In a worse case scenario some converters will not have ever undertaken any pre-press before and will therefore be entering into an area where they really have very little expertise, because prior to investing in a digital press they were outsourcing pre-press from a trade shop, getting trade prices from them, working with the service provided and the prices given. With digital printing however, it becomes a totally different ball game.
Digital pre-press must be in the control of the converter. In addition to the pre-press being ready, the next question is ‘Is the organization ready?’
Selling digital labels and printed packaging may not be quite the same as selling conventional labels and printed packaging. What is the interaction between the two? If a label converter is a flexo house, and now starts to produce extremely good quality on a digital press – indeed, maybe better quality than the analog flexo that they were running before – how does that influence the business? Historically, quite a few converters have failed to answer such questions, even when the press has already arrived on the press floor. Outsourcing pre-press no longer becomes an option with digital printing.
The challenges presented with pre-press and digital print won’t go away. There are some things that have to be done with digital presses.
Sometimes it’s not quite a fully digital process; sometimes it’s a hybrid operation. That’s also true on the front end where printer/converters haven’t yet entered a stage where they can fully automate their production, either to flexo or to digital. It is also necessary to take into account that 80 percent of the jobs that are run on a digital press are predominately re-runs and that, depending on the run length, jobs may be run flexo/conventional or digital, going back and forth – all of which means there are a number of pre-press considerations that converters really have to automate in order to take full advantage of the digital opportunity.
Color control is definitely a key element in the success of digital printing, not just CYMK, but also very much spot color, more often today referred to as brand color (a term that relates more to the value of color management than the term ‘spot color’, which is rather a technical term). There is little doubt that getting color right the first time and every time brings substantial savings across the entire print and packaging value chain.
Pre-press really is a main focus to having the fast turnarounds that digital printing offers. The press can do what it can; there’s brilliant technology out there, but if the converter hasn’t got pre-press sorted it can provide a number of challenges. Pre-press must support fast job turnaround, while unsuitable pre-press set-ups will jeopardize production and performance.
From the print-buyer point of view there are also a number of value drivers to using digital printing. These can be seen in the table below. Ensuring quality and compliance is very important. Taking cost out of the process obviously. Reduced lead times and accelerated time to market so that products can enter the market quicker, as well as offering all sorts of value added services (the converter just delivering a label or printed carton or film is pretty much part of the past).
Value added services include zero, reduced or exact inventory, improved supply chain management, event, cause and regional marketing, a lower total systems cost and just-in-time manufacture. There is little doubt that converters today have to change their service model according to all these new requirements from the various players within the supply chain. And of course expand the scope of their business.
Very instrumental in achieving these value drivers is having an end-to-end supply chain integrated solution and making sure on the other side that all of the players within the supply chain do talk to each other and collaborate, preferably online so that costly breaks between communication are eliminated.
Today we have a world wide web which is very efficient and there are many things that converters can automate with their partners, with customers, and enter into a collaboration with them. Increasingly, customers or suppliers – that may be brand owners, co-packers or origination houses – are being encouraged to upload artwork/origination files through a ‘Cloud’ based internet service. These files can then be downloaded by the converter as required.
It is therefore essential to look at a few things that can be done today to get rid of the headaches in printing, both printing in general, and more specifically in digital printing. So what are the main pre-press strategies for profitable digital label and package printing? These can be seen in the table above.
‘Brand equity’ is very, very important for the label buyer. Accurate reproduction of brand colors, regardless of the print process and substrate is of high value for the brand owner. So is the need to ‘Communicate Print’; entering into communication with customers (print buyers), with suppliers, or with people in your own organization or maybe from a different location. There are also many forms of automation possible.
Postpone the decision on whether or not a job will go digital or conventional as late as possible in the production process. Reduce errors i.e. eliminate as many interactive operator steps as possible, and also (and this is something that a lot of converters don’t take into account)
DO NOT make a second copy of a job if that job is switched to digital. If you do, this doubles up the copies of a job and opens the door wide for errors.
