Uncovering Packaging’s Potential

Looking for growth in the new year? Have you ever considered packaging and package prototyping? According to I.T. Strategies, an organization providing vision and insight for emerging digital print markets, packaging growth rates average three percent a year, and total output product value stands in the range of $290 billion a year worldwide. Obviously, the market for packaging, and by association package prototypes, is enormous and growing steadily larger.

This could mean substantial new business opportunity for print providers seeking a chance to expand into package prototyping or the provision of high-quality, quick-turnaround, low-volume, and on-demand package production.

Before you get too wrapped up in the possibilities, however, keep in mind that this niche is not one you can leap into and expect to enjoy immediate success. There’s a steep learning curve involved, steep enough to make it wise for print providers to hire rather than trying to develop expertise in-house.            

That’s the view of two veterans of packaging and package prototyping, VT Group president Robert Mormile and Wynalda Litho pre-press color specialist Steve Coy, who both stress the difficulty of rapidly mastering this segment.

“They have to know what they’re doing in packaging,” said Mormile, whose 45-year-old Yeadon, PA-based VT Group includes VT Graphics, a flexographic printing plates manufacturing operation; Digital Impact, a provider of wide-format digital printing and dye cutting; and Ocean Design Group, a designer responsible for designing everything from corporate branding to packaging.

“Packaging is a very unique animal. You have to understand how corrugated works, and understand how there are allowances in package design for corrugated. When we produce our prototypes, we make them press-ready in case they’re approved and need to be produced in quantities of 5,000 to 25,000.”

It‘s not just a matter of outputting a four-color process file, Mormile added. “You have to convert the file to make it press-ready with proper traps, bleeds and color corrections,” he says. “If you don‘t do that, you‘re setting yourself up for failure. The client will say go to press, but you can‘t go to press without changing the design to accommodate the traps and so on. It‘s not as easy as pressing a button and coming out with a prototype. You have to make sure the end user customer and manufacturer can use the prototype to make the end product.”

What’s more, because the structure is just as important as the graphics, it’s essential to have on staff professionals who can design the package to fit the product that it will house, while remaining mindful of the structural standards required by such major retailers like Wal-Mart, Target or Costco.

“You have two different individuals working on the project: a CAD or structural designer, and a creative designer for the graphics,” Mormile said.


Offsetting Print Capabilities

Another print provider that has successfully served the distinctive packaging and package prototype market for several decades is Wynalda Litho Inc. Founded in 1970 and based in Belmont, MI, Wynalda Litho produces multitudes of VHS and DVD packs. “We do extensive work for the entertainment industry,” says pre-press color specialist Coy. “We need to provide our clients with high quality, accurate prototypes that really demonstrate our concept.”

Other industries served by Wynalda Litho include pharmaceuticals, health care, food manufacturing, software development, household good manufacturing, media operations and industrial manufacturing, Coy said.

Wynalda Litho uses offset presses for longer print runs, but employs a recently-acquired Roland VersaUV LEC-300 30-inch UV inkjet printer/cutter to create its prototypes. That’s a break from the past, which saw Wynalda using its final proof machine for prototype production. “Running prototypes on our final proof equipment was very expensive, both in terms of operating the machines, and the cost of the specialized media,” Coy explained. “The VersaUV lets us print directly on foil stocks and plastic media. It’s paid for itself quite rapidly.”

Significantly, the VersaUV also has the ability to print in white ink on foil stock, which has proven a critical capability for Wynalda Litho, Coy said.

“A lot of our packaging for the entertainment industry is designed to be run on foil,” he observed, adding that before the VersaUV came along, his company had no means of simulating UV spot coating on its prototypes. Demonstrating spot UV coating makes prototypes look far more like finished products, Coy said.

The VersaUV is also used to create proofs on substrates that can’t be run on Wynalda Litho’s other proofing equipment. “The VersaUV accepts such a wide range of media it can perform a variety of functions,” he said.

The process works this way. After receiving a work order for a prototype, Wynalda Litho creates a couple of ideas or variations on an idea, cuts the graphics and folds the result into prototype packages a client can actually hold.

“Within days, we will know if they did or did not like it,” Coy said. “If they don’t like it, you go back and give them more ideas for their product packaging.

“If they give the approval, they will then usually create a final file for us to print from. Then we will possibly do more proofing on other digital dot proofers. After that, we would be set to go to press.”

An offset press is used for all printing of packaging, he adds. Plates are made digitally for the offset press, but the printing is all analog, chiefly because of the size limitations inherent in digital printing. A big issue in packaging is costly waste, and the larger press available with offset printing makes it possible to fit more packages on a single sheet, minimizing waste, Coy said.

A print run may yield anything from 5,000 to millions of packages, which then go through a dye cutter machine to be cut and scored. The next step is a gluer, which folds up the package, and places glue on the glue flap.

The package ships in its folded configuration to the client, where it is popped open to be filled with product.


Avoiding Packaging’s Pitfalls

Precision is essential in the packaging field, Coy said. Echoing Mormile, he points out that the all-important package structure is as crucial as the design.

“There are a lot of package design issues you need to be aware of,” he said. “The package must run not only through your own production machines, but through the fulfillment devices used by your customer to insert its product. The design must take into account the manufacturing and fulfillment processes.”

In addition, consistency throughout a print run is imperative in packaging, because two packages of the same product sitting side by side on supermarket, pharmacy or electronics store shelves can’t look different from one another, Coy said. Devices that can be used to analyze color as sheets come out of the press are employed throughout the run to help ensure consistency, he explained.

“They need the right experienced people that understand a lot of those different processes, whether printing, dye cutting or gluing,” Coy observed. “It would make sense to hire that expertise, rather than trying to train.”

As we said at the outset, it may be possible for print providers to jump into “low-volume, on-demand” printing of packaging. But some clients still may have to be educated to that potential.

Mormile reported that as a package prototyper and short-run production house, his company has spent years trying to convince customers of the notion it not only can prototype one to 10 samples, but can also handle short-run production of from 250 to 1,000 packages or 1,000 to 2,000 point-of-purchase display headers, and do that short-run production more cheaply via digital printing than with by using traditional tooling, dye cuts, and printing plates.

If a client is spending $12,000 in tooling, the higher the print run, the less expensive each piece is, Mormile reported. “But at lower quantities, it very well may be more cost effective to do it digitally,” he added.

Both Mormile and Coy stress any print provider entering the field should carefully manage its expectations. They should start as package prototypers before moving into longer runs, where the money is, Mormile said. “Packaging has been around for years,” he added. “It’s not a field you can just fall into.”

As for Coy, he believes the best bet might be to start by printing packages for products that are packaged by hand, not by means of an automated fulfillment device. “It would be hard for you to jump right into packaging,” he said.