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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: Anatomy of a Product Packaging Box

When going through some piles of paper in the house, I came upon an unfolded tea box my fiancee had disassembled. Flat and all misshapen, with tabs jutting out in all directions, it looked like a curiosity to me. After all, I had seen it months before as a three-dimensional solid and as a product, in some ways more real as a box than as a collection of tea bags (since I buy the groceries but don’t drink tea very often).

This got me to thinking about the nature of boxes and product packaging in general.

First of all, the very best news: Print packaging is a huge growth industry in the realm of commercial printing. Therefore, the more you and I know about it, the more marketable we will be. In addition, it is a growth industry for digital custom printing as well as for offset printing, due to the print market’s penchant for short runs and quick turn-arounds.

The Anatomy of the Box

Take apart a carton. It doesn’t have to be a tea carton, as long as it starts as a rectangular solid with top and bottom flaps. The first thing you see (once it is completely flat) is that it is printed (usually) only on one side. It also has a number of die cut flaps of various lengths going in various directions. If you look even more closely, you’ll see that the flaps are either very long (these comprise the top and bottom of the box) or shorter than the others but of equal length to one another (these are the flaps that fold over, on the top and bottom opening of the box, but underneath the much longer flaps just noted).

If you flip the flat box over, you’ll see all of the custom printing work (some of it positioned at right angles for the top and bottom of the box), plus flaps printed only with printer’s color bars (you’ll never see these once the box is closed). Other flaps have no printing (these are either interior flaps or the side glue flap). The side glue flap has a strip without printing. This is where the hot-melt glue goes to attach the side of the box once it has been wrapped around into a 3D rectangular solid.

As confusing as this sounds, you can easily wrap the flat box around, insert the flaps, tape or glue the side flap, and you’ll have the complete package again. This is called box conversion. A flat sheet is “converted” into a 3D container, a product in and of itself.

Needless to say, type, art, and fold placement are all very important in the production of the box. If the scores for the folds are in the wrong place, if the die cut edges of the flaps are mis-positioned, or if the text and solid bars of color printed on the box are not in the right place (including the bleeds), the converted box won’t look right. Instead of promoting the sale of the product, it will detract from it.

And that is really what it’s all about. The sale. The box is a container, granted. It’s much easier to protect a handful of tea bags in another bag within a box than all scattered in a pile of teabags. But if there were no packaging, the brand producer would have missed an opportunity to promote the qualities of the tea and the lifestyle it reflects. That’s really what the marketing copy and visuals are about: positioning the tea as a vital part of an active lifestyle, or a crunchy-granola alternative to coffee for the bluejean intellectual. The box with its printed adornment does all of this. Otherwise, it would be acceptable for all such boxes to just be labeled “tea” or “food.”

Printing Options

Packaging is often printed via flexography, which is a relief printing process in which raised portions of rubber commercial printing plates imprint the image on the chipboard (or other, usually lower-quality, grade of paper board) as it runs through the press.

Offset printing can also be used to decorate the box. So can digital printing, but we’ll get back to that. Since the paperboard is flat (and uncrushable, unlike fluted corrugated board), this kind of packaging can be produced in many different ways. I’d also assume that gravure is another option, perhaps for very long runs.

Short Runs

But what about short commercial printing press runs? Marketers like to do short runs these days. Some may be personalized. Others may just be versioned (let’s say for a particular holiday or event) to make the packaging stand out on the shelves. (Product packaging must vie with competitors’ product packaging to catch your attention and sell you the product with its text and graphics.)

Printing these boxes is not necessarily the hardest part of the job. Converting the job (die cutting and assembling the box) also involves a lot of work. Usually metal dies inset into wood flats need to be created to make the boxes (in all but some digital finishing operations). This costs a lot and takes a lot of subcontractors’ time, so it’s really only cost effective for long press runs. (When you spread the cost of die cutting and assembly over a very long press run, the unit cost for finishing drops precipitously.)

But if you’re trying to make a single prototype or a short run of boxes, what can you do? Well now you have options. There are digital machines made by Highcon and Scodix that can (in the case of Highcon) digitally crease, or score, the box flats and then cut them with a laser instead of a metal die cutting rule. And prior to these finishing operations, there is (in the case of Scodix) a way to digitally foil stamp or digitally emboss the paper board used for the box.

For a prototype, this is a dream come true. Think about it. You don’t need to make a metal stamping die for the foil or the embossing. And you don’t need a metal die to cut the box flats from the paper substrate. You can even make one box as a prototype, and if the marketing team has corrections even after that point, you can economically and quickly (days, not weeks) prepare a revised prototype. If that design is approved, you can roll out a short run quickly (again must faster than the traditional way).

Granted, the time comes when the press run is too long for digital (or, rather, there is a cut-off point where it becomes cheaper again to amortize the cost of embossing, foil stamping, and die cutting over a long run using more durable metal dies). Only your printer’s estimating department can figure out the exact cut-off point. Also, it depends on who has the Highcon and Scodix equipment and who has to subcontract the work out. This is new technology. Most printers (I’ll venture to say) do not have this equipment, but it’s worth it to inquire and do research, and perhaps even start a working relationship with a long-distance vendor who does have the equipment.

This is the future of packaging, and packaging (along with labels and large-format printing) will be a major player in the future of commercial printing.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Read everything you can lay your hands on about new trends in custom printing. It will help your professional life immeasurably.
  2. Package printing is hot. It may be your future.
  3. Package printing is a 3D process. You are producing a physical object as well as laying ink on paper. It helps to understand the physics as well as the design aspect of the process.
  4. Digital printing and digital finishing will both figure prominently in this area of commercial printing. Digital finishing was a little slow at first, but now it’s catching up in exciting ways.
  5. A trip to a high-end department store to carefully study the boxes in the “beauty” departments, such as the cosmetics counters, will be an educational and productive use of your time. Vendors like Chanel have lots of money and pour it into this kind of product packaging. Close observation will give you design ideas, but it will also teach you about foils, embossing, box construction, etc.

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