Digital prepress technology offers enormous benefits to those who can position themselves to make the most of it.
Talking to packaging industry professionals about the benefits of digital prepress technology is a bit like the parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant, where the blind men were asked to describe an elephant after they all had examined different body parts. The technology changes so quickly and offers so many advantages that grasping its scope is difficult for any but those who are the most technically astute.
Large corporations employ experts to derive the maximum benefit from such technology, while smaller brands may only be able to profit from it on a limited basis.
Digital workflow systems can lower production costs, deliver products to market more quickly, increase package quality and consistency across markets and, ultimately, increase brand equity. The process can also minimize those familiar prepress production nightmares: “lost” artwork, misinterpreted review comments, delayed approvals and revised files that never seem to land on the same desk at the same time.
Broadly speaking, digital prepress workflow affects two separate areas of brand packaging: creating the package, from first concept to the point where you are putting plates on the press; and managing the digital information as it moves through development and approval, and dissemination to the printer or converter. Both phases manipulate digital electronic files but in completely different ways and for entirely different purposes.
Concept and design
Stuart Swan has a designer’s perspective on the benefits of digital prepress, which include better color reproduction, for instance, because computer-generated plates don’t require a light source, which can cause dot gain in film-made plates. Swan is president of CAG Design, which began life as a package design company, moved into producing color separations, and evolved into digital prepress services when Swan saw film begin to “disappear” several years ago.
He says printing from digital plates is 10 percent sharper than from film-made plates—important in folding carton printing where substrates are more subject to dot gain. This sharpness allows the designer to make the most of fine elements, knowing that, for instance, he can reproduce truer flesh tones or fruit colors.
Before an actual package exists for distribution, though, it may be developed as a prototype. Digital files allow companies that specialize in prototypes and comps to produce them in several forms. There’s Kaleidoscope Imaging Inc., which produces digital files that can be used to create ads, point-of-purchase displays, trade show graphics etc. The same process—virtual modeling—can also be used to change the graphics on (for instance) a can of soda for insertion into a client’s existing photography, saving the cost of new studio time.
Often the company is called on to produce a physical prototype, a three-dimensional model of the product or package that can be used in sales presentations to win over retail customers and to “rev up” a sales force before a new product launch. Prototypes are also used at the front end of a new package design cycle, to give management a better feel for the new package, or at the end of the cycle as a guide to manufacturing or handling requirements. These models begin as digital files, which then drive or direct the physical modeling process.
The two most significant trends in color management over the past few years, according to color management specialist GretagMacbeth AG, are the search for greater technical simplicity and the desire to lower the cost of managing color.
The company recently introduced ProfileMaker 5 Packaging, a program that manages printing of as many as 10 colors. Previously, in a 10-color printing environment, changing any one spot color would require the development of a whole new color profile, a costly and time-consuming process. Profile- Maker 5 can automatically regenerate a new profile even when multiple spot colors are changed, without the need to create new test charts, plates or cylinders.
Once users create a profile in ProfileMaker 5, they can edit and soft-proof images in Adobe Photoshop and create a multicolor separation in one simple step, eliminating what once were time-consuming manual steps. Excellent color results can be achieved in one pass, according to the company, significantly reducing time and proofing material cost over earlier methods.
Proofs and approvals
Today, digital technology has also enabled the use of electronic proofs. The greatest value of electronic (“screen”) proofs is that they can be sent around the world in a flash, and multiple stakeholders can view and approve or revise them.
Some customers, at certain stages of development, may prefer or require a “hard” proof, which today is often a high-quality inkjet proof. Others may require something even more traditional, a printed proof, which they feel they can trust to be more accurate.
“Trust” is the operative word. Sometimes, nothing can overcome the human need for a process that is familiar.
Managing graphic assets
Prepress technology tends to focus on the printer or converter, but Design2Launch is a company focusing on prepress operations from the brand owner’s perspective, offering programs that manage artwork through the process, from concept to plating.
“As a brand manager,” says D2L co-founder Ron Malloy, “I [would] need to actually manage these processes. I [would] need to see what’s being done, to comment on it, and most of all, to know where the project is at any step.”
D2L’s visual asset manager software, for instance, enables brand marketers to view an active project at any stage at any given time. The digital asset management system can be viewed by any player in the creative process (including printers and converters) that the brand manager provides with access.
Outsourcing prepress operations
As often happens when change comes, the packaging industry can be slow to adapt. Today, almost every stage of printing evolution can still be found in practice. In fact, prepress and printing specialist Mike Graff of Sandy Alexander estimates that as many as 95 percent of printers may be still operating with technology that existed before the digital revolution.
In some small printing companies, you still find cameras, film and chromaline proofs at work—producing quality packaging, though. It seems that such companies are typically unable to justify the expense of computer-to-plate equipment (said to reach upwards of $800,000 according to some sources) so they continue their reliance on traditional prepress techniques.