Then there is waste reduction; business expansion; expansion of services offered to the customer; and of course last but not least, unattended digital printing and die-less converting. And, of course, the thing that everybody wants: maximizing press uptime to print as many jobs as possible each day. So, these strategies are now examined in more detail below.
Brand equity is key. Color management is assumed here. Converters often say ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got my profile, I’m referring to my Pantone 485’.
But what on earth is Pantone 485? And what on earth for example, is Pantone 485 in a 50% breakdown, and what is 485 if it overprints some combination of CMYK on a conventional press? Or what is Pantone 485 when it is printed on a clear film substrate? What if the converter suddenly wants to take that over to a digital press? What does that do? What are the implications of all that?
That is not to say that ICC really is not the right platform. It certainly is a great starter to use, however there are limitations. The biggest limitation it has is that it doesn’t really take into account spectral values of color. Converters often DO NOT measure to the extent that they should and thus there is a saying ‘measuring is knowing’. The key to having a good start with digital printing is to measure everything that you have; digitize as much as possible, everything that you use in the converting environment. Certainly profile the presses, but also get spectral information from the spot colors that are being referenced.
Holding a Pantone book in the hand is probably not good enough for most applications. And if the printer/converter doesn’t want to do that, then it may be necessary to totally change the way the business operates. There are of course some brilliant examples of where converters say ‘We work in CMYK and that works for us, and we tell customers what they can expect’. Certainly, if you know what you can expect; if you know what you can and cannot do, or what you want to do and don’t want to do, that’s equally brilliant. But in a lot of cases there’s quite a lot of grey area.
So, if color management is not in place for digital printing, many converters will be wasting material and doing trial and error on the press. In conventional printing, press operators effectively like tweaking presses and in doing so, they were capable of adjusting color to quite a large extent, even to the point of saving jobs from the waste container. However, with less skilled press operators on the market, and with digital presses not really allowing much tweaking on the press, label print production has to move towards a standardized workflow. Individual tweaking of a press will introduce a lot of inconsistencies and potential errors, and a lot of waste will occur as a result.
Another important thing is: if customers don’t know what they can expect they are not necessarily going to be in their comfort zone. The last thing a printer/converter wants to see happening is for a customer to walk away because he’s not getting what he expected. If a customer is in doubt they will probably go back to conventional printing – even though the run length is prohibitive for conventional printing.
Everybody loses in that equation because the converter is not using the press optimally and there’s a huge opportunity just left behind. Ultimately, digital printing is not then being used for what, initially, most people buy a digital press for – which is short runs on a digital press, long runs on a conventional press.
The key to being able to do that, or the key to predictability at least, or consistency and repeatability, is to begin with color management. This gives particular benefits to having a color system set up. So the key is – build up your database. It’s not easy; there’s a lot of work that has to be done before it's there. But the best analogy is: if you’re painting a room, what takes most time? Painting or preparing to paint? – It’s preparing to paint.
Color management is no different. Everything has to be measured. There is a need to profile (spot) inks, substrates and devices, all collected in a central and integrated color database.
Some colors are measured into the system by a spectrophotometer, and the colors may be perfectly within gamut but visually not appear correct – so tweak the color. But don’t make the major mistake of tweaking on the press too much if it’s a spot color; if its wrong to begin with don’t tweak it in the pre-press, tweak it in the database. Make sure the database is exactly what you want it to be. Some colors are unfortunately out of gamut, so it will not be possible to reproduce them. A color management system will at least be able to tell the label or package printing converter that they shouldn’t waste time trying to tweak the press to reproduce it if it cannot be done.
A final point here – which isn’t necessarily related to color as such – is simulating flexo or conventional press behaviour. Converters may say ‘I have a digital press which delivers brilliant quality’, so it’s fantastic.
But there’s another side to that coin which is: previously in conventional flexo, offset or gravure they may not have achieved that same brilliant quality. Now, all of a sudden if the job goes digital the quality is different or maybe much better.
