Getting Familiar with PDF/VT

By | January 12, 2011

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!

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7 thoughts on “Getting Familiar with PDF/VT

  1. Bob Raus

    Finally, a standard that all manufacturers can use to deliver the 1:1 personalized color printing capabilities every industry needs in today’s multi-channel marketplace. PDF V/T will provide “the missing link” and a critical capability to interconnect hard copy printed and electronic versions of targeted marketing and transactional communications.

  2. Rob Steevensz

    Being arround in the VD/VT industry for a long time, first worked with proprietary sof and hardware, moved to PDF, PPML, and IPDS workflows and of the shelf software. As VDP printing can be done at any almost print or copyshop and statements are all printed by specialist I wonder if the standard will bring anything to the marketplace. It only can and will if there is a possibilty to add metadata for CR systems and possibilities to include all other channels, without having a expensive platform.

  3. Harry Lewis

    Bryan, you post a well stated summary of the challenges in creating and producing variable data documents. I agree that processing complex documents at rated speed, color management and file format are all key issues that need to be addressed.

    I realize the post is about PDF/VT, the fact that it exists as an ISO standard and questions about its role in VDP. As an observer in the standardization process I am aware that “VT” was a very precise and intentional term selected to send a message that transaction print is a definite goal.

    No discussion of the transaction industry is complete, however, without a bit more thorough acknowledging AFP. Variable data at rated speed is the hallmark of AFP which is the most prevalent and longest running VDP file format in existence. AFP was architected from the beginning for managed resources (the self-contained and external digital assets recently added to PDF). Clear-cut document hierarchy is fundamental along with page-level checkpoint recovery and architected error messaging.

    I think you may have over stated PPML as one of the more commonly used optimized formats for VDP. I am curious by what metric (number of shops, number of pages, vendors supporting, value of pages?). I helped with the original definition of PPML. This was back when AFP was still a proprietary published architecture owned by IBM. Since then I feel it has been shown there is greater value in opening the AFP architecture. AFP started on a path to operating as an open standard in 2006 with the addition of ICC based color management. Industry cooperation was so effective that, in 2009, the AFP Consortium formed as a separate entity which now encompasses all of AFP. The AFPC has 31 members (http://afpcinc.org) with a roadmap full of enhancements as far as the eye can see.

    The convergence of offset and digital variable data is an exciting phenomenon. With “live transparency” as a key feature of PDF, I can certainly see why it grabs a lot of attention. It is easy to overlook or downplay the other half of this merger which is variable data, often variable text. The overall combined solution (including job ticketing, document workflow, production management, finishing and overall process workflow) must still perform and remain manageable.

    I think there is a possibility that PDF/VT and AFP will co-exist over time as each one aims at the same converged paradigm through a different lens bringing varied strengths which may be chosen to satisfy the specific needs of a given service provider.

    Full disclosure – I am currently acting as the President of AFPC

  4. Ted Dunlop

    Many computer systems and applications exist because someone important in the enterprise said something like:
    • I would like to automate statement production
    • Get a report that graphically shows growth in sales revenue in each region
    • Produce General Insurance Policies

    Many years ago, enterprises built systems in responses to these requests and other “line of business” requests. Manufacturers responded to customer demand by producing high speed laser printers and supporting software. Enterprises realized that printed pages were an important means of communication with their current and potential customers. They focused effort around concepts such as the “competitive document” which integrated all points addressable printing, variable data and graphics. IBM was the dominate producer of enterprise printers. It developed the Advanced Function Presentation or AFP architecture in response to customer demand for All Points Addressable variable data printing support.

    AFP has two major software components:
    • An input print description language
    • An printer control language called Intelligent Print Data Stream

    IBM publicly documented the input print description language and output printer control languages from its inception. Customers and software vendors produced tools that generated competitive documents from raw line data and data records. One of the initial tools from IBM converted line data to “pretty print”. It allowed the conditional processing of print data and the imposition of digital overlays. In the 90s, many software vendors developed systems that helped enterprises generate competitive documents supporting variable data production requirements. Other vendors developed software that stored the AFP data streams in digital archives.

