Getting It Right – The First Time and Every Time

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Pre-press image of a folding carton layout

We live in a hurried world filled with tight deadlines. As a producer of packaging for consumer products, we often find ourselves placed in situations in which we have a fixed tight deadline. Even with these stringent deadlines there are times when we have not yet even seen any artwork, or even have a clue when it is going to be in our hands. What we do know, is that the product must be on the store shelves by a set date because of an upcoming promotion, threat of penalties, or some other special arrangement with the retailer. Failure to deliver on the agreed upon date could lead to a loss of the manufacturer’s assigned slot within the store chain for a year or more. Serious business, for sure!

Even while facing these deadlines we will never cut corners. It serves no one’s purpose to deliver a product that fails to function or is altogether wrong. An incorrect bar code, for example, can result in huge financial penalties if it is wrong or can’t be read.

Since the proofing process is critical to a packaging item’s performance and accuracy, I thought it might be worthwhile to share the internal steps we take to ensure our customer’s expectations are met.

I have known a few people in my lifetime who have a knack for catching errors. Some of those same people work for us. Although this ability is truly a gift, I would have a hard time sleeping at night if I had to rely on someone to “catch” errors that would have been best to avoid altogether. A Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) auditor once shared with me that many of the federal regulation codes came about in recognition that anyone at any given time can be having a “bad hair day”. Even the best and most focused proofreader can be distracted for a moment and fail to catch a text error or missing element. It is much better to build your proofing process around air-tight procedures and good technology rather than solely relying on talented proofreaders.

A huge benefit to being ISO certified is that it forces you to identify your best practices, standardize them, and clearly document them. We need to verify everyone involved in the process understands their responsibility – and has access to clearly defined reference whenever necessary. A vital part of our Quality System documentation includes production checklists that are used at each operation in the manufacturing process. Besides listing all of the quality checks required to ensure printing accuracy, these checklists must be signed and dated upon completion. The verification that the checklists were completed is necessary before the next operation can begin. The checklists are then saved with the job information for future reference.

Here are some of the critical steps in the proofing process by department.

Prepress perhaps plays the most important role in the process. They have to work with digital files provided in all sorts of different formats, created by people with varying abilities who often don’t follow correct design specifications. Much has been written on that subject so I will just move onto their proofing steps. The prepress department is divided into three primary functions: Mac work, proofing, and plating. Although, in theory, a single individual could perform all three functions, we require the work be done by different individuals so the subsequent function can check the work of the preceding one.

A sampling of some of the Mac operator’s responsibilities include: verification of the customer part number, verifying fonts, bar codes, bleeds, finish size, knock outs, brand elements, and overall positioning. They also include the accurate placement of multiple quality control (QC) marks used in the printing and converting processes. The final 1-up production proof is compared against the customer furnished original with a pixel-to-pixel visual identification system, which is then repeated again when comparing the 1-up to the impo file.

Two proofs are created in the proofing process: a one-up proof for color and resolution; and an imposed proof for positioning and proper placement of QC marks. Both proofs require the operator to examine the following:

  • Verify customer part number
  • Check bleeds and color breaks
  • Check die-line to graphics fit
  • Proof color matches customer file
  • Proof-in registration
  • Proof overall visual appearance and comparison to customer original
  • Bar code correct and scannable
  • Proof backed up properly
  • Output device color accuracy compared using a spectrophotometer against a defined standard
  • Finish size measure

 

We also assemble a proof to ensure proper line-ups and registration in its final folded state.

All of the quality checks listed above will be done again at the plating stage. In addition to those steps previously described, the plate maker also carefully examines the final plates against both the 1-up, and the imposed proofs.

The press operators are not only expected to examine the same requirements listed above, they are expected to do so throughout the entire run – pulling and examining press sheets at pre-defined frequencies. In addition to checking the sheet against the proofs, scanning the bar codes, checking registration within and front-to-back, and all the rest plus they need to verify all of the colors and materials against the customer work order. The press operators are ultimately responsible for the accuracy of the printed sheet. Using measuring devices such as spectrophotometers and densitometers, they are able to enhance their own color evaluation skills with accurate scientific instruments.

We produce hundreds of unique orders every week, and we very very seldom have a problem with the printed piece not matching the customer’s specifications. The reason for this success rate is due to our tight and well defined proofing processes and our consistent adherence to those procedures throughout the entire production process. Our operators know what our customers want, and take the time to look after each other and deliver on our promises.

 

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Author: Nicole Hannover

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