Infigo software allows consumers to personalise gifts, previewing them online in 3D


Personalised and photo-based products have been around for a while now but the range and diversity only continues to grow. Michael Walker looks at some profitable options.

It seems like there’s almost nothing that can’t be personalised these days, from mugs to maracas, pens to photobooks, USB sticks to skateboards, phone cases to flags. The products are frequently offered online but are also available at many high street retail outlets, and even via self-service kiosks.

‘The photo gifting market has exploded,’ says Suzanne Rouart, head of marketing at software developer Infigo, whose MegaEdit 3D preview tool allows online customers to experiment with freely rotatable views of personalised products such as branded chocolate tins or greetings cards.

‘Brands we work with have recognised that customers are prepared to pay a huge premium for products which they can personalise, and we’re seeing more and more weird and wonderful personalised products appear on the market,’ she adds.

Xerox UK’s Kevin O’Donnell agrees: ‘The interesting thing is where a printer integrates “gifting” into their capabilities, not just as a stand-alone business but as part of a broader offering. A printer who manages a cross-media product launch or incentive, for example, can now reward participants with a personalised gift – they have the data already.’

All these personalised products include print of one kind or another, often coupled with novel finishing or complementary elements, and increasingly produced to order in something approaching real time, sometimes right in front of the end-customer. Infigo handled a project recently with a global confectionery brand that involved connection to Motion Cutter digital laser personalisation systems installed at retail sites. This allows customers to design and place their order via a tablet interface and have the finished personalised product waiting for them by the time they get to the till.

Brought to book

That setup obviously required some specialist hardware and software development to link it, but not all personalised products have to be quite so clever or expensive to produce. There’s still a huge market for the humble photobook, a thing that’s become so commonplace now that we forget what a breakthrough the idea of a one-off high quality coffee table book at an affordable price was just 10 years ago.

Most cut-sheet digital presses offer good enough quality for that kind of work these days, though SRA3 machines will be limited in the formats they can produce. The ‘long sheet’ SRA3 press variants from several vendors enable the production of the popular A4 landscape format without requiring a B2 press.

As much as print quality, it’s the binding that makes a photobook a treasured gift or memento. Lewis Price, sales director at Ashgate Automation comments, ‘The interest in premium quality short-run books has led to more and more customers asking for lay-flat binding with edge-to-edge printing of the images. This is not only for wedding and photo albums but also for marketing material, illustrated books, and any bound product where the quality of finish is the most important factor.’

To help printers who haven’t so far had to meet this need, Ashgate offers the Fastbind Fotomount F46e which can handle softback, pre-made standard hardcovers or personalised hard covers for book sizes up to 457 x 457mm. The table-top unit binds both photographic and digital paper allowing the finished books to open flat at 180 degrees.

Photos2 Lumejet 

LumeJet can produce lay-flat photobooks with unusually thin pages

A more unusual binding process for top quality photobooks is offered by Lumejet, in the form of a direct glued lay-flat book. LumeJet director Paul Anson explains:

‘Most layflat books and photobooks use a card between the sheets – this is the glue board that holds it all together. With our process now, using the LumeJet S200, a hot melt system from Imaging Solutions, and fingerprint-resistant thin photo paper from Fujifilm, we produce a thin page lay-flat photo book. The pages have more flex but are true lay-flat, and you can have more pages in the book without it getting too thick and heavy.’ 

Mr Anson adds that the hot melt system is very stable, drying quickly for fast turnaround and very resistant to humidity – ‘no more curly pages’. The thinner pages are also very suitable for commercial applications, he notes.

Small and self-contained

Smaller things that can also be stuck together to provide durable and useful personalised items such as business, membership or ID cards, can be made from Kernow Coatings’ ‘butterfly’ synthetic stock which is tear-proof, waterproof and greaseproof. Images are printed one side on pre-perforated self-adhesive A4 sheets, then folded and stuck back-to-back to form a sturdy 410-micron card.

Slough-based direct marketing specialist X1 is promoting a range of personalised items to its clients that includes both the cards and wristbands made of the same Kernow material, printed on its two Kodak Nexpresses. ‘The wristbands as ideal for exhibitions, conferences, event management, anything where there’s lots of people,’ explains X1 managing director Tim Lance, pointing out that less material is used and less wastage generated than with conventional event badges, as well as the wristband format being aesthetically preferable for many.

A couple of options for those who are interested in personalising and decorating small objects such as pens, keyrings, mobile phone cases, tablet or laptop cases and the like include all-in-one solutions such as the Sawgrass S400 and SG800. These are dye-sublimation inkjet printers, capable of printing onto objects up to A4 and A3/tabloid size respectively.

Suitable for a range of applications including personalised gifts, promotional products and decorated garments, the Sawgrass Virtuoso Desktop HD product decorating systems can image at resolutions of up to 1200 x 1200 dpi for photo quality reproduction on a wide range of substrates from aluminium and wood to tiles, glass, slate and polyester fabrics. Sawgrass also supplies the ink and online template based CreativeStudio design software, plus a catalogue of sublimation blanks for a range of applications.

The Sublideck 3D decoration system is for printing mobile phone cases. Built in the UK, this small unit is said to be both quick and quiet, using dye sublimation technology to transfer images printed by an Epson desktop printer onto the case. Sublideck provides the transfer film, the inks and the phone case blanks; the thermal transfer process can take as little as 90 seconds, making it attractive for retail environments.

