By Cassandra Balentine
Many packaging applications are complex by nature. Before printing and finishing, the structural elements of a three-dimensional (3D) package must be understood to ensure success. Software solutions specific to package design and proofing are a wise investment.
For example, 3D visualization tools help print providers create and prepare files to ensure proper structural execution and maintain brand consistency between different types of media.
Above: Creative Edge Software’s iC3D packaging visualization software is available in three modules.
Packaging software like 3D visualization tools allow designers, print service providers (PSPs), and customers to preview and share designs before any ink or media is consumed.
Michael Agness, executive VP, Americas, Hybrid Software, says the first step is understanding that a package is a 3D structure; not a flat two-dimensional (2D) poster. “3D visualization tools allow the designer to assure the package is correct—for example, making sure that crossovers match—and gives the brand owner an easier and faster way of approving a design.”
The ability to visualize the graphics of a digitally designed package prior to production is most beneficial when it detects flaws in the design before the production process begins. “Catching any issues with a given design is critical to minimizing both time and material costs. Additionally, the visualization can show a customer exactly what they will receive and provide a proof for job verification to send to the customer,” shares EJ Nodurft, director of sales, box and display, SA International (SAi).
“3D visualization software is a powerful instrument for reducing errors in both structural and graphic design. It saves time and money for printing and cutting samples before a prototype is cleared for production,” agrees Tsvetelina Nacheva, marketing manager, EngView Systems. Even finishing effects such as embossing, spot varnish, and lamination can be visualized in the 3D prototype, all through a browser— enabling ease of collaboration.
These tools provide an opportunity and strategic advantage in terms of meeting demands for faster turnaround times at lower costs, more SKUs and versioning, greater production flexibility, more sophisticated design effects, and product differentiation techniques. “Today’s high-speed, high-expectation consumer conditions mean that marketing creativites need to respond instantly to emerging trends. This requires that design and production decisions are made in days, not weeks, so that packaged goods are on the shelf in the appropriate retail environment, in time to capitalize on the opportunities,” comments Trevor Haworth, managing partner, Creative Edge Software.
Imma Romano, key account manager, Packly, agrees, adding that thanks to 3D visualization software, users avoid continually passing files back and forth and sending out artwork while offering a better user experience also through the ease of simple mobile access.
PSPs strive to uphold their client’s brand integrity and ensure customer appeal, all while providing customers with the most up-to-date offerings. Design and proofing are a core part of the process.
For the package printer, Haworth believes this means ensuring quality standards whatever the deadline, often with the introduction of new materials and certain print effects. “Using the best 3D visualization software enables testing of ideas and designs and gets stakeholder input continuously throughout the process without any compromise or impeding the speed of development.”
Agness says the biggest challenge is taking a concept and making it easily reproduced while still matching the idea. “How do you do this best so you can manufacture it as simply as possible? Are crossovers accurate so panels match well? Are we accidentally printing on hidden tabs?” he asks.
Printers produce packaging for objects of many sizes out of different materials with varying levels of thickness. This changes the spacing and size of the design.
Packaging professionals take many specifics into consideration when designing the structure of the packaging like type and thickness of the material, direction of the flute, and the correct overlapping of the flaps, notes Nacheva. With technological advancements, more of these specifics are implemented into the software, which helps designers eliminate errors and reduce the number of samples.
“Package design software provides the ability to start off with a pre-existing template from an industry standard catalog and then allows for certain dimensions to be entered that in turn create the shapes to be creased or cut,” explains Nodurft.
Anyone designing packaging for the first time should consider 3D visualization software. “The packaging has to be realized at a graphic level on bi-dimensional support. Graphic elements will have to then be entered on the packaging die cut level so that once folded, all the sides will not be upside down or in a position different from the one desired. 3D visualization software makes all this easier to check and manage for anyone,” comments Romano.
The other challenge is to apply the graphics to a design once the fold and cut lines are created. Nodurft says for software that is not an all-in-one design solution, this involves importing the design into a separate graphic design program to apply graphics for that design, which would then be sent to a large format printer.
For bigger jobs where multiple units are being cut, laying out multiple parts on each sheet or nesting is another challenge. “Nesting the shapes efficiently will help to reduce material costs,” shares Nodurft.
What is Driving Demand
Many printed applications are going the way of digital, as shorter turnaround times and customization demands continue to increase.
“The demand for digital package printing is driven primarily by shorter production runs, product versioning, and personalization. Wide format printers are popular as they can make efficient use of the media/substrate through the flexibility to nest items more cost effectively,” says Haworth.
Brand owners are trying to personalize their services and products as much as possible. “Digital printing and cutting ensure quick turnaround for small- and medium-volume runs of packaging production,” comments Nacheva.
Romano says what he calls the “COVID-19 effect” is driving increased demand for short runs. “Wide format printers are suitable for micro-runs or big sized boxes.”
The demand for shorter runs of more brand extensions is driven by regionalization and personalization of marketing and packaging. “There are also more, smaller brand owners that are specializing in targeted products,” offers Agness. For example, microbreweries do not need extremely large print runs. Accompanying these, often, are point of purchase materials. “Offset or flexographic printing do not make sense for these shorter packaging runs. Wide format printers are ideal for applications like six-pack beer carriers.”
Nacheva adds that the speed, price, and quality offered by modern wide format printers are now catching up with those of offset machines, making them attractive for small- and medium-sized orders.
