Esko, a global supplier of integrated products and prepress software, designs products for the label and packaging market. With significant software and hardware packaging experience, the company’s offerings allow printers and converters to optimize new workflows with automation and color management.
According to Esko, a prepress department today might run 50 jobs per shift, whereas that number could have been six in the past. With an increasing quantity of jobs, there is also a high premium on quality. The prevalence of automation has eliminated the need to perform repetitive and trivial tasks manually. For example, the integration of a production workflow with MIS enables the automatic creation of bar codes or the selection of inks.
Most of the developments in prepress software are intended to simplify the user experience. Jan de Roeck, Esko’s director of Solutions Management, explains that his company’s latest enhancements are meant to keep pace with the technological revolution. “Younger people entering the workflow are familiar with swiping, five-finger movements and other ways of directing software,” explains de Roeck. “It is one of the most important requirements of software. How many people call Apple for software support? It is so intuitive that it does not require much help. In the same way, many companies have developed interfaces that are easy to learn and use. This ties into a market driver that seeks to make prepress easier to use.”
Companies are increasingly investing in automation software or software that will quickly train a company’s current staff. The goal is to avoid training that lasts six months, with the staff leaving shortly thereafter.
Lior Krasnovsky, Labels and Packaging Workflow product manager, HP, says that HP SmartStream Mosaic’s dynamic variable design software automatically generates a high number of unique graphics for embedding into a variable data job, all from a small number of seed patterns, using pseudo–randomized scaling, transposition and rotation. “The stream of graphics created by Mosaic is used as a part of the package design as a variable data channel in a template – just as if it was variable text, images or bar codes,” explains Krasnovsky. “The implementation of Mosaic-designed packages within existing brand supply chains is simple. The output of HP SmartStream Mosaic is automatically scrambled to create a random dispersion of designs. The labels are printed on an HP Indigo digital press and a roll of labels, each one unique, is sent to the co-packer. The labels are used in the standard packing and distribution process. There is no requirement to change the delivery process, or to print and pack items for a specific recipient like many other VDP jobs require.”
According to Mike Rottenborn, president and CEO of Hybrid Software, prepress software has made the label printing process much more efficient, as more labels are being ordered through online portals, reducing manual intervention, the time required and the potential for errors. He says, “Preflight functionality is very important for controlling the quality of incoming artwork. Preflighting is now highly automated, making it fast and accurate. Automation of trapping, step and repeat, and auto application of marks and bearer bars makes plate preparation of the job much faster and easier, as well.”
Customers require a smoother process from the initial order intake through to production and delivery. “With consolidation in the industry still prevalent, many customers have multiple facilities,” says Rottenborn. “Modern workflows like CloudFlow provide a ‘management dashboard’ across all production facilities and allow load balancing based on capacity and production needs. Integration of prepress with MIS and eCommerce platforms has made it much faster to ingest orders into production and reduce data entry errors due to re-keying production information.”
According to Krasnovsky, whose company works closely with Esko, prepress software has become more robust, more open and more automated. “RIP and VDP processing performance has dramatically improved by applying a new RIP engine, applying pre-RIP optimization and using improved server hardware,” she adds.
Esko provides software to serve the entire workflow from content creation to platemaking. De Roeck emphasizes that as users progress downstream from content creation and get closer to the exposure device (typically the plate imaging system), the more specific software gets to flexo. Esko’s Full HD Flexo provides screening algorithms that reproduce more defined highlights and stronger shadows, designed to create the perfect dot on the plate.
Esko’s Digital Flexo Suite is a collection of platemounting software. Automatically and instantly, while a job is sent to the imager, files are created for cutting on a digital cutting table and data files are made for mounting. The flexo plate is cut up into smaller patches to reduce waste, but accurate mounting information is sent to the mounting device. Esko’s PreMount workflow is a mounting technique that allows the user to mount flexo plate slugs on a carrier sheet prior to imaging. According to Esko, customers report an average plate wastage reduction of 15% when using the Digital Flexo Suite.