If the converter is not prepared for that the customer may decide that that’s all he wants and he’s not going to pay any extra for it. A further challenge is that both the conventional and digital products could end up side by side on the retail shelf (see Figure 5.1 and 5.2). These eventualities have to be taken into account; color is one thing; press behaviour is another.
Customer value drivers
Figure 5.1 - Both conventional and digital products could end up side-by-side on the shelf so they need to match. Illustration courtesy of Esko
Figure 5.2 - Illustration shows a realistic 3D mock-up on screen of a label design courtesy of Esko
Digital printing is not just about a press, or a finishing system. There are many elements to achieving good results. There are ink/toner suppliers, there are substrate suppliers, there are many different players. Each of these players will hold some key to quality results, or at least have know-how about a certain area. Other suppliers have know-how in other areas. The way forward with digital printing is to get everybody together: form a partnership with them. Involve the ink/toner suppliers, involve the material suppliers, and the pre-press equipment suppliers.
Technology today, such as the software application ‘Esko Studio Visualizer’, enables the digital label or package printing converter to digitally communicate print as realistically as possible. It can eliminate, possibly, some of the mock-ups that might normally be required because many different variations can be made on screen to look at, and the best result is undertaken. For each and every variation it is possible to see what effect it will have before production. This is a very important way to move forward and to not lose time in making mock-ups or dummies.
Esko Studio technology carries libraries with substrate and finish characteristics to save converters a massive amount of time, allowing them to communicate accurately the would-be print result, and therefore manage customer expectations and avoid frustration.
Pre-press production automation, coupled with business automation, is the key to maintaining profit levels in both digital and conventional printing. While pre-press may be simpler for digital, it does need to be automated using an in-house developed software capability or through the use of one of the currently available MIS software packages, such as LabelTraxx, CERM or EFI Radius.
With digital largely being about fulfilling short runs, this in turn creates more small orders to fill press capacity. More small orders and the number of unique SKUs that the label or package printing converter needs to deal with then means more estimating, more order entry and more administration – and the potential for more pre-press production bottlenecks, from the duplication of information going to pre-press, more proofing activities, managing multiple versions, the storing of specifications for many more products, the requirement for cost-efficient layout and submission of items going to press, and scheduling pressures. There is also the requirement to integrate JDF with digital press front ends.
In short the whole pre-press process becomes dramatically altered once digital is introduced into the printing plant. Instead of the printer focussing on color separations, plate preparation, trapping, etc, the whole administration and production process becomes an intensive file processing function with many more artwork files than the converter is normally used to dealing with in conventional printing. This key difference in approach has undoubtedly caught many printers out when moving to digital. Quite simply, they fail to understand (or prepare for) a fundamental shift to an entirely new pre-press workflow and the associated increase in volumes.
A key message for all label and package printers moving into digital printing technology is to automate production and integrate pre-press with business systems so as to be able to cope with lots of short-run orders, changing job requirements, production flexibility and quick re-runs. This will enable profit levels for both digital and conventional printing to be maintained.
It is interesting to see that as a part of the latest HP SmartStream Solution Partner program, theurer.com shows the results of a JDF/JMF integration project between its C3 MIS, the HP Indigo Digital Front End (DFE) and HP SmartStream Labels and Packaging Print Server, powered by Esko.
This project enables the fully automatic transfer of jobs from theurer.com C3 to the DFE, where they are ready for printing, so eliminating the need for any manual processing. Along with the color strategy, ink set, PDF file, HP Indigo material, and finishing marks, the layout for the dies are defined using the optimal width and repeat length of the HP Indigo WS6600 Digital Press.
Undoubtedly, digital workflow automation will continue to develop and become an increasingly integral part of the whole digital label and package printing process – from initial order entry through to despatch and invoicing.
POSTPONEMENT – GOING ANALOG OR DIGITAL
Recent studies have shown that most label (or packaging) converters having one or more digital presses will also have conventional analog presses, which makes it very important that they are able to postpone the decision to go one way or another until the very last moment. It could be that if a customer rings up and says ‘I need many more copies’ then you may need to quickly switch from digital to, say, flexo.
