In addition to exacting data input required to produce variable data labels, Tu of Roland DGA Corp., points out that the precision required to print QR codes and bar codes is extraordinary as they need to be properly read by mobile devices and other scanning technologies. He adds, “Another consideration is the length of your production run. Our own VersaWorks RIP software supports up to 250 prints when variable data is applied to each one. Longer runs require separating data into batches. Also, working with spot colors can require more advanced skills. VersaWorks variable data printing supports process color data based on CMYK output. In order to incorporate spot colors as variable data, they need to be converted first to CMYK values.”

Still, others believe that with the right tools, the printing of variable data labels can be simple. Christian Menegon, worldwide business development manager for HP Indigo, believes that this is the case, though he does point out that there are still some mountains to climb before converters can fully realize the promise of variable data printing. “Today’s software solutions make processing the variable elements in a job easier than ever before. For example, HP SmartStream Labels and Packaging VDP Tools, powered by Esko, can be used to print simple or complex variable elements including singular numbers, text, bar codes or images. Once this connection between the variable data and the page is made and the individual images are generated at print speed, there are few hurdles left to production.

“The greater challenge,” he says, “lies in the infrastructure needed to make full use of the possibilities of variable data. For instance, printing variable codes on bottles is simple. But having a system that allows someone in the field to read that code and discover that a bottle should be in Los Angeles and not in Chicago, and then alert the brand owner as well as the consumer, is more challenging.”

Supplier perspective
In order to meet these challenges – and to help converters realize the potential of variable data printing – suppliers have upped the ante on their presses and papers. Here, several leading suppliers discuss the ways in which their products help converters advance this segment of the industry.

Mark Andy
There are many products available on the market for variable data. The right product for a converter depends on many factors including color, speed, variable data type, resolution requirements, and in-line versus offline application. Mark Andy says it has had extensive experience in providing in-line products with existing flexo presses, both with integrating into new presses as well as retrofitting existing installations. Most recently, the company has partnered with Domino to integrate its K600i technology into Mark Andy’s line of in-line presses. The K600i provides a high speed, high-resolution black inkjet solution, ideal for QR codes, HarvestMark, bar codes, serialization; any kind of variable data in-print. The K600i product has also been incorporated into the Rotoflex line of finishing units, providing an offline solution for adding variable data.

In addition to adding VDP capability to existing equipment, Mark Andy also offers the new SRL 4.0. This is a four-color digital printer that is designed for all short run label needs. The SRL 4.0 has the ability to print variable data, including variable graphics. This printer can also re-register to preprinted webs, providing a flexible solution for adding variable images or data to base-printed webs.

The HP Indigo WS6600
The HP Indigo WS6600 digital press was designed to offer efficiency and versatility for high-capacity labels and packaging production. The WS6600 offers enhanced productivity mode, which increases press color speed to 130 linear feet per minute for most color jobs, delivering what the company calls the industry’s highest crossover point vs. analog for the vast majority of pressure sensitive label jobs. Other features include an inline priming unit, which offers the capability to use standard, non-treated substrates while eliminating the need for pre-planned treatment. It is automatically controlled by the press software.

A security printing offering, HP Indigo’s exclusive Secure Pack System, supports efficient production according to the Current Good

Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) for pharmaceutical and security printing. This system - combined with the ability to print microtext as small as 0.7 pt., robust variable data printing capabilities and integration with a variety of creation and inspection products - combine to form what the company calls a robust, end-to-end security offering.

Roland DGA Corp.
Roland wide-format printers and printer/cutters come with VersaWorks RIP software, which features variable data printing capabilities. This feature is offered across the entire printer line, which includes eco-solvent, solvent, UV, sublimation and aqueous models ranging from 12 to 104" in width. Roland printers and printer/cutters are used to produce a variety of graphics, including signs, banners, posters, labels, decals, POP displays, vehicle graphics, decorated apparel, interior décor items, packaging prototypes and personalized promotional and gift items. 
Many Roland inkjet models feature the company’s integrated contour cutting technology, which the Roland says allows users to produce graphics in virtually any shape in one automated workflow. Specialty inks for added versatility and premium effects and finishes are also available.

Atlantic Zeiser

Atlantic Zeiser’s Omega printer

Atlantic Zeiser offers several printers for the variable data printing market, including the Omega, Delta, Digiline, Digiline Versa, and Delta 105i. The Omega is ideal for high-resolution single-pass spot color UV printing that the company says makes the task of profitable marking, serialization, late stage customization, and personalization at different stages of the production process easy.

Based on a new module concept, the Digiline Versa is designed for print service providers, packaging specialists and manufacturers of folding boxes who can use its greater flexibility in handling different formats and materials to exploit new business opportunities. One example is the secure printing of variable codes and other information required on drugs and pharmaceutical products under future labeling legislation.

