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Focus On

Variable Data Printing and Mailing

One area of the print industry that is witnessing a renaissance is personalised marketing products and direct mail. Russ Hicks analyses the technology that may help you capitalise on the boom

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A new hope: The UK market for printed mail and envelopes is thought to be in excess of 16bn pieces per annum, and following France and Germany, is one of the largest in Europe

A hero awakes

The direct mail market, requiring both marketing mail and transactional mail, is the largest consumer of envelopes in the UK and is served by manufacturers via mailing companies, direct marketing, and print management companies. Despite consumer perception that direct mail is under threat from digital media and irreversible decline—some believing it not essential to marketing and transactional communication—surveys suggest that both electronic communication and direct mail are both needed for successful campaigns.

In February the media reported that telesales regulators will change legislation with the aim to decrease unsolicited nuisance telephone calls or ‘cold calls’ as many of us know them, which are seen as intrusive, stressful, and inconvenient. This could mean a renewed need for companies using direct mail that can be viewed by the recipient at their leisure and which is likely to be read before deciding on whether to take action. This is in stark contrast to many marketing e-mails which are seen as ‘spam’ and are quickly deleted without opening, or perhaps transactional documents such as financial e-mails which some feel cannot be trusted to be genuine.

There is no doubt that the mailing industry has suffered a decline in volumes over recent years and for many in the industry it is believed this is due to these modern ways of communicating. This has put traditional envelope manufacturers and printers under increased pressure to maintain a sustainable level of business and profitability.

A new chapter

The UK market though is still thought to be upward of 16bn envelopes per annum, and following France and Germany, is one of the largest in Europe—so it is refreshing to see that making envelopes in the UK is still very much the focus for Heritage Envelopes who make and print nearly 3bn envelopes in its own Blackburn factory.

The company says that this allows it to manage and control quality and service from enquiry, through the manufacturing process to delivery and within the often tight deadlines required by customers throughout the UK mailing market.

One of the largest envelope manufacturers in this country, Heritage, specialises in supplying the increasingly demanding print and mailing industry with bespoke printed envelopes. Indeed, despite the significance of internet communications, marketing companies are now recognising that electronic communications have their place and cannot fully replace the traditional mail we receive through our doors each day.

Recent surveys by Royal Mail Market Reach suggest that over 50 percent of participants want both mail and email in most market sectors and feel more valued when receiving a personalised piece of mail.

Devices such as Domino Printing Sciences' BitJet+ can be integrated with post-press equipment, and are capable of adding digital printing to all types of media to produce variable data print products, all with no additional drying equipment

“It is still important that companies communicating with their customers understand that some communications receive a better response and reaction from their customers when receiving a physical piece of mail,” advises Mark Sears, chief executive officer of Mayer-Kuvert’s UK operations.

Sears goes onto explain that the direct mail market is more demanding now than it has ever been and Heritage, which is the main UK plant of the largest European envelope group Mayer-Kuvert-network, recognises that to grow their business in this industry they have to continue to invest to be able to compete and offer customers what they need.

It is this approach which has reportedly helped the company to secure some significant business growth for 2015, therefore as a result of investment made last year an additional Winkler and Dnnebier 202 wallet machine has been installed which has the capability to produce envelopes at much higher speeds to increase production output and efficiency.

High demand

As demands increase from high volume mailing companies and print providers, who need manufacturers to reproduce the corporate image and marketing designs of their clients’ brands to the highest quality, Heritage recognise the need to use the emerging technology in repro equipment and have installed the latest repro equipment by Dantex which will now allow the factory to build on the success of their 2014 FTA Excellence in Flexography Gold Award received from the Flexo Technological Association and they hope to improve on that recognition in 2015.

The awards involved a comprehensive panel of 33 judges who deliberated over several days to make their decisions against predetermined targets. The group of judges were tasked with evaluating each job depending on the degree of difficulty and consistency within selected categories including the complexity of print, registration tolerances and substrate printability amongst other added requirements. The market leading Lancashire based manufacturer, which employs more than 130 workers, received the gold award in the uncoated line category.

