When I started planning to write this article, I knew that it would benefit greatly with input from leading experts on the PDF/VT specification. In my opinion, Adobe has played a very key role in initiating, evangelizing and supporting PDF/VT, most likely driven by the demand for use of the Adobe PDF Print Engine to drive digital presses. Luckily, I had the good fortune of once again chatting with Mark Lewiecki, Senior Product Manager, Adobe Systems Incorporated, Print Technologies Group. Mark is a proponent of PDF/VT. We discussed the benefits of PDF/VT, where it stands now, and where it may go in the future. This article is a culmination of that conversation and my own work with PDF/VT.
It has been almost two years since PDF/VT was introduced. PDF/VT, like its PDF/X counterparts, is an ISO standard; however PDF/VT was engineered with a very specific purpose in mind. In this article, we will look at what the PDF/VT standard is and which markets the standard is targeted at. We will explore the progress PDF/VT has made since its inception and look at the near, and not so near, future of this unique and dynamic standard.
PDF/VT (the V stands for Variable and the T stands for Transactional) is an ISO registered standard file format: ISO 16612-2 to be exact. The standard encompasses three different conformance levels of PDF/VT, labeled PDF/VT-1, PDF/VT-2, and PDF/VT-2s. The following chart outlines the differences between these conformance levels.
PDF/VT and Variable Data Printing
PDF/VT was designed with variable data printing (VDP) in mind, and there are three main characteristics of PDF/VT that make this standard ideal for this market. First, PDF/VT takes full advantage of PDF’s object-based nature. PDF/VT, in conjunction with a supporting RIP, can separate repeating elements (identified as XObjects) enabling the RIP’ed output for each to be cached for repeated use. This reduces RIP times, allowing the RIP to keep pace with the printing engine. With PDF/VT-2 files, XObjects can be externally referenced, allowing for commonly used elements to be stored indefinitely in the RIP, and called upon when needed, even across different jobs.
The fact that a PDF/VT file is in fact a PDF, there are no special software requirements necessary for preflighting or proofing. This means that PDF/VT can be easily integrated into existing workflow processes. And when it comes to processing a PDF/VT file, any RIP which can render a PDF file can render a PDF/VT file. Any RIP which can efficiently process an “optimized PDF file” (one which uses XObjects for repeating elements) will yield the same efficiencies for a PDF/VT file.
The second thing that makes PDF/VT ideal for VDP is that PDF/VT file does not include production information. Instead, the PDF/VT file interacts with a job ticket format, such as the CIP4’s Job Document Format (JDF). This allows for the latest possible changes to workflow because the production instructions are independent of the content and can be changed without affecting the PDF/VT file. To enable granular job processing by a job ticket such as JDF (i.e. down to the page level) PDF/VT uses Document Part Metadata (DPM). For example, DPM can be used to identify different parts of a book being printed on a digital press so that the paper feed will change to accommodate a different stock for the cover as opposed to the inside pages. Another example would be to use DPM to separate records by postal code, or to take advantage of automated (rules-based) imposition, or in-RIP barcode generation/placement, to help manage the production run. Document Part Metadata is also relevant for creating audit trails, providing real-time feedback loops that can allow for inline verification for VDP jobs.
Last, PDF/VT files follow the same color management structures of the PDF/X-4 and PDF/X-5 formats, which means that every PDF/VT will be colour managed through the use of ICC Profiles. This in turn allows the PDF/VT file to be late-stage targeted to different output devices with different ink-sets and gamuts, yet still produce consistent rendered appearance. Because PDF/VT is governed by the rules of PDF/X-4, colour management is required, not optional. Like PDF/X-4, PDF/VT must include a target reference printing condition (e.g. SWOP, Euroscale). This means that consistent colour is achievable across all document elements, which provides predictability in colour output for variable data running at high speeds.
