Physical packaging proofs cost a bomb to make and can't be emailed, but are clients ready to trust 3D virtual proofs and what kind of printer can benefit?
We trust computers to do a lot: fly our planes, transfer our money across the globe, even to perform some surgical procedures.
It seems strange, then, that when it comes down to it, the acceptance or rejection of 3D visualisation software for proofing within the packaging sector often comes down to whether a client or printer trusts a computer to be up to the task of creating an accurate replica of a printed product.
Despite the massive advances in the capability and complexity of 3D visualisation tools, and the fact that switching to digital proofs over physical proofs can cut costs significantly, this trust is still proving difficult to acquire. Some argue that a digital rendering can never be a substitute for a tangible physical proof, while others say that 3D visualisation, while impressive, can never give 100% assurances of structure and fit. A wider question, that should concern those rushing out to buy the software after being impressed by its capabilities, is whether at the stage the printer is now getting involved in a project, 3D visualisation is even needed.
That the 3D visualisation software coming on to the market is impressive is undeniable. Visualisations can now take in so many variables, from substrates to print techniques to finishing processes, that designers can create an accurate realisation of whatever their mind conjures up.
"Designers can select any material and the specific physical attributes of that substrate are recreated on screen," explains Jef Stoffels, director of marketing at Esko, which offers the Studio product. "The same goes for inks, pigments, holograms, foiling, embossing, varnishes – everything you could imagine. All this information is in our library and it is harvested from real production data."
FFEI’s RealVue 3D Packager is just as complex, says business development manager Carl Smith, and he says live updates make it extremely flexible too.
"The technology has moved on considerably over the past two years and that is a key reason for its increased uptake and the confidence clients now have in it," he explains. "We can do a live update from Illustrator, so corrections can be made and updated live for the client if that client is present or logged in remotely. So, for any design, the printer can take the client through a process and say, this is how it will look with a matt varnish or how it would look with this material."
Simulate different retail environments
If these qualities weren’t enough, the latest software on the market can also place the package within different environments to see how it might look.
"We can now recreate the lighting of an airport shop, or a supermarket, or a boutique, using Kelvin values and other data," reveals Esko’s Stoffels. "You can see how the product will look and react under those conditions. We can also recreate the shopping environment so you can see how the pack looks on shelf. It is almost becoming a really high-level video game."
The reason all this capability has come about is that proofing for packaging products is increasingly becoming an issue. On the one hand, the packages are more elaborate than ever, so creating the proof is increasingly expensive – most clients expect a physical proof as part of the service and upping prices is not an option in the current economic environment. On the other, the design stage can now include multiple stages, and new proofs are required for each of those. In addition, turnaround times are also shorter.
A leading packaging printer, which wishes to remain anonymous, explains: "Producing mock-ups for customer approval is a big problem – the new breed of buyers are not able to use their imagination. They want to see mock ups of the product throughout the design process and they want them instantly. The normal method of running off a proof, spray mounting it to board and CAD cutting a sample is clumsy and laborious and the print alternative, at present, is too expensive. A cost-effective method of producing mock-ups clients can use is essential."
As has been shown above, 3D visualisation software certainly has the offering that could help this situation. Neither the developers nor the printers using the software see it as a wholesale replacement for physical proofing but, as AGI-Shorewood’s head of concept design Rudy Martinez says, it can play a key role in reducing the number of proofing stages.
"Around 95% of the time, we will end up doing a physical proof at the final stage of development, but we have cut down the number of physical proofs we have to create before that by creating them digitally in 3D instead," he explains.
Stoffels says that this is the case for the majority of installs. "Typically we are seeing 3D visualisations being used for the approval rounds and development stages of a job, and then when final decisions are made we are then seeing the physical product being produced. It means that where you once had 13 mock-ups you now have one," he says.
In purely cost terms, though the initial outlay for 3D visualisation is substantial, at £3,500–£15,000 depending on the system, the long-term savings in reducing physical proofing and associate costs should see a fast ROI, according to Martinez.
"The digital proofing capability shortens the proofing process and that means it is also much more cost effective," he says. "On some of the jobs, trying to proof innovative techniques would often cost more than the profit we might make. Some people do not realise what an incredible amount of money proofing can entail. And it’s not just the print – you have additional costs for the non-printed elements like the fitments.
"Because we work on such high-end products, our proofing costs can be astronomical."
The costs are also reduced in the distribution of proofs. Today’s market is a global one and there are generally multiple partners dotted around the world who wish to be part of the proofing processes. Sending packs is not only pricey but could see samples incur damager, where as an email is free and in little danger of damage in transit (bar a bit of very rare code corruption).
However, FFEI’s Smith argues that reducing the benefits of 3D to just cost is misguided as those cost benefits lead to other advantages. He says that 3D visualisation enables designers to innovate more with their designs, as it costs nothing but time to try something out, and so adding a process and showing the client the effect it has means no damage to the bottom line.
"From a design point of view, it enables designers to provide more added value because they can experiment with coatings and materials and ideas and create concepts that never really had a way of coming to fruition before," he says.
Martinez confirms that the software enables him and the AGI designers to push the concepts further than they may have done. However, he does admit that in some areas the software falls down.
