As the entire packaging industry has undergone substantial changes over the past decade, the need for a way to better serve the ever-increasing needs for brand owner is necessary. The process of printing a package has been made far easier by the introduction of automated software and hardware tools that have eliminated a number of manual steps while assuring a series of checks and balances to reduce errors and save time.

While the following framework may not be your reality yet, it is achievable today.

The framework for success

From the start, stakeholders that include brand managers, designers, premedia and converters are collaborating through various business systems such as MIS, ERP, PIM, MRM and content management. These systems help streamline activities from specification and design through production where users can share files with everyone for review and approval.

A digital asset management (DAM) solution centrally stores and manages all digital files produced by an enterprise. It helps organizations maintain version control of copy and images, making the right asset available at the right time to the right stakeholders in the packaging workflow.

A vital portion of the process is also producing the correct colors on the final packaging. Tools are used that allow brand owners to select and communicate color, ensuring they are consistently reproduced across multiple substrates, print processes and production locations. These solutions improve quality, reduce errors and accelerate delivery time to market. They also help protect brand integrity and ensure regulatory compliance.

All along the line, manual steps are removed and automation is engaged, making printing a package far easier.

The science behind the art

A two-dimensional label is easily created within Adobe Illustrator. Within Illustrator, powerful plugins are available to create 3D designs in an environment designers are familiar with. Copy and graphics are placed onto a structural design, so the designer now sees how the graphics appear on a realistic, 3D package. From this design, a CAD designer can also create a design for point-of-purchase (POP) displays in which the package is displayed, driving the die-making instructions. All stakeholders see what the package looks like in the standing
POP display, mimicking the retail environment. Achievable designs are assured prior to the costs incurred during prototyping and production.

Using this 3D design, designers show what the virtual package will look like on the shelf next to the competition. It allows users to create and test package designs well before a production sample is available, ultimately reducing time to market. In doing so, the costs associated with mock-ups—digital printing, cutting and gluing a physical sample—are eliminated. These tools also integrate with planograms once the packaging design is approved.

A packaging engineer assures the viability of the package while continually adding innovative touches to help the power of the package. They generate the package specification, create the packaging structure, determine palletization, oversee production of prototypes and overall project management. Engineers must also consider supply chain logistics—from the brand warehouse to the retailer. Palletization software is used to determine the optimal case count, case quantity and pallet load. This reduces the ecological footprint and shipping costs—and ultimately positively impacts the 
bottom line. All these programs work hand-in-hand
 with packaging structural design software to create
 the optimum product size as well. Sometimes a
 package structure or size will be redesigned to take advantage of economics. By improving space utilization, transportation costs are also reduced, along with the number of trucks on the streets, reducing the carbon footprint.

Mistake-proof production

Just before printing, the printer/converter efficiently produces print-ready artwork to check for errors. First, the art file is put through preflighting. At this step, all the elements of the file (fonts, image structure and colors, etc.) are tested to ensure that they can be prepared correctly. If corrections need to be made, the file is returned to the designer or fixed by the in-house art department.

Once the file is structurally approved, there are still a number of quality tasks that must be completed. For example, color separations—where color is retouched and matched—are done, screening is considered and barcodes are generated. Particularly if the job is to be printed on a traditional press, trapping is set. This compensates for potential gaps between colors in artwork. Print shops use the trapping technique to create a small area of overlap between two colors. Pre-press operators use a separate dedicated trapping program to create traps automatically or they use a tool to create traps manually. This is also the point in production where the many SKUs of a product are created, never a simple task for the pre-press operator. It includes a controlled and automated process for updating existing artwork. All stakeholders use a common database for dynamic content, automatically pulling text statements and other regulatory content into the artwork to ensure that it is up to date and compliant.

The packaging also goes through quality control, an automated process. The artwork is spell checked, and barcodes along with Braille text are checked against an approved profile. When everything is approved, the virtual proofs or prototype samples are delivered and reviewed for final approval.

The complete package

Once the package has been approved for print, the pre-press operator takes the artwork and duplicates it to fill an entire plate, making each print run as efficient as possible. This makes the job  cost-efficient, reducing time and material waste.

If the job is printed digitally, it’s sent to the digital press. If it’s printed traditionally (such as flexo, gravure or offset), plates are made for production. Regardless of how it’s printed, attention is given to achieving color consistency across the multitude of substrates and production locations. Sophisticated ink formulation software and color measurement devices assures that on-press approvals are trouble free.

After all the pre-press work, the job moves to press and post-press to be printed and cut and/or folded correctly. The hidden tasks of a project—the pre-press work producing the original packaging for the converter—is an intensive behind-the-scenes workflow that is often unseen. Understanding how these processes can work flawlessly together, thanks to integrated software solutions, can result in more powerful packaging.

This may not be your reality today, but it can be.