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An Interview with PrePress Suppliers

Updated: Apr 15, 2019

Their expertise in color management, press fingerprints, and state of the art printing technology is key to a corrugated converter's success in the marketplace.

Corrugated Today

Jeff Mosely, Container Graphics Corp. VP - Southwest Region Manager

Jack Fulton, Printron Vice President - Sales

John Lencioni, Esko Regional Sales Manager

Chris McClain, PRP Head of the Press Fingerprint Team

Prepress suppliers are an essential part of a board converter’s ability to print high quality packaging and displays. This is especially true for converters that specialize in higher-end graphics. Corrugated Today asked several prepress suppliers to provide some insight about their role in helping box plants deliver the best product to their customers.

Have Consumer Product Companies’ (CPC) color management expectations for their corrugated packaging and displays changed in the last few years?

Mosely: I believe so. The expectation is that brand color and graphics are now consistent across all media, flexible packaging, folding carton, and corrugated. When art is created, there is more of an emphasis on how color can be managed across all media and printing processes to ensure that our industry meets CPC expectations.

Lencioni: If anything, brand owners are more demanding. There is more process color being used. The easy answer would be that brand owners are more careful than ever about making sure that brand colors — on labels, displays, post-print corrugated, pre-print — match on the store Shelves. And, while that is beginning to happen, our experience tends to suggest that color expectations are not yet as strong, but that is changing. With corrugated packaging, there will be greater demand for print providers to be able to match brand colors regardless of substrate or print process. This is being done concurrently while, as an industry, we are experimenting with expanded gamut printing and the affects on brand colors. Many displays, as we know, are now printed with digital presses. Only a few years ago, print buyers were more forgiving with brand matches digitally because it was a new technology. Now, there are powerful color management app1ications that make it easier for the print provider to match color across many print processes. We have also seen packaging that was previously pre-print/labeled. but has now moved to corrugated/uncoated stock. There is even sacrificing of special inks (replacing metallic with a percentage of black).

"With corrugated packaging, there will be greater demand for print providers to be able to match brand colors regardless of substrate or print process," says John Lencioni

Fulton: From our experience, I would say 'yes they have. Success has shown them that corrugated printers are able to match proofs much better than they could in the past and therefore expectations are definitely higher.

McClain: More and more of our CPG customers are embracing and insisting on color management solutions as they receive feedback from their customers, such as Walmart, that there is inconsistency at the shelf level of their displays and packaging.

Is the corrugated industry meeting those expectations?

Lencioni: It's a constant effort typically with last minute deadlines — to try to comply with matching colors. Brands are certainly pushing print providers in that direction. It would be easier if print providers had unlimited time on each job to work on these issues, but it's unrealistic. It requires a complete, corporate effort to build a viable color management system.

Fulton: I certainly can't answer for CPCs, but from the amount of items that have been converted to corrugated post-print over the past few years I would have to say yes.

McClain: Early adopters of color management systems are reaping the rewards in terms of new business, but there are still many in the industry who view the additional steps necessary to achieve color accuracy as a threat to profit margins, due to the additional time and processes required. When the industry as a whole embraces quality improvements, they will see their businesses improve, from customer retention rates to reduced setup times and more.

Mosely: In most cases, yes. In following FIRST standards and with suppliers who have a good knowledge of the process, color management, and plate technology, those expectations are being met. There are still some instances where I would say that the industry has the tools but they are not being applied consistently.

What are the three things you wish your clients would do in order to make the prepress process more successful and efficient?

Fulton: Far and away the biggest thing that printers can do to speed up and take cost out of the prepress process is getting their prepress supplier involved in the design process as early as possible. This would have been my top answer in 1980 and still is today. I realize it isn’t always possible, but when you can do this you will save time and money (as one of the many things we do as a prepress company is optimize designs to make them more easily printed). If you can get those difficulties designed into the job it will be more efficient. Communication is always a key ingredient to success. Technology today is terrific and it will only get better. Use the electronic tools that are available: order online, get your proofs online and track shipments online, If you want to be efficient and not waste time, don't wait for a salesperson from your prepress company to show up to quote jobs and take orders. Use these tools to get it done faster so you can utilize the salesperson to help the design process and save money for you and your customer.

