studio 1.jpg

Prototypes and Packaging

Bringing wide-format options to the short-run experience.

In the world of consumer goods, packaging is often the last key ingredient in an ambitious marketing plan. It’s where the consumer meets the product and makes the split-second decision to buy, or move on.

No surprise, then, that prototyping is a critical step in the product-development cycle. Only by seeing and holding a sample or mockup of a design concept in hand, can companies decide if packaging adequately promotes its appeal or value while also protecting that product.

In the pre-digital printing days, manually building that prototype was a labor-intensive process. With digital printing’s ability to print directly to a substrate that can then be assembled into that singular sample, however, the process has been streamlined. Today, product marketers enjoy more creative freedom to refine their ideas, quickly see results, and develop that perfect package.

Here’s a look at five companies who are utilizing wide-format technologies to deliver new capabilities in short-run specialty packaging.

CSW: A world of rich media
“CSW is a one-stop-shop for the packaging industry,” says Marek Skrzynski, director of graphics, R&D, CSW, Inc. (, headquartered in Ludlow, Massachusetts. “We’re a brand solutions provider. We provide our customers with everything from design to visualization to the printing tools they need to produce their packaging.”

Prototyping, delivered through CSW’s Bridge Premedia division, is integral to this full-service approach, especially as more of the actual production of packaging has shifted overseas. “Prototyping in packaging is more critical than in any other printing segment,” says Skrzynski. “Looking at a flat may work for publications, but packaging is something that has to be folded and assembled – there’s color and image and a structure to that.”

Digital printing direct to substrates that can be scored and folded, or affixed to other materials, provides an economical answer for accurate rendering of a finished package, he says. “Flat proofing just doesn’t cut it any more. Today’s decision makers and buyers have grown up in a world of rich media. They want and expect to see exactly what they are going to get.”

To meet those demands, CSW has become something of a systems integrator, building a digital prototyping solution from technology from several suppliers. Print systems include Roland’s 30-inch VersaUV LEC-330 UV printer/cutter; the Epson 44-inch Stylus Pro 9800 8-color printer; and several HP inkjets. The company also utilizes a GMG Color RIP to help maintain color accuracy, EskoArtwork graphics software, and a Kongsberg cutting table.

The company’s embrace of digital print technology reaches back to 1999, when it began providing clients with color-accurate inkjet contract proofs. As the capabilities of digital proofing improved, costs fell, media choices expanded, and digital services evolved into providing accurate representation of packaging.

These help clients decide when refinements are required. “Some design elements are hard to visualize until you see them as they’ll actually appear,” Skrzynski notes. “When you show a picture and say something will be embossed, or with a metallic finish, it’s just not as effective or accurate as a prototype you can actually hold in your hand. Nothing beats a physical three-dimensional object when it comes to testing, evaluation, and confirming that everything about a packaging design works.”

CSW's most recent purchase, the Roland VersaUV LEC-330, has allowed the company to expand the range of prototyping services. “Its ability to print on any substrate, including metallic substrates, in very short runs, gives our customers a lot more options.” The response to its digital prototyping capabilities has been “pretty impressive” so far, says Skrzynski: “It’s a huge money- and time-saving opportunity for our customers,” he says.

For all that the digital lineup allows CSW to do now, they’re always on the hunt for technology to provide client companies with even more options in prototyping. “If we have a wish list, the next thing on it is printing with metallic inks, and printing on 3D objects like bottles and cans,” Skrzynski confides. “With that, there wouldn’t be much we can’t do.”

Phase 1 Prototypes: A new dimension
“Packaging prototypes have evolved because our own capabilities have evolved,” says Bill Ramirez, president of Phase 1 Prototypes ( in Leadon, Texas.

His company specializes in mockups: everything from one-of-a-kind prototypes to test a design concept to several thousand pieces required by consumer-goods companies as sales samples. Clients range from small companies to major national brands like Frito Lay, Ghirardelli Chocolates, and Welch’s; its prototypes encompass the full range of packaged goods found in the typical discount or grocery store.

