Editor's note: This series of articles by David L. Zwang focuses on the processes and products that can lead to the transformation of your current workflows and business to prepare you for the new challenges ahead. This series runs about once a month, with the first article having appeared in January 2013. Zwang looks at process transformation and automation, and the background and steps you need to understand to be successful. He also looks at some of the current product offerings and how they are being used by service providers, to give you ideas about how you can transform your business and strengthen your customer relationships.

There have been many new digital label and packaging presses released recently, and there are more to coming in the near future. However, these new digital presses will never reach optimal production levels or support and drive the new market requirements, without new standards and workflows. The GWG (Ghent Workgroup) has been diligently working to support this need. In part 2 of this article, we look at support for multiple versions, languages and roles; and extensive non-content and finishing best practices in support of the goal of an exchangeable standard PDF file format.

Digital label and packaging production is on the minds of a lot of equipment vendors and print service providers today. This is primarily due to the potential opportunities driven by evolving market demands. According to the recent Emerging Technologies for Packaging Innovation study, published by the Graphic Communication Institute at Cal Poly, there is good reason for this. 

According to the report, “CPGs (Consumer Product Groups) show no sign of letting up on SKU proliferation, thus exacerbating the impact of short runs on the supply chain. A quest for more product variations, sizes, tailored messaging, and promotions were all indicated as key drivers behind SKU proliferation. … CPGs also show a solid understanding of the impact of SKU proliferation on converters, the technology they use, and seek-out those that can offer a competitive edge with new technology.” In fact, the report continues, “71 percent of CPGs responded they actively seek converters/printers with emerging printing capabilities, such as digital printing.”

However, all of those involved in the packaging supply chain understand that there are challenges. Converters admit to “faster time-to-market requirements by CPGs placing stress on the existing infrastructure. … One hurdle to digital adoption is how fast print manufacturers can help CPGs approve the transition to new print processes for each and every material/packaging application. Nearly 85 percent agree that when moving from traditional methods of printing to digital, re-approval of all packaging will be required. This is an area of opportunity that technology and service providers will need to address.” 

In the rush to facilitate the changes and the new speed to market needed for production packaging processes, PDF showed some early promise, although the available solutions were, and currently are, workflows that are proprietary to each vendor. In 2003, the GWG began working on the use of PDF and the surrounding best practices required for packaging production. These included special color handling (covered in the last article); support for multiple versions, languages and roles; and specifications for an extensive range of finishing requirements discussed later in this article. The goal of this work was to create 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.

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 formats ready for the future of packaging production. While 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 starting to introduce the results of this work in their products shortly.

The last article looked at some of the new developments surrounding color identification and handling in standards and best practices around digital print production for labels and packaging. We now continue to look at two other areas that are being addressed in the work being done: Versioning, and Processing steps beyond print content. 

Versioning and production processes

Labels and packaging today increasingly requires the production of products in multiple versions. Those can include multiple language versions, targeted messaging to disparate consumer groups, products that are sold in a variety of color choices (e.g., beauty products), etc. The design tools used to create these, like Adobe Illustrator, were developed to use layers to enable the designer to work on the consistent base artwork with layers to support the versioning. This eliminates the need to use a single file for each version, especially since there are usually corrections up to the time of print on the base as well as the versions. The design tools and processes are fairly common, but after the design process it all starts to fall apart.

Once a designer’s work is finished, the processes of circulating the file for approvals, changes, prepress, die creation, etc., are now handled in a variety of non-standard ways. Using a linear process gives content owners and producers the security of having only one iteration of a file in the pipeline, although it takes a long time to work its way through that pipeline. And since all of the layers are in the file have no apparent common structure, each recipient is forced to dig through them all and to look at things that may have no relevance to their specific roles. Distributing multiple files tailored to roles, and even worse, multiple files with multiple iterations, can be faster in theory, but can open the door to mistakes.

To address this issue and the next one I will discuss, the GWG has worked with many vendors, users, and standards bodies to create a common structure to support the identification of these various layers, and to create a structure that allows for a more organized way to support user roles and interaction with the layers. Technically this is done through the use of a couple of PDF features: OCG (Optional Content Group) and OCCD (Optional Content Configuration Dictionary). These are very powerful features available in PDF, and the GWG has harnessed them to add structure to the processes. This structure, combined with the ubiquitous nature of PDF and the availability of PDF-based workflow tools, offers the potential for much more interoperable, automated and secure workflows. These best practices that were developed by the GWG to utilize these PDF features are now on track to be formalized as an ISO standard.

Processing steps beyond print content

In packaging and labels, what you see on the label or package, in many cases, is more than just print. In most cases, there is at least some varnish and perhaps a die outline. However, once you start to look deeper into the entire process, you begin to realize how much more needs to be identified and managed. Underlay colors like opaque white on foil or other flexible media; structural information beyond the die outline; and scoring, stamping, folding and gluing are all important process functions. Historically designers may have used different colors and randomly named layers to communicate this information, but as in the case of versioning, there were no standards or best practices to support this. Therefore, the existing workflow process does not support ease of use, interoperability or automation.

Other areas that extend beyond print content include global accessibility requirements for packaging which are becoming more stringent; for example Braille, which is increasingly being mandated on certain types of packaging. Additionally, as the complexity of requirements for packaging and non-packaging print processes increases with the use of security features and interactivity tools like holograms, NFC, etc., the number of inherent variables will only increase and become a more important part of packaging design and print production processes.

Next steps

The work done to date and that to be done in the future around these areas by the GWG are not only timely, they are critical to support the requirements of digital packaging and print production in the future.

Currently the GWG is working with the vendor and user members to finalize some materials for industry wide distribution and education. In addition to the GWG specifications and ISO standards work, the GWG is producing be white papers detailing how this all works. The GWG will also be tracking what products are available to support this important work. You can keep up with this on the Packaging Sub Committee page on the GWG website. As a CPG, converter, or printer, you should also contact your software and equipment vendors to see when you can begin to take advantage of this exciting and important work.

If you are interested in participating in the work that the GWG does, we welcome your involvement and membership. See the GWG membership page for more information.

More information

As a part of the educational process, Steve Carter, Senior VP of Technology at Phototype and Co-Chair of the GWG Packaging Subcommittee, will be presenting a deeper look at the GWG Packaging Workflow efforts at the Printing Industries of America Color Conference – December 6-9.

In the next article, we will continue to look at the processes and solutions that you can use to optimize your business and production workflows.

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."