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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: A Primer on Corrugated Boxes

A client of mine is printing a 6” x 9” perfect-bound textbook with a press run of 3,000. But this article isn’t about her print book. It’s about the cartons in which her books will ship.

It’s easy to forget that the finest custom printing job (whether books, brochures, or whatever) is useless until you get it into the hands of your clients—in pristine condition. Thus, the cardboard box that contains your job and protects it in transit is an especially important component of the entire job.

My Client’s Boxes

Most boxes are a standard size. Whatever that standard size may be (there are a lot of options), it is usually still larger than my client’s boxes need to be. She needs each carton to contain 20 of the 6” x 9” textbooks, and she would like to have descriptive information (the title of the print books, a tagline, an address, and the number of books the cartons contain) printed right on the box—not on a label.

Last year there wasn’t time for the box printing, so she had to make do with self-stick litho labels. They looked ok, but they were not as attractive as information imprinted directly on the cartons.

Why is this important? Because the first thing my client’s clients will see will be the cartons, not the print books. And as a consultant once told me when I was an art director, “Everything that a company sends out is an advertisement for the company.” Back then it was a novel concept. Now it is a concept I live by. And my client lives by it, too. So the guiding rule is that the boxes are advertisements for my client’s company, and they have to look good.

So far, so good. But when the deadline arrived, my client still needed a number of supervisor approvals, and so the art file for the box imprint started to get a little late. I was concerned. Here’s why:

Specialized Work

Cardboard boxes need to be printed and then converted. They can be screen printed. They can be printed via flexography (for simpler art), using rubber printing plates and water-based ink. Or they can have offset litho-printed liners glued to the fluted, interior ribs of the corrugated board. The last option is the most expensive (and it provides the highest quality of printing).

After the flat corrugated board has been printed, it has to be diecut, folded, and glued. At this point the carton printing run exists as flat carton blanks that are strapped together and shipped. Once delivered, the flat cartons can be opened and folded into final boxes by the user. (Imagine the boxes you buy and then assemble when you move to a new house.)

The problem is that very few companies do this kind of work. In most cases, printers need to subcontract box printing and conversion. It’s harder to control subcontracted work, and it often takes longer than expected. In many cases the carton subcontractor has a backlog of jobs from many other custom printing suppliers.

Tight Schedules

In my client’s case, what this means is that printing the entire 6” x 9” textbook run of 3,000 copies will take three weeks, but within this time frame the carton printing and converting will take a full week, or one third of the entire production schedule.

Firm Deadlines

My client needed approvals, so the box art went to the subcontractor a little late. In addition, my client wanted to see a proof. Granted, this is a reasonable request. I would always encourage a client to see a proof. However, a hard-copy proof would have taken extra days for the box converter to ship to my client and for her to return via FedEx. So we opted for a PDF virtual proof.

The proof came via email, but it had to be reviewed and approved. Due to the tight schedule, my client had about forty minutes to get all office-staff approvals she needed. Fortunately she was able to do this. And at the exact close of business that day, I gave the approval to the customer service rep at the printer who was subcontracting the box production. That was too close for comfort.

What would have happened if we hadn’t made the schedule? If the box proof had gone back to the corrugated box manufacturer the next morning, my client might have lost her press slot to another client who had met the quick proof turn-around deadline. My client’s schedule might have been lengthened by a day, two days, maybe more. There’s no way to know. Since many box printing clients skip the proof entirely, then requesting a proof and holding it is a risk.

The Future of Corrugated Boxes

Things are changing in the field. If you read the press about the recent drupa printing trade show in Germany, you’ll see that packaging is a growth industry, and digital printing and converting are improving in leaps and bounds. Even now some vendors are able to inkjet your art right on the box. (The pressure of the offset printing rollers would crush corrugated stock, which is why screen printing and flexography are usually the ways boxes are decorated.) After the inkjet printing step, digital converting can use lasers to crease and cut the cardboard blanks instead of relying on metal dies (rules that take days to manually construct for the die cutting).

What We Can Learn from this Case Study

  1. Box manufacturing takes a long time and requires highly specialized skill. It involves subcontractors that usually require tight proof deadlines. This is not a buyer’s market. So submit your box art early and turn the proofs around immediately.
  2. Read the trade journals and keep abreast of developments in digital printing of corrugated boxes and digital box conversion. It will make your life much easier.
  3. Find out early from your commercial printing vendor whether your corrugated box will require custom work. Even if the price is low, the schedule might be daunting.
  4. Consider labels as an alternative. Your printer can buy standard boxes, and print and apply the labels in his own plant, avoiding any custom work by subcontractors. This may not look as nice, but in a pinch it’s often a good alternative.

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