The need for quick turnarounds contributes to the popularity of digital print in packaging. “If one day brands are sending a certain message to their audiences, the next day something turns up that consumes the public. Brands must decide between adjusting their now outdated message or coming up with an entirely different campaign. With offset printing, it used to take months to plan and produce a new packaging campaign. With digital printing, campaigns can be set in motion within a couple of weeks or even a few days,” shares Nacheva.
From the equipment side of things, Nodurft comments that a few years growth of CNC knife cutter sales resulted in more print and sign shops having the technology necessary to cut pre-printed packaging. “Once the shops have the technology, they are searching for ways they can use it to make money,” he offers.
Another factor driving the demand for digital package printing is the move to online sales for whatever the reason, but more so in this economic climate based on COVID-19. “Companies are developing online stores to help stay in business and offering customized and personalized packaging can help grow new business,” shares Nodurft.
While there is plenty of demand for packaging work well suited for wide format print providers, learning the software takes some time.
Digital packaging production involves the same kind of workflow as any other print and cut process, so the learning curve has mostly to do with learning how to use the parametric design macro of a 3D visualization software and then how to apply graphics to the job once it’s done, explains Nodurft.
Like anything, Agness says learning the software can be simple or more difficult. “While conceptually the tools are not difficult to understand, training can take one to many days depending upon the complexity of the types of structures you’re going to build.”
Nacheva believes graphic designers accustom to working with Adobe Illustrator will not need any training to start using EngView’s 3D Presenter as it integrates with Illustrator. “They can begin applying artwork over the 2D structure and visualize the packaging in 3D right away. Still, we offer one hour training to help speed up the learning process,” he shares.
For Creative Edge Software’s iC3D, Haworth notes that the company usually recommends two days of training for anyone with basic design skills to thereafter learn on the job. iC3D features a familiar artificial intelligence-style user interface and integrates with all common design programs as well as allowing import/export of production files such as CAD die lines and 3D printing files. “This ensures an intuitive user experience and a speedy familiarization process.”
Packly is a web-based software as a service application. Romano says the creation process is easy and fast. In four simple steps, anyone can get a 3D preview without installing any software—choose the box model and enter sizes, select the substrate thickness or material, download the generated die cut template, and upload the artwork file to get the preview in 3D and a shareable link.
Print Providers Consider the Cost to Implement
Before getting into packaging, understanding all of the costs involved is important, this includes both design and prepress investments.
“A print provider should look at investment risk because the software obsolescence is swift,” says Romano. “In my opinion, the product and market validation must be done before investing.” Although Packly is based on subscriptions, it is a freemium model. “Anyone can start with our Free plan that consists of three die line downloads and the generation of three custom virtual 3D models per month. The most popular is our Premium plan with 150 die line downloads and 150 custom virtual 3D models with an investment of only 147.99 Euros per month and without any constraint,” adds Romano.
A variety of products are available to allow someone to digitally design packaging to include 3D visualization, and as such there is a range of costs. “Some packaging products have a larger overall purpose and help to incorporate ordering and assembly of crates for shipping into the workflow. And there are entry-level packages as well that offer limited functionality. So, the costs to use the technology can range from tens of thousands of dollars/euros to a low monthly cost, such as SAi’s Box and Display, which can be used for $49.95 a month,” offers Nodurft.
According to Agness the pricing for 3D visualization software really depends upon the complexity of the work a company is doing and the number of seats required.
Haworth shares that for iC3D, prices start at $95 per month on subscription and go up to 12,500 Euros to buy the complete iC3D software outright.
EngView 3D Presenter is only part of the EngView packaging software that helps designers visualize 2D drawing and artwork as a realistic 3D prototype. “For the packaging producers the cost of this software is quickly returned with faster customer approval, shorter time to market, and optimized files for production,” says Nacheva.
Drivers and Hinderances
While some package printers use 3D visualization tools successfully, there are many more out there who could benefit from these capabilities.
“I suspect that for many printers the main obstacle to progress is not having the time to investigate and evaluate the options and also the risk of disrupting normal productivity. Continuing with the status quo can feel much more comfortable, until you realize the competition is ahead of you,” cautions Haworth.
Nacheva feels that most packaging producers have acknowledged the need for packaging design and 3D visualization software and are currently using such tools. However, there are always newer versions and innovations in this area, and they need to stay up-to-date to maintain the competitive advantage.
As more customers find themselves with printing and cutting technology used to produce packaging, Nodurft says many of these customers are unaware that such software options exist. “One of the biggest challenges is getting the message across that if you have the printer and cutter, there are many good packaging software options that can help you get the most out of them.”
Romano also feels that many printers offering packaging are not using 3D visualization tools because it is unknown to most of them. The demand for 3D visualization tools is driven by the added value that this tool can give to printers. “Thanks to 3D visualization software you can avoid file transfer back and forth, prevent document sending, offer a dynamic user interaction, and speed up the approvals.”
Many wide format print environments already have the equipment in house to add packaging to their production mix. However, these applications are complex to produce compared to more traditional sign work. Today’s newest 3D visualization tools are designed to adapt to the latest trends, such as browser-based viewing, which enables ease in collaboration across multiple parties. Software of this nature helps PSPs successfully produce packaging applications and maximize equipment investments.
Oct2020, Digital Output