Life in the age of COVID-19 has been complicated. While much of the country has been hunkering down in the name of flattening the curve, packaging producers have needed to keep the presses running. Part of a critical infrastructure industry as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, these printers play a crucial role in protecting the nation’s food, medical and health care supply chains, which also spells opportunities for distributors.
“Many customers are ramping up volume to ensure their supply chain is robust and secure, and working with packaging manufacturing partners to develop a plan to secure customers’ products is vital,” observed Christine Achtermeier, business manager of indirect channel for Outlook Group LLC, Neenah, Wis. “These are certainly uncharted waters, but partnering with packaging manufacturers will help bring peace of mind to end-users knowing they have a secure source of supply.”
Now more than ever, it’s important that distributors understand the components of packaging design. This requires time, creative energy and a deliberate strategy. In other words, they’re going to need a bigger box to hold their ideas. We know you have questions, and Print+Promo has the answers thanks to Achtermeier and Gary Syvertsen, president of OlymPak Sales and Marketing Division of MinMor Industries, Brooklyn Center, Minn.
How much does the environment factor into packaging decisions?
Overall, sustainable packaging remains on a steady path for growth, as retailers continue to challenge their suppliers to choose more environmentally sound packaging options. Quite simply, it’s the right thing to do, so distributors should be prepared to assist clients with their sustainability roadmap.
“Sustainability today is more real than any [other] time in my career, which started in 1971,” noted Syvertsen. “The younger generations have been taught about the environment and recycling from K-12 and college, [and] have carried [that] into their adult lives.”
In response, OlymPak has researched substrates that are 100 percent recyclable and has obtained FSC certification to ensure its paperboard mill sources comply with the sustainable practices in the paperboard-making processes. The company also developed a process for printing high-quality graphics on its new sustainable, non-coated Kraft substrate.
For Achtermeier, sustainability in packaging is more comprehensive than material selection alone. Choosing packaging formats that lend themselves to automation, for example, can have labor sustainability benefits. Protecting brand consistency across products and packaging formats, and reducing supply chain complexity are other ways to take an eco-friendly stance, she said.
“Distributors can help their clients determine what aspect of sustainability is most important to them,” Achtermeier remarked. “Does the customer want to reduce their carbon footprint? Water usage? Is reducing plastic a key driver? Is using recyclable materials important? Depending on the answers to those questions, there are different packaging decisions that can align with what’s important, and distributors can help guide their clients accordingly.”
OK, so what other trends should I know about?
Achtermeier is seeing attention shift toward the perimeter of retail stores for fresh products, like meats, dairy and produce. This extends the green theme as it relates to distributors’ sales pitches, since customers are trying to move away from expanded polystyrene (EPS) trays in favor of more earth-friendly paper options—similar to what has been occurring in Europe, she said.
“Peel and reseal labels are increasingly replacing rigid packaging components to allow the consumer to close the package and keep the contents fresher longer while also reducing the packaging’s impact on the environment,” Achtermeier added. “We’re also seeing interest in new ways to let fresh produce items ‘breathe’ at more precisely targeted rates.”
Exciting investments are happening on the equipment side as well. Color is everything, so, throughout the industry, suppliers are purchasing more multi-color presses (i.e., eight- and 10-color presses). Syvertsen spoke more on the advances happening in corrugated and digital processes.
“Corrugated manufacturers are buying more sophisticated presses and are producing more quality printed products,” he said. “Digital presses are becoming more common everywhere and are bolstering the commercial print industry, as well as the packaging world. Larger, 84" presses in the packaging industry are becoming more accepted and are being used for huge volume customers, and embossing and high-gloss coatings are being used much more than before.”
It’s no secret that digital printing methods, specifically, have gained rapid ground with customers in recent years. There are a couple of reasons for this, primarily time and cost savings. As Achtermeier pointed out, breakthroughs in digital printing and narrow web flexography have made it more economical to run smaller quantities of packaging. Suppliers, like Outlook Group LLC, can produce small quantities of different designs, allowing brand owners to test those designs and choose the one that resonates most with consumers. For the sake of market testing, small quantities could be 1,000 of each design, Achtermeier mentioned.