Sears continues: “The company recognises the increasing demand from customers for high quality flexographic images and in an increasingly demanding market we must not only react to this demand but work harder to proactively push the boundaries of our capabilities.”

The envelope is the first image the consumer sees when the post lands in their letterbox

Having joined the business in 1985, Sears adds: “The future for the business lies in investing in our people, in our equipment and in our systems, not only to compete through efficiency and quality but also to offer a wider range of capabilities to produce printed envelopes.

“The envelope is the first image the consumer sees when the post lands in their letterbox and so if you want to make an impression then it makes sense to be able to print the customers’ corporate logos or business messages and advertisements to the highest standard available in the most cost efficient way. We think that’s good for our customers.”

For those companies who are involved in high volume mail fulfilment, they will know that inserting machines have evolved over recent years to what they are today and despite the improvement in inserting machine technology, envelope construction has not changed significantly in decades.

Heritage Envelopes make and print nearly 3bn envelopes in its own Blackburn factory

This is a point that Sears is emphatic about: “Equally important as investments are new and innovative solutions to help our customers to be more efficient in their own businesses, such as packaging solutions to reduce consumption of raw materials or our recently launched Autoflat mailing wallet design.”

This development sees the creation of a new envelope production system, designed specifically to reduce down-time and stoppages during the inserting process. The patented design, which is used and works like standard mailing wallets, has already attracted a lot of interest from the major mailing companies according to Heritage, which are eager to explore the benefits it offers for high speed and high volume mail insertion.

Power to you

Print businesses want the ability to be able to incorporate personalised elements on the fly, and not have to treat each piece of print as a separate task. Whether it is being used for direct mail pieces or personalised brochures or labels, variable data printing (VDP) technology is beginning to reshape the worlds of both printing and marketing.
This technology is focused on harnessing the power of computer databases, digital printers, and highly effective software to create full-colour documents. The process enables the mass customisation of a given document via the wonders of digital technology, as opposed to the ‘mass-production’ of a single document using offset printing. That technology is now also making its way into wide-format printing, allowing print-service-providers from sign shops to commercial print operations to offer these services on a much grander scale.

In terms of larger print sizes, personalisation might be instanced, for example, in the creation for display posters for a brewery chain, where a standard special offer is tailored and ‘localised’ to each individual outlet.

“It is still important that companies communicating with their customers understand that some communications receive a better response and reaction from their customers when receiving a physical piece of mail, ” advises Mark Sears, chief executive officer of Mayer-Kuvert’s UK operations

VDP also has huge potential to change the way that a company can communicate with their customers, suppliers and employees. The fact that names, locations, or any relevant text and images relating to that particular subject are on the final print, drastically increases interest and, in turn, response. It has been proven that this kind of personalisation can increase response rates by as much as ten times compared to non-personalised documents when feedback on direct mail product has been researched—why then should not the same dramatic difference be similar in large-format production?

The use of variable data is not just restricted to the printed area either. Barcodes and other information can be incorporated to assist with batching and logistics for subsequent production stages or for job delivery, as well as job tagging and identification for reference. This makes perfect sense in fast turnaround environments where it is vital that the right jobs are grouped together in the production process, or where the integrity of the print is critical.

Significant computing power though is  required in the process of handling the VDP as well as pure raster image processor (RIP) speed. VDP allows users to add variable text, images, and barcodes to mass-customised batch print jobs for creating point-of-purchase signs, promotional items, advertisements, or full-colour labels. Some RIPs will treat each print job in the batch as a separate item, and RIP each print individually. Others offer a true production VDP workflow that processes the background image only once, so a batch run of ten or 1,000 different prints can start printing almost immediately.

Variable in action

The pre-press experts at Xanté have incorporated a variable data manager with its iQueue X digital colour workflow product. It allows users to generate and import personalised data into digital files that reside in the workflow. The wide-ranging capabilities of the package include booklet creation, automatic creep adjustment, 2D barcode generation, and iQueue reporting.

Indeed, iQueue X even gives users the option to use its colour controls, imposition, and other features on Xanté’s own print systems, but also users can print any post script printer in their network.