This is a key capability that with one button the label or package printing converter can instantly go one way or the other at the latest possible stage in the production process.
The target aim should be to drive, say, flexo press quality up to digital quality to comfortably switch between flexo and digital as run lengths and production demands require. Being able to switch from conventional to digital, or vice versa, at the last minute offers significant benefits to both the printer and the brand owner: again, business automation is the key to profitable digital printing.
Benefits for the converter
Lower cost of printing by using digital for all short run jobs
Moving jobs between conventional and digital without compromising quality and color accuracy
Benefits for the Brand Owner
Quality and brand consistency across printing techniques
More flexibility managing the supply chain
COLOR MANAGEMENT – FASTER WITHOUT ERRORS
A key element that the converter will have to have in order to do this is a color database that is equipped up, or rather ‘populated’ with, all the necessary information that enables them to go to the digital press fully automated. They should know exactly what they will get. The only difference then between conventional and digital printing is really a step and repeat scheme. But that can also be fully automated.
So the color management system should automate everything. Duplicates should not be made. For example, if an image contains a spot color then in a table of spot colors, X will equal a combination of CMYK. But this is really not going to do the job. The converter needs to go beyond simple tables. If that is not possible it results in making a copy of the job which has an image which doesn’t contain the spot color any more. The spot color is unlikely to be on the digital press. But if a copy is made it opens the door to errors. Everything is being done twice and consistency may be jeopardised.
Remember these key points:
No time should be spent in pre-press for job make-ready for digital
No file duplication should be undertaken
The choice of conventional or digital printing is defined by run length
Do not make decisions too early – to the detriment of profit
LESS WASTE, MORE JOBS, MORE PROFIT
Color management is really more than just about color. It is mission critical in order to make the most of a digital press. Stay away from the press itself. Get the database set up; make sure the color can be achieved fast on the press – which reduces trial and error on the press. This will result in less waste; more uptime as a result; more jobs as a result; more profit as a result. It sounds very simple, but the converter has to be equipped with the right tools to do that.
Digital printing shouldn’t be any different to conventional printing. There are similar challenges. Certainly it is different, but the prevue is also different from flexo or offset; it’s just another printing process that people take advantage of for the quality that it has.
EFFICIENCY IN SHORT-RUN PRODUCTION
One of the key benefits of some of the digital printing processes is the ability to batch and print labels or packs of different run lengths and repeat lengths alongside each other to maximize both productivity and substrate. This can be seen in the illustration below.
This flexibility in job layout and submission, and the ability to gang versions across the web, is another piece of the pre-press function in a digital environment, but frequently a function which is either misunderstood or poorly implemented. Yet, for a typical multiple version order on, say, a 330 mm (13”) wide web, it will probably always make economic sense to print different SKU versions across the web and thereby optimize the finishing stage of the digital production process.
Figure 5.3 - It’s important that the label or package printer can switch from analog to digital at the latest possible production stage
Although this sounds easy, the job layout function can nevertheless be both quite complex and time-consuming, especially when quantities vary between versions (as shown in Figure 5.4). It certainly needs to be done with care in order to achieve the optimum result.
Figure 5.4 - The aim should be to automate and integrate the administrative and pre-press processes to maximise market potential and profitability
However, this will almost certainly be something quite new for most converters and will need to be recognized as yet another step in the new workflow.
Fortunately, a number of the leading MIS and digital press vendors have addressed these challenges and have introduced software that semi-automates the job layout as part of their workflow software – which both saves the label and package printer job time and eliminates potential costly errors. For some of the leading digital converters these stages start with the initial job set-up, including job specs and file names. File names, and all file planning, needs to be defined correctly up front if the printer/converter wants maximum production efficiency. It’s also important to fill the print frame properly on the digital press.
