How to Innovate Packaging More Effectively with Print Quality Data

In a recent BrandSquare webinar, our Marc Levine presented on how to innovate consumer packaging across SKUs, substrates, channels and countries with print quality data. With disjointed views and non-standardized processes between brand owners, premedia and print suppliers, companies often struggle to meet the same print quality goals. Marc offers insights on how brands are using Schawk's ColorDrive print quality tools to standardize color consistency and drive clear expectations across the supply chain.

Watch the entire webinar here: How to Build Quality-Focused Partnerships in Your Print Supply Chain  

ColorDrive provides a web based, open platform to help brands collect data and drive print quality focused relationships.

“An open platform will plug into any new technology, and if you can interchange your suppliers and your suppliers can interchange technology, then this great effort that you’ve made to get a print quality program going can continue and be extensible into your ongoing future,” says Marc Levine.

What is a print quality-focused partnership?

This is the relationship a brand owner or retailer has with the supplier that is providing the print. For a retailer, this is a relationship with a finished goods supplier working with a printer.

If you are experiencing the three struggles below, your organization might have an interest in a print quality relationship with your suppliers:

Design and consistency on shelf. The first key struggle that we see is realizing design intent. Design intent is your vision, or the brand’s vision of how a product is going to live on shelf. Brands invest a lot of money on creating a design that realizes their vision and captures the spirit of what they want to say with the product. A lot of times, the product winds up on the shelf and it’s not what everyone hoped it would be. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t – it can be an inconsistent process.

Transparency. Your print suppliers are producing everything for you, however often they produce, and they’re collecting measurements that you never see – so how do you get access to the data? How do you start having a conversation about data? That’s exactly what a print quality program can do. It gives you the transparency or visibility to that data so you can make it a conversation.

Improvement in quality. Another thing that is common across customers is they want to affect improvement and change in their process -- they see an issue they want to characterize, and ultimately address it. A lot of times, there’s not enough time to troubleshoot anything – that’s one of the problems with print quality in the supply chain. You’ve got to get product to the shelf. The packaging has to ship out from the print supplier and it’s very difficult to stop these things and you have a very narrow window to improve the way that process works.

So having the print quality data in-hand, gives you the opportunity to act quickly and affect change in your supply chain so that you can continually improve and drive better performance on shelf.

What can I do to maintain a print quality-focused partnership?

The number one way to characterize it is sort of an alignment of vision. A lot of times a print supplier provides the brand owner or company a sample. Then the print supplier genuinely believes the sample meets their requirements and by the measures that have been prescribed to them, it does. Yet, when the brand gets that they look at the product and gauge it against their expectations and the proof and it’s un-usable. So there’s a gap in understanding and there is a limit of visions. The printer is looking at your work, the brand is looking at the work, so part of the print quality focus is aligning the way those two parties view the product.

Another key aspect of a print quality focused partnership is the commitment to collect data.

“You’re not going to have a print quality, data-driven relationship without data. There has to be a commitment to collect it and to review it from the printer,” says Marc Levine.

The printer needs to look at the data, but the brand does too. From a brand ownership perspective, if you’re not looking at the data or respecting the value of it, it’s a threat to the ongoing success of your program. Looking at the data and interacting with the data – that doesn’t mean it has to be your only job – the brand’s interaction with the data is part of a print quality-focused partnership with the success of a program.

Another thing you want to ask yourself is: what’s the commitment to act? If I’m a brand and I’ve got out-of-specification data from a print supplier three months in a row, what am I going to do about it? Am I ready to prescribe a different behavior? Am I ready to set up conditions?

In planning a print quality-focused partnership, think about what you want to do with the data and set a course that’s on your roadmap, so as your programs evolve you can get to the space where you can use the data the way you want to use it. That’s critical to the whole process. Finally, it’s a commitment to partner.

“What we see is that we’re on the phone with a lot with brands – the print suppliers is on the phone with us, and we’re all talking about the data that we’ve seen. Sometimes there are opportunities to improve, but there are commercial aspects of it. I can’t underscore enough how valuable it is that the printer has the ear of the brand and that they’re involved in that discussion. So the brand can hear the printer’s challenges and you can work through a reasonable process to affect that improvement,” says Marc Levine.

Sometimes improvements can happen right away, sometimes it’s over a longer haul – you need to consider that when new work comes up for bid. You need to really understanding each side, the printer understanding the brand, the brand understanding the printer, through this program. This really helps you have a different kind of relationship where print quality can play a larger role.

In terms of tracking, let’s talk more about aligning your vision. Aligning your vision has something to do with your specifications or spec. A specification is a set of criteria and tolerances that determine if measures are acceptable or not acceptable.

What can I measure?

  • Color of the solid ink
  • Color of overprint inks
  • Color of gray balance
  • Color of substrate
  • Tone value (TVT) of tints
  • Tone value of gray balance
  • Opacity of substrate & inks
  • Gloss of substrate & ink
  • Quality of registration
  • Quality of visual match

The more things you measure, the more complete your view is of print quality, and the better you can align the way the printer sees the print quality or how to brand sees the print quality. But there are complexities involved here. You don’t want to have a discussion where you’re talking about ten different things – it’s an unmanageable discussion, but you do need a specification.

Specifications set a clear performance guideline for the printer. The way to really address this is to first identify a number of things you’d like to track. What you can do is you can roll all of that up into a single value that is commonly referred to as the score. This could include things like: dot area, registration, visual, and Delta E 100. 

This is all part of the process of setting up what you want to measure and how to roll all of it up and have one number that tells me how you’re doing. And once you have that one number, now you’re in shape to collect lots of data and start seeing improvement while also detecting where there’s opportunity to do better. This gives you the ability to track how the numbers perform overtime and gives the printer a way of demonstrating their ability to improve their process for the brand.

How am I going to get the data?

As a brand, you need to consider if you want the data the suppliers are measuring themselves, which should then go on your roadmap. Typically, brands start out and they have print suppliers sending samples to a calibrated lab where data can start up fast and get data in there. But just in terms of planning your print quality relationship, think about who’s going to be collecting the data.

“Data on its own doesn’t really do anything. You really want to have a dialogue around that data and identify opportunities to improve your process,” says Marc Levine.

Always consider what the print supplier is doing already, as a lot of print suppliers have programs like this that they’re doing. Try to understand that as best as you can and then integrate where possible with what they’re already doing. The print supplier is going to appreciate that, and it’s more inline with what the brand wants.

The brand ultimately wants the supplier to produce more efficiently for less cost so you can get better quality for less of a price. That doesn’t work if the printer is already juggling four or five print quality systems and you’re asking them to do another one. You need to approach the printer with a high level of activity and understand that and do your best to make your program extensible and compatible with what the industry is doing. 

When you’re looking for printers to help you execute with this sort of initiative, look for certified labs with standardized processes. The people who are doing these things will probably have some established programs and protocols to make this work consistently across all the suppliers you want to work with.

“Once you solve the problems of print quality upstream, the desire and urgency to do this at a plant-level tends to diminish. Print quality is a specialized function – you’ve got specialized tools, specialized lighting – and typically at the plants, there’s plenty to do without doing that particular function,” says Marc Levine.

One last thing to remember is, technology changes. Next year, you may be dealing with a different mix and suppliers who may bring in new technologies to produce. They may bring in new technologies to management, so just consider that in whatever program you put forth, as you don’t want to lock it down to specific set of instruments. Make it specification-based so that no matter what technology is available in the market, you can extend throughout all of the technologies your suppliers have available.

Learn more about ColorDrive’s functions and see if your visual scores stay consistent from job to job and throughout all your suppliers.