The variety of variable printing

August 1, 2006

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

Gutenberg didn't actually invent printing, but he did invent variable-data printing (VDP).

“What?” I hear you cry, “Variable-data printing is brand spanking new! It is the salvation of print. With variable, I'll amaze my customers and charge them any price I please. The salesman who sold me a $500,000 digital press last week told me so!”

Prior to Gutenberg, printing by any process meant the creation by hand of some sort of plate to transfer the image. Whether carved in wood, engraved in metal or stenciled in silk, platemaking was the painstaking work of craftsmen. If changes were needed, it was back to square one.

Gutenberg's lasting fame (he was dubbed “Man of the Millennium” six years back) comes not from his printing press nor his Bibles, but from movable type.

Suddenly, when a typographical error was found, an apprentice could correct it in minutes with tweezers, instead of a master engraver or carver in a matter of weeks or months.

Changes? Revisions? Versions? No problem with movable type. Call it what you will; I call it both variable-data printing and print on demand.

As time improved upon Gutenberg's process, the above scenario moved from cutting edge to quaint history. But, time has not rendered Gutenberg's revolution less important. Au contraire — it has inspired us to build upon his triumph. So much so, in fact, that we now have “variable-data printing.”

Digital VDP's humble beginnings. The Xerox copier also was a VDP pioneer. It couldn't create originals but was capable of tweaking image size, darkness, contrast and position. And it showed the possibilities of using light and electricity for imaging, which would come in handy later on.

Kodak one-upped Xerox by adding electronic collation to the feature mix. Copying books? Instead of collating after the sheets were printed, Kodak made the pages print in the order they were needed. This was a little-noticed but giant step forward, and possibly the first baby step toward utilizing digital print's VDP potential.

With the DocuTech, Xerox was back in the game big-time, making electronic collation truly digital and adding a boatload of image manipulation features, plus very simple raster-based personalization.

What's the point of all this reminiscing? First, to demonstrate that varying a printed image on the fly is not new. The above examples all could have been called “variable” if only the term had been coined back then.

Second, none of the technology listed above excites us anymore. We take it for granted. It has become part of our workflow.

Third, I wish to point out the examples above addressed clear and present needs. All succeeded in opening new markets.

Today's VDP market. By contrast, the VDP solutions proffered today seem in many ways to be solutions in search of a problem.

Today's cutting-edge VDP technology can do wonders with direct mail. This overlooks the fact that data centers have been doing these things (and more) for half a century. It's called “transactional printing.”

Today's VDP enables use of full color. But we have yet to see widespread applications that are not more economically handled by overprinting black toner onto process lithography.

If my last two statements are correct, then what today's VDP needs to succeed is a big price cut. And if we start slashing prices, why bother? Who wants to be on the cutting edge of commoditization?

Do you disagree? Let me know! Send me detailed examples of your VDP success, and claim your fifteen minutes of fame in “Johnson's World.”

Send your stories. Last month I requested your samples or case histories of variable-data printing. The only stipulation was that there be no direct mail pieces.

Here are three good reasons to participate:

1. You'll have chance to show off your knowledge, innovation and value-adding prowess, which is very popular with potential clients.

2. This, in turn, will lead to more business for you, and in a burgeoning market with higher than average profit margins, to boot.

3. Prof. Frank Romano, the grand poohbah of gurus, thinks I'm nuts and that there is no widespread VDP application beyond direct mail. He can't be right about everything, can he?

AMERICAN PRINTER's editors ask that I point out this isn't a real contest — it's more of a journalistic showcase of innovation. I hope I receive dozens of good examples, and I'll be thrilled to feature every one.