By Melissa Donovan
Variable data printing (VDP) celebrates a long history of influencing how print communicates with the intended reader. It comes in many forms from simple individual number sequences and dates to complex output based on customer databases. VDP is found on everything from billing statements to coupons and promotional pieces. One area with digital growth potential is labels.
“As consumers continue to demand more products tailored to their lifestyle and choices, VDP provides brand owners and label converters the opportunity to enhance label production with more personalization and customization on each label,” shares Katelyn Bohr, marketing director, Colordyne Technologies, LLC.
An opportunity exists for any print provider or label converter offering VDP labels. Paired with the right digital press and software, VDP labels are especially prevalent in food, beverage, and pharmaceutical sectors.
According to research from Markets and Markets, the VDP market size in labels is estimated to grow from USD 9.39 billion in 2015 to USD 22.27 billion by 2021, a compound annual growth rate of 15.61 percent. Consumers respond to personalization and customization and brand owners recognize the appeal.
“VDP is available on digital label presses and allows for specialization and customization of print projects. So if you have a label print request that needs some type of personalization for a client’s marketing campaign digital printing allows for flexibility in an efficient and effective solution,” says Christopher Guyett, sales and marketing coordinator, Durst North America.
Print providers and label converters should be proactive to get involved in this growth market, according to Brian Cleary, label segment category management, HP Inc. “They need to educate brands and print buyers on their VDP capabilities and show samples. The most effective samples are those where VDP is added to an existing print job or label.”
“Print providers and label converters can capitalize on the market growth opportunity by efficiently and cost effectively meeting the needs of industrial manufacturers fulfilling high-mix label requirements and variable printing demands. Short-run digital label printing allows manufacturers and converters to use VDP to provide mass customization,” explains Andrew Moore, product manager, commercial label printers, Epson America Inc.
Gary Peterson, senior account manager – variable data solutions, Domino North America, encourages every print provider and label converter to have a strategy for adding VDP label capabilities for their customers. “Applications will continue to grow and their customers will demand adding variable data to the labels. Strategies could include investing in inkjet capabilities and capitalizing on the opportunities or seeking out a company to outsource this functionality.”
Focus Label Machinery Ltd.’s customers see VDP as a way to add value. James Barnes, sales and marketing, Focus Label, notes that based on his experience and Focus Label’s product offerings, there are very few hybrid—flexographic and digital—presses set up for VDP.
“Amongst our customers, only a small percentage can currently offer VDP labels, with many having to add offline. As the figures suggest, this is a healthy market currently predominantly made up of quick response (QR) codes or unique voucher codes, but personalization is increasing rapidly,” continues Barnes.
While labels can be printed with variable data, label converters and print providers can kick it up a notch by utilizing advanced laser cutting systems. “These allow each label to have a unique cut—variable data cutting—which adds options to the label converters for high-value sales,” adds Jay Larsen, GM/director of R&D – digital hardware, INX International Ink Co.
More Than an Idea
VDP labels are currently in production. Their variability ranges in the print provider’s ability to handle simple to complex projects.
Larsen notes that VDP can mean many things, with the simplest example being serialization or barcoding. “Current inkjet technology allows for full variability of every printing pixel from label to label. Customers use this capability to create cost-effective workflows for custom labels where the minimum order quantity can be as low as one.”
“Variable data labels have been used for decades. They encompass anything from a simple serial number to random data that includes linear barcodes, two-dimensional matrix, and QR codes. The entire label could be just variable data, an example of this would be a tracking label for packages that go through a customer’s supply chain,” says Peterson.
“Often in security and food safety applications unique numbers and barcode databases are generated so they cannot be duplicated by counterfeiters,” adds Peterson.
Echoing the growth statistic from the Markets and Markets report, Christin Park, marketing manager, VALLOY Incorporation, admits the need for VDP is increasing and more customers purchase digital printing machines to keep up with the demand. The complexity depends on the software that creates the variable data, but many variable jobs are made without professional engineers.
“The complexity is the user’s choice, ranging from sequential numbering, barcodes, or images inserted and managed for high-volume industrial and manufacturing applications,” agrees Moore.
“Codes, serial numbers, graphics, and graphical elements can all be varied on every label. Software handles the variability taking much of the complexity out of creating totally unique labels,” says Cleary.
Leading by Example
VDP labels are found in different business sectors. Popular industries include food and beverage, pharmaceutical, and health and beauty. They use VDP for both practically and aesthetics.
