Technologies Driving Packaging’s Future
It was approximately 10 years ago when the team at New York Label & Box Works decided to break away from an emerging industry trend.
As Mike Masotti, who leads new product innovation at the company, recalls, packaging was becoming highly commoditized. So to stand out, the company, which operates facilities in Islandia, N.Y., and Hackensack, N.J., went in a different direction, taking on new capabilities its competitors weren’t offering.
“We do some commodity work,” Masotti says. “but the majority of our work comes from labels or cartons that are highly decorated, whether it’s some sort of embellishment like a tactile varnish or a hot foil, or inside printing or specialty inks. Or it can have a digital component, which helps the customer with their supply chain or brand protection needs, or even just with consumer engagement.”
With the rise of new technologies impacting how packaging is produced and the ways consumers interact with it, not only have printers and converters had to assess their current workflows and output, but also consider the future landscape of the industry.
“We made a commitment from the top down on innovation,” Masotti says. “More companies recognize that’s a key thing that’s important to do. Innovate and offer new products, as opposed to just doing what everyone else can do.”
Automation and Efficiency
In the packaging segment of the printing industry, increasing efficiency is consistently a top-of-mind goal among printers and converters. But, as Jan De Roeck, marketing director-industry relations and strategy for Esko, explains, in order to successfully implement a strategy based around technology that addresses this issue, the first step is to understand the drivers behind the growing need for efficiency.
The common refrain, De Roeck says, is that print runs are becoming shorter, as brands — particularly in CPG and pharmaceutical markets — are developing more varied product lines in order to draw consumers in. As a result, converters are now tasked with pushing more jobs through their workflows than ever before, and many of these jobs are decreasing in length.
From a technological standpoint, De Roeck says there’s a key strategy to consider.
“I would definitely look at some automation with a big, capital ‘A,’” he says.
But before investing in technological solutions that can boost automation and efficiency, De Roeck suggests that converters take some time to reflect on their operations and ask themselves how far along their business is in becoming a “digital business.”
What this means is that everyday components like workflow, job tickets, and order envelopes need to become digitized. Without taking these digitization steps, De Roeck explains that the human intervention converters are accustomed to may cause automation initiatives to eventually fail.
“As long as things are on paper or disconnected, this automation will fail at some point,” he says. “If you’re still managing your jobs internally or your communication is managed internally with brown order bags or big envelopes, there’s something missing there.”
One strategy for determining the aspects of a business that may benefit the most from automation is by creating a value stream map (VSM), which results in an overview of the current operations of a converter’s entire workflow. Identifying all of the steps in the process, and quantifying the resources needed to complete each step, can very quickly open a business owner’s eyes to the potential benefits of automation.
De Roeck says it’s often revealing to see how much time is wasted in the search for files that should be readily available. He adds that development is underway to enhance asset management technology, which allows prepress software to communicate with a customer’s database, locating files quickly and reducing the potential for human error.
“There’s a constant search for ‘What is the latest version of that file?’ ‘What is the latest version of that image?’ ‘Where’s the approved version of the ingredient copy for that label?’” De Roeck says. “Rather than searching for files, people should be finding files.”
Beyond automation as a strategy for increasing efficiency and reducing waste, converters also may need to look at machines to take on tasks that have typically been done by people. Tom Egan, VP of industry services for packaging and processing technology association PMMI, explains that the labor shortage throughout the printing and packaging industry has led to a need for equipment to pick up the slack.
On the flip side of that, however, Egan explains that implementing automation solutions does lead to a need for staff members who can manage and oversee it, which can be a good opportunity for converters to attract young members of the workforce.
“Recognize that you need a number of individuals that have the skills to address that automation,” Egan says. “That’s actually where new opportunities are arising for a whole variety of individuals coming into the workforce. They can really be working with electronics and working with automated technology, both on the mechanical and the electronic side to maintain the optimal operating capabilities of these different pieces of automation.”
Packaging Goes High-Tech
While the machinery behind the production of packaging is becoming increasingly technical, brands and consumers have also been able to benefit from the technology that is now being implemented into packaging itself. With increased capabilities for consumer engagement, data collection, and track and traceability, packaging is poised to become more than just a physical vessel to protect the product and inform the consumer.
According to Masotti, product security is a significant issue among brand owners, and in recent years, the concerns have extended beyond counterfeiting. Product diversion, for example, has become a significant obstacle for brands to overcome, but it is something that packaging has the ability to address.
Product diversion occurs when a brand has an agreement in place with a specific customer that a certain product can only be sold in certain locations. Masotti points to hair salons having exclusive sales rights to specific lines of shampoo. However, what brands are now finding, is that somewhere along the supply chain, a product may be removed and placed for sale elsewhere — particularly online.
However, by implementing a unique identifier (UID) on a package, which can take both an overt (QR code, serial number, etc.) or covert (invisible ink) form, a brand can pinpoint precisely where a product was diverted and who was responsible.
“We’ll even use codes that are decoys and are meant to be found by the diverter so they don’t look elsewhere for other codes that we hide,” Masotti says. “There’s a whole strategy around this and it depends on the brand and what their problem is.”
In addition to addressing security issues, brands have also had to consider the evolution of the consumer’s shopping experience, and the role packaging plays. Egan explains that with e-commerce, brands and retailers have access to more consumers than ever before, and can use it to its own benefit, as well as the consumers’.
For example, Egan mentions that prior to the final season of the “Game of Thrones” television series, he noticed Oreo had launched a limited edition product with “Game of Thrones” themed packaging. He explains that if a consumer was purchasing this package online, the retailer could then make the safe assumption that the consumer is a fan of the show and offer other “Game of Thrones” products.
“The data acquisition on the consumer side is allowing us to get to that more unique package that can be provided to an individual,” Egan says. “E-commerce allows not only that data acquisition, but fulfillment in a more unique way.”
A Look at What’s to Come
When looking ahead at what the next significant advancements will be to impact the packaging production process, De Roeck says he foresees that much of it will be related to metadata, which he explains is the “data about the actual production data itself.”
In addition to automating processes like quality checks on design, in which production data can be utilized to ensure text and graphics aren’t too close to a dieline or beneath a glue flap, De Roeck explains metadata can also be used to quickly make changes to a whole line of packaging if need be.
For example, he says that if there is a change in legislation regarding nutrition panels and a brand needs to make a specific change across a variety of its packaging, a quick search could locate the packaging that needs to be changed and automate the implementation of it.
“These are the kind of things that are to some extent already possible today and actually contribute to a much higher level of automation in prepress.,” De Roeck says.
Egan points to the growing use of data within the production process as a strong tool for both understanding and improving workflow. By having machines communicate with each other to collect data, and then being able to analyze it, Egan explains that converters can better understand their own operations and how to optimize them.
“They want to link together what they’re doing on their order entry side all the way through to the raw material acquisition, to making just the right amount of product at just the right amount of time, to getting it out effectively into the marketplace to the point of sale for the consumer,” he says. “The data acquisition is helping them with that and many companies are spending significant amounts of money in data acquisition.”
De Roeck explains that as printers and converters begin to consider the technological advancements available to them, it can often be a challenge to get them to consider solutions beyond just the addition of a new press, or the replacement of an old one.
But, he explains that those who embrace the process of value stream mapping may instantly realize there are unexpected areas of their businesses that could benefit from the implementation or upgrading of automation software. Locating areas in need of improvement, whether it’s prepress, on press, or even in the shipping department, and then implementing the technology available to make those improvements, can lead to significant new efficiencies in the production process.
“That realization for many business owners is eye-opening,” he says.