McClain: PRP developed a brand management program called 'Print Champions' designed to maintain brand equities, producing consistency of appearance on-shelf. 'Print Champions’ eliminates many of the variables of the various capabilities of multiple printers across same brands by applying common denominator aspects to the prepress process, saving many of our CPG customers several weeks in the approval and execution process. So, rather than mention three separate things. I would say utilizing a comprehensive program that documents and monitors print standards will save time in rework and reduce overall packaging chain costs.

Mosely: 1. Prepress companies with corrugated flexo printing knowledge need to be involved early on in the process. Many issues can be eliminated in early discussions before art for approval is sent to the CPC. 2. High res images need to be included in files sent to prepress companies that will provide plates to the converter. Many times (Ow res images are provided and slow down the process or lead to flat images being printed, 3. Ensure that a well documented, consistent review and approval process is in place.

Lencioni: 1. The first and foremost essential feature is automation. It reduces repetitive tasks, thus eliminating many manual errors and helping to reduce time to market. 2. Eliminate analog processes. By implementing digital prepress, digital platemaking and digital mounting equipment, you are helping to build a consistent process. One idea is to use digital technology to be more efficient with plate use. Ganging jobs on a single plate, cutting them on a digital table and mounting pieces on a carrier sheet is a good way. 3. Embrace color management. Build a color management system utilizing a consistent print process, fingerprinting presses, and experiment with new systems such as expanded gamut. Do the required ‘measurement, adjust, and repeat.’

Is the press fingerprint still relevant or has technology standardized the process so that these tests are no longer necessary?

McClain: Due to the fact that there are a multitude of variables regarding how each press performs, such as type of equipment, inks used, operator philosophy, and maintenance applications, it is extremely important to record and develop press profiles to capture the press's performance abilities in order to make accommodations to the artwork files for the best possible outcome. There are multiple elements that are included on a fingerprint, monitoring everything from dot gain to press slur, anilox roll performance and much more. Each of these elements is analyzed and documented after the press run, and because no two profiles are identical, much like a DNA test, I don’t believe that technology Can standardize the process.

Mosely: Standard profiles are available that can be used when no color profiling has been done, but we have to consider that they are created with averaged data that has had the curve smoothed out which combined with major differences in anilox rolls, ink, media, and plates, will result in okay results at best. Fingerprinting is still a valuable tool and the data should be used to enable the prepress supplier, plate supplier, and printer, to produce consistent results.

Lencioni: There are efforts to standardize (for example, PantoneLlVE). but in most/all situations a press needs to be characterized if you want to reproduce color accurately and consistently. The fingerprint is a requirement. We are a long ways from having any kind of standardization. Every situation at every facility is different. As long as there are different presses, substrates, plate materials, etc., we will have a need for fingerprinting.

Fulton: If your prepress work is truly based on the press (as it should be) then the fingerprint or press characterization is definitely still relevant. There are groups that are working toward creating standards for this type of work and technology will allow you to do a very good job creating color separated files without a fingerprint. However, if your ink trapping is only at 50-60% your print won't match the proof as well as if it were based on the fingerprint.

What information do you need in order to do a successful fingerprint?

Mosely: Press information such as anilox configuration, cell volume, and doctor blade information is always needed to estimate the capabilities of the flexo press. This information will be used to estimate the capabilities of the machine so that a range of LPI’s (lines per inch) can be selected that will offer the best Chance for a successful fingerprint and accurate color profiling can be achieved.