PDF/VT and High Volume Transactional Printing
One market where PDF/VT has the potential of having a major impact is in the High Volume Transactional (HVTO) space. As the name suggests, HVTO focuses on transactional statement printing, such as monthly bills, financial statements, and so on. In most cases this is currently being done by pre-printing colour shells with static information using conventional printing methods, storing the shells, and then printing the variable data onto the shells using high-speed black and white print engines. This approach is burdened by the problems of inventory management, transport and waste. Currently many HVTO workflows are driven by Advanced Function Presentation/Intelligent Printer Data Stream (AFP/IPDS). AFP/IPDS is well established in this market, and companies have made significant investments in these workflows. There are, however, considerable advantages of using PDF/VT in this market, and I believe that there is opportunity for PDF/VT to play a big role here, despite being the new kid in town.
PDF/VT has the potential to drive an evolution in the way transactional printing is currently done. Although the AFP/IPDS model is proven and good at what it does, and has been updated recently to incorporate such things as colour management, its success hinges on a closed production loop. It is also an older architecture that is being updated to try to accommodate new printing demands. The fact that colour management is optional in an AFP/IPDS workflow has the potential for significant issues when it comes to controlling colour of different document parts being combined into one final product at run-time.
In contrast, PDF/VT is based on the most widely used and relied upon file format used for print production: PDF. With this comes all the advantages that a PDF imaging model has to offer, such as graphically rich, colour-managed documents that can support native transparency and layers. PDF/VT enforces colour consistency by requiring an ICC managed colour workflow.
PDF/VT files could have the potential to RIP extremely quickly, thanks to their ability to cache reoccurring elements. Also, they are device independent, which means they can be dynamically repurposed, refactored, and/or retargeted to different output devices. Furthermore, like all PDF files, PDF/VT enforces the separation of content from process, and requires processing instructions through job ticketing for print production. This allows for more in-RIP functionality and reduces the requirements for pre-RIP processing. By reducing the amount of printstream re-engineering that has to be done prior to the RIP stage, PDF/VT allows for greater flexibility by allowing more functions to be done at the last minute (late binding), simply by changing the parameters of a job ticket (a lightweight process) versus having to start from scratch in order to re-engineer a job for a different device or condition. As Mark Lewiecki put it:
“Of particular interest is the architecture for partitioning the document according to an arbitrary segmentation scheme, right down to the page level. Document Part (Dpart) hierarchy and metadata (DPM) provide non-printing context for recipient-records, or groups of records. This information can be harnessed at run-time. The job ticket (e.g. JDF) references Dpart hierarchy data in the PDF/VT content to dynamically filter, sort, select media (tray pulls), impose, insert metadata-derived barcodes (e.g. account numbers), finish and otherwise manage the job. Print run integrity verification, track-and-trace, and checkpoint-restart all becomes straightforward.”
Due to the nature of PDF/VT, it would be possible to eliminate the need to pre-print static shells, and instead print the entire document (variable and static elements) in one pass on a high-speed digital colour press such as a four colour high-speed inkjet web press without sacrificing speed, so long as the RIP can take full advantage of the PDF/VT format.
Once the possibilities of this sink in, it becomes obvious that PDF/VT has the potential to be big in a very unique sector of transactional printing: Transpromo. The concept of Transpromo is simple enough: have targeted, graphically rich color adverts printed directly in the blank real estate of transactional statements. For example, let’s say I used my credit card to purchase camping supplies three times in a particular month. On that statement I may see a promotion for discounts on campsite locations, or coupons to use at the stores I visited. With the current transactional printing method of pre-printed shells with black and white variable data imprinted on them, transpromo is a difficult task to realize. With PDF/VT, however, not only is it possible, it is plausible.
As mentioned earlier, we are approaching the second anniversary of the publication of the PDF/VT specification. PDF/VT is still relatively new, and it will take time to ramp up to its full potential. According to Mark Lewiecki, PDF/VT is still at the early stages of the technology hype cycle as seen below.