GMG, a developer and global supplier of high-end color management software systems, offers OpenColor as a method of making proofing profiles for flexo. The company also offers ColorProof, DotProof and FlexoProof as industry software solutions. GMG ProfileEditor contains flexo-specific tools for reliable and precise press-to-proof matching.
“Color management is a matter of precision,” explains Marc Welch, director of Strategic Accounts, GMG. “‘Close enough’ is not an answer in the critical color world of packaging. It is a reasonable goal to set your flexo printing process to less than 2 Delta E repeatability. Your color management systems need to operate within half of that. If the separations and proofs have a variability of over 1 Delta E, then the process cannot achieve the desired goal. 1+Delta E, coupled with 1-Delta E= 2Delta E. Color precision is critical to a vendor choice.”
GMG offers 12 different color management solutions for flexo and packaging, including PDF image processing and color separation; profile creation for color separations; proofing for flexo; and profile creation for proofing.
Consistency in form and content is a critical aspect of digital prepress. Converters maintain more flexibility if they can choose between printing processes and not worry about inconsistencies. “The main reason HP Indigo partners with Esko is for the color management expertise,” says de Roeck. “Brands taking advantage of multiple short run labels can now reap the benefits of consistent color, regardless of the print technology applied. The biggest contribution is that Esko color management enables consistency across many processes, including digital print.”
Prepress software helps overcome challenges early on in the labeling process. According to GMG, its goal is to create precision and bulletproof repeatability anywhere in the world, and uniform appearance across all printing systems. The company places a premium on color within a prepress workflow.
Esko operates under the motto of “Labels Simplified.” Explains de Roeck: “Esko software resolves everything related to label converting such as legal challenges, skill gaps, more jobs and shorter runs. But, and more importantly, we help make the process easier. Printers and converters always ask us how we can we make their life and production easier.”
Hybrid Software offers CloudFlow, CloudFlow Share, CloudFlow RIP, and PACKZ to the graphics market. Most recently, it has added PACKZ RoundTrip and PACKZView to its arsenal. RoundTrip enables production files to be returned in native Adobe Illustrator format for future reuse or repurposing, while PACKZView allows non-prepress users to view files (including technical inks, separations, transparency and overprint, etc.) exactly the way a file will print at no cost.
When dealing with digital printing, Rottenborn explains the printing method has changed prepress software. “Files must be retained in a format that can be easily changed from digital to flexo and back again for versioning or labeling changes,” he explains. “Native PDF is the best format for this since flattened files are normally no longer editable, and proprietary files must be edited in the original system every time. Native PDF provides complete flexibility. Automation of prepress has allowed digital printing to reach new levels of productivity and turnaround time by modernizing the prepress workflow to keep pace with digital output.”
A 3D World
New prepress software has allowed companies to visualize exactly how a product will look on the shelf. Esko Studio allows users to save time in the development of packaging. Additionally, 3D software enables the creation of virtual mockups. This can save considerable time, money and waste down the line.
“The goal is to show packaging early in design development, when it is easier to review a variety of alternatives and to check to avoid errors,” explains de Roeck. “Brand owners are able to see the end result before they spend money and resources into the development of mockups or short runs. This can go all the way to visualization on a store shelf, next to competitive products.”
This software helps brand owners visualize how design tweaks will affect the product on the shelf. More modern technologies like eye tracking can be used to validate the ability to attract the consumer before a label is ever sent to the press.
“Accurate prediction reduces waste and inaccurate prediction produces waste, sometimes a lot of waste,” says Welch. “The key to customer satisfaction is setting proper expectations of the final result without surprises. If precise final product prediction is achieved, then waste is reduced and designers make better decisions sooner.”
Esko’s 3D software can also help with the development of shrink sleeve artwork. “Applications such as Esko Studio Toolkit for Shrink Sleeves can automatically resolve art distortion around irregularly shaped containers and provide a 3D visual of it,” adds de Roeck. “This is much faster than the trial and error process needed when testing mock-ups in a heated shrink sleeve oven.”