    Other hardware manufacturers produced printers that support IPDS and integrated IPDS controllers. IPDS devices tend to support very high speed print production. Hardware manufacturers have developed colour technology that supports high speed production at reasonable costs.

    IBM formed a joint venture with Ricoh called InfoPrint which held the ownership of the architecture. InfoPrint formed an association of software and hardware vendors called the AFP Consortium. The AFPC architected the integration of high speed colour production into AFP and IPDS. InfoPrint placed the control of the complete architecture into the AFPC. AFP is now an open architecture supported by many hardware and software developers, integrators, vendors and manufacturers. AFP Data Streams carry transactional print data production for most large enterprises and is an integral component of many large scale enterprise IT facilities.

    The AFP Consortium continues the long history of developing the dominant infrastructure producing transactional printing, responding to customer demands and producing complete technical documentation.

    My company is a member of the AFPC.

  5. Bryan Yeager

    Thank you all for your comments!

    Rob: Not sure what you mean by “CR” systems; perhaps you could clarify. Regarding output to multiple channels, I believe that PDF/VT’s intent is primarily to optimize variable data print output, although that does not mean that it would not have an effect on other channels. Many of the current cross-media marketing and publishing systems will centrally manage assets and content and use them for output optimized for the intended media type. While PDF may be optimal for print, it is not always optimal for presentment in other media types. As to the issue of pricing, it seems like PDF/VT support will be introduced in products across the pricing spectrum. Only time will tell if pricing will have an impact on adoption.

    Harry: Thanks for you comments on AFP. My apologies if my post seemed to slight AFP in any way; that was not my intention. Nor is my intention to start a format war of sorts. As you stated, co-existence of formats is a likely and acceptable outcome. No doubt AFP has a strong community of users and supporting vendors, and sustained development will continue to help companies that have invested significantly or are looking to invest in an AFP workflow. My ultimate hope is that end-users will have a choice and will use what works best for their workflow, environment, and applications they are producing.

    In regards to PPML: PPML has wide support from variable data software vendors and equally wide support from Digital Front End vendors to consume PPML. InfoPrint even has a tool that will convert PPML to AFP be used in those workflows.

    Gauging adoption and usage depends on the constituency you look at. According to InfoTrends research of 192 commercial printers, quick printers, and digital printers conducted at the end of 2009, 21.1% of respondents that owned VDP software indicated that PPML was their top optimized output language used, only trailing Optimized PDF (not to be confused with PDF/VT) at 58.8%. Only 5.3% of respondents indicated that AFP was a top format used. Research from 2006 and 2007 of similar constituencies came to similar conclusions.

    I can make a safe assumption that these results would be different if we surveyed a different mix of respondents, such as transaction service bureaus or even direct mailers. It would not surprise me if AFP was at the top of the list in that instance, which speaks to your point about varied strengths of different formats satisfying the needs of a given service provider. I stand by my statement and do not believe I overstated PPML being a commonly used optimized output format; it is, especially when compared to usage of other optimized output formats. That’s not to say that AFP isn’t (I never stated that). Nevertheless, I appreciate the commentary and insight you provided on the topic.

  6. Bryan Yeager Post author

    Thanks for the background information, Ted. As I mentioned, my hope is ultimately that vendors will provide end-users with choices to help them determine what format and accompanying workflow works best for their needs. Obviously AFP is proven in the marketplace and PDF/VT is not. Nevertheless, that does not limit the chances of PDF/VT becoming a viable option, especially as it is finally put to real-world use. Over the next few years it will be intriguing to watch how this all plays out.

  7. Harry Lewis

    Bryan, no apologies needed! Thank you for clarifying the basis of your PPML characterization. Your post provided the opportunity to shed light on a very interesting area where market segments overlap yet remain, in part, distinct and users simultaneously present both legacy and emergent needs. No doubt, this warrants discussion and makes for some very exciting opportunities.

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