Before the film is blown, before the package is printed, before the pouch is formed, all of the creative input, technical specs and design of the final flexible package must be finalized. That process is known as prepress, and requires the joining of many disparate processes into one cohesive operation.

Prepress systems are intended to provide control of the process before a package begins actual production, but there are many issues facing this complex segment of the flexible packaging industry, often revolving around speed and communication.

“The major issues facing the prepress market right now are condensed cycle times, digital workflows, and an increased focus on getting the consumer product companies attention, to control the flow from design to print,” says Dale Patterson of Kodak Graphics Communications Group. “Also, matching brand colors across substrates and printing locations is very tricky, but expected.”

Ian Hole, vice president of market development for Esko, reinforces the importance of speed with regard to product delivery, and the role the Internet plays.

“Technologically, we’re all spoiled by Internet services and faster bandwidth,” says Hole. “In addition, increased competitive conditions are requiring consumer products companies (CPC) to insist on faster and faster delivery times to shorten time to market. This forces converters to deliver packaging-free of errors-much faster than five years ago.

“With the Internet making the world smaller, the challenge is to efficiently create packaging for different global markets, while maintaining consistent packaging color and quality throughout the world. There are color production tools like Esko Kaleidoscope that can help.”

The Internet provides the ability to have a job created, prepared for press, printed and then sent to the packers-all of which happens in different cities, countries and even on different continents, according to Hole. Prepress systems like Esko’s WebCenter allow companies to control the entire process.

“If anything, quality is much better than it was five years ago,” he adds. “Fortunately, consistent quality has been made possible through digital workflows. The processes and files that created package design-as well as consistent digital flexo imaging-has made it possible to recreate work that is identical to projects completed months, or years, earlier. This means that anyone who does not work with a digital workflow is at a distinct disadvantage.”

Innovation Today

Like most other segments of the flexible packaging industry, innovation is of prime importance to prepress and flexo printing.

Fred Stringfellow, executive director of the Flexographic Pre-Press Platemakers Association, notes that most of the innovation currently on the market is directed toward either speeding up the process or ensuring an accurate final product.

“The technology we’re using today includes Web-based portal products using the Web to communicate design and design changes, making communication easier, reducing steps and chances for errors, as well as new PDF tools for changes to production files late in the cycle,” he says. “Digital platemaking brings ‘process control’ to the prepress area. Also, digital proofs with dots on the substrate that will be printed upon, can be made into mock ups of the final job, reducing errors.”

Production automation and ‘global control’ are issues generally addressed by JDF workflows, according to Hole.

“Before JDF, converters could schedule press time, but they were never quite sure if a job would be completed in time to mount a plate on the press-nor did they know if the customer had approved the job,” says Hole. “With JDF, scheduling jobs to prepress and receiving feedback is no longer a ‘black box’ operation. Now, they can always see the status of jobs in the prepress department and intervene and expedite the process if necessary.”

Hole adds that PDF files can also be helpful in prepress.

“Particularly those [PDF files] that build metadata that track information about that file. Along with JDF protocols, they provide the ability to online approve, change, track and set timeframes,” he says.

Simply put: The best way to maximize efficiencies and reduce costs in the production of flexible packaging is to increase automation. That is, greatly reduce the need for human intervention within the process.

“Even from the first automated workflows, where human involvement was required to follow up with step & repeat plans, or trapping specifications, there are less and less requirements for operators to follow up on how a file has been processed,” says Hole.

“Automation of selective parts, rather than the complete workflow, is very helpful. Simply making everything automatic does not take into consideration the different customer needs in a particular range of packaging. But, selectively automating parts of the process, leaving gaps to make checks or additions known to be “delayed,” is more intelligent. Esko Backstage does this effectively.”

The next step to increasing efficiency and driving down costs and variables is the use of monitor proofing and PDF production tools to reduce steps and costs, according to Stringfellow.

“Combine that with new flexo plate technology to bring more printing contrast and predictability to flexo printing,” he says. “And again, digital platemaking brings ‘process control’ to the prepress area.”

Hole adds that “Some powerful production software solutions use ‘smart’ methods to pull information for packaging. They can ‘poll’ the CPC’s password-protected databases for the updated and approved copy, barcodes, and other information, and place it directly into the package graphics. This speeds up production, prevents operator error (rekeying data), and assures that only the CPC’s input is used.”

The Next Evolution

Finally, what shape will the prepress side of things take during the next few years? What will be the next “big thing” in prepress and printing technology?

“Time will tell, although we can all make an educated guess that we only have to wait until next year for DRUPA 2008,” says Hole. “One of the rumblings we have heard is in digital printing, as the process becomes more cost-efficient for smaller runs. Esko has been building systems in place to manage not only flexo workflows, but also concurrent graphics for digital presses.”

Stringfellow and Patterson agree that new plate technology will gain impotance, as will digital technology is all its forms.

“New plate technology will produce more shades of color (increased contrast) with less need for ‘bump curves,’” says Stringfellow.

Patterson adds: “Extended gamut printing will be more common with ‘process plus’ color to print brand and spot colors. Digital technology will of course continue to evolve.”

Hole sees that design and graphics may come together in effective 3-D systems that will be of value to everyone up and down the process.

“There has been a lot of work done building 3D systems that help everyone-particularly designers-to build graphics around structural tools,” he says. “With even faster workstations, and the implementation of CAD product drawings into the packaging design process (as Esko is doing with SolidWorks files), the melding of structure and graphics will become even more efficient.”