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Thoughts after EskoWorld UK 2014…

Tim Warner (MPH technical director) writes about Esko‘s conference (Sept. 24th 2014)

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It’s easy to go to these things, expecting to come back with a big, not to mention very expensive, shopping list. This is entirely justifiable as the first couple of speakers outline their vision of the future.

Jan De Roeck starts by talking about ‘trends’ in that reassuring northern european accent that first speakers always seem to have at these things. Jan doesn’t just talk about trends in the packaging industry but social, economic and technical trends too. Gone are the days when consumers happily bought whatever a manufacturer could make, these days the customer is king and wants to be treated like an individual. Things have become much more ‘niche’ so we have moved from a ‘one- pack-fits-all’ mentality to much more targeted packaging. Targeted packaging means more packaging variants for the same product which means more artwork needs to be created. The puzzle is how to do this cost effectively which leads us to the first buzz-phrase of the day ‘lights out automation.’

Lights out automation comes from the idea that your processes can be so automated you don’t need any staff to run them (so you don’t have to switch the lights on). The key is having a system that has access to all the ‘assets’ (things like photography, logos, ingredients, nutritional information all count as ‘assets) and a set of templates to flood these assets into. If you think of it as a mail merge, you won’t be far wrong, except you get plates or print out of the other end.

I am left wondering who would put so much faith in such a method of working. It seems the first person who will see how the job actually looks will be the machine minder (if the lights are on), by which time it’s a bit late to do much about any problems. The hole in my argument is that people make more mistakes than machines, so more automation surely leads to fewer mistakes.

To get the most out of such a system the supply chain must be truly integrated. Such a level of integration does not lend itself to swapping suppliers regularly so choosing a partner in such a collaboration is a serious business.

While I am still thinking about the ramifications of adopting an integrated system and what it would mean, the second speaker, Ian Schofield from Iceland, pops up to tell us how, and why, it all has to work.

Ian is a very enthusiastic and persuasive speaker and begins by briefly explaining what trading conditions are like, and what they are likely to be like in the future (it can’t have escaped many peoples attention that the traditional supermarkets are taking a bit of a battering at the hands of the price cutters). Any chance Iceland get to offer a product at a lower price than it’s competitors is grasped with both hands. For example: If the pound is strong imported food prices drop and the saving is passed on to attract and retain customers; if a pack can be made with less material it will make the product cheaper. Of course, once you have a lower price it’s no good unless you tell everyone about it. This requires advertising and packaging.

Iceland has around 2,500 products in more than 800 stores that require their own packaging. More than 80% of the print runs will only happen once before some aspect of the packaging changes, and some of these products may have five different packaging varients for different markets. That means lots of changes to lots of artworks. Lights off automation is made for these situations. He knows that if Iceland don’t do it, all his competitors will and Iceland will soon be seen as uncompetitive in the market.

Standardisation is an important factor in reducing cost for Iceland. Standardisation of colour (cmyk, never spots or extended gamut) and packs is a minimum starting point. Then there are data formats and print processes, who has ownership of the data that drives it all, who maintains it. It’s all come a long way from how much repro companies charge a square inch price for a piece of plate.

The clear message from the day was: serious players need spend on more automation, to produce more artworks, for which we can may turn-over a little more money, for much smaller profits. The supermarkets are under pressure now like never before and everyone in the chain will have to work smarter if they are to survive.

So, on my return to work thinking how to streamline things. I have a couple of jobs waiting for me. The first is an email containing a pdf ‘artwork’ which is actually a rough scan from an old label with a message that reads ‘recreate this and send me a proof by lunch time.’ The next job is a multi-page label with sections that have adhesive deadening areas, mirrored text be viewed through the back of transparent substrate and opaque white to block out the front and back. I’m not really sure if automation is going to permeate many levels of the packaging industry after all!


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