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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Box Manufacturing

A commercial printing client of mine just received her job, which consisted of twelve short, saddle-stitched print books in a box. The books are 6” x 9” in format with four-color covers, and the slip case box they fit in is a four-color press sheet laminated to corrugated board.

I asked my client how the job looked when the samples arrived, and she expressed pleasure with the books but regret for the slightly off-center art on the box. She had received one sample of the job. The printer had mailed out all other sets to the address database list my client had provided.

Ouch. Few things bother me more than an unhappy client. So I asked her to send me photos of the box showing the art off center. I then sent these on to the commercial printing vendor who had done the work.

(First of all, I asked my client for photos rather than the box itself so I could immediately communicate with the printer. Picking up the box would have taken time. Sending the box to the printer would have taken additional time. Requesting photos as email attachments was much more immediate.)

A Description of the Corrugated Slip Case

To give you some context, the slip case is a little over three inches wide to accommodate twelve short print books. In the back it is a full 9” high, but this slopes downward in the front to about 6” to afford easy access to the books.

On the sides of the box are the front and back of a print book with text and photos promoting the books in the box (individual chapters from the larger text book). I could see that the covers were not exactly centered and were slightly tilted on the background PMS color. On the front of the slip case box, my client had included the title of the series; a list of the separate, bound chapters it includes; and the company logo (all in reverse type). The vertical axis of this centered list had not been precisely centered on the box panel, and all type was slightly tilted as well.

I could see why my client was not happy.

The Dieline of the Slip Case

To figure out what had happened, I checked the combined dieline/PDF proof of the box. This PDF image showed all paper flaps that would be folded in and glued to fabricate a completed box. It was incredibly complex with all of its flaps and glue tabs. The proof showed the exact placement of the images (front and back covers of the main book) on either side of the box, plus the art for the taller back panel and shorter front panel. I could see where the art should have landed (after printing, laminating, diecutting, folding, and gluing).

The Printer’s Response to the Photos

I want to note here that this custom printing vendor has always been candid with me. He has also always produced stellar products under unbelievably tight deadlines.

Because I trust the printer, I listened closely to his response. This is what he said after doing some research:

  1. Although he could see the lack of precision in the photos of the sample box, the other samples he had checked at the print shop were not off center or tilted. Probably the other 250+ boxes were ok. This was not a guarantee, however.
  2. The (separate) box printer/converter had had problems with the press run and had pulled out (and given to the main printer, my trusted associate) a number of rejects. Some were not that bad. My printer would make these available to my client if she received complaints and needed to send a new box or two to a dissatisfied client (i.e., the end user).
  3. And this was the sobering information the printer offered:

  4. Tolerances for box manufacturing are not as tight as for offset custom printing. Whereas an offset printer might provide a piece with a 1/16” or 1/32” leeway from perfect positioning of a printed element, a box manufacturer might have a 1/8” or 1/4” leeway, which would still be considered acceptable. Why? Because all of the die cutting, folding, and gluing operations will actually magnify and exacerbate the slightest deviation from perfect positioning. The multiple operations needed for box conversion will make a problem worse and worse.
  5. In future box designs, the printer said it would be safer to not place a rectangle (the book cover) in a position that would be obvious if there were any deviation from perfect placement.

Even though I was not happy, I could see the printer’s point. In book printing, this might be like placing a 12pt rule all the way around the perimeter of a book cover. Anything but the most precise trimming of the cover would make the printed rule around the cover look uneven. Since commercial printing is a physical process, and all printing and post printing (or finishing) operations magnify errors, it is wise to design with the limits of both offset lithography and post-press finishing operations in mind.

Granted, some boxes–perhaps most boxes–were closer to perfect, particularly after the box printer had removed the problematic slip cases. It was unfortunate that my client’s sample was not perfect. But just as I could see errors in printed maps becoming worse and worse as the multitude of folds magnified any errors in placement, I could see my printer’s point. But if I had not developed such a long-standing relationship with him over the years, I (and my client) might not have had such faith in his response.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. For complex jobs, only work with a printer you trust completely. If anything goes wrong, he will be more likely to tell you honestly what is the printer’s fault and what is considered acceptable, or within tolerance, for particular commercial printing and finishing operations.
  2. Expect box printing to not be perfect, due to the number of individual steps in the process that will magnify flaws. Design your printed product accordingly to minimize the effect of any misalignment.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Box Manufacturing”

  1. Boswell Brent says:

    I have seen few things in this post, you are right on them. I have learned many things from case study. If someone want to be in this work, you have mentioned really good guidelines. I have got almost the same (really good) guidelines on designing and manufacturing of custom boxes from https://www.thecustomboxes.com/ I have found them really helpful, in a way that to save my time and money.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your comment and for sharing the URL of the online box manufacturer. Since boxes are three-dimensional (and functional as well as aesthetic), there are many things to consider when you print and convert them.

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