Running at 2,700 B2 sheets per hour, the Fujifilm JetPress 720 press reads the barcode on every sheet as it leaves the stacker and downloads the correct page information prior to printing the reverse

Meanwhile, German-based Colorgate claims to close the gap in the area of VDP with its easy to handle design software being the ideal tool to create customised artwork master templates for the output of print jobs on digital printing systems. It suggests that its VDP Creator is ideal for print service providers in large-format printing with both medium and small print runs. Connected directly to its own RIP software solutions, it sees potential areas of application in signs and displays as well as promotional items.

A variety of professional functions complex data structures and layouts can be simply merged with the system via drag-and-drop, including text, images, graphics, barcodes, and QR codes. In addition multi-user support allows different users to work with one software license, while one user has the right to print. So far current in-RIP and stand-alone VDP solutions available in the large-format market usually possess only limited basic functions, or are at the high-cost end of the scale. Colorgate claims VDP Creator is a significant improvement on such offerings.

O Factoid: The origin of the term variable data printing is widely credited to Frank Romano, Professor Emeritus, School of Print Media, at the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology. Romano used the term as early as 1969 and saw it gain worldwide usage after its appearance in the 1999 book, Personalized and Database Printing, that he authored with David Broudy. O

Roland DG’s Versaworks platforms also offers VDP, allowing the user to merge ‘txt’ or ‘csv’ data fields with a predefined design template to output both variable text and graphic elements. Ideal for point-of-purchase displays, labels, name badges, plaques, menus, and other custom graphics, VersaWorks VDP allows the fast and easy production of a series of digital prints in incorporating text and/or graphics differences from one print to the next.

Wasatch SoftRIP’s VDP Option helps streamline the production of customised print runs, such as labels, signs, promotional items, and more. SoftRIP’s solution can also be used to quickly customise large format signage or point-of-purchase printing, and can be integrated with the ‘Contour Cut-ting Option’ to create intricate contour cut labels. This system can even create individualised t-shirts and sports jerseys quickly when paired with a direct-to-textile printer or dye-sublimation workflow.

According to Wasatch, adding variable data customisation to the inkjet workflow is easy. Instantly create repeating or sequential values with SoftRIP’s Auto-Data feature or import data from a comma-delimited text file, or from any application that can produce a comma-delimited file. Variable data fields can then be customised with fonts, barcodes, QR codes, and data matrix codes, as well as a variety of sizing, colour, and effect features. The software can also automatically resize text and images with expand or shrink-to-fit bounding box options to ensure the best use of the available space, and to reduce ‘problem’ data issues, such as longer than average names or word combinations.

Industrial sized

So, the marketscope is clear and so are the clever bits of wizardry that make it all work, but what of the new breed of presses and finishing equipment that are at the heart of the sector?

Taking inkjet and variable data to the ultra-high performance end of the scale and long-standing expertise comes in the shape of UK manufacturer Domino. With products capable of imaging inline at up to 2,600ft/min, the potential to keep pace with super fast newspaper web presses takes personalisation to yet another level. Devices such as the companies BitJet+ can also be integrated with post-press equipment, and are capable of adding digital printing to all types of media–and all with no additional drying equipment.

Kodak Prosper: variable data by the million. This very clever system has created brand new and profitable revenue streams for printers that once thought their days were  numbered 

Kodak’s Prosper inkjet printing unit represents another high performance system. Installed on a significant number of Manroland web systems machines producing such titles as the Sun newspaper in UK and Bild in Germany, the unit is able to efficiently create variable data within static content. This might include such elements as marketing ads, individualised game or lottery numbers, variable QR codes, changing graphics, or text information—the potential is certainly huge. With a production speed of 15m/s, variable information can be imprinted with water-based pigment inks.

Fujifilm’s recently announced B2 sheet-fed digital inkjet press, the Jet Press 720S, utilises a variable data system for handling duplex requirements. Although it is a single sided machine, it is still able to print a barcode in the non-image area of every sheet immediately after the paper leaves the sheet feeder.

Once the first side has been printed, the sheets can be turned and loaded into the stacker again. The press reads the barcode on every sheet as it leaves the stacker and downloads the correct page information prior to printing the reverse, guaranteeing front and back page matching. This can all be achieved at the full press speed of 2,700 B2 sheets per hour.

