VARIABLE-DATA SOLUTIONS--Refining Raw Data
BY MARK SMITH
Mining the rich potential of variable-data printing has proven to be tougher going than early assays may have indicated. The biggest obstacles have been, and continue to be, inadequate customer data gathering on the part of potential users and/or limited understanding of how to capitalize on such information.
Early on it became apparent that selling and executing variable-data work required direct interaction with marketing types. Trying to go through the normal channels—i.e., print buyers and even creatives, to an extent—wasn't effective. The right place to start is with the marketing goals of the organization, not the capabilities of the process.
The need to educate buyers and the nature of work result in a longer sell cycle. The sale is further complicated by the relatively higher cost per piece of variable-printing work, so the focus must be shifted to return on investment. On the plus side, the upfront investment required means the work tends to be longer term programs, not one-time projects.
At a minimum, potential users must be educated about what is possible with variable-data printing and how to set up a job. Depending on the resources of the customer and supplier, it may make sense to move up to a complete turnkey service. This can include program development, mailing list procurement, database management, design/creative services, print production and document distribution. A company that has found success going this route is Digital Marketing in Minneapolis, which is featured in this issue (see page 18).
The technology has presented a few barriers of its own. Initially there were issues with the amount of variable data the tools could handle and their ability to drive presses at rated speeds. Upgrades have largely dealt with these problems. However, as the market started to mature, concern arose that the use of proprietary, closed file formats might stifle the technology's adoption.
The class of products generically referred to as variable-data tools really is a mixed bag. They range from QuarkXTensions and stand-alone software applications to printer drivers and hardware caches. Some are proprietary solutions from the press manufacturers themselves, while others have been introduced by third-party developers. The level of functionality and cost vary greatly.
For the most part, variable-data solutions have been device-specific. This means projects have to be targeted to a specific printing system almost from conception. Repeat jobs become captive to the platform/ workflow for which they were originally developed. Such constraints have the potential to restrict the growth of any new technology.
The members of PODi, the digital printing initiative, recognized the benefits of bringing some standardization and interoperability to the variable-data tools they offer. They responded by undertaking development of the Personalized Print Markup Language, or PPML. This effort actually includes several related goals.
If it is widely adopted and effectively implemented, the act of establishing a standard achieves the goal of variable-data system interoperability. In theory, a job prepared by any PPML-compliant system could also be used in any other similarly compliant workflow.
As for the print language itself, the central goal of PPML is to make it faster to print documents with variable content. This is achieved by providing a methodology for the caching of elements that are reused in a variable-data job. Such elements are retained in a pre-processed state, ready for integration into a document on-the-fly as it is being printed at the device's rated speed.
According to the documentation, there are two capabilities that are central to PPML-object-level granularity and reusability. "Granularity" refers to the size of the pieces a system works with in processing a job. Printing systems typically have been limited to working at the page level. Enabling individual pages to be built on-the-fly from a collection of discrete objects makes it possible to gain processing efficiencies through the handling of repeating elements.
"Reusability" encompasses a combination of software and hardware capabilities. What PPML primarily does is specify how reusable elements are to managed, including naming conventions, and how cached elements are called by the page file. It is up to the RIP/front-end suppliers to decide what storage capacities and configurations to offer in their systems. The greater the amount of online storage, the more page elements that can be preprocessed and cached.
The decision to use XML (Extensible Markup Language) as the foundation for PPML provides an additional benefit. XML has been widely adopted as the underpinning of the modern Internet and state-of-the-art Web software. This commonality makes it easier to implement a Web-based interface in PPML-compliant variable-data workflows.
Breaking With the Past
With the exception of interoperability, the job processing capabilities enabled by PPML are not new to the market. A number of the proprietary data formats and systems developed by individual manufacturers already support page element caching and reuse.
That's where the potential for problems may lie. Manufacturers agreeing to work together to develop a standard is one thing, but getting everyone to implement it in an effective way is quite another. Technology and marketing concerns can impede progress.
From a technical standpoint, problems can arise due to the fact that a variable-data tool can be considered PPML-complaint even if it doesn't implement all of the functions supported in the print language. For example, what happens if the press' front end doesn't have adequate online, high-speed storage capacity to handle the level of job element reuse specified when the job is built?
The more insidious concern is marketing related. Can all the companies put aside their self-interests and act in the common good?
Some of the manufacturers involved in developing and implementing PPML have been players in other efforts to achieve system interoperability. Most notable was the attempt in the late 1980s to develop an interchangeable file format for use in color electronic prepress systems (CEPS). The standard had an official designation, but the development effort was generally referred to as DDES—Digital Data Exchange Standards.
Despite the certification of an official standard, true interoperability never really was achieved in practical terms. There were claims and counterclaims by system manufacturers as to why the effort failed to meet its goal. The central point of contention was that at least one manufacturer had a vested interest in keeping files captive to its systems.
What may make the difference this time around is that the market for all digital printing, including variable-data applications, hasn't grown at the rate manufacturers hoped. Since the market still is in its early stages of development, there also is no dominant player. Therefore, it is in the vested interest of all parties to do what they can to promote the use of variable-data printing.
On Demand 2001—to be held at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City on February 28 to March 2—will be the next major indicator of how PPML adoption is progressing. In the meantime, for more information on PPML or PODi, visit www.podi.org.
Tools of the Trade
Indigo—Yours Truly Designer for Mac
Atlas Software—PrintShop Mail
Firstlogic—Postalsoft and DocuRight
GMC Software Technology—PrintNet
Indigo—Yours Truly Express for PC
PageFlex—Persona and Mpower
Barco—VIPLane, FastRip X V5 and PrintStreamer II
Canopy—PrintBuilder and PDF Proofstreamer
Electronics for Imaging—Fiery
Indigo—SNAP (Swift Native Accelerated Personalization)
Scitex—Spire Color Servers
Xeikon—Emerge, eXpert and