3M Design’s Michael John on Packaging Design & Flexography’s Expansion

Technology’s impact on flexography and package printing cannot be overstated. It has led suppliers to create and iterate at a rapid pace, and enabled printers to achieve higher quality at faster speeds.

But what do CPCs think of the quick and constant rate of evolution? Often housing multiple brands, and juggling short and long product roadmaps, there are considerations only they need to take into account.

“It’s hard not to be amazed with some of the awesome packaging you see on shelf. Ten years ago, some of those options to be different or stand out, did not exist,” says Michael John, lead design operations print quality manager at 3M Design’s Consumer Business Group. “It can all be attributed to the amazing folks advancing technologies throughout the process, to produce those items.”

Here, John discusses with FLEXO Magazine where he has seen flexography come from and where he sees it going, the value of standards, printer and prepress involvement in package design—and reveals his dark past working in offset.

FLEXO Magazine: In general, what do you look for in a print partner?

Michael John: Timing is everything for 3M and so are short runs. We want to align with printers that can meet our specifications, and have repeatable and predictable output. With those two elements in place, we can expect they will have the ability to meet our print quality requirements as well as those of Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications & Tolerances (FIRST).

FLEXO: Specific to capabilities, what do you expect of a print partner?

John: It may sound cliché, but two-way communication is very important. The printers who are comfortable with open, transparent dialog are the best partners. We also expect our print partners to understand and practice standards that align with our own standards as well as those provided from industry experts like FTA and ISO committees.

FLEXO: How does a printer that adheres to guidelines like FIRST impact you, the brand owner? How important is it to work with printers that do?

John: You cannot say enough about printers who take control of their process, practice it every day and follow prescribed guidelines such as FIRST. Those printers “get it,” and it makes everyone’s job easier.

FLEXO: One of the bigger topics touched on in the “Best Print Technology on the PlanetForum 2019 session was color and the importance of color consistency. Why is it so crucial?

John: It comes down to our brands. Like many CPCs, 3M is working hard to manage the quality and consistency of our brands across multiple platforms of print and substrates. Color consistency helps our customers recognize our branded products. Having color consistency in print helps ensure we are delivering a quality product. If our print is not consistent, what kind of message does it send to our consumers about our products?

FLEXO: What sort of modern color management solutions improve consistency from pressrun to pressrun and across shelves at stores in different countries?

John: 3M recognized the need for color management more than 10 years ago and has been working toward continuous improvement ever since. We recognized the value of colorimetry taking variability out of our process and began relying on spectral data to view our color. We developed a formal print quality program and began onboarding our own equipment: Light booths, spectrophotometers (linear and spherical) and software to manage and monitor our print ourselves, rather than relying on our premedia and print partners. A few years ago, we also partnered with a cloud-based scorecard system and have been integrating that into our closest print partners with some nice success.

“Quality is very important, but timing is equally important. I don’t believe you can sacrifice one for the other.”

FLEXO: 3M has a wide, wide range of products. Is there any sharing of graphics or design, and does that influence how those products are printed?

John: Design at 3M is centrally located in an open, state-of-the-art Design Center that fosters collaboration and interaction cross-functionally between design and business partners. This environment allows me to engage all parts and functions of the print process with all stakeholders to ensure we obtain the best outcome effectively and efficiently. When it comes to print, we are all hands on deck.

FLEXO: Do your packaging concerns differ when the product is for consumers, versus for businesses? Do you think those two groups have different priorities, and do they influence how you approach packaging for products destined for each group?

John: While some packaging goes directly on shelf for consumers to see and purchase, we still touch packaging that isn’t as visible to the end consumer. Regardless, we hold our brand standards and guidelines in high regard and expect our print partners to approach packaging for any and all print in the same manner. Printers should and do apply all of our standards across all print projects.

FLEXO: Do you expect printers to gang multiple jobs or make use of expanded gamut to achieve faster turnaround times?

John: We do not specifically dictate a process for any of our printers. If they can meet timing, quality and costs, we do not have much of an issue.

That’s not to say we aren’t looking at it for the future. Expanded gamut printing is already happening for some of our digital items and we are looking to (no pun intended) expand on that eventually and see where it can be best utilized.