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. This work includes: Special Color handling with Spectral values; support for multiple versions, languages and roles; and extensive non-content and finishing standards in support of the goal of an exchangeable standard PDF file format. The good news is that there has been a great deal of development in this area, and you should be seeing, and be able to take advantage of, some of the results of this work very shortly.
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.
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.
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 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.
We already 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.
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.
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.
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.