The feature allows VDP and personalisation, but also means versioned applications are much easier to print, or that applications can be printed in page order to simplify print finishing or post-press logistics.

The post-press factor

When we move into smaller format variable data work, post-press operations often come into the equation. With finishing comes the potential for total disaster in the whole process.

Specialised equipment is definitely called for when seeking integrity in production. The Eclipse enveloper inserter manufactured by KAS Paper Systems in Dunstable is marketed as a ‘closed loop’ mailing system. This new platform is also faster than previous iterations with more facilities for cameras, reporting, and integrity checking than previous systems. This last element is because KAS has some customers where the data integrity is absolutely critical to their products and services provision strategy.

We have systems capable of enveloping sophisticated multi-page personalised documents, with the ability to read various codes, including QR codes, in order to confirm the use of a personalised letter for the customer

Steve Jarvis, UK sales manager for KAS Paper Systems, outlines the approach: “We have systems capable of enveloping sophisticated multi-page personalised documents, with the ability to read various codes, including QR codes, in order to confirm the use of a personalised letter for the customer. This can then, if needed, trip a number of additional insert stations to deliver extra elements into the mailing that are specific to that individual. An additional station could also incorporate a second personalised piece into the package. Finally, an exit camera can then confirm the finished pack has been sealed and completed.”

Products from the company are appealing to wide range of customers, from banks, building societies and mailing houses through to printers seeking to provide fulfilment facilities for their customers. The company also sells an entry-level Mailmaster Compact which has a small footprint for limited space installations, but can handle up to 5,000 envelopes an hour.

The Mailwrap polywrapper is a mid range automated machine, and it too can be customised. As an example, Resource Print Solutions specified one system with four insert stations, a hand-feed option, and an exit reading camera. Inserts are sequentially numbered with a 2D bar code. The document exit camera on the system checks that the correct documents are inserted into each pack. If there are any mismatches, the machine stops automatically allowing manual intervention to prevent an incorrect pack being assembled.

Essential accuracy

This absolute focus on accuracy an data integrity has led to a wave of new solutions coming onto the market. AMS is one of the latest company's to have launched technology to resolve previous production issues in the form of an intelligent mailing applications to help companies accurately send out mass personalised print campaigns.

Chief among these is its Codesort software, which can store variable data from barcodes and optical recognition marks. It essentially gives users the ability to perform simple to complex code verification tasks, and when used in conjunction with a folder inserter machine, optical recognition cameras, and an envelope printer, the solutions are reportedly ‘endless’.

The Eclipse enveloper inserter manufactured by KAS Paper Systems is on the frontline of a new wave of finishing systems that is servicing a boom in demand for print products such as personalised direct mail

“For over 20 years AMS has been providing printing and mailing equipment, we have seen an increasing demand for custom-built solutions to highly personalised mailings, this is why we have created the new software range,” says Kevin McPheat, managing director of AMS. He continues: “As well as resolving many mail processing issues and enabling companies to comply with increasingly tough data protection requirements, they also give users cost-effective ways to fulfill large quantities of personalised mail. The new applications also allow ad agencies and marketers to create more out-of-the-box, personalised direct mail campaigns.”

Enabling companies to comply with increasingly tough data protection requirements, they also give users cost-effective ways to fulfill large quantities of personalised mail

One recent application showcases just how valuable this technology has now become in the face of demand for solutions that will give marketers that extra edge. Used for a leading insurance company’s direct mail campaign, the job included a personal message printed onto the outer envelope of each of their customer’s mailings relating to the vehicle they drive. Reading a 2D barcode through a window envelope, AMS’s application allowed data to be read from the enclosed letter, so information, personal to the customer could be printed onto the outer envelope.

So, it seems the stars are aligned. Booming demand for products such as direct mail is in stark contrast to growing frustration with digital marketing. This trend is coupled with the latest software, press, and finishing technology that has improved accuracy, flexibility, and personalisation scope. The result is a true renaissance in a sector that was once discounted as on the verge of implosion, and so if you had not considered its merits until now, it is perhaps the perfect time to dust off those thinking caps.


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