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Packaging typically uses a lot of spot colours but managing or reducing the number of spot colours at the prepress stage can lead to cost savings

We all know that the main trends in the packaging sector now are finding faster routes to market, at lower costs with more product
variation, all of which adds extra complexity. This is particularly true of prepress, where more product variation means more files to handle, and more plates to make – often on a wider range of substrates – which in turn makes it more difficult to achieve consistency.

Esko remains the dominant player in terms of prepress workflow for the packaging sector through its comprehensive Suite 12 range. At the heart of this is Automation Engine, a modular server-based system that’s designed to be easy to use. Esko has just updated this to v12.1. It’s a bigger revision than the name suggests. When Esko bought Artwork Systems back in 2007, it ended up with
three workflow systems – Backstage, Nexus and Odystar – and so the Automation Engine itself was born out of merging these
together.

This latest update brings the last of these three, Odystar, into the fold so that Esko can now start migrating those customers to the new system. Essentially, it has added scripting in recognition that Odystar’s ability to use AppleScript was a powerful
feature that helped extend its usefulness.

Prepress automation
Paul Bates, business manager for Esko in the UK and Ireland, says automation has been the major factor in recent years: "Automate as much as possible to remove double entries and stop operators making mistakes." This has meant integrating
different systems together and increasingly now also means automating some of the artwork so that many different variants can be generated from a master copy. This eliminates mistakes in different language variants and ensures consistency between the branding on the products and the different packaging elements around them. Bates says: "Brand-owners always want to take costs out of the process, but the big saving is time and reducing errors."

There’s also a clear trend away from special colours to a fixed colour palette. Esko has a product called Equinox that converts special colours to a 6-colour set. It’s not a new idea – Bates points out that Pantone tried something similar with Hexachrome back in the mid-90s, adding: "Now the market seems ready for it."

He continues: "If customers can produce 90% of the work with the six colours then the wash-up time on the presses disappears. Also, the cost of ink mixing goes down." Equinox isn’t limited to a particular 6-colour set but will find the most suitable colours for the jobs in hand. Bates notes: "Some will want to go to four colours, but the colour space will be too limited."

Andy Cook, managing director of FFEI, agrees that the use of spot colours is changing, saying: "Over the last few years we have noticed a trend where brands are much more accepting of process colours to represent their spots. Maybe customers are less concerned about colour accuracy on brands, perhaps because they are viewing them with more mobile devices."

Packaging simulation
FFEI has a number of useful tools aimed at the packaging sector such as RealVue, which simulates 3D packaging to help with design. FFEI has also developed a collection of packaging workflow tools, the RealPro Toolkit, which was demonstrated at last year’s Drupa show as a bundle with RealVue, but following feedback from customers was earlier this year launched as a separate product. This is made up of 12 tools, all also available separately, which cover functions such as preflighting, colour management and nesting.

Cook acknowledges that Esko dominates the workflow for the packaging sector and says that rather than compete against Esko the RealPro Toolkit is designed to complement Esko’s offering. According to Cook, the Esko software is highly modular, but by the time customers have licensed the full set of modules across all their workstations it becomes quite expensive, so the RealPro Toolkit offers a more costeffective alternative that might be suitable for some departments. He explains: "We needed to find a niche in the market to add value to customers who might already have some of the Esko tools. It’s a fairly low cost investment that you can spread across the workstations so customers can mix the two together."

FFEI also sells RealPro, a commercial workflow which is essentially the same as Fujifilm’s XMF (FFEI having originally developed it for Fujifilm). This is based on the Adobe PDF print engine and includes Enfocus preflighting for common errors such as missing fonts and colours. FFEI’s colour management is based on device link profiles and the company has a cloud-based system, Colour cloud, which lets users test colour profiles against a target press. It allows customers to experiment with different profiles, only paying for those that they download.

Extended gamuts
However, not everyone agrees that there is a big move away from spot colours. Viktor Asseiceiro, director of GMG’s business unit
for packaging, says the trend towards extended colour gamuts is mainly from the US, with European brand-owners generally
being less willing to risk any compromise in quality.

He says there is an issue with predicting how colours will overprint and that it’s harder to fingerprint a press because there are so many spot colours used. To combat this, GMG has recently launched its OpenColor proofing solution for the packaging market. This allows for predictable spot colour simulation by analysing ink behaviour in relation to the substrate’s colorimetric properties. As such it delivers accurate spot colour overprint simulation and demonstrates the interplay between the spot colours and process inks.

Asseiceiro says the need for extended colour gamuts depends on the products: "If you think about chips that you buy in thesupermarket, you can print these very well in the extended colour gamut, but when it comes to packaging for cheese and meat
products then it’s not really suitable." He says extended colour gamuts can cause problems for press operators who will naturally want to set a grey balance using the basic cyan, magenta and yellow, but extended colour gamuts use much more complex colour mixes, making it harder to balance the colours on press.

The main alternative workflow system to Esko’s Automation Engine is Kodak’s Prinergy workflow, which is currently being updated to v6. It’s based around the Adobe PDF Print Engine and uses rules to automate processes. There’s a version specifically for the packaging sector, Prinergy PowerPack, which has a number of packaging-specific features such as Packaging Layout Automation, which automates the layout and nesting of jobs to maximise the use of the printed sheet.

Spotless technology
Kodak also sells Flexcel platesetters that use SquareSpot technology to create flat top dots on the plate.

The SquareSpot technology gives the edge of the printed dots a very steep slope that helps to separate the ink from the water on the plate. Dave McGuinness, marketing manager for Kodak, says: "We can print at a very fine resolution because we have no mix of fount solution to affect the ink, and so the stochastic screening works very well. We can go down to 20 microns on a specific dot. When you can control a very fine dot and it’s very clean, then everything leaps off the page."

Kodak also has an option, called Spotless, to help customers reduce the number of spot colours used down to 6-colour inkset
or even to the standard CMYK process colours, greatly reducing the costs of a job. McGuiness explains: "We can give you the recipes to give you the colours that you need, and when you apply a fine stochastic screening it comes out very well." The Spotless system is unique to Kodak, as it relies on the high resolution of the Flexcel NX platesetters and the use of stochastic screening to hold the colour gamut.

High resolution imaging
Xeikon
also sells a flexo system called Thermoflexx, which takes a very different approach to Kodak. This uses digital plates that have their own laser ablatable media (LAM) layer, usually made of carbon, which replaces film and is removed by a laser in the platestter. It’s a simpler system as it removes the film step and the need to attach it to the plate.

The Thermoflexx system employs a single light source where most others use a laser diode. Doug Mawdsley, Xeikon’s product manager for Thermoflexx, explains: "The advantage is more productivity and it’s much easier for the user to focus on the plate, so we get more consistency and higher reliability." This also leads to higher resolution making it easier to reproduce fine details. The Thermoflexx platesetters are compatible with most common digital flexo plates, including Nyloflex from Flint and Lux from MacDermid.

The Xeikon platesetters will work with any workflow that can send a 1-bit TIFF file. Xeikon gives customers a choice between Kodak Prinergy and a Harlequin system from Xitron.

So far we haven’t mentioned digital printing, but most of the people we spoke to believe that we will see much more use of digital printing in the packaging sector and that, as in the commercial print sector, this will affect the demands put on the prepress suppliers. One obvious issue is that digital presses are mostly used with four or six colours, which will accelerate the trend away from spot colours. But it’s also likely to see many repro houses start to move more fully into print production than is currently the case in this sector.