Lencioni: Beyond the question of whether or not a standard is in place to ensure consistency (FIRST, G7, etc.), to do a good job, there are a number of variables. They include: press type and size; anilox rollers: cylinder undercut: typical press speeds; number of colors; ink type; ink set (standard process/spot colors or extended gamut); substrate.

Fulton: You can never have too much information about your customer or prospective customer, however the two things most important in preparing plates for a fingerprint are the anilox rolls that will be used and the liner you are printing on. Are you making a generic set of plates that will be used on a multitude of liners or are you targeting just coated or uncoated paper? The more closely you can match the plates to the anilox rolls and substrate the more information you will gain. Passing around a generic set of plates from printer to printer will get you just that, generic information.

McClain: Press make and model. number of stations; anilox roll count (or each station; cylinder size; register tolerances; ink formulations; plate configuration.

What is the most common task you find that corrugated printers fail to do when you arrive for a fingerprint/characterization?

Lencioni: A common error is that printers treat fingerprints differently than a normal production run. This ran provide false data because the process could be different from everyday operations. The fingerprint should represent how jobs are printed everyday. They should also be prepared to record everything: ink viscosity, press speed, aniloxes, impression settings, temperature, humidity, etc. Printers need to be sure that there is suitable measurement equipment, and proofing devices. They must also review test forms/jobs in advance to avoid pitfalls during characterization.

Fulton: It depends of course on the experience of the company and press crew, but even the mast experienced crews will sometimes defer to the prepress company. They ask how to set the job up and run it. If they would treat it like a normal job and have the press ready (similar to an important customer press check) they will be fine. As stated previously, Communication is key. You should have that discussion long before you get to press that day so the press crew knows what’s expected. Then they know what they’re doing and are capable of getting it right.

McClain: Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that a fingerprint is regarded as something that is a very low priority that is constantly put off. While I can appreciate that production needs come first, a fingerprint can solve so many problems and save countless hours of production time once completed.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that a fingerprint is regarded as something that is a very low priority that is constantly put off." says Chris McClain

Mosely: It falls into ink management, making sure that the density, ph, and viscosity readings are at target is critical. I always request that the ink supplier has a rep on press who can adjust inks and train press personnel on FIRST standards If the images do not look right on press.

How do you determine whether the problem is a prepress or a press issue?

Fulton: If you get on press and are not matching the proof supplied by your prepress company, the first question is always, ‘have you matched the conditions of the fingerprint or press characterization?’ Those are the conditions that your prepress company has used in preparing the plates for the press run. If something has changed from the fingerprint the odds are pretty good the results will be different from the proof.

McClain: By featuring so many different control elements on the fingerprint we are able to pinpoint and identify problem areas prior to any production runs. Additionally, PRP is regarded as having great expertise in the corrugated industry, enabling us to assist printers, and make recommendations for improvement during the run.

Mosely: Many variables can contribute to images not printing to expectations on press. The first thing I look at is grey balance. If your targets for grey balance are being achieved and your images are off, that would point toward a prepress or plate issue. If grey balance is not being achieved then we start troubleshooting variables such as top pressure, anilox pressure, doctor blades, pH, density, viscosity, etc.

"If your targets for Grey Balance are being achieved and your images are off, that would pint toward a prepess or plate issue." says Jeff Mosely

Lencioni: This is why a review of the test form/job is necessary. Inevitably, someone will want to test a process black image (a grayscale image made of process color to show gray balance). That type of image will print poorly unless it is color managed. Typically, implementing UCR (under color removal) or GCR (gray component replacement) in this example to remove excess ink can cause dramatic shifts on press. If we have the correct process control targets in place, we can compare measurements against the standard for that press configuration. If our measurements all line up with where they should be and the color is still not correct, we know that the press settings appear to be fine and should return to prepress to see what happened there.

What do you see as the three most significant prepress technology challenges or opportunities?

