Unlocking the Holy Grail: the key to mass customization at mass-production prices

Mass-personalized or -customized products at near mass-production prices is a huge potential area for growth for digital print. Only with digital can you print in real time onto anything and everything, such as 3D objects, clothing, flooring, tiles and wallcoverings, to give a unique customized product.

In this post, Martin Bailey, former CTO and now consultant at Global Graphics Software, explores the rise of the use of variable data and how digital inkjet is the key to unlocking the Holy Grail for many retailers: mass customization at near mass-production prices.

It’s common to think of variable data printing, where at least some of every instance is different from every other instance, as being the preserve of transactional and direct mail printing. Admittedly, that’s where much of it started, but in the broadest sense of the term, variable data printing is now used far more widely, across multiple industries. In situations where the delivery of the product is through a push model (where there is no direct connection between each item produced and a specific recipient at the time of production) several cases are common. Most of these cases are in B2B environments, where the buyer then sells or delivers the result, often B2C.

In mainstream commercial print, labels, packaging and industrial manufacturing, it’s difficult to imagine an alternative to the push model, even given the huge amount of metadata that some companies, such as luxury goods brands and supermarkets, are collecting on their customers.

But there are many situations where there’s a much closer relationship between an end user of the product and the organization that printed or manufactured it, which can be described as a pull model instead. Many of these cases move beyond the traditional idea of variable data as being text and barcodes imaged on top of a static background to each piece being truly unique. They deserve to be described as mass customization, and all of them have been enabled by web-to-print or other forms of online ordering.

The wide format market has long provided display and soft signage, sportswear, tee shirts and car wraps to custom designs on very short runs, down to a single copy. Both signage and sportswear are aimed at both B2B and B2C markets.

Photofinishing has long been a B2C business and has used digital printing for decades. The industry has learned that simply producing 5” x 7” prints does not generate significant profits, but has grown first into photobooks, and then into many other forms of product decoration, printing photographs on hats, shoes, apparel, bed linen, mugs etc and converging with what have historically been wide format opportunities. Each individual order, perhaps for one mug with a photo printed on it, may not appear to be variable data printing. But when orders are aggregated at the producer there may be hundreds or thousands of mugs to be printed per day, each with a different image.

Photobooks offer higher margins than simple print finishing
Photobooks offer higher margins than simple print finishing.

The same business model is applied more broadly to print designs which may be uploaded by the customer and/or created in a web portal by combining the customer’s text and graphics from a library. Examples include phone cases, tee shirts, postcards and greetings cards.

And a number of providers effectively act as publishers for customer designs, managing printing and fulfilment for a variety of products or lengths of custom-printed textile. Examples include Red Bubble and Spoonflower.

Several brands have run campaigns whereby products can be ordered with a name on them, usually for gifting. Examples include “My Nutella” and “My Marmite”. A variant of this is where only a label is purchased, often for bottles of spirits, to be applied to the product by the purchaser themselves.

The most famous campaign for ‘personalized’ labels was Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke”, but in practice most labels were printed in long runs, randomizing the most common names in each country; only labels from roadshows and purchases from the web were actually printed on demand for specific recipients. This makes it an excellent example of a hybrid model taking advantage of the benefits of multiple print technologies.

Personalized Marmite jars - personalized product for gifting can attract a significant premium
Personalized product for gifting can attract a significant premium.1

Even in industries producing a design that would historically have been created in multiple mile or kilometer lengths, such as wallcoverings, there are opportunities for increased margins in custom delivery. As an example, consider a decorating company that has been contracted to apply wallcoverings to a large office. If a wallcovering vendor could deliver pre-cut drops of the wallcovering, each of exactly the right length, and with the pattern starting in exactly the right place so that each drop aligns with those on either side, that would save the decorating company a lot of time. And that, in turn, would allow the vendor to charge a sufficient premium to more than cover the reduced total length required because there is no longer any wastage from the decorators cutting each drop to ensure alignment.

A lot of the demand for this mass customization is ascribed to the changing attitudes and communication preferences of millennials and Gen-Z. To generalize, it’s often said that such audiences demand to be treated, and be able to represent themselves as unique, requiring them to be able to obtain unique product in support of that position.

But the demand is not specific to any age group, according to “The Deloitte Consumer Review – Made-to-order: The rise of mass personalization”, based on survey results from YouGov, which also went on to say: “1 in 5 consumers who expressed an interest in personalized products or services are willing to pay a 20% premium”; that figure rises to around 1 in 2 for customized clothing, furniture, homeware and DIY.

Demand for customized product is not restricted to any particular age group.
Demand for customized product is not restricted to any particular age group.

Of course, personalized and customized products are not warehoused at all; they’ve been created for a specific recipient and will usually be shipped immediately.

Inkjet can achieve unique results

Taking short runs to the extreme, a significant advantage for inkjet that applies across the majority of industries is that it does not need to simply reproduce the same invariant design repeatedly, even for a short run; instead, it can make every item different.

Inkjet can achieve unique results in a variety of different industries and being unique in a useful way is a very effective lever for premium pricing and increased profitability.


This is an excerpt from the white paper: Software considerations for inkjet in the smart factory


White paper: Software considerations for inkjet in the smart factory

Further reading:

What you need to build a press that must handle variable data jobs at high speed

Watch the video: Connecting print to a Smart Factory:

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Introducing SmartDFE to INKISH TV at Fespa 2022

At the recent Fespa show in Berlin, Justin Bailey, managing director at Global Graphics Software, spoke to Morten Reitoft of INKISH TV about the technologies offered for inkjet by Hybrid Software Group and why the SmartDFE™ is a key component if you’re planning to integrate print into your smart factory. 