A new type of service provider has stepped in to close the gap in recent years, providing off-site digital workflow services that give such companies the chance to share the competitive advantages of “going digital”.
CAG Design is such a firm. An offshoot of The Atlantic Packaging Group, maker of upscale folding cartons, CAG began as Atlantic’s outsourced prepress operation, complete with computer-to-plate equipment, then expanded to serve other customers.
“It’s ideal for us,” says Jim Brown, Atlantic’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We have the most advanced technology to go direct from computer disc to printing plates, letting us provide increased efficiencies, faster turnaround and lower costs. But we only pay for it as we need it.”
Total project management
Today, only the largest corporations are able make use of total management systems like Vertis Inc.’s Visionbank® TDW (Total Digital Workflow), which manages information within the package design operation, integrating input from brand managers, designers, converters, printers—everyone involved in package development from the concept through the produced package. The major benefit to the brand owner, according to Vertis vice president of sales Brian Sinta, is the fact that the digital information is held in a central database as opposed to being circulated among parties as was the case in the past.
To oversimplify, the designer goes to the database and views the brand, product and marketplace information the brand/product manager has input, and uses that information to design the package, which then enters the system. The brand manager can view the designer’s output and comment. The converter/printer can view the design and comment from a technical, manufacturability point of view.
Everyone invested in the project, from legal to marketing to executive management, can view the information at any given time. The system keeps every version of a project in file, so any suggestion of “let’s go back to the earlier version” is met with the simple click of a mouse. Project leaders can also check the system to determine where approval/feedback is pending, enabling them to determine where a bottleneck may have occurred.
A similar system has been introduced by Esko-Graphics, a provider of digital workflow solutions. The system, Design Life-Cycle Management, is designed to speed time-to-market, dramatically reduce costs and help eliminate errors, according to Simon James, Esko-Graphics executive vice president and general manager.
James points out that these management systems encourage rather than stifle input.
“In addition to the efficiencies engendered, perhaps the key benefit is providing a collaborative platform across the entire supply chain that fosters innovation,” James says. “Managing and encouraging innovation is rapidly becoming the strategic competitive advantage across a swath of industries.”
Both of these innovative systems also integrate with information management systems that track material inventory, manufacturing, testing, sales, financial and other information drawn from the corporation. Several business publications have recently pointed out how important data management officers and departments have become to corporations, and the rise of these large systems, which integrate vast amounts of information, is one of the major reasons.
Digital workflow in the real world
The current state of industry is reminiscent of the “computer revolution” of the 1960s and 70s, when larger companies invested heavily in in-house computing facilities, while smaller companies went without.
Today, many CPGs are fully involved in the large-scale integration of capabilities that Esko-Graphics, Vertis and other suppliers of high-level technological systems have to offer. There are smaller brand owners, though, who are not yet using computer-aided design or computer-to-plate technology and certainly not using total information management systems. In between are the vast majority of organizations, who are only just now dipping their toes in the water. BP
Where to go for more information...
Workflow software. At Design2Launch contact Ron Malloy at 203.348.1173 x102 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contract digital prepress operations. At CAG Design, contact Stuart Swan at 203.913.3338 or email@example.com.
Using contract digital prepress services. At Atlantic Packaging Group contact Jim Brown at 860.889.1344 x19 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comps/prototypes. At Kaleidoscope Imaging Inc., contact Bert Hodapp at 773.722.9300, or email@example.com.
Eliminating the Pen
In the not-too-distant past, printers would not start the press without physical evidence—a signed and dated proof, usually a chromaline—confirming that everyone involved had “signed off” on a project. Waiting for those proofs often delayed printing of a package or label for days, and the expense of delivering them by messenger to everyone involved in the project added to the final prepress cost.
Today, signed proofs are still the standard, but they are cheaper—often just quality inkjet prints. Now, minor alterations like copy changes can be done electronically in a few minutes. Approving the conversion of an English version of a package to one that is French or Spanish, for instance, simply requires sending an Adobe PDF electronic file for copy approval.
In an increasing number of venues—often in multinationals where approvals are required from multiple points around the world—complete online proofing has become the standard. The FDA has even approved its use for food and pharmaceutical packaging under government regulation US FDA 21 CFR Part 11, which says all involved parties can view a proof on a computer screen and “sign” their approval electronically with a simple stroke of the mouse.
This Popcorn Really Pops!
A new flexible package for Tabasco-flavored cheese popcorn was recently honored by the Flexible Packaging Association for its crisp graphics, which were achieved with a new flexographic prepress and plating system. Converter American Packaging Corp. created digital artwork, then turned to Phototype’s NuDot platemaking technology to make the package graphics stand out.
In the computer-to-plate process, NuDot technology uses cross-shaped dots rather than the traditional round dots. This significantly reduces dot gain and ink fill-in, resulting in increased image sharpness, brighter colors, higher densities, smoother vignettes and cleaner text—all of which enable the package stand out on the retail shelf.