Variably Speaking Inside the Mind of the Ideal VDP Client by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro April 4, 2006 -- Last month, I wrote a report for TrendWatch GA on variable data printing whose impact on the industry took me a little by surprise. In the report, Variable Data Printing 2006: Growth and Changes in the Marketplace, I drew some conclusions that I thought might generate discussion, but over the last few weeks, it seems that I generated a firestorm instead. It's conventional wisdom that copiers are used largely by small shops that can't afford digital presses. But, in fact, that's not what the data showed. The one aspect of the report that I thought would spark the most debate was the data showing that digital color copiers are being used hot and heavy by printers of all sizes to do the full range of applications we think of as being the domain of digital presses. And, as printers discover that these devices produce salable copy at a fraction of the cost of a big machine, the number of print shops relying on copiers is soaring. Sure enough, on discussion boards, in forwarded emails, and in contacts to TrendWatch GA, this was what had folks all aflutter. It seems like I spent most of last week deflecting flying darts. I've had to keep my armor on, because just as the darts started flying, TrendWatch GA released my follow-up report, Copiers & Printers: Serious Competitors in the Digital Print Marketplace, which took a far more detailed look at the copier and desktop printer aspects of the data (desktop printers are part of this trend, too, although at a much lower level). These folks aren't using copiers because they have to. They are using them because they want to. The results were fascinating. It's conventional wisdom that copiers are used largely by small shops that can't afford digital presses. But, in fact, that's not what the data showed. Sure, many small shops are using copiers for this purpose, but the highest numbers for usage and sophistication were not among the smallest shops. And some of the heaviest users of copiers for VDP were shops that already owned digital presses. So these folks aren't using copiers because they have to. They are using them because they want to. Ouch! More flying darts. I'm going to take the rest of this column to respond to some of the most common darts -- I mean issues -- that have come my way since the two reports were released. How are you defining "copiers" vs. "digital presses"? These data come from TrendWatch GA's twice yearly surveys of the industry, which don't have room for long, detailed definitions. Instead, they define categories by association. For example, in the VDP question, "digital presses" are defined as the big machines that everybody recognizes -- "like Indigo, Xeikon" or, in the planned investments question, "like Xerox iGen3, NexPress." Copiers are not defined in the VDP questions, although in the investment question, they are defined as "like Canon CLC, Xerox DocuColor 40." Do copiers really need definition anyway? Until this whole short-run digital printing/VDP mess arose, everybody knew what a copier was. Now that these devices are being used for more sophisticated applications (yes, including sophisticated VDP), all of a sudden, they need to be defined. Or is it redefined? I think most people in this industry define a copier as any device that, well, makes copies -- something with a platen. And, in the context of the VDP discussion, this would be a digitally driven device -- a copier with a RIP. Do people who have copier-printers refer to them as copiers? Or as printers? In the discussions I've had with printers using these devices, they refer to them as "copiers." But in discussions with customers, they refer to them as "digital printers." And despite claims that "copier" vs. "press" needs definition, none of the printers I've talked to seemed to be experiencing any confusion about it. They are using copiers, and they know it. What I'm seeing in the data matches perfectly with what I'm seeing in the field. 32 percent of digital printers -- defined by the Blue Book as shops with toner-based or DI presses -- rely on color copiers for VDP output. When does a digital copier-printer start being a "press"? Is it volume? Page size? Print speed? When a "digital printer" (i.e. a device without a platen) starts being a "press" is really a different question. Right now, there are many with a vested interest in making a distinction. My suspicion is that, over the next couple of years, that distinction, if there ever was one, will disappear. We'll have high-end, volume-production machines and we'll have slower machines for low-volume environments. But they'll all be presses/printers, just at different levels of volume, speed, and sophistication. Sure, copiers are being used to produce VDP jobs, but they are mostly mail merges and name-dropping. You know, junk mail. Not the kind of VDP the high-end machines are doing. This is one of the most common protests I've received, but while it might be intuitive, it's not true. As reported in Copiers & Printers: Serious Competitors, 32 percent of digital printers -- defined by the Blue Book as shops with toner-based or DI presses -- rely on color copiers for VDP output. These are sophisticated shops that have made heavy capital investments. Their success rises and falls on the ability to develop and sell applications. We also see high percentages among commercial printers, including larger shops. But this conclusion is not just coming from the data. In preparing the report, I did a wide ranging series of interviews with printers using these devices for VDP. Copier shops were no different from those running toner-based presses, and often, they were one and the same. They had a keen understanding of database issues -- perhaps, in some ways, even keener than the average digital press owner since, when selling copier output, their success is so applications-dependent). They understand databases and data mining, and produce some impressive results. It's just that they have smaller runs, so they are using a smaller box. Now that issues that have been simmering are finally out in the open, they aren't going to go away. The quality off these machines is just fine, especially in these smaller markets. One sample I have on my desk has fabulous design, glossy cover, shows off a wide range of paper stocks, and looks like something produced by a Xeikon just a few years ago. After all the flack I received from the report, I went to Print Planet's VDP forum and did an informal survey of members using copiers for VDP. The results were consistent with both the TWGA data and my earlier interviews. While some were doing simple VDP, a large percentage were doing amazingly sophisticated work, with dozens of variable fields, rules-based logic, and a high degree of relevance. One was a PODi award winner. (To view the results, visit www.printplanet.com in the VDP forum.) What level of VDP software are these folks using? Ranging from PrintShop Mail to Xmpie. This doesn't end the discussion, of course, and if these clarifications have ruffled your feathers, get ready. There will be a lot more to come. It appears that I've opened Pandora's box, and now that issues that have been simmering are finally out in the open, they aren't going to go away. Although my answers, at present, are based on the straight TrendWatch GA data in both the VDP 2006 and the Copiers & Printers report, I am going to be writing a mini-report for release in April based on a new, far more detailed data cut. Instead of looking at the VDP data by "all responses," graphic arts segment, and shop size, I will look at it from the perspective of those using copiers for VDP. Although there will be nothing new here, and I anticipate that the data will confirm everything I've already reported, at least, it should set some of the skepticism to rest. Then it will be a matter of letting the industry decide what to do with it.