In a presentation Mark delivered in January, he forecasted that end-to-end PDF/VT workflows will start appearing within this year. By 2013, real-world application will lead to trust in the format, 2014 will show PDF/VT begin to accelerate in uptake. By 2015/2016, Adobe anticipates that PDF/VT will hit critical mass.
The targets forecasted by Adobe seem achievable, given the success the product has had already. There are many companies that have publicly endorsed PDF/VT, including some big VDP players. In an NPES press release for PDF/VT issued in September 2010, companies such as Kodak, Adobe, Callas Software, EFI, Global Graphics, GMC, HP, Konica Minolta, Pageflex, Printable (now PTI Marketing Technologies), Xerox, XMPie, Ultimate Technographics, and Screen all endorsed PDF/VT.
In 2011, PODi, the Digital Printing Initiative, endorsed PDF/VT as an important addition to device independent standards for VDP. In a press release dated September 28, 2011, PODi President Rab Govil stated that PODi added PDF/VT support to “help print service providers who want to have an end-to-end PDF workflow that includes variable data” (http://www.caslon.net/Knowledge-Base/Press-Releases/PODi-Sees-Continued-Strong-Growth-for-Digital-and-Variable-Data-Printing-6617/View-details.html). The PDF Association (PDF/A) has a PDF/VT Competence Center that has some good information and resources pertaining to PDF/VT, and has been active in educating the industry about it.
While public endorsement is good, awards are better. In 2011, PDF/VT won an InterTech Technology Award. These awards, sponsored by the Printing Industries of America, honour “the development of technologies predicted to have a major impact on the graphic communications and related industries” (http://www.printing.org/news/10154). The recognition of PDF/VT through this award is an indication that the graphic arts community sees promise in this standard.
Indeed PDF/VT has even become a hot topic in research and technical circles. At the PDF Association Technical Conference held in March 2012, PDF/VT was the focus of three sessions in the two-day program. PDF/VT has also been the subject of multiple presentations at the Technical Conference of the Technical Association of the Graphic Arts (TAGA), Xplor, On Demand, and other venues, discussed online on such sites as WhatTheyThink.com, and of course trade publication articles such as this one.
Recognition and endorsements are positive signs that the industry is interested in PDF/VT. There are already a number of industry-leading products in the market that support PDF/VT. On the producing side, there is PTI Marketing Technologies (FusionPro), Pageflex, XMPie, GMC Inspire, Objectif Lune PrintShop Mail, and HP SmartStream Designer. On the consuming side, HP, EFI, Xerox, Xeikon and Screen are shipping DFEs/RIPs which support PDF/VT.
In addition to the vendors listed above, there also software vendors like Kodak, DirectSmile, Meadows Publishing Solutions, Elixir, Pitney Bowes, Xerox, Solimar Systems, and StreamServe that aren’t currently shipping with PDF/VT functionality but have publically committed to do so. It should also be noted that are several leading DFEs/RIPs in the market (e.g. EFI, Xerox, HP) which can realize the performance benefits of PDF/VT, even though current versions do not yet enable the full range of job-ticket-driven production controls.
There is plenty of pent-up demand for use of PDF in the Direct Mail segment, with its requirements for graphically expressive personalized content. The fact that PDF/VT is truly a disruptive technology could explain why it is taking time for vendors to integrate the standard in their products, especially in the HVTO market. Disruptive or not, it can not be denied that PDF/VT has a lot of potential, and companies have taken notice. PDF/VT is powerful, open and versatile. PDF/VT has potential for use in specialty packing markets, pharmaceutical and specialty labels, typical VDP markets, HVTO, and has the potential be a driving force the behind the much coveted transpromo market.
PDF/VT is still early on in its life cycle, and it is hard to predict exactly how this standard will impact the graphic communications industry. While there are some products currently shipping with PDF/VT capabilities, and more products publicly promised, there is room for improvement.
