Digital print technology and processes have been revolutionizing various fields of print production for years, and while significant digital print growth is projected to continue for many years to come, one area in which the market has been slower to adopt digital print production is labels and packaging. Some of this delay can be attributed to the limited availability of the requisite digital print technology. Many of these hardware requirements are rapidly being addressed through the introduction of new digital presses using varying imaging technologies, including dry and liquid toner, inkjet, latex, etc. However, much of the delay can also be attributed to the special requirements of the packaging market. These included special color handling; support for multiple versions, languages and roles; and specifications for an extensive range of finishing requirements.

The GWG (Ghent Workgroup) has been working on solutions to address the special needs of digital print production workflows since 2001, primarily, though not exclusively, through the development of best practice workflows based on the use of the PDF file format. Some of this work has been brought to the market in the form of the PDF/X-Plus specifications and setup files that are tailored to PDF creation and preflight for different applications. Since the goal was to create a standard exchangeable format, the first obstacle was the state of the PDF format itself at that time. PDF/X had initially been developed in 1999 to address standardized print production workflows; however, its initial focus was on publication work, and at that time packaging production wasn’t even on the radar. As the development of the PDF format and the respective PDF/X print focused versions have evolved over the years, support for many other print production requirements have been added.

While production processes for packaging, even through the use of PDF files, started to show some early promise, they were and currently still are all workflows that are proprietary to each vendor. In 2003, the GWG started working on the use of PDF and surrounding best practices for packaging production. The ambitious goal of this work was focused on creating a single ‘exchangeable standard’ PDF file that could be used for the communication of design, regulatory, and production information in one file for all types of packaging print production, including gravure, flexographic, offset and digital print. In 2006, the GWG released its first Packaging Specification, which was updated in 2012. This supports a standardized PDF file design and delivery exchange format, but only covers only a very limited set of the envisioned functionality.

It has taken the GWG until today to fully identify and develop these requirements and push most of those requirements through the various ISO (International Standards Organization) working groups to get the base PDF and PDF/X file format ready for the future of packaging production. While the ISO still has some work ahead of it to fully deliver on the requirements set out by the GWG, it is getting very close to that point. And the exciting news is that the various packaging workflow software vendors will be introducing the results of this work in their products shortly.

The work done to date to advance the PDF format in support of the GWG vision falls into three basic areas. Special Color handling with Spectral values; support for multiple versions, languages and roles; and extensive non-content and finishing standards.

Special Colors

One of the first requirements in packaging and brand management is centered around color. Whether it is Coca Cola vs. Pepsi red or IBM vs. Intel blue, color is critical for packaging production. When Adobe initially developed PDF, the color needs had not been anticipated beyond the support of CMYK, RGB, LAB and ‘named colors’ (e.g., Pantone colors). CMYK process equivalents don’t really supply a solution to the needs, and while named colors are one way of describing special color information, it really isn’t a standardized way for the needs of blind exchange in packaging production. In packaging production, the box, label, bag, etc., can be printed on various types of media across a brand or product family, including paper, poly, metallic substrates, etc., and it can be printed using offset, gravure, flexographic, digital and in many cases all of the above. Even the types of inks being used affect the color outcome. Taking all of this into consideration, there can be no argument that in packaging, color definition is critical.

When the GWG started looking at color in packaging production, it ran into one of the first limitations of the PDF format. How do you communicate these special colors in a way that meets the exchangeable standard designation and supports all of these variables? It was determined that the best way to define color was with spectral values. This would allow for the differentiation and adaptation across substrate and process exchange needs. First the GWG looked to Adobe to supply a spectral solution within PDF. The PDF format is fairly ubiquitous in digital life these days, and supports a wide range of document exchange types, but rewriting the core color handling within PDF to satisfy the needs of the packaging community was not something Adobe was willing to undertake.

As a result, in 2009 the GWG started looking at CxF (Color Exchange Format), an XML-based technology framework initially developed by X-Rite in 2002 to exchange color information. Investigation revealed that there was a way for CxF data to be embedded and referenced in a PDF file. In CxF, the spectral color information, in addition to other information about color matching, viewing conditions, etc., could be accurately communicated. This was a significant development, and the timing was fortuitous, since X-Rite was introducing CxF to the ISO for consideration as a standard. The GWG enlisted the support of the ICC (International Color Consortium) and the appropriate ISO TC130 working groups to help push this concept into a set of eventual standards. As a result, ISO 17972- Parts 1-4, was developed to support the use of CxF in production color data exchange from capture/definition through exchange.

Of course, this work will not only benefit packaging production workflows; it has a much broader application as well.

For more information on the new CxF standards, register for the FTA webinar; The New Color Exchange Format: Everything You Need to Know about ISO 17972-4.

For a deeper understanding of the GWG Packaging Workflow efforts in general, register for the Printing Industries of America Color Conference – December 6-9.

In the next article, Part 2, we will continue to look at what the future of these new exchangeable and standardized packaging workflows will look like, and take a closer look at the support for multiple versions, languages, roles and the extensive finishing needs of the growing digital packaging production market.

Remember, if you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover during the balance of this series, please let us know! Or if you are a print service provider with a unique, integrated end-to-end workflow and would like to be featured, we’d love to hear from you.

For more detail on some ways to automate and transform your workflows, download an informative whitepaper, "Automating and Optimizing a Book Production Workflow."