McClain: As converters may be aware, Adobe Illustrator will be moving to a cloud based system, so all capabilities will be online. This brings many concerns that should an error occur, suppliers will not have the safety net of simply reloading the program, but will be tied to a program solely cloud based. Color management is an ongoing battle, as there are so many variables that can impact color. While we have better tools now than we had three or four years ago, the variables are still there. The third is efficiency, which is both a challenge and an opportunity – workflows that minimize time on a job, yet accomplish the goals without compromise.

Mosely: Contract proofing, color management, and plate technology continue to improve year after year. The challenge is to stay on top of that technology as it evolves and to continue to provide the latest innovations to the customer.

Lencioni: By implementing automation, we can speed up turnaround time and, of course, improve time-to-market for the brand owner. Automate plate mounting as often as possible. This gets the press running in tight register more quickly. And increase overall quality by implementing a better prepress and plate imaging system.

Fulton: The biggest opportunity would be expanding the use of the flat top dot technologies that are available in the marketplace. The original thought for these processes was they would benefit the post-print business and they have definitely done that. The benefit goes way beyond printing dots and is probably the most significant new technology to come along in many years. A challenge for the post-print market is expanding the use of HD screening in the jobs that they print. Right now it is not conducive to that market and difficult to get up and running. Another challenge and one that would provide great value would be the ability to utilize online color correct proofing methods. I know many have investigated this and some people may even be doing it on a small scale but being able to provide customers in multiple locations with the ability to approve color correct proofs in a matter of minutes as opposed to waiting for printed proofs to arrive would be huge. Currently the cost of this is high, but as with any technology eventually it will come down.

"A challenge for the post-print market is expanding the use of HD screening in the jobs that they print." says Jack Fulton

What are some of the major prepress trends in the corrugated industry right now?

Mosely: We have Seen an increase in higher-end graphics in the last several years and that trend continues. With improvements in the flexo press, color management workflows and plate technology, litho quality work is being achieved on the flexo press.

Lencioni: We are achieving quality levels never imagined just a few years age.

Fulton: For many of our Customers the process of converting litho label work to direct print is still a huge trend. In many cases there are cost savings for the converter as far as the number of touches within their plants and even with the extremely high cost of prepress and plates (where have you heard that before?) they can still show their customers a significant cost savings in the form of lower per piece prices. Incorporating many of the things previously mentioned will allow them to control their process enough to produce a consistent high quality print which is what their customers are demanding.

McClain: G7 – this type of color management tool has had varying degrees of success. 3D visual programs also continue to increase in popularity. Many of our CPG customers are asking us to create more of this type of file to complement or replace their existing printed samples. They are an excellent sales tool for them, and in many cases, can save them money

What will the corrugated prepress industry look like in 10 years?

Lencioni: We will realize the trend toward smaller runs with quicker turnaround, in response to demographic and promotional opportunities — also leading to smaller inventories. This means that digital presses will continue to play a larger role. It also means that systems will need to be built more efficiently, which will help to reduce time to market. Out of necessity, workflow automation will need to be implemented to take out as much manual interaction as possible. Even design systems will need to be quick to react to palatalization and other factors that will continue to be demanded by larger retailers. All of this will, of course, lead to higher expectations — and likely more stress to get it done right, in a hurry.

Fulton: We all know that digital printing is coming. Depending on whom you listen to will give you an idea on when it will start to be a factor in the corrugated marketplace. Today, many people have a pretty good idea what the factors are for deciding whether to use post-print, pre-print or litho labels to put a customer's graphics on their package. That perspective will change when the cost of digital comes down to the point that it is competitive.

McClain: The amount of time dedicated to prepress file manipulation and any manipulation itself, is anticipated to be significantly reduced, due to the advancements in digital printing overall.

Mosely: We will continue to see an increased demand for higher-end graphics, continued demand and improvements in achieving color across print media markets, and more technology on workflows leading to higher efficiencies in art departments which simply gets a consistently printed product to market faster.

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