Digital Magazine

From Concept to Completion

Harnessing the improved processing power of today's Macs and PCs, packaging software developers now are offering high-performance plug-ins for the industry's most popular desktop illustration and layout programs. These plug-ins provide the packaging-specific functionality needed to extend the practical limits of programs such as Adobe Illustrator. They also make it possible to design standardized workflows where packaging data can be shared and saved in a single, common file format all the way from concept to completion.

The Evolution of Prepress Workflows
From the advent of the very first electronic film output device, the printing industry has been undergoing a remarkable transformation from an esthetic human craft to a highly automated, computer-dependent manufacturing system.

Some applications have evolved faster than others. As in the natural world, where entities with the greatest environmental pressures change the fastest, so too in the printing world. Content-intensive applications such as newspaper, magazine, and catalog publishing are stressed by demands to deliver print information faster and cheaper. Not surprisingly commercial printers were among the first to adapt to all-electronic production, and as a result of their longevity in the digital domain, they boast the most progressive and elegant workflows for reproducing print media.

The packaging industry has followed close behind our commercial printing relatives, but at certain junctures we've taken a different evolutionary path. For one reason, packaging production has an order of magnitude more variables (substrates, inks, print processes, finishing, etc.) that make it fundamentally more difficult for us to standardize production methods.

In addition, packaging is a relatively small market for consumer software developers and has not had the “consumer clout” to influence the development of universal desktop editing programs such as Adobe Illustrator, QuarkXpress, and Photoshop. Instead, we have our own workflows based on unique technologies from prepress equipment vendors that specialize in the packaging industry. Our dedicated equipment historically has been higher performance, but it is also inherently more “closed” and proprietary than desktop workflows.

Until recently, our customized workflows haven't adversely affected our ability to serve our marketplace. However, new market drivers are emerging that dictate the adoption of more open processes. These drivers include the consolidation of the supply chain, the ever-increasing need to repurpose graphics for non-print media, the commoditizing of packaging, the preference for a common data format, and the desire to link graphics systems to other print-manufacturing systems for greater levels of automation.

Fortunately, technology is pacing with these new trends, and we have a host of innovations helping us re-invent our workflows. The concept presented here is the use of “plug-ins,” or software programs that work within other programs to supplement their functionality. This model demonstrates that high-end packaging prepress can be performed on low-cost, widely available equipment with a large workforce of skilled operators. The model is based on a “never convert/always link” concept, which means packaging graphic data can remain in its original design format as it progresses through the manufacturing cycle. Both characteristics of the model have profound implications on our ability to meet the demands of today's evolving marketplace.

High-Performance Trapping
Trapping color areas to compensate for press registration tolerances has been notoriously difficult (often impossible) from desktop programs. Automated trapping tools designed for commercial printing rarely are adequate for packaging applications due to the shapes of various packaging constructions, the wide range of package printing press tolerances, the practice of using special ink colors, and the sheer physical size of many packaging files. Specially developed packaging programs on beefed-up workstations and servers do the job but almost always require the “conversion” of the native design file format to a proprietary file format.

Let's examine the process of trapping a packaging job using a high-performance plug-in to Adobe Illustrator whereby we can preserve the integrity of the original design file format. Our system consists of two typical Macintosh (or Windows) workstations configured for graphic production and connected to a Windows 2000 server.

At the workstation, the operator launches the trapping plug-in from Illustrator and defines the trapping instructions for a job — either by selecting an existing “trapping ticket” or by entering new values in the menus.

When the operator gives the command to begin trapping, the plug-in “locks” the job to prevent further editing and notifies the server. The server collects the instructions from the plug-in (step 2) and traps the job (step 3). At this point, the operator may wait (typically less than two minutes), or he may elect to begin working on another job. When the trapping is completed, the server returns a new “layer” containing the trapping outlines, along with a list of trapped color pairs, back to the workstation (step 4).

Verifying Job Printability
Automating quality control checks on electronic files is another tremendous challenge for packaging prepress. Ideally, we could define various sets of print specifications and electronically confirm that our digital data conforms to those specifications each time it is handed-off along the production cycle.

Plug-ins are an excellent answer to the tedious and error-prone tasks associated with pre-flighting and verifying the printability of packaging files. They can be used to reduce the number of iterations between the designer and prepress and ensure that the final image carrier is perfectly prepared for a particular press.

First, the printer or tradeshop builds individual profiles of print specifications (step 1), which are distributed to designers and trade shops. Typically the profiles are built using press fingerprint information and contain specifications for:

  • Color Parameters—including maximum number of inks and spot colors, minimum and maximum dot percentages, and solid densities.
  • Image Attributes—including types of allowable embedded files, warnings for RGB images, and minimum and maximum image resolutions.
  • Text and Line Rules—including minimum allowable widths and point sizes for white, single-color, and multi-color lines and text.

Before the designer releases artwork to the next production phase, he imports the printing profile into the checking software plug-in and analyzes the printability of a design file against the profile. If there are any rule infringements, the designer may fix them in the original Illustrator file.

When the artwork complies with the profile, the designer uses a “file collect” function to create an error-free archive for image carrier production. This archive includes the design file, all externally referred elements, and the fonts required for making the final press-ready layout.

The Challenges Ahead
Technological evolution is making it possible for the packaging industry to meet supply-chain demands for more flexible, more collaborative, and more automated prepress workflows. While the need for special packaging graphics knowledge and color-management expertise has not diminished, new desktop tools are making it easier and less expensive for the converter to enter the prepress arena.

As technology continues to “convert” packaging prepress from an art to a science, there are still many challenges awaiting us: universal PDF/JDF workflows, “virtual” proofing, and integrating graphic systems with MIS systems — to name just a few. Converters and tradeshops that invest now in totally digital desktop solutions will find it easier to adapt to new environments and will play a major role in directing the waves of change in our industry.

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