"With something like lenticular, it is difficult to simulate that effect," he explains. "I would say lenticular can be done with 3D visualisation but it is a question of how close it is to reality."
The software firms admit that the systems are by no means perfect. For starters, for the full benefit of the artwork side of things, the screens of all those looking at the proofs would need to be calibrated to the right settings. You also have the problem of all clients needing the right software to run and view the proofs at full effect. And, as for the scope of the programs, Stoffels admits there are more profiles that could be added.
"We have room to improve and add to our libraries and create new applications for designers to utilise," he admits. "But that will come the more the software is utilised and the more the brand owners ask for it – the bigger the uptake the further we will be able to go with the software."
Technical quibbles and profile absences are not really what is holding the software back, however, and where the real problem with it lies. The major issue restricting the use of the software is a lack of trust in its ability to do what it says it can do, from both printers and clients, and also a lack of appetite in a physical industry to hand any power over to a virtual process.
"The client does not always know what you are talking about and only through a physical proof will they sometimes understand where you are coming from," says Doug McBride, sales director at Fingerprint FO+. "If you are looking at a complex profile, you need to have a physical carton to be able to really see what is happening and where things ought to be. The proof is always in the pudding."
"In two years we have had maybe two requests for a 3D proof and I have never been one to push it as I think the physical representation is a much easier way of visualising an end product," agrees Ian White, creative and technical services director at Potts Print. "What a client generally wants to know more than anything is that their product fits properly in the packaging – with the best maths in the world, you’d still only be able to show that properly with a physical proof. Admittedly, the software has gained in its accuracy and its ability to recreate a product, but I still don’t think you can match a physical proof."
Most prefer physical proofs
If a customer does request a 3D drawing instead of a physical proof, White says he runs off a 3D rendering on the company’s CAD software. But, for the majority of cases it is a physical proof that is required and he says he delivers this affordably via a dual approach.
"We have digital printing presses here so if the flat dimensions fit within SRA3, we will probably print it then put it on the CAD table and make up the sample," he explains. "If it is larger than that then we will work on making a tiled version of the art work onto thin label stock and then sticking that on the board and then cutting it out for the product, so though it is not exact it still gives an idea. Our clients prefer these approaches to the 3D view."
Another approach is taken by McBride at Fingerprint: the installation of a Roland VersaUV LEC-540 printer/cutter proofing machine.
"There is a problem in making proofs cost effective, but we opted to buy a Roland proofing machine to make that proofing more cost effective – something it has achieved," he says. "Rather than running small proofing runs on the packaging machine, which costs hundreds of pounds to do, on the Roland we can do one-offs or half a dozen, it is calibrated to the press and it is so much more cost effective. Admittedly, if you are running specials, you will not get an exact match, but you can get very, very close. Also, any substrate we run on the packaging press we can run on the Roland."
That said, however cheaply the Roland can produce physical proofs, it is not going to be able to replicate the cost savings of 3D virtualisation. As a result, economic realities may force some printers to embrace the technology, at least for some of the proofing rounds.
Jonathan Neville, managing director at Polyprint, certainly thinks this might become the case.
"3D proofing is something we have not come across or been asked for as yet, but it is definitely interesting and I think it will be something we will have to embrace," he explains. "Technology moves on and people want to get on board with that."
This potential movement, however, creates two questions: firstly, whether the clients want this shift to 3D, despite the technology being ready; and secondly, whether it is printers that should provide it.
On the first point, Martinez, who has arguably implemented 3D visualisation in a bigger way than most, reveals that while clients are initially suspicious of the software, once the trust is built up they come to see its advantages and want to implement it further.
"We try to explain to them the 3D visualisation software’s capability to cut costs, push our designs further and give the client better more elaborate products, shorter turnaround and lead times, and shorter time to market," he says. "Admittedly, that is often quite a steep learning curve for them but they do eventually see the point of what we are trying to do. The more you show them the benefits on projects, the more they trust you and the more you can shift to virtual proofing."
On the second point, things get a little more complicated. Many of the benefits Martinez talks of are from the design perspective as his is a design arm that is part of a wider print operation. For the average packaging printer without attached repro or design services, many of these benefits will therefore be redundant. Andrew Smith, production director at The Brand Union, a global brand agency, adds that in the latter scenario, the cost benefits will also be limited as the toing and froing of packaging proofs will have been sorted before the printer gets involved. At the print stage, it is generally a one-wet-proof-and-away-you-go scenario.
"By the time printers get to see things nowadays, the decision has generally been made," he explains. "Obviously, the software developers are trying to sell the 3D visualisation to everyone, but for packaging printers that just offer perhaps the one wet proof before the run, it’s a nice gimmick but no one is really asking for it at that point and the cost benefits are minimal."
At the final stage of production, all are in agreement that switching to a 3D visualisation is, and will always be, a non-starter. So for printers without the design or repro service, investment in ways of making that physical proof more affordable rather than in 3D proofing software seems sensible.
For those that do deal with the design side, however, it would seem sensible to attempt to migrate some of the proofing stages to 3D visualisations; to do that, as Martinez says, a trust has to be built up to make that move a success.
In short, 3D visualisation is a fantastic tool if you are designing, but for printers, sticking to printing for now seems the sensible optionblog comments powered by Disqus