Oliver Luedtke of Kornit discusses the advantages of variable data printing and the workflow options available to those using digital printers

Many ‘analogue‘ printers will remember the times when adding serial numbers or other variable information to printed products was a complicated task. Usually you would add an additional step to your workflow and involve a dedicated numbering machine or numbering head.

This is one area where digital printing has a clear advantage – easy variable data printing (VDP). You will probably be familiar with the concept of VDP from the mail merge function in Microsoft Word: you work up a standard letter with mostly static content and then include placeholders for certain variable data, such as the name and address for each individual to whom you will be sending the letter. When the letter is printed, the production software (Word, in this case) connects to a database (in this case, most likely Excel), fetches a recipient’s name and address, and includes it with the print data where the placeholder used to be.

It has been proven that clever usage of VDP can improve response rates in direct marketing by several hundred percent. VDP is not limited to text replacements by the way: if you are a wine retailer and your database shows that your customer is either a red wine or a white wine fan, you can adjust the entire imagery and selection of special offers in your next direct mailing according to each individual’s taste.

In garment decoration, obvious VDP applications would be jerseys for a football team with individual names and player numbers on the back. You could print individualised staff shirts – with letters in different colours for female and male employees, perhaps, or for different departments. Alternatively, why not develop a clever gift shirt that contains an individual’s birth date and the coordinates of their birthplace in an appealing design? Another idea might be to create a limited edition of a special design – for example, for a niche fashion brand – where every printed garment includes a count number like, ‚#34 out of 100 ever made‘. Margin-driving ideas are endless in VDP.

Such applications may sound simple in principle, but having a proper VDP workflow in place is likely to make a huge difference in time and labour cost compared with creating each print file manually in Photoshop. In fact, it might be the deciding factor as to whether you can turn such jobs around profitably or not.

Leavers garments [top] and teamwear [above] are popular applications for variable data printing

The old-fashioned workflow, where you print the static content first and introduce a second print run for the variable data using a second system or technology, is the simplest but most limited approach to VDP. However, it’s totally common in garment decoration – you could, for example, print a number of garments on your screen carousel first and use a direct-to-garment printer later to add the variable content. This will involve you having to master a few additional challenges such as proper registration between the different parts of the content.

Hence, the ‘gold standard’ of a VDP workflow means producing both the static and the variable content in one pass and on the same system. Many production RIPs from the graphic arts industry have the ability to interpret placeholders in the print file and replace them with the actual information from the database on the fly. That way, you upload the print file to the RIP only once. However, only a few textile RIPs support this feature.


The third – and most common – solution is to use a VDP function or plug-in for your pre-press software. Such plug-ins exist for CorelDraw and Adobe Creative Suite. In this scenario, you include placeholders with your print design. It could be text that starts with an escape character such as #player_name and #jersey_number. If the variable content is a graphic, you need to create a placeholder box in CorelDraw or Illustrator and name it something like #winebottle_photo.

In terms of the database, you would produce a simple CSV-separated spreadsheet with column headers called ‘player_name‘ and ‘jersey_number‘ and add the actual data to the spreadsheet in the following rows. If graphics are to be used, you need to define the file path to the different images that are to be used.

If everything is properly set up and you press the ‘merge’ button, the plug-in will automatically produce, for example, all the 50 print files of your 50 staff shirts, which you can then send to print on your direct-to-garment system.

This approach is not quite as efficient as the ‘gold standard’ described above – after all, you still need to send 50 print files to your printing system. However, the automation and time-saving is far superior to hand-drawing every single shirt on Photoshop.

Variable data printing is a great way to put yourself ahead of the competition and offer advanced products and services for which customers will be willing to pay a premium. Turning them into margin and profit will depend on your ability to handle such jobs efficiently and without too much manual intervention. Kornit’s direct-to-garment systems with their built-in pre-treatment make a great starting point, but the software side of things is equally important!