By Cassandra Balentine
Packaging is an intimidating application. For print service providers (PSPs) with digital flatbed printing capabilities—especially those with corrugate signage experience—adding prototyping services expands product offerings and attracts new customers. These applications require skills and investments in design, production, and finishing. However, many PSPs are well equipped to make the move with ease.
Above: HP offers a variety of wide format inkjet printers well suited for package production.
The Packaging Opportunity
Print providers well versed in producing corrugate applications with digital wide format equipment are well poised to add rigid package prototyping services.
For PSPs already printing onto corrugate, Randy Paar, marketing manager, display graphics, Canon Solutions America, sees packaging prototypes as a natural extension of what they are currently doing. “Given the purpose of prototypes in refining a packaging concept, it can lead to more business if the prototype is approved,” he shares.
“There is a fantastic opportunity for PSPs to provide packaging prototypes on several fronts,” agrees Thomas Giglio, HP Latex large format business lead, North America, HP Inc. He adds that print quality has evolved so much that many packaging buyers have more options than ever before. “Not only can they print prototypes, but the opportunity is there to provide short runs, either for line reviews with retailers or short-run micro marketing. Color accuracy, substrate compatibility, finishing workflow, and enhanced productivity are the key drivers for this area.”
Heather Roden, strategic account manager, graphics and packaging, Zund America, Inc., cautions that while there is opportunity, it is important to be pragmatic. “Prototype work will take a lot of communication with the customer who will likely be relying on the PSP for expertise. An easier row to hoe is micro-runs or low-volume jobs where the customer has already defined the parameters.” She explains that PSPs that already own a digital cutter are likely to have tools in place that can facilitate short production runs, especially if they are already producing retail-ready displays.
Benefits and Challenges
Creating packaging prototypes and related packaging applications can be complex. However, depending on the existing equipment a PSP has, along with its specific skill set, the move may not be that difficult to make.
In addition to providing more revenue opportunity, the benefit of adding packaging and packaging prototype applications is the doors that it can open.
“It typically represents a ground floor opportunity with a brand introducing a new product or redesign of an existing package,” comments Paar. “The spin off effect of being asked to provide additional applications related to the approved prototype could potentially lead to miscellaneous point of purchase, store displays, etc.”
“Speaking generally, PSPs who can introduce new product offerings to their service lines will benefit from greater potential revenue from serving print buyers in new industry segments,” agrees Jonathan Rogers, international marketing manager, Onyx Graphics, Inc.
Keith Verkem, senior product manager, Colex Finishing Solutions, Inc., points out that adding packaging services often leads to stronger customer engagement.
Challenges are to be expected. “Prototypes may require multiple design iterations, must be perfectly produced, and the turnaround times might be tight,” notes Paar.
Finding the right software solutions to provide the feature functionality to support packaging printing, including design, workflow, and accurate color management can be a challenge. “With packaging, producing consistent and accurate color across prints is integral to successful package prototypes. In our opinion, one of the critical features PSPs may look for when choosing the right solution is color management controls. Color management controls allow PSPs to dial in their color output accuracy and consistency and helps achieve and verify conformance to standards,” says Rogers.
While packaging is an attractive growth segment, Roden points out that it has historically been a separate discipline for good reason. “If the intent is to pursue packaging as a new revenue stream, here are some questions I encourage PSPs to consider—will their new customers bring them fully designed structures with graphics and material specifications, or is this a service they want to provide? Does the potential new offering necessitate having a new staff member with structural design skills? Do they already own a CAD program? Are there color-match expectations from the final design selected to the full run? Do they need to certify it is ecommerce ready packaging or intended to be shipped in its own container?”
What to Know
There are many factors that a print provider must consider before taking on packaging applications, ranging from design and print production to finishing.
In terms of design, Paar points out that PSPs require a good understanding of the structural aspects of packaging, possibly requiring a good knowledge of packaging design software and choice of substrates and color management, particularly if dealing with corporate spot colors that need to match as close as possible.
Companies like Onyx Graphics provide software solutions for the digital inkjet wide format print industry. These tools focus on print production and include support for complete print-and-cut workflows. Rogers believes with this in mind, PSPs may wish to identify the production process that best suits their packaging workflow and then seek solutions that support this workflow. “We define workflow as adding automated actions throughout the print production process, removing manual touch points or manual errors, streamlining the overall process from design to a final product.”