The Delta 105i can operate on the new Rapida 105 from KBA and the new generation Manroland sheetfed offset printing lines Roland 900 and Roland 700 HiPrint. For coding sheets and flat packaging, the Delta 105i digital printer and the Vericam verification system from Atlantic Zeiser can be optionally integrated. The company says this combination ensures maximum print quality and speeds between 7,500 and 14,000 sheets per hour.

All of Xeikon’s digital presses, for both the documents space and the labels and packaging space, can print with variable data. This is all handled through the Xeikon X-800 Digital Front End, which the company says is the “brains” of the operation. The X-800 can power all kinds of variable data printing applications, from personalized on-demand printing, to direct mail production. The X-800 is based on open, web-friendly standards, such as XML and JDF, which makes it possible to integrate with their websites and automate the web-to-print production. For most of Xeikon’s customers, variable data printing has become an essential part of their business to enable one-to-one marketing for some of the world’s leading brands.

MCS has two technologies for monochrome variable data printing: the Eagle and the Falcon. Both are inkjet-based systems. The MCS Eagle is a UV-curable, ink-based system that has print widths of 4.25" and 8.5" print heads that can be used in multiples up to 25" of total width.  They print at 600 dpi at speeds of 300 feet per minute – which is well suited to inline printing on existing flexographic presses or rewinders. The large head width – without “stitching” – makes the technology ideal for full web-width applications where high resolution is needed.

The newly-announced Falcon system is an HP-based technology that uses low-cost 1/2" modules in two inch or four inch print heads.  The total print width can go up to 24".  The company says these systems have a low capital cost and are perfect for numbering or simple bar code jobs.

DICE Graphic Technologies
Dice Graphic Technologies manufactures a full color inkjet print engine that mounts directly onto any existing flexo press. This allows for the combination of digital and traditional analog print which creates a more versatile platform. The company says it also reduces the initial investment by eliminating the need to re-purchase material handling hardware and tooling that already exist on the production floor. The company’s inkjet modules are capable of six-color print. CMYK plus two spot colors. Print speed is 80 fpm at the highest resolution with widths up to 22" wide.

Avery Dennison
Avery Dennison offers a full portfolio of pressure-sensitive label products for variable information printing, including papers and films with adhesives for permanent, removable or all temperature applications. The labelstock portfolio includes lmaterials for direct thermal, thermal transfer, laser/inkjet and EDP/impact print technologies.  Within each print technology, Avery Dennison says, there is a range of materials designed to meet a variety of performance and or price points to best align with the actual application requirements.

Looking forward
Like other segments of the printing industry, the growth of variable data printing is dependent upon both technological advances and the market’s ability to provide answers to challenges. As Martens of Xeikon points out, this is one sector of the industry that is in direct competition with online communication.

“It’s clear that each channel has its strengths and its weaknesses,” he says. “Paper-based communication is much more personal & VIP and is always ‘on.’ This makes it an excellent tool to stand out if the message is really important. This is a move we see taking the place over the next five years. Translating that into printing technology means you need high image quality, paper/substrate flexibility and speed. On the workflow side, you need to be able to work fully-integrated with web-based tools. The objective is that whatever channel you use, the message has to be relevant, look nice and arrive at the right time.”

Toole, of MCS, believes that market demand will continue to drive variable data printing for the next five to 10 years. He says, “The need for track-and-trace and product versioning applications – particularly in the food and nutraceutical markets – are not expected to decline any time soon.”

Toole adds, “The cost effectiveness of traditional flexographic printing will be viable for many years, yet some variable elements of jobs will continue to increase. This will drive the adoption of hybrid printing – where digital products such as ours co-exist inline with traditional flexo. As the underlying consumer demand and product identification needs grow, so will the adoption of inline variable data printing by converters. Naturally, speeds will continue to increase, both with inkjet as well as with the flexographic printing process.”

Marketing is one of the biggest forces driving label and package printing, and it has only been enhanced since the advent of social media. As brands owners continue to utilize marketing efforts that directly connect users to brands, variable data printing will undoubtedly be a part of the puzzle.

Marketing efforts will offer some of the most creative possibilities for variable data printing, says Menegon of HP. “While printed packages with unique codes can be used for tracking, they can also be used for games or as keys to an online portal as part of a promotion. We have just started to see the potential of using VDP labels to link consumer data with physical products.”

Martens, of Xeikon, believes that customers will continue to become more and more sophisticated in their use of variable data printing, which is largely driven by marketing efforts. “The way that marketers gather their customers’ data through their interactions on the web, and the way they continue to develop a so-called 360-degree view of their customers, will be incredibly important to successful variable data printing. For printers, we’ll continue to see innovations in the workflow that make variable data printing campaigns easier and even more cost effective.”

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