Caractacus Potts visualises the complete package

Simon Eccles
Monday, December 20, 2021

Approaching its 10th anniversary, Creative Edge Software (CES) still has the characteristics of a start-up with bright ideas, taking on the established giant in the rather the specialist area of 3D packaging design visualisation.

We’ve written in previous Best of British stories about firms starting up in a garage. Just for a change this one started inside a living room, and to some extent it’s still there. 

The main product is iC3D, which CES describes as “real-time all-in-one package design software that lets you generate live 3D virtual mockups on-the-fly”. It’s used for photorealistic previewing of packaging of all types, especially ‘difficult’ flexible and shrink sleeve types, with options to see them in environments such as shop shelves.

Creative Edge started in 2012. Husband and wife Stu and Amy Jennings were originally 3D computer games programmers who went to work for FFEI and created a basic 3D visualiser for cartons and bottles (it was sold for a while as RealVue 3D Packager). They met Nick Gilmore, who was working on a one-year consultancy for FFEI. Gilmore says: “In September 2012 when my contract with FFEI finished, Amy, Stu and I met up shortly afterwards as we had already identified that with their 3D software skills and my international sales and marketing experience, we could create a powerful/superior set of 3D applications for packaging visualisation, to challenge the then ‘solo’ market leader Esko Graphics.” Esko has its own 3D previewing equivalent to C3D, called Studio. 

Crosfield connections

What you might call the Crosfield diaspora came in handy at this point. Gilmore had worked for Crosfield Electronics in the 1980s and 90s (and indeed FFEI itself was essentially Crosfield’s R&D operation that had bought itself out of Fujifilm’s ownership in 2006 – it was acquired by Xaar this year). Trevor Haworth, who had been Crosfield’s general manager in the 1980s before moving to the US to run computer graphics and digital camera company Dicomed, was by then CEO of workflow and colour management company CGS Oris (he left in 2019). 

“I first met Amy Jennings at Drupa 2012 when she was working at FFEI on their workflow products,” says Haworth. “We at CGS were interested in expanding our portfolio with third-party products and the FFEI solution seemed appropriate. That had been introduced to us by Nick Gilmore, a long-time colleague of mine at Crosfield since the early 80s. Amy walked onto the CGS stand wearing ballet leg warmers. Not only did that impress – my wife Maureen is a ballet teacher and examiner – but so did her technical skills and down-to-earth nature. Needless to say when she and Nick came to me several weeks later with an idea for a 3D packaging design product, I knew immediately that it was going to be a world beater.”

Haworth became the sole investor in the new company. Creative Edge was incorporated in Delaware, US in 2013 with its head office in Minneapolis, where Haworth lives. This makes it officially a US company, but we’ve decided to overlook that given that its main players are British and the software is written here. 

Living room inventors

The 3D software was originally written in the Jennings’ living room in Eton Wick, a couple of miles from the well-known source of prime ministers. They still work from there because, as Amy says, it’s a bit too far to commute to Minneapolis. “Stu and I are like Caractacus Potts,” she says. “We live to invent new technologies that are always ground-breaking in our field. We did the same with games but got caught up in the change of the games industry from small highly inventive games to mass-produced games by teams of up to 100-plus developers. That’s just managing resources, not being at the coal face, so we sold and got out. FFEI offered us a way to be in an innovation team and got us interested in the packaging industry, which ultimately led to us setting up CES and developing iC3D, to try and take on the giant at the time, Esko.”

CES launched iC3D onto the market in 2013. Not long afterwards it was the subject of a Printweek Star Product article, in January 2014 (bit.ly/3nI2oxF). Gilmore stayed with Creative Edge as CEO until he retired in 2019. He says “I’m extremely proud of what the original four ‘Brit’ founders and the team of tech support, sales and our distribution partners have achieved: iC3D – made in Britain!”

Mark Hardaker, who joined in 2019 as vice president of sales, also has a DuPont-Crosfield background. He says, “Trevor Haworth was my boss at DuPont in 1983, then again at Crosfield in 1986 until he departed for USA in 1988,” he says. “We tell prospects that printing, packaging and imaging is in the company’s DNA.”

