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A look ahead



Published January 16, 2006
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One always seems to wax nostalgic at this time of year. Looking back on tradition and history is a productive way to identify the positive events and milestones that serve to define who and what we are in the present. Using the knowledge of the past we can look forward to the future and prosper in the present.

This article centers on the nature of the digital prepress process in its current state and looks forward to the future. The author has decided to limit his comments to the relationship of the consumer products companies with the creative designer, the prepress trade shop and the printer/converter. It will be a high level overview of the general state of affairs from the author's vantage point. There will obviously be exceptions to any theory put forth here; certainly this view is no revelation to many, and will be in contrast to the opinions held by others as they peer into their individual crystal balls. So as they say, "Take it with a grain of salt," and take away what you will if it helps you formulate your vision of what will be.

Digital technology in the packaging market is now mainstream from the creative designer to the RFID controlled inventory replenishment system at the consumer retail store.

The prepress industry has experienced a transformation over the past three decades which exceeds the pace of innovation in the previous 550 years since our old pal Gutenberg developed movable type.

Consumer products companies (CPCs) have analyzed the demographics ad nauseum and are so much more focused on brand identity and brand equity at the consumer buying level than ever before. The approach to attracting and maintaining the loyalty to a brand by the consumer is very scientific.

As the product needs for packaging have grown and evolved, graphic consistency and color management have become a key area of concern for brand managers. The need to ensure that the graphics on the label on the bottle are consistent with those on the folding carton as well as the corrugated shipper - not to mention the graphic continuity with the point of sale displays and the collateral items associated with the brand - has become a primary point within the design specifications brief. In the grand scheme of things, the consumer brand manager's objective is to ensure that the images one views on television and in print media deliver the same graphical message when one is shopping for packaged goods in one's local grocery.

Within the package print space, this has always been a difficult issue to deal with. Early on, when the corrugated shipper was just that, a shipper to carry the shelf-ready packages to the retail store, the print requirements were basic - typically a brown box with black type. These would be printed on a machine built to perform slotting and diecutting with an add-on print station, so the print quality was secondary or even lower on the priority list for the corrugated supplier.

Club stores have driven the corrugated print medium to raise its quality levels dramatically over what seems like a short period of time. This has included driving such innovations as wide format inkjet printing.

Before we go too far down one print medium's path, let's explore the general requirements of a consumer products company as they relate to its packaging needs.

Technological strides

The structure of the typical consumer products company is made up of various departments and levels of responsibility within them, but fundamentally it would go something like this: innovation, brand management, technical operations, legal compliance, packaging commercialization, procurement, and distribution management.

Historically, once the brand management team has blessed the design, it flows through the various other departments. In many cases the components of the package requirements are procured by different individuals from various sources and printed by a wide array of printer converters. The result is inconsistent brand graphics throughout the packaging assembly. With the trend to more colorful graphics, it is natural that the scrutiny of each component and its relationship to the whole would be magnified.

Color management became the next rung on the technology ladder that needed to be reached. The development of the capabilities within software, the proofing devices, and the specialization of the tools created to calibrate the process have been phenomenal.

Solid solutions in digital communication and database management in the area of asset and job information -including machine manufacturing parameters - are in place today to organize and streamline graphic communication in packaging.

The leaders in the industry of tomorrow will be those who take full advantage of the technology available and adapt their business models on the fly to the ever-changing market dynamics.

Prepress service companies, known as trade shops, having developed specializations like direct print corrugated/preprint or metal decorating, have remained the leaders in the development of color printing for their individual media. In labels, flexible packaging and folding carton applications, the prepress capabilities have been widely spread across all levels of the package development cycle. Over the years, the flexo label industry embraced the concept of in-house prepress capabilities and is well experienced with digital workflows. The sheetfed commercial offset industry slowly transitioned away from outside prepress providers in the 1980s, but that evolution hasn't yet been fully adopted by the sheetfed folding carton segment. The flexible packaging market is in its early days of adoption, being very tentative as image carrier technology is still in a state of flux. The path forward is not yet clear.

In-house prepress for CPCs?

It is the prediction of some manufacturers of digital prepress workflow systems that the consumer products companies will adopt the capabilities to control the development of packaging graphics for all print media, thereby bypassing the prepress color separation trade shop and sending files to the printer converters for output via computer to plate technology in order to ensure graphic consistency and streamline the process. Many feel that this is an academic viewpoint with little practical reality.