The advent of 3D design technology opens up a new world of possibilities in the future. According to Esko, implementing asset management has the potential to take form on print, websites and social media campaigns. “We find occasionally that brand owners cannot launch a promotional campaign because they do not have the product available yet,” says de Roeck. “It’s said that ‘The packaging is the product.’ For products on the grocery shelf, no one sees the product; they see the package. If you cannot show the package on the website – if the packaging is not ready – product launches can be delayed. With 3D, collaborative and asset management software, there could be more ties between the virtual online and physical worlds.”
Welch anticipates PDF becoming the universal platform for package production that it has become for publishing. In addition, he sees direct to shape systems – printing a high quality label directly on the container via inkjet – impacting label printing. “These systems will be another overlay on the already complex world of label production,” adds Welch. “It is essential that suppliers invest in core technology platforms that allow these processes to match each other without another proprietary color management strategy.”
Meanwhile, Hybrid Software licenses Creative Edge IC3D, which maintains a direct link with PACKZ. This software gives users a real-time simulation of shrink sleeves, folding cartons and labels and can predict the results of warping prior to the shrink process.
Esko has built its brand on partnerships, and the company has designed its software to take advantage of an open platform. At drupa, Esko co-exhibited with X-Rite Pantone and Enfocus to create solutions that de Roeck says, “no one else can match.” These brands exist under the same parent umbrella, which allows more freedom to integrate. “In this case, 1+1+1 is more than three,” says de Roeck. “Esko has always provided an open platform to support a broader ecosystem – we offer a more horizontal platform for any application to tie into.”
Esko has also rebranded its software system to the Esko Software Platform. The name change is designed to emphasize advancements in automation, user experience and open platform. At drupa, Esko was featured with more than two dozen partners.
According to Krasnovsky, the backbone of HP’s prepress software for the Indigo labels and packaging print server is powered by Esko. “This digital front end (DFE) is used with all HP Indigo labels and packaging presses,” explains Krasnovsky. “It features a robust RIP engine, a state-of-the-art color engine to deliver accurate and repeatable colors across multiple jobs and presses, as well as a full range of prepress capabilities, such as basic preflight, step and repeat, finishing marks, color strips and smart marks. In the case of variable data printing jobs, the DFE can also be used to perform the composition. The integrated Color Engine uses an innovative, automatic refinement engine that enables simultaneous multi-color refinement, covering the full Pantone library with one click.”
HP Indigo utilizes HP SmartStream Designer for variable data printing, which features an authoring tool for Adobe Illustrator and InDesign. The HP SmartStream Designer can be easily integrated with third-party solutions like security partners to add incremental value to the applications. These solutions work in tandem with Esko Deskpack products and Esko Automation Engine. “While it is not sold by HP Indigo, it is an important part of many HP Indigo users’ ecosystems,” says Krasnovsky. “Automation Engine integrates and automates all design and prepress activities in one workflow for HP Indigo labels and packaging presses. It provides automated imposition and step-and-repeat, automated artwork creation, job organization and data management. It also provides integration with most common packaging MIS systems. Automation Engine’s bi-directional communication with the print servers simplifies job submission and eliminates errors and manual work.”
Esko’s drupa booth alone featured a comprehensive collection of integrated QA applications. Complementing technologies included a new packaging preflight module powered by Enfocus Pitstop, to Globalvision tools for quality checking, AVT support for setting up inline inspection systems, all the way to ColorCert, available from X-Rite Pantone.
“Using PitStop 13, users can perform packaging-specific preflight checks on PDF files created with Esko applications,” explains de Roeck. “When Esko PDF files are created, they include metadata that describes some of the attributes of objects and inks within the PDF file. Using this Esko-generated metadata, Enfocus has added some specific Actions and standard Action Lists that can check bar codes and inks.”
By combining platforms, users have access to customized solutions. “If you buy from a generic supplier, you get generic software that may not solve the problems in the most efficient way,” adds de Roeck. “That said, while Adobe Illustrator is the most-used software for designers, it has made a lot of sense for Esko to offer DeskPack, a series of dedicated software plugins to make Illustrator a full-fledged packaging editor.”