Nov. 12 2008 09:16 AM

Increasing profitability and revenue is the most important objective for any business - and that's especially true for commercial printing companies. The process of achieving that goal usually means the owner of a printing company faces a fork in the road, with one path focused on luring new customers to the current lineup of products and services and the other geared toward offering additional services to current customers. Making the right choice comes down to a multitude of factors, including everything from available manpower to the current state of cashflow.


Commercial printing companies that opt for introducing additional services are enjoying success by adding variable data printers to their operations, which affords them the opportunity to print high-resolution alphanumeric information, as well as graphics, logos and other data, at today's high production speeds. By adding the ability to code variable information onto print jobs, such as mailing addresses, barcodes and graphics, printing companies are offering their customers a more bundled solution and essentially becoming a single-source supplier for many of their marketing efforts. For example, commercial printers now have the ability to:


Print a direct mailpiece

Attach, insert and fold the mailpiece

Apply the addresses and indicia

Apply a personalized marketing message

Deliver the printed pieces to the mail stream

Maximize postal discounts through customer list management

Verify the validity of postal codes


These capabilities mean printing companies are in a position to avoid handing off the printed pieces to another vendor to complete a project, eliminating an extra step from the production process. This can enable printing companies to better meet tight customer deadlines or complete rush jobs seamlessly.


Additionally, printing companies that make the switch to offer variable data printing solutions via variable data printers typically do so because they already know who their potential customers are, including what they are printing, their target market(s), their messaging and other critical factors. Understanding that information allows them to contour their sales pitch to stress the benefits of time and potential cost savings, as well as increased quality control, because the entire project can be handled by a single vendor.


Adding Variable Data Printing

Commercial printing companies already possess a wealth of knowledge regarding printing nuances such as resolution, image placement and digital file management. Drawing on that knowledge makes the addition of a printer for variable data printing and addressing purposes a much more seamless process. In addition, many commercial printers today already have bindery operations, which can include capabilities for variable data imaging. Therefore, the extension to off-line or post-press direct mailing may not be that far of a stretch in the competencies of the commercial printer.


Because of the flexibility of today's inkjet printers, incorporating the variable data printing process post-press, or near the end of the press process, does not have to be challenging. This allows for easy production of items such as tags and labels that are printed on a press, with unique serialized numbers printed on the press or subsequently added via an off-line process. Another example is producing a mailpiece and then applying addresses, indicia and any other messaging post-press. Many inkjet printing systems provide for features such as ZIP Code breaks, where there is a sort between ZIP Code sections so it can be divided easily by the USPS. This step allows the printing company can take advantage of postal sortation discounts, savings that can be passed along to the customer.


Adding variable data printing requires many considerations, all of which should be analyzed critically before contacting a printer supplier. The initial capital expenditure is the first, and perhaps most important, consideration. Basic off-line printing will require the inkjet printer itself and a material transport base. Depending on what types of materials will be printed and the drying time required for these materials, an external dryer may be necessary. Catch trays or mail table extensions for the completed pieces are often incorporated into the variable data printing setup. All these items add to the capital equipment expense. A related consideration is the available floor space to accommodate the added machinery and still be able to efficiently produce the job.


There are a variety of options to choose from when selecting equipment for the variable data printing process, and the final selection is often affected by the needs of mailing customers. Number of pieces in a mailing, physical size and material composition of the piece, data format and turnaround time all figure significantly into the purchase decision of a printing system. The variable data printing process today is often not limited to just the address information and POSTNET barcode. Additional messaging and images, such as graphics and logos tailored to the recipient, are becoming increasingly important. The printing equipment that is selected must provide the kinds of messaging customers are requesting, at print resolutions they require and throughput speeds that meet turnaround expectations. Not addressing these issues on the front end could mean the wrong equipment is purchased, which means the intended ROI may not be achieved. In short, making the wrong choice could subvert the entire plan.


Other Key Considerations

It also bears mentioning that an important part of the purchase process is researching postal rules and regulations, as they often change; not adhering to them can cost customers money in fines and lost postage discounts. For example, there are dozens of barcodes available today, both for commercial use and those mandated by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Mandated barcodes include POSTNET, PLANET Code and the new Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB) that will be required for postal automation discounts in 2009. USPS-mandated barcodes enable tracking of mailpieces, and commercial barcodes allow businesses to gather information about the recipients of a direct mailpiece. Prior to purchasing new variable data printing equipment, commercial printers should review customers' current and anticipated barcode requirements to ensure that the new printers offer the required functionality.


Another consideration is the need to understand list management. In most cases, customers will supply the commercial printing company with their database, but sometimes they will purchase a list from an outside source and then send it directly to the printing company for a particular job. It is important to understand how to remove duplicate addresses from a list, sort it appropriately to help achieve postal discounts and possibly even use additional postal software that will append POSTNET barcodes and other data to increase those discounts even further. If the customer has already utilized a vendor that has done this for them in the past, they will likely expect similar service. Thus, line operators will need a working knowledge of computer hardware and software to efficiently process the job.


Becoming a Partner

By becoming knowledgeable about postal regulations and offering variable data printing capabilities, commercial printers can add value to the printing process by consolidating the printing and mailing services their customers require. Commercial printers also can alert customers to any additional issues of which they need to be aware in creating a direct mail piece or opportunities to save them money in postage costs. Offering services from printing to mailing turns commercial printers into a valuable partner that is helping customers achieve their goals in the most cost-efficient manner.


When it comes to researching and planning to add variable data printing using inkjet printers, commercial printing companies don't have to go it alone. Getting counsel from manufacturers that offer a full range of equipment in this area will make the process easier. They can help assess what needs to be printed and addressed and guide the customer into the system that is most appropriate for their needs and projected growth.


Jason Lund is a graphics business unit manager for Videojet Technologies Inc., Wood Dale, Illinois. He has been employed by Videojet since August 2006, and his responsibilities include managing variable data printers, vision systems, line controllers and paper-handling equipment. For more information, visit