In some cases consumer products companies have incorporated some of the early design stage capabilities into their organizations. Still others have collaborated with prepress and design firms that have established facilities management programs where the trade shop embeds a graphic coordinator within the CPC's organization. Some printer/converters are investing in digital prepress currently and envision that they will absorb the current functions of the trade shop so that the CPC can simply pass the designers' files to them and the process will be controlled by the printer/converter. The requirements for highly skilled color management technicians plus the annual capital investment required to sustain leading capability and to constantly innovate the process will prove to be challenging.

The next few years will bring yet another hybrid situation that will cause transformations within the trade shop as well as the printer/converters. Among the large multi-location printer/converters there are strong moves toward internalizing prepress services, including color retouching and management. The objective is to provide a more complete service to the consumer products company. This appears to be advantageous to the CPC but in actuality it is flawed at the point where the graphics and the management of color are involved. The converters could very well develop their own level of expertise and could ensure consistent results within their own print medium. The problem arises when they need to have continuity with the rest of the print providers and their specific media.

The trade shops will relinquish the flexo plate business to the printer/converters as they internalize the plate making process. Due to the technological advancements in the areas of thermal processing of digitally imaged photopolymer plates, and the advancements of process-less direct laser engraving of sleeves and plates, printer/converters avoid the historically negative impact of solvent processing and achieve the control of the image carrier manufacturing process. In the process, they reduce their plate expense marginally. This internalization doesn't always deliver the ROI one would hope to see. The gravure process will continue to be serviced by outside service providers who have specialized in this area and have the infrastructure to support the continual improvements happening in this market.

The trade shop

The trade shop will evolve into the digital graphic organizer within the process, managing the digital assets of major consumer products companies and providing the insurance that brand equity and graphic consistency is maintained across all print media. Additionally, the trade shop will enhance its digital imaging position by reaching into the other areas of brand communication media. The trade shop will continue to provide the coordination and the organization of graphics and will become more influential with the consumer products companies as to the selection of the print supplier.

More and more, the CPC is leaning on the trade shop to provide education, consultation and opportunities through researching and recommending new package printing methods and technologies in order to assist the CPC in differentiating its image at the retail level.

The value of the brand assets and the necessity to gain broader market penetration more rapidly than ever before will drive the CPC to align itself with a graphics coordinator who has the technical expertise to support all print disciplines.

Equally important is the need for the trade shop to develop a cooperative working relationship with the printer/converter community. The expansion of the use of robust digital information management systems to support digital file transfer, the implementation of more widespread soft proofing with collaborative capabilities and more efficient project management will enable the relationships between the parties to flourish.

There has been much consolidation in the trade shop arena over the past few years, and more is under way. In addition, those who resisted the adoption of digital prepress workflows in the decade of the 1990s have either stagnated or worse, and have been forced to close their doors. In the current environment, the only companies who will survive to be acquired by the larger entities are those with key regional or segment differentiation using digital prepress at a minimum.

Our supermarket shelves provide those of us in the packaging business a clear view of the trends and nature of the proliferation of graphics in packaged goods marketing. The competition is fierce on the CPC end of the market and likewise for those in the business to organize and supply graphics to this dynamic industry - the trade shop.

An optimistic outlook

Printer/converters need to remain focused on the key areas that make them successful - printing and converting - and then adopt enough prepress capabilities to receive color managed graphics and deliver consistent printable images to their presses. The presses will evolve to be more controllable color managed output devices.

Through standardization supplemented by digital consistency and repeatability, the press will be predictable and repeatable from run to run. Current print mediums such as gravure, litho and digital printing are further along with predictability of print than the flexo process. Through the efforts of groups like the Flexographic Technical Association, guidelines and specifications are currently being developed to enable this print medium to achieve the consistency from press to press and printer to printer that is manageable across other print processes.

We as an industry can look optimistically to the future. As has been the case since the early days of packaging, a high level of cooperation between the parties driving the process will be the key to success.

I'd like to take the opportunity to thank the readers of Label & Narrow Web for their questions and comments this past year. Please keep them coming.

I wish you prosperity in the New Year.

Patrick J. O'Brien is President of Premier Sales Ltd., in Peacedale, RI, USA. In addition to consultation services, Pat calls on nearly 30 years experience in the flexographic printing and converting industry to assist clients with sourcing technology and equipment systems from a worldwide network of manufacturers. He can be reached at 401-783-0817 or via e-mail at pat.o@premiersalesri.com. The web site is www.premiersalesri.com.



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