Despite being a small company, employing 10 people, Creative Edge boosted its profile with stands at major exhibitions such as Drupa and LabelExpo. Haworth says “we built up a solid staff in the UK and USA with a select number of dealers and distributors around the world. Sales have grown steadily since Drupa 2016 but the last year and a half have seen a tremendous boost, partly due to Covid, as working from home has accelerated the need for virtual packaging design and visualisation. That, coupled with the cost of physical mock-ups and shipping plus the enormous environmental benefits, has brought packaging innovation in-house at many large brands.”

Global sales

CES sells iC3D directly via its website (www.creativeedge.com) but also through a worldwide network of partners and resellers. “Hybrid Software is one of our most important resellers and operates on a worldwide basis,” says Hardaker. “Hybrid provides its own demonstration, installation, training and support capabilities for iC3D, supported by the CES team.” Hybrid’s packaging design and workflow solutions compete with Esko’s and its PackZ and Cloudflow solutions are integrated with iC3D. 

Who are the customers? Hardaker says: “We operate up and down the packaging market value chain, with printing and converting clients in labels such as CCL Label globally, flexible film such as Amcor Flexibles USA, carton and corrugated box such as Klingele Papierwerke, as well as their downstream clients – brand owners such as Pepsico, Diageo and Lindt – and upstream design houses such as Pemberton & Whitefoord, and Sun Branding.” 

Modular options

Since 2018, iC3D has been modular. iC3D Suite is the full version, offering real-time raytracing, shrink sleeve capability and premium templates for specialised applications such as tie-top bread bags. This costs from $595 (£440) per month on subscription – permanent licenses are also available. iC3D Designer costs less, from $145 (£107) per month, without raytracing, premium templates, or shrink-sleeve capability, but these can be added as modules. 

iC3D Modeller is a toolkit for building 3D models to which artwork and print effects can be added, from $95 (£70) per month. There’s also an extensive library of editable templates – October saw the release of new templates for tie-top bag, blister pack and Cellophane wrap. 

In addition iC3D Automate allows the automation of repetitive tasks. Hardaker says “For instance a yoghurt pack in 250ml and 500 ml, in French, English and Spanish, with three different camera angles and five flavours of yoghurt, would require 90 separate renders. iC3D Automate enables each parameter to be configured once and production of the renders is then fully automatic.”

Artwork can be generated in the designer’s favourite artwork program, Adobe Illustrator, or PDF files can be used. 

Rendering uses ray tracing to simulate effects of light on virtual objects while the Light Map Editor re-creates studio lighting, editable highlights and shadows. Dynamic Backgrounds and Perspective Control allow real-time merging of 2D images with 3D designs, so products can be previewed from every angle and in any setting, such as on shelves to gondolas, chiller cabinets or freezer displays.

“We can render a scene these days almost in real time,” says Amy Jennings. “In 2016 we developed our own raytracer called RAZE, which has proved to be one of the fastest raytracing technologies in the world. Along with many further developments in iC3D and iC3DAutomate we have taken our rendering technology into the cloud, first with WebRT, a technology allowing live raytracing in real time to a webpage, and now with the fastest serverless cloud raytracing solution which we call RAZE SWARM. This can kick off many renders in parallel rather than in series which drastically reduces render times.

“WebRT and Swarm are two completely revolutionary technologies we developed and are continuing to develop and are working closely with Amazon Web Services to produce even faster solutions.”

Once rendered, iC3D can output in a choice of resolution to popular file formats, or even exported to 3D printers. “We also offer a proprietary output viewing service called iC3D Opsis, which enables users to send 3D images to their clients effortlessly, to view them in any platform, Mac, Windows, iPhone/iPad,” says Hardaker. Printweek readers can view a couple of rendered examples interactively here and here

Cloudy future

What’s next for iC3D? “There are numerous new initiatives we are working with, including lightning-fast in-the-cloud rendering and new templates and other features,” says Hardaker. “We have other plans afoot which we cannot yet talk about, but come back in six months!” 


STAR PRODUCT

“iC3D Suite is by far our best seller,” says Hardaker. “Many of our clients want the full capability of the product and users of iC3D Designer and Modeller modules often upgrade to use the full Suite.”

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