“We used to print film for each color in a prototype and then manually combine those colors and assemble a prototype in a real labor-intensive process,” says Ramirez. “With digital printing we’ve taken something that would have taken three or four hours to put together and reduced that to 10 or 15 minutes.”

Phase 1’s digital prototyping services are delivered via three Mimaki JV33 54-inch printers. He finds the versatility of the units, and their ability to print in six colors, plus white and silver, enables him to match the color-palette requirements of any project. “And, we can provide our customers with something that looks just like the actual packaging, so they know what their product will look like when it hits store shelves.” The prototypes are produced with special media from C2Comp.

“When you combine the choice in media with the white and silver ink capabilities of the Mimaki printers, we’ve got the full gamut of colors we need, with all types of capabilities we just didn’t have before.” he says. “With white and silver inks, the sky is really the limit. For example, with a poly bag we can print white and a color or put white on a color so the graphic really shows up on translucent film.”

As much as the digital printers have enhanced his prototype services, they’ve also added a new dimension to his business. “What’s really interesting is how the quantities we produce have gone through the roof,” Ramirez reports. “We used to do one or two prototypes at a time, or occasionally 10. Now it’s nothing to take on a run of 300 sales samples.”

As Phase 1’s business continues to grow, it will look to adding more equipment. Ramirez says it’s already in the plans to add two more of the JV33 machines.


Cre8 Strategic Package Design: Initiating the sales dialog
As the design group for the two Protective Business Food Packaging business units of food-packaging supplier Sealed Air, Cre8 Strategic Package Design ( produces samples that the company’s sales reps rely on to assist customers in the development and refinement of their packaging.

“Sealed Air engineers, develops, and manufactures high-performance, durable packaging materials for food,” explains Marc Edlein, manager of Cre8, based in Duncan, South Carolina. “When you visit a grocery store and see all the refrigerated foods, that’s the type of packaging we provide. Our customers are the processors who package and ship those items.” Their products encompass a broad range of beef, pork, lamb, poultry, cheese, and specialty-food items.

Since consumers expect to see what they are buying, most of that packaging usually features some share of clear film. Before full production of new packaging can take place, though, processors want assurance it will effectively promote their products on store shelves while also offering protection during shipping.

“As they consider new packaging formats for these products, they need to address how their products will be labeled, and how the brand will be presented to consumers,” notes Edlein. “We work with our sales and marketing teams to create virtual or physical mockup packing for them to consider.” The typical job requires one to five prototypes.

In the past, building those physical mockups could be a timely and expensive process, as Cre8 outsourced printing of the graphics then built a prototype. Last May, however, Cre8 brought in-house an Epson Stylus Pro WT7900 with white ink, the latter feature being particularly critical to the shop’s work.

“When you design graphics for clear flexible films, you want a strong white backup to block the color of the food and provide contrast,” says Edlein. And, he adds, since the WT7900 uses aqueous inks, prototypes aren’t tainted with the residual smell of solvent-basked inks, something no customer wants associated with food packaging, even in a mockup.

All printing at Cre8 is done with Epson inks, onto coated Epson media. For paper mockups, printing is done direct to the substrate used to construct the sample; for prototypes requiring clear film, the graphics are printed on substrates with adhesive backings or on film or paper, which are then taped or secured to the film with spray adhesives.

“Previously, we did a lot of work with virtual mockups and renderings of labels,” notes Edlein. “That can work, but there’s something about being able to show customers samples of their packaging, and what it will actually look and feel like with actual graphics – which can really help get the sales dialog going.”

Digital Impact: A virtually unlimited range
When Digital Impact ( in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, installed its HP Scitex CorJet digital press (now badged as the HP Scitex FB6700), the primary intent was to use the printer for quick turnaround of prototype packaging and P-O-P displays for clients of parent company VT Graphics. Although VT Graphics’ primary focus is prepress services and production of plates for corrugated packaging and flexographic printing sectors, it launched its Digital Impact division in 2004 to provide design and mockup services for packaging and displays.