Find out more:

  1. Global Graphics Smart QI: New Platform for On-the-Fly Inspection
  2. Connecting print to a smart factory.
  3. How to transform your inkjet business with Industry 4.0 and OPC UA
  4. Short introduction to the OPC UA

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From print to manufacturing – an introduction to industry terms in the smart factory for the printer operator

As print evolves to become more integrated with manufacturing and a key part of the smart factory, those of us in the printing world are discovering new industry terms and language. In this blog post, Ian Bolton, product manager at Global Graphics Software, defines some of those industry terms and includes examples of how they are implemented into Global Graphics Software’s solutions.

OPC stands for Open Platform Communications – UA stands for Unified Architecture. Together: OPC UA. It’s an open standard for exchanging information between industrial components (composers). First developed in 1994 as OPC, sometimes referred to as OPC Classic, the standard was redesigned in 2006 as OPC UA. It is used to communicate with the factory across the internet. It has full encryption and security standards built in.

OPC UA is supported by over 800 members in the OPC Foundation and has been deployed in over 50 million devices. It is supported by companies like Mitsubishi, Siemens, Rockwell Automation, Microsoft, Amazon, SAP and Cisco.

OPC UA Server and OPC UA Client
Two more industry terms are OPC UA Server and OPC UA Client. The OPC UA Client communicates data through the OPC UA Server. The Client communicates in both directions with the printer PLCs, both reading and writing, and it can display device-specific information, like the ink levels and inkjet head temperatures

The image below shows Global Graphics Software’s Smart Print Controller™ (SPC). The SPC is an operator user interface that connects to one or more of our Harlequin Direct™ RIPs. The SPC contains both an OPC UA Client and an OPC UA Server.

The OPC UA Server within the SPC allows the printer to appear as a single device to the Smart Factory OPC Clients. It can publish data to the smart factory and the outside world including industrial cloud services, like AWS IoT SiteWise and Microsoft’s Azure IoT platform (more about those in the next paragraph).

Industrial Cloud Services
Industrial cloud services, like AWS IoT SiteWise and Azure IoT, offer a range of industry-specific cloud solutions, including sharing and storing data. By sharing and storing data in the Cloud, you can leverage opportunities to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze the data. This allows you to do predictive maintenance and optimize your industrial components based on the data in the analysis. No programming is required to make this connection because the work is done via a web browser, although some firewall and networking adjustments may need to be made.

You can visualize data collected in this way in graphs and charts via a web browser, like in this image below:

Another industry term is SCADA, which stands for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. With SCADA, you can supervise, monitor and control industrial processes both locally and remotely. The dashboards created in the SCADA system can be viewed from a browser on any device.

Here we show an Ignition SCADA solution connected to our OPC UA servers, but there are many other vendors.

Smart Factory
The smart factory autonomously runs the entire production process. Smart factories self-optimize, self-adapt and learn from new conditions in real-time allowing them to keep running. Print will become a subsystem of the smart factory and print operators will move from overseeing a single component to having the capability to oversee the whole factory.

Adding print to smart factories requires a rethink in the software and hardware stack. The Digital Front End (DFE) will also need to become smart:

The SmartDFE™ from Global Graphics Software is a full software and hardware stack that does everything from job creation through to printhead electronics. It includes the OPC UA-enabled SPC. The diagram below shows the SPC on the left, which controls a number of distributed Harlequin Direct RIPs. There is a very fast, single-pass system with one Harlequin Direct PC per print bar. The SPC distributes the PDF out to the Harlequin Directs and they then RIP, screen and stream the data to the printhead driver electronics in real-time. The Harlequin Direct PC at the bottom is streaming the same print data to a Quality Inspection Vision System.

To keep up with the fastest presses, our Harlequin Direct PCs must be running at the optimum level for every job. We can use an OPC UA Server to monitor each of the Harlequin Direct PCs. Shown on the right of each print bar is the Ink Delivery System for each ink color. Its job is to pump the ink around to the inkjet heads and keep it at the ideal temperature.

The above industry terms are just a few to get you started. Let me know if there are any others you’d like me to cover in future posts.

Find out more:

1. Connecting print to a smart factory.

2. Project manager Jason Hook shows how we’ve implemented OPC UA into our solutions in this film: How to transform your inkjet business with Industry 4.0 and OPC UA. Jason demonstrates how we track performance metrics like pressure levels across an entire production line using our PC and Ink Delivery System, all while uploading it securely onto cloud servers using AWS IoT SiteWise and Azure IoT.

3. Short introduction to the OPC UA

About the author

Ian Bolton

Ian Bolton, Product Manager, Direct
Ian Bolton, Product Manager – SmartDFE and Direct

Ian Bolton is the product manager for SmartDFE™ and Direct™. He works with printer OEMs to break down barriers that might be preventing them from reaching their digital printer’s full potential. A software engineer at heart, Ian has a masters in Advanced Computer Science from the University of Manchester, and over 15 years’ experience developing software for both start-ups and large corporations, such as Arm and Sony Ericsson. He draws on this technical background and his passion for problem-solving to define and drive features and requirements for innovative software solutions for digital print.

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Smarter software – the role of software in the smart factories of the future

At the InPrint Munich 2022 exhibition, our VP of products and services, Eric Worrall, sat down for a chat with Marcus Timson of FuturePrint. They discussed the future role that software will play in connecting print to the fully automated smart factory and how, as the print subsystem becomes an integral part of the smart factory, the press will self-monitor, ensuring color is right, checking ink levels and even predicting when printheads need replacing.

Watch it here:

Find out more about connecting print to the smart factory: SmartDFE™ is a full software and hardware stack that adds print to the fully automated smart factory.

Further reading:

Connecting print to the smart factory

AI – Man vs Machine – a new way of thinking?

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