The evolution of variable data publishing and the technology that enables it has been a bumpy journey. While that journey long predates my entry into the print industry, many of the issues that printers have had to deal with when trying to accomplish the creation and production of a variable data job have persisted: processing complex variability at rated device speeds, color management & transparency conflicts, and a mixed bag of “optimized” file formats have been thorns in the sides of printers and designers for probably the past decade. In the next five years, those problems are likely to go away.
Why? PDF/VT. PDF/VT is one of the newest ISO standards (ISO 16612-2 to be exact) under the overarching umbrella of PDF standards, with VT standing for “Variable” and “Transactional”. The intended goal of PDF/VT is to create an end-to-end, PDF-based imaging workflow for variable data jobs, making VDP jobs much more predictable, repeatable, and able to handle more complex imaging functions like transparency and blend modes. In addition, PDF/VT is intended to make variable data jobs more portable and more universally viewable. In other words, true PDF for variable data.
There are many optimized output formats currently available that were developed to more efficiently process variable data jobs that may contain thousands of records and dozens of variable elements. These formats include PPML (Personalized Print Markup Language), Kodak Print On Demand Solutions’ Variable Print Specification (VPS), and Xerox’s Variable Data Intelligent PostScript Printware (VIPP) are just a few of these formats, many of which only work with certain vendors’ devices or Digital Front Ends. PPML is one of the more commonly used optimized formats, as its specification is open, maintained and updated often.
Still, issues persist in part due to conversion to PostScript during processing even if the preceding workflow was PDF-based. Because PDF/VT relies on Adobe PDF Print Engine’s native PDF rendering and processing capabilities, a true end-to-end PDF workflow can be employed for variable data. PDF/VT also has full support for Job Definition Format (JDF) ticketing, ICC-based color management, and two modes to support both PDF/X-4 (self-contained digital assets within one file) and PDF/X-5 (external digital asset referencing) exchange specifications. Another key highlight is Document Part (Dpart) hierarchy and metadata, which can be used to control the number or type of pages within a larger variable data file that can be printed.
Even though PDF/VT is finally set in stone as a standard and looks like it will offer a more robust variable data publishing workflow, it is too early to tell how and when it will be adopted by the industry at large. Currently, only Pageflex’s suite of software supports PDF/VT output, although many other variable data authoring tools have announced their intended support, with many more likely to come in the next year. Another critical component to enabling full, end-to-end PDF/VT support is having an Adobe PDF Print Engine-based Digital Front End (or Global Graphics’ Harlequin for most HP Indigo users). The Adobe PDF Print Engine has been adopted fairly well in offset workflow systems, including Agfa Apogee, Heidelberg Prinect, Kodak Prinergy, and Screen TrueFlow. Adoption across the Digital Front End landscape has been slower to pickup, in part due to the lack of VDP support. Nonetheless, Kodak’s NexPress Front End has used PDF Print Engine for a number of years, and other vendors including EFI, Xeikon, and Xerox have been adding support to many of their DFEs. As printers upgrade their digital print devices and DFE software/hardware, PDF Print Engine use for digital print is expected to pick up steam.
Once the full ecosystem becomes more readily available over the next year or two, we will be watching to see what types of new applications emerge. My hope is that the ability to create more graphically rich variable content will enable designers to really push VDP to its limits and create more stunning personalized, data-driven content than we’ve ever witnessed before. While adoption in commercial print and direct mail is likely, it will be interesting to see if the transactional industry will be as open, considering the strong propensity to use the Advanced Function Presentation (AFP) print stream. More interest will likely be sparked when more examples and applications start emerging.
What’s your view on PDF/VT? Let us know!