“Now we’re doing everything from printing prototypes of just a few items, to short-run jobs requiring as many as 2000 pieces,” reports VT Graphics president Robert Mormile. Those quantity runs are used for test-marketing products, product-display mockups, and tradeshow exhibits. “There are a lot of advantages to digital printing and the speed with which we can bring a product to market,” he says.

With Digital Impact’s companion Kongsberg digital die cutters, the company has been able to provide accurate mockups of packaging and P-O-P, and production runs of limited quantities.

The short-run business has proven a lucrative adjunct to the prototype printing also done with the CorJet. Prior to adding its digital capabilities, it just wasn’t cost-effective for VT Graphics clients to have packaging or P-O-P displays printed in limited quantities. “The setup costs were just too expensive,” notes Mormile. “But now with digital printing, we can produce those smaller quantities cost effectively.”

As far as prototyping goes, digital printing has introduced several advantages. For one, it’s transformed the labor-intensive process of building a physically building mockup into a relatively automated process of digital printing and die cutting, scoring for folding and assembly.

The digital printer “gives us a 4-color process that runs the full gamut of any colors our customers want,” he notes. “They get to see a prototype that looks just like the finished packaging or P-O-P display. In some cases, digital delivers even better quality. And our range is virtually unlimited: we can provide them with anything from a single small, folded carton to a large assembled display, loaded with packaging.”

Such prototypes are critical tools for determining what works, and what won’t work on the sales floor: “It always helps to get the touch and feel of how something will actually appear, especially when you’re not sure how the sizing and graphics will impact the actual presentation of a product,” says Mormile.

In fact, demand for those short run services has proven so strong that Digital Impact is about to expand its capabilities with installation of a Durst Rho 900 flatbed. “The Durst will allow us to increase our speed, capacity and quality,” says Mormile. “We’d eventually like to be able to offer short runs of as many as 5000 pieces.”

J.L. Clark: Taking the initiative to seed demand
For most suppliers of prototype and mockup services, projects begin with a customer who wants a look at the impact of new packaging before deciding it warrants a full production run. J.L. Clark ( in Rockford, Illinois, taps the capabilities of its Inx Digital MD660 UV flatbed press to take the initiative, and introduce new packaging concepts to customers and prospects as a way of seeding demand for its offset lithography printing services.

“We try to look at their current packaging and show them what they can do, including some things they may not have thought of before,” says Michael Matus, vice president for sales and marketing.

J.L. Clark produces custom metal and plastic containers and packaging for major national brands across the board in the food, confectionary, and personal-care industries. Two years ago, it added the Inx system in a strategic move to tap the advantages of digital printing direct-to-metal sheets for itself and its customers. The system can print directly to aluminum, metal, and plastic sheets which are then cut, scored and assembled into colorful tins and containers.

“Because we do offset lithography, there wasn’t an economical way for us to produce short runs or limited quantities before,” notes Matus. “Now, there are no plates, no blankets – we can print whatever we want, in whatever quantity we need, right away.”

The company has actually built a successful program around these capabilities, something Matus refers to as “Innovation Days.” At these events, held throughout the year, decision makers and existing clients or prospects are invited to J.L. Clark headquarters. At these meetings, they’re presented a range of one-of-a-kind containers and trays printed on the MD660 and assembled as finished products. These prototypes feature brand artwork in samples developed by the company’s graphics department.

“Sometimes they have no idea what’s coming, and we’re able to show them packaging designs and concepts they may not have thought of before,” reports Matus. “It’s been a very successful program for attracting new business.”

As clients learn of these digital capabilities, they’re tapping the digital services to test their packaging ideas, and produce specialty packaging that in quantities once considered impractical because of setup costs. “We can take a company that never thought about putting its product in a metal container and give them a beautifully decorated tin,” he says. “It’s a cost-effective alternative to conventional lithography for test marketing, commemorative or collectible packaging. They can even vary the packaging from market to market, and produce several short runs.”

In fact, Matus believes that variable-printing capabilities – such as found on the MD660 – hold strong potential. “One thing no one seems to have capitalized on yet is the ability to literally customize each tin with a photograph or text,” he says. “When you can offer the power of personalization to consumers, I think there’s going to be some real benefits there for our customers.”

View more from this Big Picture issue