Food, beverage, and liquor industries are among the first and largest adopters of VDP labels. Cleary cites big brands like Diet Coke, Neleman Wine, Nutella, and Smirnoff as leveraging VDP to stand out from the competition.
Driscoll’s, a berry company, places a VDP label on its thermoform clamshells with a unique number and QR code. “First the code is used to track the product in the field. In the event that there was a recall, the consumer scans the label with a smartphone and knows immediately if the product was safe. The other purpose of the barcode is to engage with the consumer. The consumer scans the code and is directed to the website and product information, recipes, and surveys are viewed,” explains Peterson.
“Consumable food and beverage packaging are great projects for VDP.
Adding shelf appeal to product through label shapes and designs helps products stand out,” agrees Larsen.
Some variables are hidden from the human eye and help in reducing counterfeiting and diversion. “The variable elements can be overt or covert, visible or invisible. Visible, readable codes can be used for consumer engagement and have track and trace capabilities. Security printing and brand protection is a great application fo VDP and a fast-growing opportunity for label converters,” notes Cleary.
There are challenges associated with producing VDP labels. Print providers and label converters should be aware of some of the more time-consuming elements including managing quality control, convincing customers, and operating technology that is sometimes not yet mature.
Proofing VDP label jobs is time consuming. “With VDP you need to understand database and digital asset management tools, techniques, and skills to facilitate content preparation for VDP jobs. Setting up a VDP job can be time consuming—proofing the sequential numbering and dates is challenging. This puts pressure on a converter to adapt a painstaking prepress and proofing system. Quality control is time consuming and can be burdensome, and may generate waste and unwanted cost,” suggests Guyett.
Sometimes the challenges come in the form of customers. “One of the bigger challenges is convincing label buyers to incorporate variable, brand protection elements on their labels before they have a problem with counterfeiting or diversion. A small increase in label cost can save a brand millions of dollars in losses, but many don’t take action until they realize they have a problem,” warns Cleary.
Data overload is also a concern. Using VDP software to combine static and variable elements is great, but users need a computer with a lot of memory to handle these applications, notes Moore.
And just because there is a focus on variable, doesn’t mean other qualities can go by the wayside. Cleary reminds us that brands want their labels to stand out, but they also want to make sure that variable elements are balanced with their brand image and integrity—including brand color.
The digital press is only part of the equation for executing VDP. Software helps implement variability and improve ease of use.
Park explains that many systems involve inputting data into Microsoft Excel, uploading, and then mapping that data to the correct fields in the designated software solution. Software products currently used in the production of VDP labels include BarTender by Seagull Scientific, Inc., EFI, the VDP extension for Montax Imposer, and NiceLabel.
“With software, printers produce full-color labels from blank stock by automatically merging color preprint images in memory with existing monochrome data streams,” explains Moore.
Durst Workflow Label is optimized for the Durst Tau printer series. It covers all processes from data management and print data preparation to output on the printer and reporting. The Durst Workflow Label system ensures that VDP can be carried out via Adobe Illustrator.
HP Indigo presses are offered with HP SmartStream, which aids in the creation of sophisticated, custom jobs through a simple, affordable variable data tool. HP SmartStream Mosaic is a plugin that takes a vector art file and automatically creates hundreds of millions of unique variations from seed files. HP SmartStream Collage is also a plugin that takes an individual graphic element inside of a label and varies the number, size, position, rotation, or color.
Paired with Epson devices, the Wasatch SoftRIP C75000G Label Edition offers a simple user interface ideal for high-speed label production. Other programs suggested by Moore include CODESOFT by Teklynx Newco SAS for supply chain labeling and Loftware, Inc. for VDP in enterprise labeling for global supply chains.
For those looking for a basic program, Larsen suggests Adobe InDesign for unlimited color managed variable data authoring either as a standalone or with a plugin like DesignMerge Pro from Meadows Publishing Solutions.
The demand for VDP labels is growing as more consumers become accustomed to personalized products. Brand buyers are aware of VDP’s allure and task print providers and label converters with the job of handling VDP labels. However, VPD labels are not a new concept and have a rich history in terms of sequential numbering and even barcodes. Today’s technology—hardware and software—takes it a step further by offering variability in the form of words, graphics, or QR codes linked to personalized websites. dps
May2020, DPS Magazine