Prepress & Workflow

That’s Just Prototypical! The Newest Technologies Turn Out Precise Prototypes in Hours, Not Days

Posted: February 5, 2005 by
Noel Jeffrey

If competitors in the packaging world agree on anything, it’s that accelerated time to market for their clients’ products is critical. Clients expect controlled costs and quality. Quick turnaround and innovation are the differentiators a packaging business offers.

Still, a tangible 3D package model is essential to most bags, boxes, and bottles—just to be sure they work and have the look and feel the customer envisions. What’s more, product packages may be targeted to gender, age groups, and even hand size. Therefore, in the case of producing prototypes of all kinds, the need for speed is driving technology acquisitions, many of them digital, and some business realignments.

All-in-one models
Scott Jost, president of Studio One Eleven, the in-house design agency for Berlin Packaging in Chicago, says that one of the megatrends he sees is that more packaging companies are bringing design agencies in-house, and these agencies are offering prototypes produced in-house. “It used to be rare,” Jost points out. “There are 10 to 12 companies in the country that produce prototypes for designers but now you can get into a digital 3D prototype system for about $25,000 - $30,000—the price of a good color copier with built-in RIP.”

At Englander Container & Display, still other digital methods are saving customers time and money while assuring more accurate, predictable results. Marty Englander, company president, says: “Prototyping is a very important part of what we do, and it has to happen quickly. Retailers are very demanding of their suppliers and on down the supply chain.”

Englander explains that his Waco, Texas-based company offers design services and prints using offset lithography as well as flexography. He says that whether it’s flexo or litho, you are working with film or at least plates and there are always two issues. First, creating the prototype for customer approval is time-consuming. Second, when matching the end product that will be printed to a glossy Matchprint proof, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to meet client expectations.

His solution is the recent installation of a CORjet inkjet printer from Scitex Visual Systems, Netanya, Israel. Scitex Visual introduced this system at the drupa printing trade show in Germany last spring and brought it to the U.S. this fall. “It’s 63 by 112 inches,” Englander says. “This allows us to go from computer to box without film or plates and so it’s a big asset. It also can use the exact substrate chosen for the final package. That means the prototype will be a lot more comparable to the final product.”

Grey Moore, marketing associate, Rigid Plastics at the Sonoco Packaging Development Center in Hartsville, SC, sees the same trend. The in-house Packaging Development Center handles design work and prototyping for not only rigid plastics but flexible packaging and rigid paper (composite cans) as well. “Sonoco stresses the tagline of concept to consumer,” Moore says. “We have the tools to do that for clients and to get products out to the marketplace quickly.”

Jost says that Studio One Eleven, which at the end of January will be housed in a new, stand-alone facility in Elmhurst, Ill., is in the process of deciding on one of those “reasonably” priced digital rapid prototype machines for its new digs in December. Sonoco’s Hartsville location got theirs last year. These machines connect to a CAD system and literally act like desktop digital printers. They produce 3D models in hours instead of days.

According to Jost, the two best-known systems are the Dimension 3D line and the ZPrinter Systems. Dimension 3D Printing Group is a business unit of Minneapolis-based Stratasys, Inc. Its machines build models in ABS plastic. Z Corporation’s offerings are said to be a bit more versatile because they accept a wider range of materials that different industries may need.

Moore points out that models from either of these rapid prototype systems are often referred to as SLA prototypes. However, to be technically correct, an SLA prototype is actually made by the stereolithography process, which involves selectively curing a photopolymer with an ultraviolet laser. The stereolithography machine is also run directly from a CAD system. (For a further explanation of SLA, visit prototype maker Solid Concepts at www.solidconcepts.com.)

While the methods may differ, what they have in common is that they produce models that are the actual dimensions of the finished package. Paper, film, or foil labels can be applied to these models using the actual graphics. As a result, they are suitable for internal customer presentations, consumer testing, and even retail presentations.

Reasonable corrugated samples
In addition, Englander has also installed a digital die cutter from Esko-Graphics. With the digital printer and the cutter, the company can now offer same- and next-day service for comps depending on the artwork.

He also touts the company’s design services as timesaving. For example, traps in artwork prototyped first on the CORjet will subsequently change for the final press run and need different settings for flexo or for offset. “If we’ve done the design, we know what to do when we convert over,” he says.

Precise comps keep it real
New York’s Comp 24, the largest dedicated packaging comp facility in the country with 65 employees and 24-hour a day service has production facilities in New York and Burbank. Its website, www.comp24.com, explains the company’s offerings in an Options Section that indicates one- to three-day service depending on the technologies a client chooses.

President Ken Wasserman notes that the company has the technologies to meet a variety of customer expectations. In the digital realm they have both a Kodak NexPress 2100 and an HP-Indigo, a Roland wide format inkjet, plus a DuPont Waterproof for analog proofing.

“We use the digital presses when the client doesn’t need critical color,” Wasserman explains. “The one we use depends on the project. Certain machines have certain advantages for certain colors.” However, Wasserman goes on to note, “The lion’s share of our work is not digital but good old fashioned ink on paper for an exact color match.”

