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Taking control of variable data printing at GFX International

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Although digital printing can handle with ease the graphics requirements of short runs, versioning and variable data, what is often left out of the equation is managing the process of variable data printing. With runs that change from piece to piece, and may be distributed to a variety of locations, keeping track of what goes where can be a workflow nightmare.

For GFX International, which has employed Inca Digital flatbed print technology to meet client needs since the early 2000s, the solution was Inca’s Print Run Controller (PRC) software. PRC allows the provider of in-store branding, POP displays and graphics to take full advantage of digital print’s variable data capabilities, as well as streamline scheduling and production to better serve its retail clients.

GFX’s client base spans the foodservice industry, including full-serve restaurants and franchised quick-serve operations, as well as gas station/convenience stores, superstores, financial centers, and specialty retailers. The company has evolved from a small decal producer to creating permanent and temporary graphics and displays for domestic and international brands and retailers.

Located just outside Chicago, in the village of Grayslake, its staff of 181 delivers the full gamut of services; from prepress, including color management, to post-production, including special finishing and custom fulfillment.

As the company grew, its arsenal of digital printing machines expanded—GFX International now owns six digital printers, including two Inca Onsets (S70 and S50i), Inca Spyder 320, and Inca Columbia Turbo. As client demands for variable data services and versioning increased, GFX’s digital printing devices were easily able to accommodate these customer demands. However, the trick was managing the logistics of print run schedules and ensuring the right versions made it to the right location.

“We saw digital print quality and understood what clients were looking for, especially in terms of variable data,” says Greg Hilderbrand, Director of Digital Operations. “But what we wanted was workflow automation—a different way to manage the process. We didn’t want to have to prep all the multiple files when versioning, and then collate them manually.”

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GFX knew what they were looking for, but they didn’t know the technology existed to take them where they wanted to go. “We adapted to get by,” remarks Hilderbrand, “but the options were too laborious and didn’t make sense.”

As fate would have it, during an Onset demo with Fujifilm, Hilderbrand and his team were also shown the capabilities of Inca’s Print Run Controller software.

“It was an epiphany,” says Hilderbrand.

Fujifilm sells Inca’s digital presses and helped oversee installation and set-up for PRC. Fuji also helped with installing the ColorGate RIP with the latest Onset S50i—also installing the RIP on GFX’s other presses. Along with PRC, the company simultaneously installed Esko’s workflow automation. The team at GFX creates the multipage PDF files on a separate workflow system, and then uses PRC to add variable data and pricing.

Inca’s timing of launching PRC couldn’t have been better as one of the reasons for considering the Onset was to expand GFX’s client base. In particular, one potential client with over 1,700 locations was unhappy with its existing print provider. Its graphic requirements included POP displays and price sheets. Now a GFX customer, digitally printed in-store displays are produced in different versions, reflecting price differences that are determined by the franchisee of each locale. To make it more complicated, the prices have to match each store’s digital price panels, which are automatically changed when a new promotion begins. POP displays offer a picture and price of a menu offering, which are variable depending on the franchisee’s locale and what’s being promoted. Generic POP displays (not customized) are also sent to each store.

Ensuring that the different versions of the displays and price sheets are shipped to the correct location could turn into a logistical nightmare. “Before we had PRC, there were long days of banging our heads to get it done,” Hilderbrand explains. “We could print, but the logistics of what to ship where—with each location having posters with different tier price points—was incredibly cumbersome.”

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Using its workflow and Print Run Controller, GFX can print a multi-image, multi-region campaign in the order that they pre-define. Print runs are typically set up by delivery priority. “We are saving time on collation and eliminating operator error,” says Hilderbrand. “We can schedule based on delivery needs. The data is spun so that I know my four-day shipping requirements, three-day shipping, and so on, for delivery.”

Following printing, each piece is brought to the cutter. For their client, Hilderbrand runs a quality control checklist to identify the pieces for each store and where they will be delivered. Then the graphics for each store are packed, in order, for each of the 1,700 locations.

Previously, jobs were printed and then collated manually in the GFX warehouse, and shipped from there. “Before PRC there was no other way to cope with such jobs. All the work was done manually,” recalls Hilderbrand. “There was so much waste, it was costing our clients money, and storage in the warehouse was costing us money.”

PRC software also helps to keep the digital presses running. In fact, says Hilderbrand, they never, ever stop.

Print runs are started and changed as quickly as files are prepared. The conversion to variable data is done up front to allow GFX to merge the data, and it allows the workflow to go to the next job. “We create a PDF file format, PRC takes the multipage PDF and submits the files to the RIP as required,” says Hilderbrand. “We don’t have the issue of RIP overload and it requires very little memory. PRC lets us print hundreds of pages, at the same time that I am ripping.”

Hilderbrand continues: “It’s sort of an asset manager. Uptime has increased dramatically on both prepress and press and I am allowing our customers to get to market much quicker.”

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Implementing PRC has cut down immensely on waste and given Hilderbrand full control of the print process. Any versioning or variable data errors are quickly found and corrected. “Our client has up to eight marketing pushes a year. I would guess that we save on average 10-15% every time we run this push because of variable data,” says Hilderbrand, referring to the client’s promotions. “If we make an error, our operators can go into PRC and pull the same info on the franchisee’s location to run specific displays, again. When I am packaging or when I am cutting, if I am missing locations, I have a system where our operators can click a button in the prepress system and they locate what is missing. They can link to that individual file.”

Work for this particular client has expanded beyond the promotional pushes. GFX is also using the PRC-Onset combination when the client wants to test market a menu offering in one region, and a different one in another. “Being able to offer this has driven up their profits, and allowed them more flexibility on the store level to market and try other things,” explains Hilderbrand. “Now, they are constantly conducting test markets.”

PRC, in combination with the Inca Digital presses, lets Hilderbrand handle the time pressures with ease. “I am doing all print-on-demand and there is no pain to it,” he says. “Without PRC, I do not think we could be as successful and profitable with our client,” adds Hilderbrand. “It’s a must–have in the digital print industry.”
 

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