The Design Supply Chain

Packaging Workflow

The packaging industry needs a comprehensive workflow that optimizes process efficiency throughout the entire supply chain. Packaging service providers and brand owners both require solutions that increase throughput and efficiencies, eliminate communication and operator error, and reduce lead times and inventories.

While designers are creative with shapes and substrates, inks, printing technologies, and finishing techniques, the service provider that brings a product to market a single day sooner is considered a hero.

Brand owners drive the packaging supply chain. In the battle for market share, the package is considered the most preferred promotional medium, more so than broadcast or print advertising. But bringing a product to market is a complex endeavor, combining many processes that must come together at store shelves as fast as possible and at the lowest viable cost.

Many subcontractors with skilled personnel are involved in the production of a package: graphic designers, structural designers (CAD), trade shops (prepress), printers, converters, finishers, and die-makers. Similarly, the packaging buyer has many different players involved, including product development, the legal department, marketing, purchasing, and logistics.

On the left-hand side of the above workflow diagram, the customer faces many challenges such as change management, dealing with repurposing assets, or managing the product life cycle. The players on the right, typically retailers, are involved in even more workflow tasks, including transportation and placement of product on the shelves (planograms). In between are two concurrent workflows, one that follows the structure of the package to completion, while graphics proceed from design to preproduction to print. Neither can work in a vacuum.

The Graphics Side
Graphic design begins in a design program—typically Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Plug-ins add expert capability by installing advanced spot color tools, such as layering color channels in addition to CMYK, visualizing each channel on screen, and switching inks from CMYK to spot colors. From there, graphics progress through a traditional prepress system where they are refined and prepared for printing (see sidebar below).

Once a proof is approved, the one-up design needs to be repeated for the printed sheet. The design goes through a step-and-repeat process, where as many copies of the design as possible are placed on a sheet, to make printing as cost-effective as possible. In the case of a die-cutting workflow, this sheet layout is based on the die contour made by the die shop or converter. When completed satisfactorily, the plates are made and the job is ready for press.

The Structural Side
The package structure is just as important as the graphics—a unique or effective shape can impact the success of a product significantly.

Typically, after the brand owner specifies product requirements, a structural designer works on a CAD program to build the shape of the package, even before any graphics design is made. CAD integration in the product supply chain can optimize the process, helping to cut days out of the time to bring a product to market. CAD has its hooks into every step in the supply chain, so using a packaging-oriented CAD product that can "play well" with other design tools is a prerequisite to manufacturing the right product package.

Samples used to be built manually. With CAD technology, there are easier ways to demonstrate a concept to brand owners. Some systems allow a designer to create a package around a 3D model of a product that doesn’t even exist yet, apply virtual graphics, and place it in context: on a shelf between competitors or a point-of-purchase (POP) display in the aisles. You can even integrate a CAD solution with palletization software to help make decisions about how the product is packaged, how the package is contained in a shipping box, how these boxes are stacked on a pallet, and how these pallets fit on the truck. Animations demonstrating assembly and shipping details can be very helpful: Rather than printing a POP assembly manual, the retailer downloads a standard, animated VRML file into a common browser. If needed, samplemaking tables can cut and score hard samples automatically, using instructions from CAD files.

Combining Both Sides of the Equation
A lot occurs concurrently between structural and graphic workflows. Whatever changes the structural designer makes, the graphic designer must work with the updated version of the die. CAD no longer is used merely for design. It’s an essential communication tool to link different functions across the supply chain, like structure and graphics, structure and solid models, structure and logistics, and structure and ERP. For example, Adobe Illustrator plug-ins can import structural data, so the graphic designer can work within the structural constraints. The graphic designer also can use the rich content of the die shape to get a realistic preview of the work in three dimensions. This avoids costly errors and saves time.

Integrated workflow systems can become an essential part of other business processes by incorporating ERP, MIS, and plant management systems. Peripheral partners in the supply chain—print buyers, brand and product managers, etc.—can tap into the workflow’s databases through easy-to-use Web interfaces. Asset management systems let them view existing and in-process work. By providing everyone with correct information, the risk for mistakes is minimized.

Workflows can store job-related metadata (ink colors, bar code information, etc.) and share this information with other systems. Some workflows allow package developers to tie the content of each graphic design element to a location in a secure database. Information can include repetitive brand images and logos, flavor and language variations, safety warnings, bar codes, and production marks—instructions for gluing and filling machinery. Thus, the persons responsible for the information for brand or regional extensions are the only ones who create the information, with secure access to the databases.

Standards in a Workflow
A successful workflow must operate as an open system. It must be fully networked and Web-enabled, able to manage multi-site, distributed design, and production workflows. The smooth interconnection and data interchange between multiple functions must be guaranteed by the use of broadly accepted industry data standards (see sidebar below).

Package design is a complex process of multiple concurrent workflows involving a number of diverse players. Within this framework, everyone is interested in creating the most effective packaging while cutting costs. Enabling technologies, such as the Internet and industry-standard data formats, allow for smooth integration with existing software and business applications. With the right software tools, it’s possible to enjoy a collaborative workflow that adapts easily to each business, facilitating communication across a global supply chain.

Preparing for Print
Graphic files typically go through the following steps before going to press:

  • Preflighting: Assuring files can be interpreted correctly by prepress software.
  • Trapping: Ensuring that misregistration on press is compensated.
  • Color management: Preparing artwork for the set of inks that will be used on press. Often this includes cyan, magenta, yellow, and black along with Pantone colors, but it also can include Hexachrome or other sophisticated models.
  • Distortion: Automatically solving shrink sleeve design problems.
  • Bar coding: Adding the correct bar code standard—and the correct bar code number—to the packaging.

Data Standards
The following data formats are widely used for graphic files:

  • PDF: Adobe PDF is the preferred file format for graphics. From design packages like Adobe Illustrator through graphics workflows, PDF ensures graphics are delivered smoothly.
  • ARD and CFF2: The common file format (CFF) assures that users of packaging CAD systems can send designs to other CAD systems. The ARD file format helps describe masks or outlines of a package design. Adobe Illustrator can import ARD files.
  • Adobe XMP for meta-data: There is a lot of information that each file can contain about its content. Any system should be able to pull and display that information.
  • JDF allows workflow specifications—anything from job specs to job history to delivery information—to be sent to supporting hardware and software systems. Any server task can be initiated from a JDF ticket. For example, a server can receive requests to generate step-and-repeat layouts specified by trade shop operators at remote locations. Or an asset manager can provide a JDF handshake to compatible systems, sending job submission instructions to a workflow server. The server, in turn, can interpret these JDF commands and send instructions to other software applications on the network.
  • IGES and VRML provide direction for 3D animation in browsers.
  • Legacy data: Some brands last virtually forever. For that reason, it’s important that any system handle legacy data files—those old CAD files and graphics file formats that have seen better days.


Mark Vanover is director of marketing at Esko-Graphics, based in Vandalia, OH. His career spans more than 25 years with product marketing, branding, and sales roles for notable graphic arts companies. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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