Rogers says applying this to essential features means PSPs may want to look for solutions with tools that are easy to use and understand and may include functionality such as the ability to automate the application of multiple print job settings across different media or job types such as color management, die cut paths, specialty ink controls, metadata, marks to speed up job production and reduce finishing time, the ability to rotate or nest print jobs before processing in the RIP-Queue, the ability to drop files into network-shared folders that automatically pass files into the RIP-Queue, the ability to rely on the software to match corporate colors and ensure color output meets print buyer expectations and that all output is consistent over time, and connect to other applications through a JDF workflow.
For small businesses who would like to add packaging offerings, Zünd Design Center (ZDC) software incorporates predesigned packaging structures. ZDC is an Adobe Illustrator plug-in with a variety of templates that can be parametrically modified by typing in the desired dimensions. “It’s a great tool for small business to ensure they can always say yes to work without hiring a packaging engineer,” adds Roden.
When it comes to the printing process, flatbeds are well suited for prototype production. “It goes without saying that the mastery of your printer, or lack thereof, can have a big impact on the look of the final product,” comments Paar.
“The PSP needs to have printing technology that meets the standards of a successful packaging application,” suggests Giglio. Having a color gamut close to analog print is paramount to an end user. Resolving small type, UPC, and/or barcodes is also critical. “The ability to successfully create media presets drives productivity and capacity issues for the PSP.”
Giglio adds that substrate compatibility has always been an issue. “Many paper manufacturers have coatings that are brighter and more uniform, which adds to overall image quality. The advent of latex inks have also helped, with an overall ink thickness of five to eight times less than UV. Because of this, the inks allow the characteristics of the media to remain present.”
Finishing is a critical part of effective package prototype production. The good news is that the digital cutting process for corrugated packaging is quite similar to display work. “The staff is likely adept at working from the back side of prints, and the material is fairly forgiving in terms of performance,” offers Roden.
With the right cutter, PSPs have the versatility to supply prototyping along with many other applications. “Having a device with this versatility allows customers to pivot their businesses into many markets,” says Verkem.
Many similarities and best practices are carried over from corrugate signage to package prototyping.
“Flatbed operators can be at times challenged as corrugated and package prototyping requires good process control—from preparation of the media, media handling, and constant image quality. Managing different lots of materials, substrate condition, and maintaining color consistency is inherent with flatbed printing,” says Giglio.
Paar points out that in addition to a drag knife, packaging applications often require creasing as well as a production person with some degree of knowledge and skill. They must understand creasing wheel choices such as diameter, width, and pressure settings as it relates to the type of corrugate being creased, plus the impact of the flute direction on the functionality of the final piece.
Tips and Tricks
While the move to packaging can be challenging, it also has the potential to be fruitful. Some tips and tricks help ease the process.
Rogers sees a number of traditional and digital channels to choose from when marketing new products or services. “These may differ on customer type, business size, and location. A good first step may be to offer the service to existing customers.”
Networking with packaging providers without their own digital equipment is also a smart move. “Their business model likely won’t accommodate added order volume and preflighting, areas in which a PSP specializes and therefore presents an ideal outsourcing partner. Stick to a ‘learn to walk before you can run’ strategy,” suggests Roden.
Verkem agrees that the best place to start is with your current customers. “There is a good chance they are already doing this with someone,” he notes.
Contact designers that specialize in packaging and ask how they produce prototypes today. “Chances are they make them by hand gluing roll-to-roll inkjet prints down onto corrugate or paperboard and then hand cutting and creasing them. It’s time consuming and often results in an inferior result,” shares Paar.
Giglio says to focus on sustainability both in materials and inks. “Major brand owners are mandating sustainable solutions. As they expand branding and SKUs, align yourself with technology that serves their needs,” he offers.
Automating manual actions and producing consistent output is helpful for packaging production. “The ability to produce consistent color across prints is integral to packaging output looking the same for each piece of the final finished packaging product,” recommends Rogers.
From Corrugate to Packaging
Making the move to packaging prototypes and short runs can be a lucrative option for print providers that regularly print and finish corrugate work. However, it can be a complex decision. Starting small through an analog partner or existing clients is a great first step.
May2021, Digital Output