New guides for best practice in creating print files for variable data printing

Best practice in creating PDF files for Variable Data Printing
Two new guides, one for designers and one for developers, to ensure best practice in creating PDF files for variable data printing are available now from the PDF Association.

When talking with digital press vendors it soon becomes apparent that the only thing more important than speed is quality; the only thing more important than quality is cost; and the only thing more important than cost is speed. I think I’d have to ask M C Escher for an illustration of that!

To focus on speed, what a press vendor usually means when talking to Global Graphics Software is “I need the Digital Front End (DFE) for my press to be able to print every job at full engine speed”, which is a subject that  we’re very happy to talk about and to demonstrate solutions for, even as the press engines themselves get faster with every new version.

But the components such as the RIP in a DFE are not the only things that can affect whether a press can be driven at full engine speed. There are plenty of things that a designer or composition engine can do that can vary how fast a PDF file can be RIPped by several orders of magnitude, without affecting the visual appearance of the print.

Obviously we like it when the files are efficiently built, but sometimes it’s not obvious to a designer, or a software developer working on either a design application or composition engine how they might be able to improve the files that they generate. That’s why we created a guide called “Do PDF/VT Right” back in 2014, stuffed full of actionable recommendations for both designers and developers making PDF files for variable data printing.

Over the years since we’ve updated and extended the guide. The rework in 2020 was sufficiently significant that we renamed it to “Full Speed Ahead: How to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press”.

It’s been very well received, and clearly filled a gap in materials available for the target audience; there have been thousands of downloads and printed copies given away at trade shows.

At the end of 2020 a new PDF/VT standard, PDF/VT-3, was published, and the committee in ISO that had developed it asked the PDF Association to write application notes for it, to assist developers implementing it with more extensive detail than can be included in International Standards. That sounds very formal, but in practice the two committees have many members in common (as an example I was project editor on PDF/VT-3 and I co-chair the PDF Association’s PDF/VT Technical Working Group (TWG)). The hand-over was mainly to enable much more agile and responsive document development and more flexibility around publication.

After some debate the PDF/VT TWG decided that what the industry really needed was a best-practice guide in how to construct efficient PDF files for VDP, whether they’re PDF/VT or ‘just’ “optimized PDF”. Any developer who has worked with PDF/VT-1 should have no trouble in implementing VT-3, but there are still some issues with slow processing of very inefficient PDF files preventing print service providers, converters etc from running their digital presses at full engine speed.

The next step was to agree to do the development of that guide in a new form of committee within the PDF Association, specifically so that people who were not members of the Association could be involved.

At this stage Global Graphics offered the text of Full Speed Ahead as a starting point for the Association guide, an offer that was very quickly accepted. But it was felt that it could be made more accessible if two editions of the guide were produced: one for designers and one for developers, rather than combining the two into a single document. Amongst other things it means that each guide can use the most appropriate terminology for each audience, which always makes reading easier.

We were lucky to have Pat McGrew working with us and she took over as champion for the designer edition, while I led on the developer one.

And so I’m very happy to announce that both the Developer and Designer editions of the PDF Association’s “Best Practice in creating PDF files for Variable Data Printing” have just been published and are available with a lot of other useful resources at https://www.pdfa.org/resources/.

DOWNLOAD
BEST PRACTICE IN CREATING PDF FILES FOR VARIABLE DATA PRINTING – DESIGNER EDITION

BEST PRACTICE IN CREATING PDF FILES FOR VARIABLE DATA PRINTING – DEVELOPER EDITION

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey, former distinguished technologist at Global Graphics Software, is currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT and is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a guide offering advice to anyone with a stake in variable data printing including graphic designers, print buyers, composition developers and users.

Further reading

  1. Full Speed Ahead: How to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press
  2. Compliance, compatibility, and why some tools are more forgiving of bad PDFs
  3. What the difference between PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-4

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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


DOWNLOAD YOUR COPY OF THE WHITE PAPER

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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1https://www.marmite.co.uk/products/shop/marmite-personalised-classic-jar.html

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

I’ve spoken to a lot of people about variable data printing and about what that means when a vendor builds a press or printing unit that must be able to handle variable data jobs at high speed. Over the years I’ve mentally defined several categories that such people fall into, based on the first question they ask: 

  1. “Variable data; what’s that?” 
  2. “Why should I care about variable data, nobody uses that in my industry?” 
  3. “I’ve heard of variable data and I think I need it, but what does that actually mean?” 
  4. “How do I turn on variable data optimization in Harlequin?” 

If you’re in the first two categories, I recommend that you read through the introductory chapters of our guide: “Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press”, available on our website. 

And yes, unless you’re in a very specialised industry, people probably are using variable data. As an example, five years ago pundits in the label printing industry were saying that nobody was using variable data on those. Now it’s a rapidly growing area as brands realize how useful it can be and as the convergence of coding and marking with primary consumer graphics continues. If you’re a vendor designing and building a digital press your users will expect you to support variable data when you bring it to market; don’t get stuck with a DFE (digital front end) that can’t drive your shiny new press at engine speed when they try to print a variable job. 

