How businesses have overcome the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the story of every industry.
For the package printing and converting community, that story has carried added weight and import. Essential workers, performing essential tasks to provide essential products. Production running 24/7 and adding shifts. Collaborating with print partners and brand owners remotely, finding ways to accomplish what used to be done face to face.
Four months before a collection of expert flexographers from across the US was set to convene in Long Island, NY to judge the 2021 FTA Excellence in Flexography Awards, Association staff were faced with a similar obstacle: Execute a multi-day judging process, done in person 61 times before, in the midst of near-unprecedented circumstances.
The stories of FTA members served as an inspiration and a path forward.
“For a brief time—a very brief time—we considered canceling the competition,” admits Joe Tuccitto, FTA director of education. “The majority of our members are considered to be essential workers, and canceling this year’s competition would not be fair to the men and women that work on our front lines.”
Finding Virtue, Virtually
There are six judging groups in a traditional Excellence in Flexography Awards: Wide web, mid web, narrow web, combined corrugated, preprinted linerboard and envelope. Six judges are assigned to each group. Within a given group, those six judges are split into two teams: Degree of Difficulty and Level of Execution.
The Degree of Difficulty team scores each print sample’s substrate printability/ink compatibility, registration tolerances, plate-printing complexity/fineness of print, screen (lpi or stochastic spot size), tonal range (on screen and process jobs) and defect detectability. The Level of Execution team evaluates image sharpness, ink coverage, registration, dot/screen/vignette (again, on screen and process jobs) and consistency.
Scores are written by hand, then tallied in one of two spreadsheets that use a formula to compute each print sample’s total score. When a category’s entries have all been scored, its spreadsheet is sorted numerically, printed and returned to the judging group. Using it, they re-evaluate the highest-scoring print samples and debate which—if any—deserve a bronze, silver or gold award. Finally, from the gold-award winners, they select a single Best of Show.
Attempting to translate this tried-and-true system to a remote environment presented a number of complicated challenges that required creative solutions:
- Location: With flying to Long Island and gathering inside a hotel ballroom out of the question, judging still needed to “be” somewhere. FTA’s Virtual Conference Center, the site of Virtual FORUM 2020, Virtual Fall Conference 2020, FORUM & INFOFLEX 2021 and dozens of other events stretching back to pre-pandemic times, was an obvious choice
- Judging team setup: Despite not having to travel, a side effect of remote work—always being “at the office”—made it in some ways more difficult to commit the necessary time to judging. The number of judges in each group was reduced to two, and rather than scoring either Degree of Difficulty or Level of Execution, judges were responsible for both
- Print sample evaluation: The logistics of sending print samples to the homes of judges and committee members in each category, while not impossible, was problematic. Instead, the samples were shipped to FTA staff, who examined them with high-power digital microscopes while judges observed on their screen and critiqued the magnified images
- Scoring system: Taking inspiration from modern flexographic workflows, scoring was centralized in a cloud database and accessible from any internet-connected device. As judges entered scores, the data was immediately copied to a master sheet. Each print sample’s score sheet was available with one click, and total scores were computed on the fly
Through trial and error, and plenty of testing, the judging system came together. After passing tests internally, committee members were brought into the fold to learn the new process, followed by judges.
Finally, on Sunday, Jan. 31, when dozens of flexographers were slated to gather on Long Island to evaluate hundreds of print samples, they instead gathered in FTA’s Virtual Conference Center—to still evaluate hundreds of print samples.
62nd Time’s a Charm
FTA Hall of Fame Member Mark Mazur has seen his fair share of Excellence in Flexography Awards Competitions—more than 20 of them—and his involvement has come from different angles—as a judge in different categories and as a committee member.
“While I am not going to say this year’s process was ideal, I was amazed at how well it worked,” he acknowledges. “The one part that stood out to me is that, normally, the Degree of Difficulty and Level of Execution teams don’t really talk to each other. By necessity, these two aspects of the judging process had much more interaction, and I thought that was one part of the process that was actually an improvement.”
Echoing that observation was Further North LLC’s Geoff Roznak, a committee member assigned to the combined corrugated and preprinted linerboard categories: “Having a single team move from one to the other, while still having the other section firmly in their heads, helped quite a bit.”
Barring a couple of minor technical glitches, Roznak says the remote aspect of judging did not hinder the ability to evaluate print samples. “It went really well, and there were some facets of it that should be incorporated into our next in-person judging.”
He singled out two specific parts of the remote judging process. One was the digital microscopes, which “created the situation where all of us—judges and committee members—were looking at the same thing, at the same time, and could annotate to show others what we were looking at. That helped remove a lot of subjectivity.”
The other was the cloud-based scoring system that “allowed committee members to flip back and forth to answer questions about what previously judged jobs had been scored in specific cases, and just as important, to remind judges what they had scored previous jobs.”
At first glance, not having print samples in hand may sound like an insurmountable restriction for a competition that scores their quality. Bowers, who judged the envelope category, believes that ultimately this was not the case.
“Not being able to see the product first-hand was a definite hindrance; or it ‘seemed’ to be,” she explains. “I had the privilege of seeing one of the entry samples in-person and it was almost exactly what I expected. It was surprisingly close.”
Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. The Excellence in Flexography Awards is focused on facts and not flair, measurable proof of supremacy rather than an emotional reaction. All Printing Resources Inc’s Tim Reece, previously a judge and this year a committee member overseeing the wide web and mid web categories, says that the former is what leads to the latter.
“The numbers support what some may consider intangibles, like how much something ‘pops’ or ‘jumps off the substrate.’ Whether we gather in person or online, it’s a melding of what people judge as being attractive, backed up by a quantitative scoring system,” he surmises. “This ever-refining judging process that incorporates Degree of Difficulty and Level of Execution has proven itself to be effective and reliable. It is my feeling that with the judges’ and committee members’ expertise, this system only gets more refined year after year.”
There Are Only Winners
From inaccurate color to dirty print, overcoming challenges is something every flexographer knows how to do well. That same can-do attitude is a large part of why flexography is the dominant print process it is today: Looking at the print quality of gravure or offset, and thinking, “How can we match that?” or watching technology and the internet revolutionize manufacturing, and wondering, “Where does that fit in our universe?”
After a year of never-before-seen challenges, coupled with surging demand and the needs of hundreds of millions of people, recognition in the 2021 FTA Excellence in Flexography Awards is only one of the accolades flexographers deserve.
From all FTA staff, judges and industry members: Congratulations, and thank you.