The rise of short run & variable data printing


In recent years, there has been a significant industry-wide shift towards short run digital and variable data printing (VDP) as technological advancements have increased quality, speed and integration into existing workflows. Projects that were once manufactured using traditional offset equipment in large volumes can now be cost-effectively printed in smaller batches, reducing waste and upfront expenditures. VDP and the ability to connect with a very narrow market are turning traditional mass marketing upside down. Mass customization is now the name of the game and it can increase the overall effectiveness of a campaign.

Variable Data Printing

Variable data printing is appearing more and more in our daily lives, as demonstrated by the increasing number of personalized direct mail pieces arriving at our homes. The improved quality of digital printing, as well as the increased capabilities of variable data software and output devices enable continued growth in this segment of our industry. If executed in a compelling way, variable data printing increases relevancy, response, leads, loyalty and ultimately, return on investment.

Variable data printing can be so much more personalized than simply inserting someone’s name or address into a direct mail piece. Understanding consumer patterns and using market segmentation to insert variable data provides the opportunity to connect with individuals and affect buying behaviour. Valued variable data printed pieces are relevant and personal to the consumer. Without these two factors, it can be argued that a direct mail campaign is ineffective.

For example, images within a marketing piece can be changed based on buying preferences. Coupons and offerings can be tailored towards the recipient’s buying behaviour. Calls to action can appeal to a consumer’s preferred communication channel (direct them to a website or phone number, for example). The ultimate goal is to get a response from the recipient, as well as encourage repeat purchases.

Although the outcome of VDP sounds intriguing, it is important to know where to start. The first step to creating a compelling advanced variable data print campaign is to have lots of accurate and detailed consumer data. The data needs to be standardized throughout the database and it needs to be cleansed and complete. The old saying “garbage in, garbage out” applies to variable data campaigns. If you are not starting with an accurate and complete data set, the final product will not be accurate or complete. A great database allows one to segment their market in various ways to create strong campaigns that are highly targeted and resonate with their audience. Customers could be segmented a number of different ways including buying behaviour, geographic location, or similar industries, for example. In very complex variable data print projects, there could be hundreds or even thousands of variables in a single printed piece that could be comprised of text, charts, data, graphs, images and/or offers. This type of advanced VDP takes more data, planning and resources, however the high response rates speak for themselves.

Dimensional Printing for Variable Data and Short Run

The rise of short run digital printing is due, in part, to innovations in digital technology, including processes such as dimensional printing. Dimensional printing is the ability to print raised images using a digital press. Kodak’s Dimensional Clear Dry Ink adds tactility and texture to an otherwise flat digitally printed piece. This technology raises the bar for digital printing output capabilities, as well as overall production efficiency.

The Kodak NexPress is equipped with a fifth imaging unit, which allows for a standard 4-colour printing process with the addition of clear raised image areas. These clear areas have the look and feel of a raised spot UV varnish, without the added logistical process, fixed set up costs or static nature of traditionally spot coated processes. For short run digital projects this saves time, resources and ultimately the cost to manufacture a product that can compete with traditionally printed and coated pieces.

This advanced technology from Kodak is creating new profit opportunities and new revenue streams for digital printers. Small digital print shops that would normally be poorly suited to take on work with spot coating (because of expensive off-line static systems that require lots of volume) can now offer this service. Whether it is a direct mail piece, cover products, business cards or invitations, the Kodak NexPress and Dimensional Clear Dry Ink can provide value-added printing opportunities.

From a design and branding perspective, a one-off or short run printed product can be created with the same look and feel as its offset counterpart. This translates to innovation in digital book cover production, whereby Advanced Reading Copies  (ARC’s) can use the same design and the resulting same look and feel as the final offset printed version. Therefore, spot coating on digitally printed pieces is now an economically viable option for publishers.

Additionally, books from manufacturers like Lightning Source are fantastic because a single copy can be printed for a single ordering customer, however, the look and feel of many of Lightning Source’s cover options are limited and will likely differ from the original printing. If Lightning Source and similar companies introduced this digital printing capability into their repertoire of cover finishes, designers and book publishers could have more creative freedom with the final cover. Additionally, greater product consistency can be achieved over a variety of printing processes at the various life stages of a printed book.

One of the great features of Kodak’s Dimensional Clear Dry Ink is its simplicity of use from the front to back end of the workflow. In the design stage, a fifth colour is created to represent the areas where the Dimensional Clear Dry Ink will be applied. The fifth colour can be created in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop or InDesign, just as a spot colour would be established for conventional spot coating methods. The clear ink is then heated and cured in the fusing system and the result is an ink film that is up to 28 microns thick.

Other benefits to this dimensional printing technology include its child and food safe approvals in European Food Packaging regulations. In addition, printed pieces from the Kodak NexPress (including Dimensional Clear Dry Ink) do not give off VOC’s, do not require additional de-inking and are therefore easily recyclable.

As the technology advances, there is also an opportunity to use dimensional printing to aid the visually impaired. The current process to transpose a document into Braille involves specialized embossing equipment and very few books are available in Braille because of the relatively low demand and the high cost of manufacturing.  Although current dimensional printing technology is not yet capable of printing thick enough ink (create high enough dots) to use as an alternate to traditional Braille production, the future possibilities are intriguing. Dimensional printing has the potential to create affordable one-off or short run copies of a document or book and these Braille counterparts could also be lighter and more compact, with increased durability.

It is exciting to conceptualize future applications of short run and variable data printing. Based on historical facts and current trends, our industry is likely to continue moving in the one-to-short-run direction and the opportunities for use are expansive.


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.