If you’re in category 3 then you’re in luck, we’ve just published a video to explain how variable data jobs are typically put together, and then how the DFE for a digital press deconstructs the pages again in order to optimize processing speed. It also talks about why that’s so important, especially as presses get faster every year. Watch it here:
 

And if you’re in category 4, drop us a line at info@globalgraphics.com, or, if you’re already a Harlequin OEM partner, our support team are ready and waiting for your questions.

Further reading:

  1. What’s the best effective photographic image resolution for your variable data print jobs?
  2. Why does optimization of VDP jobs matter?
  3. There really are two different kinds of variable data submission!

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Ditch the disk: a new generation of RIPs to drive your digital press

Vast amounts of data can slow down your digital press resulting in wasted product or delayed delivery times.
Vast amounts of data can slow down your digital press resulting in wasted product or delayed delivery times.

In this post, Global Graphics Software’s product manager for Mako, David Stevenson, explores the challenge of printing large amounts of raster data and the options available to ensure that data doesn’t slow down your digital press:

The print market is increasingly moving to digital: digital printing offers many advantages over conventional printing, the most valuable of these is mass-produced, personalized output making every copy of the print different. At the same time  digital presses are getting faster, wider, and printing at higher resolutions with extended gamut color becoming common place.

To drive the new class of digital presses, you need vast amounts of raster data every second. Traditional print software designed for non-digital workflows attempts to handle this vast amount of data by RIPping ahead, storing rasters to physical disks. However, the rate at which data is needed for the digital press causes disk-based workflows to rapidly hit the data rate boundary. This is the point where even state-of-the-art storage devices are simply too small and slow for the huge data rates required to keep the press running at full rated speed.

This is leading to a new generation of RIPs that ditch the disk and RIP print jobs on the fly directly to the press electronics. As well as driving much higher data rates, it also has the benefit of no wasted time RIPping ahead.

As you can imagine, RIPping directly to the press electronics presents some engineering challenges. For example, two print jobs may look identical before and after printing, but the way in which they have been made can cause them to RIP at very different rates. Additionally, your RIP of choice can have optimizations that make jobs constructed in certain ways to RIP faster or slower. This variability in print job and RIP time is a bit like playing a game of Russian roulette: if you lose the press will be starved of data causing wasted product or delivery delays.

With a RIP driving your press directly you need to have confidence that all jobs submitted can be printed at full speed. That means you need the performance of each print job and page to be predictable and you need to know what speed the press can be run at for a given combination of print Job, RIP and PC.

Knowing this, you may choose to slow down the press so that your RIP can keep up. Better still, keep the press running at full speed by streamlining the job with knowledge of optimizations that work well with your choice of RIP.

Or you could choose to return the print job to the generator with a report explaining what is causing it to run slowly. Armed with this information, the generator can rebuild the job, optimized for your chosen RIP.

Whatever you choose, you will need predictable print jobs to drive your press at the highest speed to maximize your digital press’s productivity.

If you want to know more about the kind of job objects and structure that can slow RIPs down, and the challenge of producing predictable jobs, download this guide: Full Speed Ahead – how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press.

You can also find out more about software to optimize both PDFs and non-PDFs for your digital press by visiting our website.

Further reading:

Is your printer software up to the job? The impact of rising data rates on software evolved from traditional print processes 

Future-proofing your digital press to cope with rising data rates

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The Digimarc interview: Fast, efficient print production with variable data printing

The impact of poorly constructed PDF files on production schedules has increased as press resolution, colorant count, speed, and width rise – greatly increasing the data rate required to drive them.

This increase in data places additional demands on the processing power of the DFE and risks slowing down the digital press: a delay of half a second on every page of a 10,000-page job adds 90 minutes to the whole job, while for a job of a million pages an extra tenth of a second per page adds 24 hours to the total processing time.

In his guide: Full Speed Ahead – How to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, Martin Bailey, distinguished technologist at Global Graphics Software, gives some technical recommendations as to how you can make sure that you don’t make a PDF file for a variable data job that will bring a digital press to its knees. It provides objective information for graphic designers, print buyers, production managers, press operators, owners of PSPs, and developers of digital presses and composition tools.

Martin has just released a second edition of the guide and in this film he talks about the updates to Digimarc‘s marketing communications manager, Rob Fay. Digimarc provides additional functionality to Global Graphics’ software platforms and is a sponsor of the guide.

Topics in the interview include:

  • The guide’s purpose and target audiences
  • Background on updates related to the standards PDF/X-6 and PDF/VT-3
  • Differences in the various VDP applications: traceability; trackability; and personalization
  • Recent improvements in DFE (digital front end) technology that are enabling more advanced VDP

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software, and Rob Fay of Digimarc

WATCH THE INTERVIEW HERE

DOWNLOAD THE GUIDE HERE

Further reading:

  1. What’s the best effective photographic image resolution for your variable data print jobs?
  2. Why does optimization of VDP jobs matter?

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