Wasserman divides prototype reproduction into two realms—realistic and beauties. “We can simulate enough of what’s going to be produced in actual production,” he says. “It’s not too beautiful. Corporate buyers don’t want their comps to be too pretty. However, for TV and photos shoots we make fantasy packages. They’re gorgeous but the question for the customer is, ‘Is it cost effective to actually produce and do you need that quality?’ The highest beauties are not necessarily reproducible in production.”

Comp 24’s brochure reminds package designers to “Comp Early, Comp Often” and “Make It Real” with a 3D prototype. Evidently, customers still take that to heart, because Wasserman reports his company’s volume is up this year.

 

Real means all but real
Yet, the power of the latest 3D software packages to present products from all sides and in position on a shelf would seem to be on the way to eliminating the need for some physical 3D comps. Industry reality today says no. While the virtual world may save time in early design states, hands on presentation remains a necessity.

At Smurfit-Stone, Tony Hancock, director of packaging innovation, says, “Our structural designers are provided design briefs defining the expectations of a particular project and from there we create prototype samples using state-of-the-art CAD systems. In most cases we provide finished comp samples with customer supplied graphics or graphic designs we create to complement the design.”

Mike Ryan, regional director of the Creative Resource Group at Smurfit-Stone, notes: “We always create physical prototypes of all structures before concepts are ever presented to the customer. Throughout the design development process, our structural designers are continually cutting samples on the CAD table to check for size, appearance, function, and overall accuracy.” Once the design is finalized, several white structures provide the customer with a sample for production size and style approval. Graphics are usually added to the structures for presentation to the customer, for marketing both externally and internally, and for use in ad photography and other communication materials.”

Studio One Eleven’s Scott Jost cautions that some customers may be too accepting of 3D screen shots. “The lifecycle of consumer goods is shrinking. If you can shave three or four days by avoiding a prototype, some people are willing to do it. However, the way people interact with a package is not easy to communicate on screen. If users have to interact a certain way with a package, you just can’t find out if you’ve got it right from a 3D screen shot.

“We designers are the stewards of our customers’ solutions, and responsible if a package doesn’t get to market because it doesn’t work—much like architects and engineers are supposed to build bridges that don’t fall down,” Jost says. “We’re not supposed to let them do that.”

Prototypical “service providers”
Chuck Judy, shop manager for prototyping at Kaleidoscope, explains the shifting, service-oriented nature of the business. “Kaleidoscope has become more focused on graphics and branding, out of necessity, by following clients’ needs,” says Judy.

Randy Perkinson, president of Advertising Props, explains that many companies are trying to differentiate their products with proprietary shapes, substrates, inks and combinations of such. Perkinson reminds us that prototyping has not been at its current level of sophistication for that many years. "Where it use to be virtually impossible to make identical mock-ups, with today's technology, we can make any number of packages look the same," explains Perkinson.

Ad Props' strength is being able to produce all CPG packages in house and utilize "partner" companies that have the additional needed resources for large quantity orders and/or engineering capabilities for specific projects. For instance, they can quickly produce flexible packages with all the elements of the eventual pouch-with perfect seals, tear off strips, reseal zippers, and printed labels.

However, Perkinson also points out how many companies don't always need absolutely perfect prototypes these days, but prototypes that mimic what will come off the production line. Dave Russ, 3D department manager at Ad Props, stresses good communication with clients is key in achieving the clients goals. "We have the experience and knowledge needed to offer solutions", Russ says.

Maria Hagin, director of sales and marketing at Ad Props, says that companies look to them to be a "solutions provider" for a range of prototyping and marketing initiatives. "Our clients want to use fewer vendors," Hagin says. "They don't what to have a different vendor for every need."

 

Digital Presses Keep Getting Smaller and More Productive
In addition to the wide-format inkjet printers, rapid prototyping machines, and SLA used for prototyping, a number of toner machines under 28" wide are making inroads in packaging comps, short test run production, and even short-run customized/personalized specialty label and product printing. The HP-Indigo line of industrial presses (the s2000, ws2000, and ws4050) all use liquid toner called Electroink. The sheet-fed, six-color s2000 prints at 1,000 11" x17" images per hour on what the company calls “nearly unlimited substrates.” that include optimized PVS, polyester, polycarbonate, and more. The ws2000 web uses four to seven colors, including spot colors and fluorescents and is directed at the label market. The ws4050 can also handle shrink sleeve packaging. (More at www.hp.com)

 

 

Kodak’s NexPress 2100 digital variable data-capable sheet-fed press became viable for testing consumer goods packaging this year with the addition of a fifth imaging unit that enables added color (optimized for Pantone Color reproduction), enhanced further by glossing and coating solutions. The NexPress glosser solution is a near-line unit that lets printers add a high-gloss coating for protection and image quality. The coating solution allows printers to add a flood or spot coating of new clear toner as an additional protective layer. (More at www.nexpress.com)

Xeikon International has offered the label market single-side web solutions for its digital web presses since the mid-1990s—all capable of variable data reproduction. The new Xeikon 330 has a fifth color station, which ships as opaque white but can be used to add spot color or special toner like MICR. It offers 600 dpi resolution, screen rulings from 85 lpi to 170 lpi, and prints at 48 fpm. Special contact fusing technology makes it capable of handling a large variety of substrates. (More at www.xeikon.com)