Vendors are investing and innovating in their high speed digital presses, which will, once again be prominently displayed at drupa this year. Ultra high-speed roll-fed colour digital presses such as the HP Inkjet Web Press, Kodak Prosper, Xerox CiPress, and others are gaining reputations for good quality, variable data printing at speeds and sizes that are quickly becoming comparable to traditional offset printing. I will be particularly interested to see the new digital press created from the KBA/RR Donnelley partnership that will be revealed at the show this year, that is rumored to be a hybrid of conventional and digital printing, with the digital printing component able to run traditional offset inks (http://bit.ly/Hfye6i).
While I have not heard anything in particular, I think it is safe to say that if any companies were planning to announce PDF/VT conformance for their products, drupa would be a good venue to do so. I know I will be definitely be keeping an eye out for PDF/VT when I am there.
As far as the HVTO market is concerned, I think PDF/VT is going to have to work hard to compete against existing technologies. For companies that are currently using AFP/IPDS for transactional print, a migration to PDF/VT would not be a small undertaking. It may take time for the benefits of PDF/VT to become proven enough that companies will make the switch. More PDF/VT capable products will have to emerge in the HVTO market in order for these benefits to be realized.
PDF/VT is also going to need more support on the consuming side of the equation. It is great that many companies are offering (or going to offer) products that can produce PDF/VT files, but without RIPs that can fully take advantage of all PDF/VT has to offer, those PDF/VT files will not function at their optimal efficiency. I hope that this is something that will be addressed at drupa, and throughout the next year.
PDF/VT remains a fascination for me. I have had the good fortune of exploring this standard at its root level, and have enjoyed conversations with key PDF/VT players such a Mark Lewiecki and Tim Donahue. I have even read the ISO 16612-2:2010 standard. While it is not as engaging as a conversation with Tim or Mark, it certainly shed light on the complexity that went behind the standard to make it so easy to use.
Only time will tell if PDF/VT will truly realize its full potential. Out of the gate there seems to be acceptance from important industry players, although the number of products utilizing the standard is still small. I definitely see PDF/VT having a huge impact on the way HVTO is processed, providing that it can get legs in that market and prove what it can do. Companies that want PDF/VT to succeed may have to provide resources to help vendors become compliant.
I will continue to follow the progress of PDF/VT as it progresses through the technology hype curve, and continues its product lifecycle journey. I am curious how this young standard will grow, who its friends will be, and what obstacles it will face. I will hunt for signs of PDF/VT at drupa, and will be watching for new developments to arise. In my opinion, PDF/VT is worth keeping an eye on.
I would like to thank Mark Lewiecki, Senior Product Manager at Adobe, for taking the time to share his thoughts, ideas, and knowledge with me as I prepared to write this article. His contributions, as always, were extremely helpful. Thanks Mark.
In this article I mentioned a few press releases and other information. Here are some useful links and resources on PDF/VT:
NPES press Release for PDF/VT:
NPES press release on PDF/VT 2011 InterTech Award: http://www.npes.org/News-and-Events/Press-Releases/Content.aspx?Topic=NPES_ANNOUNCES_ISO_16612_2_PDF_VT_RECEIVES_INTERTECH_TECHNOLOGY_AWARD
PODi website for PDF/VT:
PODi press release for PDF/VT:
PDF/A Competence Center for PDF/VT:
ISO 16612-2:2010 – Graphic technology Variable data exchange Part 2: Using PDF/X-4 and PDF/X-5 (PDF/VT-1 and PDF/VT-2)
Lisi, J and Smyth C. (2011). PDF Workflows for the Real World. Proceedings of the Technical Association of the Graphic Arts TAGA 63rd Annual Technical Conference
Lisi, J. and Smyth C. (2010, October). TransPromo – passé or present?, Graphic Arts Magazine, 138, 17-22 (https://graphicartsmag.com/articles/2010/10/)