Although many consumer goods manufacturers (CGMs) and packaging suppliers have comprehensive, fully integrated packaging operations, there are strong arguments that favor outsourcing certain printing, slitting and winding activities to contractors specializing in these areas. Outsourcing’s benefits include immediate access to innovative packaging solutions and specialized material expertise that can enhance productivity and speed to market.

By outsourcing, CGMs and packaging suppliers can capitalize on the latest innovations pioneered by specialty printer/formatters. Consider the “variance in repeat” printing capability, which creates multiple repeating designs on a single roll of packaging material. Design elements, such as color, images and layout, can be varied throughout a run without changing the printing plates. This processing is far more efficient than running multiple lines and collating the different designs later.

A second example is the application of solvent-based and water-based inks to the same package or substrate. Traditionally, printers specialize in either solvent-based or water-based ink systems, with the vast majority favoring solvent-based inks due to their lower costs and ease of use. However, there is an option to outsource to a partner that has developed processes that allow printing both types of inks simultaneously on the same press. This unique capability facilitates the creation of “functional” inks, which alter their color or appearance in response to moisture, sunlight or other agents. Functional inks offer new options for packaging creativity. Packaging printed with functional ink, for example, can reveal different images or text depending on environmental conditions.

On the horizon is random-dot technology, which employs new software to optimize the resolution and size of dots in a printed image. The software adjusts the spaces between these so that every dot is complete and not cut off or broken, creating packaging with exceptionally high print definition. 

The Value of Experience

Specialty printer/formatters’ workforces often boast decades of collective printing experience — the type of experience that’s hard to duplicate in-house. Outsourcing enables CGMs and packaging suppliers to tap into this wealth of expertise without having to develop it internally.

Starting a press is as easy as pushing a button. Even new hires can do that. But it takes at least five years for an operator to become fully qualified on a modern press. Experienced operators can maximize press efficiency and troubleshoot problems as they arise, preventing costly mistakes that waste packaging materials and squander press time. Outsourcing certain printing activities also allows companies to offload some environmentally challenging operations to their printer partners which have the skills to meet the most stringent regulations related to indoor air quality and hazardous material handling.

Advances in Slitting/Winding

After printing, packaging materials often must be slit and wound for integration into packaging lines. Outsourcing offers access to advanced precision slitting and winding techniques. Printed materials can be slit to widths as narrow as 1 millimeter or as wide as 12 inches. These slit materials are then wound onto large rolls in a traverse pattern or other configuration that precisely matches the application. Computer-controlled winding monitored by trained technicians reduces the downstream risk of jams on the packaging line.

Companies such as Web Industries now produce extra-large traverse-wound rolls (and spools) capable of carrying significantly more converted packaging material than traditional formats (like pad rolls). These innovations address a common productivity killer on packaging lines: frequent pad roll changes. Normally, conventional pad rolls can run out of material as often as every 20 minutes during a production run and then they must be changed out. This requires operator attention to splice in new incoming material, increasing the risk of human error affecting the finished product. In contrast, the large traverse-wound rolls/spools now available can run for more than three hours, up to 10 times as long than roll pads. In addition, extra-large traverse-wound rolls allow machine operators more operational flexibility, as they no longer have to be on constant alert for material changes and can devote their time to other important tasks. The productivity gains generated by extra-large traverse-wound rolls through increased production line uptime and decreased labor costs often offset a company’s investment in the rolls and in custom unwind stands used to link the rolls with packaging lines. In fact, companies can often recoup their investment in two to three years or less.  

Speed to Market

CGMs have a competitive need to roll out new products and packaging designs to the market frequently. By limiting internal asset allocation disruptions, outsourcing can facilitate efficient roll outs that allow CGMs to be first to market with their products.

Efficient Use of Space

By outsourcing some activities, CGMs and their suppliers can free up internal space and make more efficient use of their facilities. Floor space formerly used for printing and winding operations can be repurposed to process new business. Outsourcing also allows companies to spend less time on secondary or ancillary activities and give greater attention to core packaging activities. Technical ingenuity, manufacturing skill and experience are essential traits in a printer/formatting partner.

Three Things to Expect When Outsourcing

  1. Noncompetitive Offerings: Ideally, outsourcing partners will not directly compete with a CGM’s packaging capabilities. Involvement, for example, in laminating, pouch-making or other downstream packaging areas might be a red flag.
  1. Complete Collaboration: Collaboration is key in partnerting relationships. A printer/formatter should be willing to work closely with a CGM over the long term to develop packaging solutions.
  1. Robust Capacity: Partners should have sufficient printing and winding capabilities available to respond quickly to customer needs. Redundant capacity is helpful in responding to emergencies or dealing with unexpected surges in demand. 

The bottom line is, outsourcing printing and slitting/winding operations has many benefits for CGMs and their packaging suppliers. Chief among them are access to new solutions, specialized experience and support, labor efficiencies and productivity gains.