VDP for In-plants: Variations on a Theme
It may seem a bit off-base to call variable data printing (VDP) a “mature” technology, but after 25 years in general use, that’s what it has become: widely adopted, well respected and dominant in applications that have left static printing behind in their migration to digital production.
In-plants have embraced VDP at the same rate as the printing industry as a whole, and mostly for the same reasons. The extra dividend for in-plants is that offering VDP makes them more useful to their parent organizations and less vulnerable to external competition. An in-plant that installs a digital press can recapture the variable work it used to outsource and get first crack at new jobs requiring VDP — convincing ways for the shop to demonstrate relevance and value.
Thanks to VDP, “we’re perceived more as a partner than a printer, which makes us more than a commodity,” says Brian A. Wadell, director of Repro Graphics at the University of California, Davis.
Across the country at the University of Scranton, in Scranton, Pa., Valarie J. Clark, director of Printing and Mailing Services, says VDP enables the in-plant to produce work that is “vital to the operation of the university and helps us to support key initiatives of the university.”
These are powerful endorsements for VDP, and good reasons for in-plants to sit up and take notice of its potential power.
VDP output can be as simple as personalized postcards or as complex as the membership packets that Judy Thompson produces annually for the Michigan Farm Bureau’s agricultural constituency. Thompson, digital printing operations supervisor for the organization’s Centralized Print and Mail Services unit, says the packets feature 110 variable-content fields that specify individual characteristics such as crops raised, years of membership and affiliations with local agricultural agents. (They also include the recipients’ ID cards.)
Customized Commencement Books
Put to its best use, VDP lets in-plants turn mundane applications into customer-pleasing keepers. At Oregon State University, students often ignored the generic commencement books offered to them at graduation. The school bought the statically printed books from an outside source and, each year, ended up throwing unclaimed copies away, recalls Judy Bankson, assistant director of Production, Printing and Mailing Services.
That changed after Bankson and her team made it possible to order the books online, enabling students to customize their copies with photos and other personal details. The in-plant now prints the books on demand on its Xerox digital equipment, but only in the quantities requested — a change that eliminates waste, saves the university money and makes the in-plant look like a hero.
Clark’s team accomplishes the same thing by digitally printing business-card sized “mini-diplomas” for University of Scranton graduates, a job that used to be outsourced. The in-plant also helps welcome incoming students by printing booklets that contain each new arrival’s name, mailbox number and combination, plus the name of his or her roommate. The shop supplies personalized booklets, name tags and other items for an annual simulation exercise in which political science students travel to an event in Washington, D.C., as “ambassadors” from European Union countries.
Variable-data projects like these attract attention of the kind that’s always good for in-plants. Wadell describes how UC Davis Repro Graphics revamped a school calendar by putting its ordering online and letting customers personalize it with a favorite campus image and four dates they could annotate with anything they liked. The calendar, which draws more than 2,000 orders per year, has inspired a related photo contest and earned the in-plant a Gold Award in the In-Print 2018 competition.
Recognition for VDP Expertise
When an in-plant achieves proficiency at VDP, recognition of that fact isn’t long in coming its way.
Customers for the OSU in-plant’s variable output now include both university departments and state agencies conducting versioned surveys that can run to 15,000 pieces at a time. Bankson says the survey documents may be preceded by up to four “hits” of preliminary matter: personalized letters encouraging recipients to take part in the polling.
She adds that another of the shop’s VDP projects, an individually tailored “search piece” for student recruitment, worked so well that Xerox ordered copies as show-off specimens for its iGen platform.
For in-plants, VDP builds volumes as well as reputations. Wadell says that printing a large-scale transportation survey (four versions, 160,000 pieces) for one UC Davis department is work the in-plant captured thanks to its ability to process variable content.
According to Thompson, the presswork for a yearly campaign on behalf of Michigan Farm Bureau’s insurance arm stays in-house because the in-plant can print it variably — even though printing it outside as a static piece would cost less.
If We Couldn’t Do It Here …
All of this this suggests that in-plants should be thinking of variable printing not merely as a service option, but as an operational necessity. As Bankson observes, “if we couldn’t do the VDP here, they’d have to go someplace else for it.”
Clark notes that as VDP automation began to “ease our workflow” by eliminating manual tasks, the Scranton in-plant was able to replace a prepress position with a spot for a second graphic designer — a change more closely aligned with the shop’s current staffing needs.
An in-plant’s tools for variable production are the same as the rest of the industry’s. The presses responsible for the jobs mentioned here are familiar VDP workhorses:
- A Kodak NexPress and Digimaster E150 at Michigan Farm Bureau, along with a Xanté Impressia for envelopes;
- A Konica Minolta bizhub PRESS C1070 at the University of Scranton;
- An HP Indigo 5500, Canon imagePRESS 7010 and a trio of Kodak Digimaster HD300s at UC Davis;
- And OSU’s Xerox 1000 and Ricoh Pro C7110.
All but one of the four shops rely on Marcom’s FusionPro VDP publishing software, which Clark calls “just incredible” for its template creation and data merge capabilities. Also employed for VDP chores are Avanti CRM, WebCRD from Rochester Software Associates, Xerox’s XMPie and Adobe InDesign.
These applications, the managers say, make the VDP workflow more or less goof-proof (apart from glitches caused by errors in data files such as a lowercase letter in place of a cap, which can block a field from being populated). As Thompson puts it, once the templates are set up, the rules are in place and the data input is consistent, “you’re good to go.”
None of the in-plants create the mailing lists used or manage the databases they draw upon, although all are expected to ensure that customer-submitted files will be clean and ready to run when the job is sent to press. This may require sending lists of errors back to the sources, who then become responsible for correcting them.
Talk and Teach
Although the benefits of VDP speak for themselves, it’s sometimes necessary to make sure that customers are hearing the message.
That takes education and dialog, because as Clark notes, “people don’t necessarily know that what they’re asking for is a VDP project.”
Jeff Todd, internal client relations and business development manager at the OSU in-plant, says it’s important to communicate the fact that variable printing can be “pretty affordable” for clients who are willing to do what’s required on their end to make the project a success.
“We encourage the conversation if they have an idea,” says Wadell, adding that UC Davis customers apprehensive about price are “very easy to win over” when they learn that the in-plant charges the same for VDP work with up to three variable data points as it does for static printing.
Price alone, however, isn’t what captures imaginations and drives print spends; the 1:1 outreach of VDP is what customers want to take advantage of once they grasp its potential. As Thompson observes, “the more personalized and relatable you can make a piece, people understand that.”
In-plants that have hesitated to offer VDP may not have a bigger favor to do for themselves than adopting the technology.
“Don’t be afraid of it,” urges Clark.
“Start small,” Bankson advises, noting that automating the production of items even as simple as business cards can spare a shop the “nightmare” of manual production.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
Managerial obstacles may exist as well. Wadell points out that it can be difficult to get customers to relinquish control of their databases. Press operators and bindery workers, he adds, may need some hand-holding until they’re comfortable running jobs that aren’t the same from sheet to sheet.
Another wrinkle for in-plants is that they may not always know how effective the variable print they’re producing will turn out to be. The value of VDP usually is measured by the number of responses it generates. But in the projects described above, there were either no “responses” per se to count, or the customer chose not to share the information with the in-plant.
That shouldn’t discourage anyone, according to Wadell. “The metric I use is, do they come back to us?” he says. “And they always do.”