Inkjet printing onto fully 3D objects (as opposed to principally flat or one-sided ones) is possible with Xerox’s Direct To Object inkjet printer. Heidelberg’s Omnifire 250 also fits into this category, and is able to image onto a variety of non-flat shapes including footballs, while its bigger sibling, the Omnifire 1000 is an industrial scale unit that can handle items like suitcases via what the company calls its 4D printing. 

The wider view

Wide-format vendor Mimaki offers a direct-to-object option called the kebab for its UJF 3042 and 6042 desktop printers, which can print all the way round cylindrical objects by rotating them along their central axis. The company’s standard flatbed printers can also be used to produce a variety personalised items to very high quality. One user, Manchester area GJ Plastics, a customer of UK Mimaki distributor Hybrid Services, found that a job which involved printing a detailed photographic image of a supercar onto an acrylic block yielded results that owner Graham Croston described as ‘sharper [and] more vibrant when printed direct to the acrylic on the UJF-3042 than the output from a high quality photographic printer’.

It’s not only small portable objects that can be personalised. Whole rooms can be, too, if you have the right printer. Surrey-based POS specialist Regency Design & Print still uses screen printing equipment but has recently added a second Screen Truepress Jet W300UV flatbed printer to support a new venture called Branded Rooms that targets corporate clients, offering a range of wall panels and mural-sized prints, all produced on the Screen flatbed printers, for example.

Photo and image-based personalisation covers a huge range of possibilities, not all of them expensive to implement, which open up new lines of business and opportunities, some unexpected and some extremely profitable. Printers who are successful here think less about selling print and more about providing a service or meeting a need. Consider your market – if your existing customers aren’t interested, look at ways to reach consumers directly. 

Photos3 KitKat

No break for personalised wrapper printer

Chocolate-coated wafer biscuits don’t come much better known in the UK than KitKat. While the wrapping has recently been changed to plastic film from the only-just-big-enough aluminium foil wrapper and red-and-white paper sleeve that millions grew up with, that has allowed the opportunity for brand owner Nestlé to offer consumers the chance to win a KitKat with a personalised wrapper as part of a new social media and digital campaign.

Purchasers of specially marked KitKat packs register online to try their luck with individual codes printed on the wrappers. Lucky winners, of whom there will be some 56,000, can then personalise their own packs, with the addition of a photo of their choosing and a ‘break’ phrase (based on the long-standing ad slogan ‘have a break, have a KitKat’) superimposed over it. Each bar in its personalised wrapper will be mailed in a cardboard carton that folds out to form a presentation frame.

Doing the printing for all these personalised wrappers is Grimsby-based Ultimate Packaging, using HP Indigo 20000 and WS6600 roll-fed printers. The personalised packs are produced in weekly batches of between 7000 and 8000 and the printed reels are sent to Nestlé’s York factory for packing. Once packed, the personalised KitKats are returned to Ultimate Digital for presentation packing and despatch.

Perhaps more impressive than the printing itself – though that required some experimenting with substrates to meet both Nestlé’s colour and packaging line handling requirements – is the software development and data handling that powers the project. Ultimate Digital’s Smartflow, an in-house developed web-to-print platform, is integrated into Nestlé’s website and enables competition winners to upload their photos and add their text.

Each personalised pack has a unique barcode and identification code, which are scanned at the boxing stage, with the linked image appearing on a screen to visually confirm the match. Customer address labels are also generated and printed automatically.

Ultimate Digital executive director Chris Tonge commented: ‘It’s fantastic to be involved in such a high-profile digital personalisation project for such an iconic Nestlé brand. We’re about half way through the 60,000 run and now the first packs are starting to arrive with customers, I am sure the social media campaign will really start to gain momentum.’

Direct-to-object brings omni-channel opportunity

Since its inception in the mid 80s as a litho and forms printer, DCL Print has grown through acquisition and diversification, with a strong focus in recent years on personalisation and gift products. This led to the addition of Data Solutions, a complementary business that offers data handling services to drive the personalisation, and most recently, the launch of Personaliz, a web-based business largely built around the capabilities of Xerox’s DTO (direct-to-object) inkjet printer.

Sales director Simon Gardner saw the Xerox printer, which allows vivid and durable colours to be printed rapidly onto 3D objects such as drinks flasks, at drupa 2016. ‘We saw an opportunity for low quantity short turnaround gifts with full personalisation,’ he says.

As well as identifying opportunities in corporate gifts and in directly labelling parts for radio-surgery equipment manufacturers, DCL is putting DTO-based kiosks into high-footfall venues such as retail centres and theatres. These allow customers to select designs, text and graphics to be printed on a variety of objects such as water bottles, mugs, notebooks, USB sticks and phone cases. The user interface runs on an embedded iPad, driven by XMPie software and the printing is carried out as the customer watches via the window in the printer’s casing.

‘The water bottles have been very successful in schools – they’re much better than labels held on with sellotape,’ says Mr Gardner.

Beyond the retail opportunity, Mr Gardner and his colleagues are looking at the opportunity that the direct-to-object capability adds to omnichannel or cross-media communications. He gives as an example an event held by a property developer for high net worth clients for which personalised champagne bottles were printed and sent with the invitations. The campaign achieved a 100% success rate.

‘We’re going to do much, much more of this,’ says Mr Gardner. ‘It’s a new conversation with people from marketing and with trade customers; something new to cross-sell other services. People are refreshed when a printer talks about something that’s new and exciting, at the forefront of technology; it drives business for them and for us.’