Variable Data, or Variable Text Improvement
Recently, my business has been doing a lot of acrylic construction tags for Electricians, and HVAC companies, and Illustrator is generally our "go to" software suite when developing files for our clients, but with the recent work that has been coming in to our company, we have begun to explore the variable data features in Illustrator, and have found this feature to be less than ideal, and is currently not a viable alternative to the way we have been doing things thusfar.
Currently, it seems the variables that one would set up in a given design file are referenced, or linked to a single row containing data in the file, and does not allow the user to set up multiple rows of variable data, within the same design file.
Some of the equipment control software in our shop seems to let us setup the process files in a manner that does let users pull indepenent columns of data, and then allows the user to sort that data by row in setting up the file.
That being said, the variable data software that is found in that particular equipment, is not found in the equipment/control software that is used to process these tags, so Illustrator would hopefully provide an answer to that dilemma (if it had the ability to set up the variable data to independently populate text fields, within the design file, in a more efficient manner).
I agree that Illustrator's variable data / data merge functionality leaves a lot to be desired but I'm fairly certain it can do what you want. Attached is an image of a CSV I set up (not actual data, was changed from customer sensitive data to placeholders) that I used when testing Illustrator's data merge functions.
I was able to make it work, but it wasn't easily editable after importing the CSV's data - there was/is no live link to the CSV. Any changes to the spreadsheet required re-importing and fiddling around with the data again.
A much better option is to use InDesign's data merge. It *does* use a live-link to the CSV spreadsheet, so changes take effect immediately and an updated art / production file can be exported very quickly.