“Packaging for new products can be printed digitally, then market tested and scaled up with less expense and risk than purchasing flexo plates or rotogravure cylinders out of the gates,” she explained. “These advances also allow faster speed to market to capitalize on opportunities more quickly than in the past.”
Digital printing can’t be perfect, though, right?
Correct. Digital isn’t the exception when it comes to production pitfalls. A common limiting factor to this type of printing is the order quantity. Although digital printing has made improvements to increase run speed, it is still slower than rotogravure, flexography and offset printing formats. Furthermore, the ink technology for digital is a work in progress.
“Often the base material needs to be primed to improve ink adhesion,” Achtermeier said. “In some cases, an overlaminate is used to protect the ink from abrasion. Digital inks are also expensive compared to inks for other print methods, which also factors into the order quantities that make sense for digital.”
Sticking with this theme, ink selection, in general, can be a factor based on the type of packaging application. For instance, Achtermeier said water-based inks may not have the same adhesion as solvent-based inks, whereas solvent-based inks may not be a good choice for products that are susceptible to picking up odors. And, UV-cured inks may have restrictions based on the type of packaging being printed or what is being packaged.
What do I need to know about packaging design?
It’s difficult to pinpoint the single most important component to packaging design, because as Achtermeier noted, “failing at any one of them can mean a bad experience for the consumer.” However, if it were up to her, protecting what is in the package through the distribution cycle tops the list—failure to do so could lead to widespread damage of a brand’s reputation.
“Depending on the product, the packaging may need to be designed to protect the product from gaining or losing moisture, from ‘breathing’ too much or too little, or from external forces that can break the product,” Achtermeier instructed.
Take, for example, chocolate candy. Without the appropriate barrier film for the product inside, the shelf life is shortened, causing the product to become stale.
Syvertsen suggested holding a pre-production meeting to mitigate risk. During the design stage, the prototype is sent to the plant. The plant manager then has a meeting to discuss graphics and die-cutting issues, he said, and determines whether folding or gluing issues could occur with the carton.
“If changes are to be made, the sample is sent back to the designer,” Syvertsen shared. “If there are changes needed to the art, the prepress manager and the project manager call the customer and they arrange to talk to the artist. With things resolved, the final design is completed and the customer OKs the structure and final art proofs are sent for [approval]. When all of that is completed, we are set to produce the job for the customer.”
What’s the best way to ensure a smooth working relationship between me and my supplier partner?
Keep the lines of communication open! Suppliers need complete and accurate information to adequately specify and quote a package. Requoting due to incorrect specs can lead to delays and aggravation with the client, especially if the price increases from the original quote.
“Getting samples of existing packaging is a key way to streamline the price qualification and trialing stages of the scale-up process,” Achtermeier said. “Involve the manufacturer as early as possible—and as directly as possible—to minimize the potential for not meeting the customer’s expectations, particularly those that result from miscommunications as the information gets passed through multiple people. Asking the customer what issues they are having is an important question for finding ways the distributor and manufacturer team can add value and remove frustrations for the customer.”
Sometimes, it’s not always possible to know every detail. Just look at the current climate. Who can predict, say, consumer demand? A good trade printer will work with you when the unexpected happens.
“We have a well-known [e-commerce] client that we sell labels to through a distributor,” Achtermeier mentioned. “These labels are printed with a unique code that helps the end-customer identify the various products through their operations and to the consumer.
“Each year during the holidays, demand spikes, but the demand is not consistent from year to year,” she went on to say. “Understandably, the end-customer doesn’t want us to manufacture too much product ahead of time or they will be sitting on inventory for many months. This past year, the demand was higher than usual, and when our competition wasn’t able to respond, our distributor was able to handle the increased demand for our share of the business, as well as the increased demand for the competitor.”
Perhaps Syvertsen summed it up best. “If a distributor develops a partnership with a converter and takes the time to learn who that converter is and gets to know the people in the organization, that converter will bend over backwards to help that person or persons be successful,” he concluded.