Planning for a More Personalized Variable Data Workflow
Anyone in print knows that the operational challenges are increasing year-by-year. A recent industry survey listed the top priorities of printing firms in 2018. At number three on the list was “customized, personalized, or variable-data printing jobs.” No secret here. Digital print has enabled totally customized print communication. The “tip of the spear” has been the direct mail community. While we’ve been increasingly inundated with pop-up ads on the internet, the majority of them are simply background noise to our browsing experience. A physical, delivered mail piece still commands more attention.
But not all direct mail is equal. Properly targeted and designed mail blows away the generic white envelope. The same goes for personalized communication in finance, health care and more. If you’re a printer who’s diving into digital (or who is already there), there is a “digital divide” with a considerable checklist that must be adhered to for success. The first is the data, and the finished piece layout. There are lots of software options for this, and the latest software platforms handle more than simply print, with integration between print, digital and social media. These software suites are both capable and not inexpensive. But accurate data and their proper layout and usage in a printed piece are the difference between success and expensive failure.
The second factor is creating the symbology on the media to allow it to be assembled and finished accurately. Personalized print communications are unique to each recipient, and the contents and number of pages, inserts, membership or promotional cards, will vary between each. Both barcodes and cameras are critical for matching components. The advantages of the barcode are that you can store a lot of information within a small 2D, or Datamatrix, code. And, that information can be used by multiple finishing and mailing systems. I have a preference for barcodes because the readers are cheaper and easier to set up. But cameras can examine a variety of critical areas and gauge whether they’re up to standards.
A key factor is whether the inspection/verification system is part of the finishing module, or an external add-on. Integrated systems tend to work well, since they’re guaranteed to do so by the manufacturer, while third-party add-ons may need more tweaking. And what about the binder, bookletmaker, folder, or saddlestitcher itself? Well, make sure you’ve purchased equipment that is going to reliably produce for at least five years. That’s the current life cycle of many digital presses.
Digital finishing machinery is clearly getting more robust in response to higher press speeds. And, plan on maintaining it with your people. Most finishing systems in offset finishing are self-maintained, and for a good reason. The fastest response to a problem will come from your shop floor. More complicated issues will require vendor technicians, but a majority of glitches can be quickly solved by well-trained operators who have some knowledge of machine maintenance.
The last piece is getting the finishing information back to your host MIS system, or to the digital press software. You’re responsible for ensuring the absolute integrity of your client’s job, so you must ensure that you have an auditable record of the work produced. Mistakes incur varying levels of penalties, depending on the type of work being produced. The worst consequences are the loss of an account, and even fines levied in certain markets.
When you properly plan a personalized, variable data workflow, you will have integrated software, press and finishing in a workflow where there is accountability and verification at every step in the process. Which is surely what you will need for success.