[November 18, 2005]

Digital is now the norm

Back in the Analog Erasay 10 years agoquality, service and price summed up the top demands of end-user customers from their package-printing and converting suppliers. Today, in the Digital Era, that list is a little shorter.

Quality is a given in everything from raw materials to finished goods. ISO 9000 certification is considered the norm. Even price competition is easier to come by via the Internet, online auctions and general overcapacity in the industry.

So, it comes down to service, and digital capability is the best way converters are providing the coveted level of service that differentiates them in the marketplace. Whether it's prepress workflow (see sidebar) or the rapid production of printed labels, digital equals speed, and speed is of the essence for customers today.


Digital labels fill the billDuring HP Indigo's Worldwide Digital Label Experience held last summer in Tel Aviv, Israel, converters and other speakers hit on key demands by brand owners and told how digitally-printed labels fill the bill. Among those requirements: Labels and packages need to be more entertaining, calling for more creativity and innovation on the part of converters; more versions and brand variations are needed; as well as a shortened time to market; the capability of remote proofing; and more personalization and product differentiation. All of the above translate into digital label printing that is exemplified by shorter runs, faster changeovers, greatly diminished lead times and much improved supply-chain management.

The mass customization of packaging and labeling is about to skyrocket, according to UK-based researcher Pira Intl. (www.pira.co.uk
). Last year, only about 1 percent of the global market consisted of customized (read digital) packaging. That figure is expected to leap to 23 percent by 2012.

And to provide that production, another study shows that the installed base of digital-label presses will nearly quadruple within the next four years. Boston-based State Street Consultants (www.statestreetconsultants.com
) estimates the number of such presses in the US and Canada will grow to 860 in 2009at the expense of or while other label-print methods such as gravure, sheetfed-offset, screen and flexo decline in the number of press installations.

Clearing the hurdlesWhat must digital label printing overcome to make these forecasts a reality? There are four hurdles to clear: consistency of brand colors; the need to use primers on label substrates; consistency in abrasion tests on inks and those primers; and naturally the cost of the labels themselves.

On several fronts and through various suppliers, all these challenges are being addressed, said the HP Indigo seminar presenters. And with the establishment of a solid base for digital labels, the future remains wide open for the technology's broader application with flexible packaging and folding cartons.

What's Holding Back Digital Printing?Mark SpauldingConsistency of brand colors

Need to use primers on label substrates

Consistency in inks, coatings abrasion tests

Cost of labels

Shorewood Packaging Catches Up with Preflight SoftwareEdited by Melissa LarsonTwo years ago, New York City-based folding-carton converter Shorewood Packaging (a division of International Paper) had digital workflow nailed down. The hand-off of digital content from customer to manufacturer went fairly smoothly. Many of its customers turned to color separators and prepress suppliers to help create their digital filesusually, in TIFF/IT-P1 format. Kathleen Blakistone, director of business development for Shorewood Packaging, estimated that approximately 75 percent of the files received could be considered "prepress ready."

You might think that the figure has grown since then, as the concept of digital workflow becomes even more prevalent among Shorewood Packaging's customer base. But that hasn't been the case. In fact, Blakistone says that the number of "good files" files that are ready to process through the prepress system without any form of repairhas gone down, not up.

There are plenty of reasons behind the trend. Certainly, fewer companies are turning to professional prepress suppliers for help in making good files, and as result, fewer customers are capable of supplying Shorewood Packaging with a standardized file format such as TIFF/IT-P1.

These days, the manufacturer receives a wider array of digital file formats, including PDFs and native application files. "I would say that the files we're getting have gotten worse. It also has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of people who are creating the files aren't necessarily trained with the pressroom in mind," Blakistone remarks.

"I really feel like there's a throw-away attitude about files," Blakistone suggests. "In the old days, when you went to film, it was so expensive, you'd better be darned sure it was right."

To catch problematic files as soon as they arrive from the customer, Shorewood Packaging deploys Santa Ana, CA-based Markzware's (www.markzware.com
) FlightCheck Professional, a standalone preflight application capable of adjudicating files in an array of formats, including accredited standards and garden-variety native application files.

Running all incoming files through the application enables Shorewood's prepress team to catch any potential problemsminor or major. If fonts haven't been embedded or there's an errant RGB image, the manufacturer alerts the customer, who may choose to have Shorewood repair the file or will make the fix in-house and resubmit a new file.

Good filesthose that pass the preflight inspectionare fed into the prepress RIP and a soft PDF proof is created. Blakistone says that soft proofing is a win-win for Shorewood and its customers. Most are comfortable with the idea of approving an electronic proof, and all appreciate the turnaround times they enable.

"We like to concentrate on the value-adds we can offer our customers," Blakistone suggests. "There's a real value-add when we can use tools like soft proofing and digital asset management to deliver a job to a customer a day earlier than before."

The prepress workflow Shorewood Packaging has built is slick, by any account, but it's still not perfect, according to Blakistone, who suggests that the next technological implementation will likely be a database management solution that will help facilitate approvals, manage file revisions and better track job-ticketing information.

The company is also considering automating preflight by implementing FlightCheck Professional's Web-enabled cousin, FlightCheck Online. "We're really going to start to migrate toward a total electronic job submission and production workflow," Blakistone proudly states.

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