David Zwang reports on developments in PDF workflows and how they will drive the growth of digital packaging products

USA In 1993 Adobe released version 1.0 of PDF as an ‘electronic paper’ solution. However, it didn’t support colour until 1996 with the release of PDF 1.2. This coincided with the early development and adoption of digital production printer development. Since that time, the continued development of PDF, supporting software tools, and digital printers have been driving the adoption of digital print production.

The market application of digital print production also required development and cost justification. Initially this market development was directed at the unique advantage that variable data digital print could bring to marketers. Since the tools for variable data production were still early in their development, and adoption beyond the use for transactional applications was still finding justification, the concept of ‘on demand’ print ultimately took hold first. Eventually the variable data software and workflows became more mainstream, and marketers began to realise the benefits for more mainstream applications.

So if digital production in commercial print is now mainstream, why can’t digital packaging production use the same tools and processes? Actually it can, but not to the same extent, yet…

There has already been some adoption of variable data software technology and market awareness in using packaging and social media to raise brand awareness. However, even as PDF is widely supported and reliable in the format of a PDF/X file for blind exchange, it still had some limitations that need to be overcome to fully support a more complete standardised digital packaging workflow.

In 2003 the Ghent PDF Workgroup (GWG) did some research into what those limitation were and what would be required to create standardised, best-practice PDF workflows for digital packaging production. At the time PDF was determined to be good as a soft proofing tool, but could not support the benefits of a standard PDF that offered ‘one version of the truth’ for the packaging workflow from design through converting. One of the biggest shortcomings was the missing support of colour beyond RGB and CMYK. Even as we currently see digital printing being used for packaging production using CMYK or even some extended gamut inks, brand colours and their unique use extend well beyond that. Furthermore, digital packaging production extends beyond just digital printing to offset, flexo, and even hybrid solutions as well. The GWG proceeded to spearhead efforts both internally and through other international standards organisations to work to address those limitations.

Today, we are getting very close to the realisation of that goal. With the impending release of PDF 2.0, the first significant update since 2008, we are on the path to a solution. In addition to many other newly added features of PDF 2.0, there is support for CxF/X-4 (ISO 17972-4), which will allow spectral colour values to travel along with the PDF file. In further complement to that, the development of iccMAX (ISO 20677), will provide a way to support the standardised use of non CMYK colors in images. So brands will now be able to have their special colours used in packaging in a standardised and nonproprietary way.

As these development efforts were going on, in parallel, the GWG worked on a way to communicate process information beyond the actual file design content. This effort (ISO 19593-1) provides a way to include processing steps beyond design content in the PDF file. Using Optional Content Groups (OCGs), or what most think of as layers in a PDF file, you will be able to include finishing and other information in the PDF file as well. One of the final pieces of this new standardised workflow structure will be the introduction of PDF/X-6, which will tie all of this together in a file for reliable, blind exchange print production. Each of these standards mentioned are either published, soon to be published or in development awaiting publication. In fact, some of them are already starting to find their way into software vendors products.

All of this will have an effect on process roles and responsibilities. None of this is new. In the case of commercial print adoption to digital print production, we also saw significant changes in process roles and responsibilities. Prepress responsibilities were split between the designer and printer, while automation subsequently supplanted some of those responsibilities. Some prepress companies wound up adding design and solution development services, while printing companies added marketing support, fulfilment and other value added services.

Interestingly we are starting to see these same trends in digital packaging production, as the hardware tools liked CDI, and new software tools start to reduce some of the inherent skills required. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

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