Anyone who says that “print is dead” obviously is not a consumer of packaged goods. Whether the package is completely produced from paper, or it has a printed insert, packaging will remain a viable source for the printed product. I think most of us perceive packaging as the cereal box, or the box that holds the new external drive we bought at Costco. Perhaps we are the type of print snobs who like to look at packaging and try to determine the manufacturing process of that package (I will confess that I am such a print snob). Regardless, print and packaging are here to stay. And the big package manufacturers are still ramping up staffing and investing in equipment to meet the demands of the consumer market. You may order something online, but it still will come in a package, because packaging is how a company extends its brand and brand message.
But packaging doesn’t start with the big 2 million run. Often packaging – particularly for the pharmaceutical industry – starts with small conceptual packages. They look for how their product will fit into a package, whether it’s easy to remove or TOO easy to remove. They go through concept after concept, prototype after prototype, until they reach that final package that fits the product and their brand message. Often the large packaging firms have this service as part of the development process. But a wise printer, who might already have a client or clients that manufacture consumer goods, might determine that they can create a value-added service with those clients, and place themselves as part of the overall marketing concept for those same clients. It takes three things to make it in this short run packaging field, and here they are:
Digital press with large sheet capacity or large format press
The three big players in digital printing presses are HP (Indigo), Xerox (iGen) and Kodak (Nexpress). Most printers either have one or more of those on their floor, or have access to a service provider that does. The Indigo has limitations with sheet size, and since many sheet-fed die cutters (Bobst for instance) require a certain minimum size, the Indigo is not the best solution for short-run packaging. Both the NexPress 3300 and the iGen 4 offer a 14 x 26″ sheet size, and can handle up to 350gsm, or close to 16 pt board. If the client wants a heavier weight stock, like 24 pt, you can image to a book weight sheet and mount it to the board. Large format presses offer the capability to run larger sheets and on thicker boards, with the same quality as litho and digital. In either case, having the device on the floor, or access to such devices, allows for you to print what you need for the manufacturing process.
CAD cutter or die cutter
For many of the short run packaging applications, having a CAD cutter is a wise investment. In creating the prototypes it cuts down (no pun intended) on the amount of time required by the operator or structural engineer to create 2-3 prototypes (or more). A CAD table runs on software that takes an Illustrator file and translates it to a CAD file for cutting the substrate. The advantage is that you can do the prototypes on job stock, and modify as you go along, allowing for the thickness of the board, with folds, slits, and tabs all precisely manufactured. The client can take that Illustrator file, import it into InDesign, and layout the art to match the dieline precisely. The other advantage to a CAD table is that if the run is truly short – say 10 packages only – you can save considerable time and cost by not having to manufacture a die and run it on the die cutter. However, if the client is looking for something to use as a prototype that is printed, and wants a run of say 100 or 200, then the cost of the die and a simple die-cutting job is the preferred method of manufacturing the piece.
The person doing all of this – the Structural Engineer
The final, and perhaps most crucial element of short-run packaging, is the Structural Engineer. This person has to possess the knowledge of paper and board substrates and how they “fit” together. They need to be able to determine how each panel of the package needs to be slightly larger (or smaller) to accommodate the thickness of the paper or board that is being folded into it, or inserted into it. A basic knowledge of Adobe Illustrator is vital. Patience and an attention to detail are vital attributes of such an individual. The willingness to be innovative, imaginative, and think “outside the box” (pun intended) are strong skills, since often the person will need to think of new ways to create the package, modify something done, or even start it from scratch. Finally, they need to be a person that has good communication skills, since they often will need to be able to interpret concepts into a three-dimensional design, and they need to ask the questions that will enable them to understand the client’s concept fully.
The printer who adds this service can find it a great way to introduce that value in the relationship and perhaps make themselves indispensable to the client. Granted, the capital investment could be substantial, but the rewards, and the chance to gain a foothold with a client, can bring a good return on investment