Consuming Desires

Integrating design and workflow optimisation

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The packaging for commodity FMCGs tends to change frequently in order to catch peoples’ interest and to enhance a product’s visibility in a crowded and fickle market. Packaging is increasingly integral to products because it can help sell them. Packaging is a marketing tool which is why FMCGs are the mainstay of the packaging printing industry.
The history of FMCG packaging design is one of increasing sophistication, moving from being purely functional to being part of the product. How many times have you bought cosmetics or luxury chocolates, purely on the strength of the package? The original purpose of a package was to create a protective barrier between a product and anything in the environment that might pollute or damage it, but those days are long gone. Nowadays a package is about marketing, indemnity, instructions, compliance, sales, brand definition, enhancement and management. All of these require careful management.

Brand protection
Brands are assets which companies spend many years developing. Brands such as Coca-Cola or Unilever sell product, so anything that can be done to enhance brand and protect asset value, will be done. For example, burger beasts McDonalds quickly moved into salads because of falling revenues and its negative junk food brand perception. Coca-Cola has made its recent move to lighter plastic bottles from 26 to 24 grams because it wants to be seen to be environmentally aware. These very large companies have a terrific amount at stake, so the integrity and use of their brand, corporate colours and logos in the media has to be carefully managed.

This requires the right technology, people and workflow design, but matters are made more complex as traditional business models change. Increasingly, design studios are expected to take responsibility for brand development and perception. They must work in tandem with production houses to develop the brand plus its extensions to maintain consistent production standards across production locations and over time.

Packaging development
Packaging projects depend on technology for prototyping, testing and final implementation of a design. Package development involves many people charged with different tasks, so it’s inevitably complex with convoluted and sometimes tangled supply chains. Efficient development depends on the efficiency of the technology and the people involved in the workflow, plus commercial considerations driving a package’s development such as Christmas or summer holidays.

To better understand what’s involved from a print production perspective, we spoke to Wim Demeestere, director of Deschutter Neroc in Belgium. Deschutter Neroc is present in the Netherlands and Germany as well as Belgium and owns the Elathin flexo printing company. It is one of Europe’s leading full service providers for packaging design, repro and print, and uses Artwork Systems technologies for packaging production and workflow management. Deschutter Neroc has also developed its own Packflow technology to allow customers to monitor their packages’ production and manage approvals online.

Deschutter Neroc’s customer base includes Knorr Foods, Douwe Egberts, Hoegaarden, Pickwick Teas, Unilever Best Foods, Sara Lee, Halfords, and Numico. Every year the company processes around 20,000 pieces of artwork, a data volume of some 26 terabytes, which exceeds the data traffic managed by Belgium’s national mobile phone company! Deschutter Neroc also provides digital asset management and legal text management tools online. This is especially important for companies selling goods internationally, because products have to be developed for many countries in multiple languages and complying with different laws.

Wim Demeestere explains: “For each country, there needs to be approval on what can be on the pack and what can be claimed. Since FMCG is also very often linked with food, legal text is a very important issue that increases the complexity of the packs throughout the delivery of the final materials.” Deschutter Neroc uses standard content management software customised to support packaging development and linked to an asset library that also supports uploading and downloading to the web.

Weaving a tangled web
Packaging for FMCGs is also demanding because it involves so many different and interacting tasks. In a market where goods on shop shelves rotate as often as every six weeks, perhaps the most crucial part of packaging production is time to market. The first product to hit the shelves often becomes the best seller and FMCG manufacturers like to differentiate products for specific niches. Breakfast cereals, for example, are packaged to appeal to certain consumers such as children or adults who want to watch their weight. Spin off products such as snack bars are then positioned to complement the mother product and to leverage the brand. Wim explains: “These companies have to have their packs or their line extensions within the shortest time on market once the product or pack has been created because the sooner the pack hits the shelf, the more product can be sold. Additionally, since more ‘unique’ packs are created specifically for a market or customer, things have to go very fast.”

Packaging development must, therefore, be constant and consistent. Consumers respond to novelty packaging buying spontaneously almost on the basis of the package, even though they may not really want or need its contents. Toothpaste in a pump, for example, is no different from toothpaste in a tube, but people like to think they are getting something special, so they buy the pump even though it’s more expensive. We might not approve of this kind of manipulative marketing, but many consumers respond to it as Wim confirms:

“Studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay more for the same product if the product is packed in a ’sexy’ pack … many FMCG companies are reinventing the pack’s structure to increase convenience and so to be able to sell it for a higher price. As you can imagine, this increases the complexity of the packaging tremendously both in the packing industry and graphical area. New packaging formats are constantly introduced on the market to actually sell more of the same or by changing people’s habits.”

This places a considerable onus on packaging designers and production workflows. FMCGs sell brand in advance of contents, so production and print consistency have to be managed. For many of Deschutter Neroc’s customers, packages are produced in numerous locations with different printing technologies because different consumer markets respond to different packaging design criteria. Wim says: “Taking into consideration that printing capabilities in different countries are not the same and that specific markets are even more complex than others, this is a very difficult topic to handle.”

In the Middle East and Africa, he says that “packaging for an ‘A brand’ needs to have gold or silver on the pack to sell, [although] printer capabilities are most often not so advanced as in Europe. It is, therefore, companies like Deschutter Neroc that are actually specialised in handling and managing the consistency across the different stakeholders, techniques and capabilities involved. And, additionally, by doing so, we enable FMCG companies to have at all time the availability of their latest brand assets for re-use or to use for other purposes.”

