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SPECIAL REPORT VARIABLE DATA PRINTING -- Digital Print Goes Postal

October 2005
Automation has been a central theme of efforts to keep the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) viable and to make it more competitive. The printing industry has a vested interest in the success of such efforts, but also must contend with some negative consequences.

According to a PIA/GATF estimate from Ronnie H. Davis, Ph.D, chief economist, about 45 percent of the dollar volume of printing in the United States ends up being mailed. That figure represents materials entering the mail stream directly from the printer and indirectly via a mail house or the print buyer.

In dollar terms, this amounts to some $70 billion in annual printing shipments passing through the USPS, Davis says.

Unfortunately, automated handling can put added stress on printed matter. John Lind, PIA/GATF senior research scientist, points out that First Class mail typically is subject to automatic sorting by several machines, including the Advanced Facing and Cancellation System (AFCS). This machine employs many wheels and belts to enable processing of up to 39,000 envelopes/ postcards per hour.

Design Behind Bars

It also applies a fluorescent orange barcode on every piece to facilitate subsequent handling. While not "damage" per se, the barcode also can detract from the appearance of a beautifully designed and printed self-mailer piece. This is particularly true if the barcode falls in a white or light colored area.

Digitally printed material may face a disproportionate risk because a larger percentage of this work—especially variable data printing—is mailed and the finished product is believed to be less durable. PIA/GATF set out to test that latter assumption by mailing sets of samples from four cities (New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles) to the association's headquarters in Sewickley, PA.

The samples produced were all variations of the same piece—a 6x9˝ postcard promoting the 2005 TechAlert Conference—printed from the same file. The postcard's design featured extensive toner/ink coverage on the face, with the back dominated by a large white area for the mailing panel.

Sets of 25 postcards were printed on both digital (toner) and digital offset/direct imaging presses for comparison, as well as with and without various protective coatings, including aqueous and UV options. The lineup of system vendors who agreed to participate in the test included Heidelberg (Quickmaster DI Pro), Hewlett-Packard (HP Indigo 5000), KBA (74 Karat), Eastman Kodak (KPG Direct Press 5634DI and Kodak NexPress 2100), Xeikon (DCP5000) and Xerox (iGen3).

All told, nearly 3,500 postcards were mailed. Each postcard was hand sorted and analyzed by PIA/GATF scientists as it was received. "Some postcards arrived without a mark on them, while others were delivered in pieces inside an envelope," Lind reports.
 

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