To be able to batch jobs of different run lengths and repeat lengths requires the digital press to not have a fixed repeat length (as would be found on most conventional presses). This facility is found with inkjet printing and with the Xeikon presses. This can be seen in Figure 5.5.
Figure 5.5 - Illustration shows a Xeikon press running different label width and length jobs across and along the web
If this facility is then combined with a laser die-cutting/finishing line, then the printed products can also be die-cut, finished and slit to individual label widths in one press pass, so offering maximum flexibility and efficiency for multiple short-run jobs.
DIGITAL – EXPANDING THE BUSINESS
Expanding the label or package printer’s business is something else. Variable data may not be where it is expected. It is uniquely digital. But in reality today some 99 per cent of label converters buy a digital press to do short runs. As digital package printing develops that will undoubtedly be the same. That certainly restores the balance between conventional versus digital and run length. However, converters are also looking for other opportunities. And the next opportunity may be variable data.
The digital press is already there; the converter is used to working with it. It is then all about selling the unique value-add products that digital print offers, about organizing the business (sales and marketing) to take variable data work, to develop end-use applications for variable data jobs, together with customers who may be interested in variable data. It’s more like a re-organisation of the company rather than implementing different pieces of software.
There are many different variable data solutions out there. Most of them originate and live and breathe in a commercial print space. In packaging and labels however, there aren’t that many. There are several reasons for this:
Firstly, digital print, like most areas in packaging and labeling, is running a little bit later than commercial print.
Secondly, digital print in packaging and labeling is still predominately about short runs.
Thirdly, a label or printed pack is not the end-product. It is only a half-product that has to fulfil a specific role in a, sometimes complex, consumer product supply chain. If the rest of the supply chain is not organized to handle individualised or personalised products, then variable data printing is nice, but defeats the purpose completely
So the variable data jobs are really down to a couple of things. Personalisation is not really that interesting, it's really about individual bar codes, individual numbering, more than anything else.
One of the things that has been missing in the past was an integrated platform to manage instant data variability of the individual labels. There are many different standalone applications, in Adobe InDesign, in Quark, in so many different other applications. The one that is necessary for the label and package printer is Adobe Illustrator. Illustrator is the platform of choice in the packaging and label market. So Esko have implemented a variable data solution with Adobe Illustrator as a host application, but entirely integrated in the rest of the workflow, from design to press. A simple example of a couple of bar codes, data matrixes, and some text changes are shown in Figure 5.6. But even that is already quite an exotic example for the label market.
Figure 5.6 - Illustration above shows an example of variable data printing courtesy of Esko
DIGITAL CONVERTING – UNATTENDED PRINTING AND DIE-LESS FINISHING
The great majority of installed die-cutting machines today are still analog technology and are not digital when used in- or off-line with a digital press.
However, fully automated, unattended digital production lines incorporating digital (laser) finishing – both for label and carton production – have been developed and are now available from at least seven companies. A later chapter will discuss conventional and digital finishing in more detail.
Having software in the pre-press that enables the splitting of graphics (graphics, including a bar code or other type of re-registration mark) to the press, and non-printing contours to a die-less finishing device enables the press to print the job and print the barcode/registration mark; the finishing device reads the barcode/registration mark, and reads the correct die-cutting information. That’s a real digital line.
Digital finishing lines (both for labels and, more recently, folding cartons) have developed rapidly over the past six years or so and there are now a number of different makes and models available. Most of the earlier limitations of laser cutting have been overcome and machines can now provide viable cost-effective solutions for many end-use applications, whether die-cutting paper, board, film or metallized substrates.
Workflow solutions to integrate printing and laser cutting, re-register if off-line or incorporate laser etching of sequential number and codes during the cutting operation are now available. Indeed, the capability was introduced by Esko as far back as 2005 when it was added to their JDF standard.
If converters adopt a fully digital finishing line then they are ready for completely digital production from web to finished print. Totally unattended production then becomes a reality. Chapter 8 of this publication reviews the benefits of digital laser finishing and the key technologies available.