Consistency across the product portfolio is vital and, because all of these considerations interact, they can seriously influence production budgets. According to Wim: “Each and every packaging has most often its own complexity, right the way from the marketing names and claims through to managing the graphical complexity throughout the product portfolio.”

Controlling budgets in such a complex environment requires proactive and dynamic workflow management throughout packaging development and supply. Budgets and cost controls must reflect the different design requirements for a given line of FMCGs and the production constraints imposed by different printing techniques.

Because packaging is inherent to product presentation, many FMCG companies have their own design and development departments and their own costing models which need to be complementary to those of their outsourced service providers. Without tight coordination and process management of all of this, there is substantial risk of redundancy, reworking and error. It can add up to a negative impact on budgets.

The Deschutter Neroc business model
Managing all of this is fundamental to Deschutter Neroc’s business model. The company specialises in production workflow optimisation. Wim explains: “We see this is the area where FMCG players are quite often struggling to get things organised or optimised within their own setup. We have built our own project management system in combination with data gathering – content management support – and extensive KPI (Key Performance Indicator) reporting on all aspects and gates within the process. This enables our clients to have a close and detailed look at areas for improvement and to proactively drive costs down. For example, if the legal text task causes reloops during artwork production, we can flag where the issues are and what the reasons are behind this. This itself enables us and the clients to optimise the process to avoid having reloops or rework so that our work can be Right First Time and On Time.”

Deschutter Neroc is not just a production house for the packaging market. Wim describes the company as brand visualisation specialists. “Our product is just an intermediate step in the process, however a very crucial one as all elements are coming together for the first time in a graphical file or view. It is essential that we have a close communication with stakeholders and printers … [and] we have to make sure that what we supply out is correct and directly usable, without any additional work and that we can manage the expectations.”

The technology base
And, in amongst all of this is the need to manage technology and its operability across a variety of environments. There is huge diversity in data formats, language and jargon, whether it’s simple document management such as using .txt or .doc files through to design formats such as .cad or .obj. Output specific prepress must be able to support anything and everything, regardless of the context. This is why colour management and automation based on standard data formats like JDF are so important. It’s also why Deschutter Neroc has such a dependence on technology and has invested so heavily into automation.

Deschutter Neroc’s production system is based on Artwork Systems’ Nexus production system, linked to Deschutter Neroc’s client administration systems and MIS to automatically share client information. Wim says: “In this way, we hit one of our objectives – helping our clients in structuring the data gathering and to collect the right information at the right time. This is most often the most difficult part of the process as it implies that existing way of working sometimes needs to be questioned and/or their IT departments need to be involved to structure processes.”

Deschutter Neroc has also developed its own project management system, Packflow 2, for packaging project development. Packflow works with any client’s internal system to monitor and track all aspects of package development and production, with a task-based model to collect information according to specific tasks, processing stages and project milestones. People can design their own projects and associated development paths based on templates of varying complexity. Wim explains: “A task management assigning process starts in order to be able to collect the necessary data directly via the system. Content is uploaded and can, prior to releasing it, already be going through a pre-approval task. Once all data is available, we start producing the final artwork and/or prepress and will upload a PDF file for approval via the Online Approval System.

People are invited to the system to approve their packs online. Annotations can be visually made via the OLP client and will be sent directly to the concerned parties. After the necessary loops, final approval will come in and files will be sent either via FTP or via CD to wherever in the world. Also here, the back-end will be monitored via the system as also printers are invited to sign off on receipt and after checking the files, if necessary. When the printer/converter finally sends out, again he flags this in the system which allows complete tracking from the beginning until the materials are available at the production facilities.”

Organisation & Method
Production is set up so that dedicated units serve different clients. This business unit based organisation is the basis for highly focused services and for managing costs. Wim says: “For each dedicated unit, we work with a direct costing model which allows us and our clients to have an extensive overview of the different cost lines. Experience has proven that by doing this, we can bring costs down while increasing services aspects as required.”

So where in all of this does JDF fit? As we have found in discussions with other forms of publishing JDF seems to be more attractive in theory than in practice for packaging production. For many companies, technological harmonisation predicates JDF implementation: if there is a single element in a workflow that cannot handle JDF files, any automation promises are scuppered. For Deschutter Neroc, Wim says that: “We are mainly looking at optimising how JDF and XML already can give us internally benefits and standardisation. JDF is also set out to give visualisation already from the very beginning. This implies that all parties have to sign-on [and] that interpreters will be needed to interpret the additional information which is stored.” He also believes that as the nature of traditional prepress workflows change, JDF could become redundant, saying: “Where JDF for packaging fits to provide traceability in the chain,it is becoming less relevant since most of the files will be produced internally and [go] directly to the printers.”

Many technology developers, particularly of digital printing systems, have highlighted the packaging market as one of their target destinations. However, as dynamic and exciting as this sector may be, getting into it is not as easy as it looks. The workflows, relationships, legal matters and development considerations are perhaps more complex than in any other print production sector. Companies such as Deschutter Neroc have the knowledge and expertise to implement digital workflows that benefit their customers, and leveraging that knowledge provides a value add that overshadows technical advantage. More than ever, success is about understanding the business, rather than shrewd technology investments.