Automating Packaging Artwork for Increased Speed to Market

By Josh Roffman, Loftware VP Product Management

Time to market is more important than ever. For example, a retail product that arrives to market six months late can see a significant drop in profit over its lifecycle, even if it arrives on-budget. With that said, Artwork Management is currently one of the largest bottlenecks in the product lifecycle. Because of redundant and outdated manual processes, creating packaging artwork is a monument to inefficiency.

Imagine a typical workflow for a member of a product or print operations team. It may look something like this:

  • Switch from Adobe to email app to get approval for artwork
  • Switch to Excel to track progress
  • Scroll through a Google doc to find approved copy
  • Spend an hour in file explorer trying to find the most recent artwork for a given pack
  • Email other stakeholders to obtain review and approvals

An average worker, in any industry, can spend much of their time sending and receiving emails, looking for information, and talking to other co-workers. This means they are spending less time on tasks specific to their role. While this is an issue that affects all workers, labeling and artwork management happens to represent a crucial juncture in the product lifecycle. Those involved in this function are responsible for the ultimate presentation of the physical product in stores – what consumers see and touch before making buying decisions. They also are also responsible for conveying critical product information to consumers, information that may be regulated by state and government organizations.

Anything that gets between artwork managers and their job function adds time to the process that companies can ill-afford to lose – and less efficient, time consuming manual processes present hurdles for meeting time to market goals.

Inconsistent Content Risks Disaster

When it comes to Artwork Management, companies often default to a tool they’re familiar with, such as spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are relatively easy to access, and most workers have a basic understanding of how to use them, but that’s where their advantages end.

The first problem with spreadsheets is that you can’t store files in them. At its heart, Artwork Management is about handling workflow and ensuring good content management, but you can’t store images in a spreadsheet. At most, you can put in a note as to where they should be found in a directory. This works until someone moves a piece of artwork without updating the directory, or vice versa.

Second, there’s no good way to store annotations or conversations. To be fair, a collaborative solution ala Google Sheets lets different users type in comments on various action items, but no one wants to read any comment, no matter how constructive, if its squashed into a little cell in a spreadsheet, and good luck finding a particular comment in the middle of a vast spreadsheet with multiple lines and dozens of pages.

Lastly, and most importantly, there’s no good way to implement version control on a spreadsheet. There’s a lack of structure and accountability. Effectively, there are only two ways – emailing every team member a new version of the spreadsheet whenever you make a change, or collaboratively making changes in a cloud spreadsheet. Both ways are bad. One can make changes in the cloud, but it’s hard to see who made those changes, what changes were made, or when they were made. If the changes are wrong, then it’s hard to roll them back. Email is a complete non-starter – people will lose the email thread, lose the files, and work off incomplete or wrong-version documents without noticing that they’re out of date.

This kind of logjam isn’t just an obstacle to efficiency. Rather, it creates the very real danger that a product will go to market with the wrong artwork. In the best-case scenario, the mistake is something small – artwork depicting a red product when the actual product is blue, let’s say. Worst-case scenario, the mistake is something very serious, like missing an allergen listing on a food product or getting the dosage information wrong on a carton of medication.

Even for non-pharmaceutical companies, recalls are serious business. These events involve a plethora of costs – there’s the cost of sending recall notifications, the sunk cost of creating a product that can’t be sold, the cost of destroying or repackaging a recalled product, brand damage and even fines and lawsuits. Lastly, research from the Harvard Business School shows that when one company recalls a product, their competitors will heavily promote their own versions of it – capitalizing on others’ misfortune.

Inconsistent data and version control are huge problems for companies hoping to streamline the New Product Development (NPD) and the Artwork Management workflow process – and it isn’t even the only way that errors can creep into manual product packaging processes.

Manual Methods Limit Access to Digital Assets

As mentioned, it’s not possible or practical to store content in a spreadsheet format. With that in mind, let’s talk about the ways that companies store content elsewhere.

Most commonly, the solution is to store content in a shared network drive or in the cloud. Since a company might have thousands of images representing dozens or hundreds of product lines, finding the most recent image once again becomes a problem.

These shared drives typically start out with the best of intentions, but often fall into rot. For example, organizations often keep out-of-date, unmanaged, unimportant, or duplicate content. This makes finding content in a reasonable time into a cave-diving expedition. Version control is often handled using filenames – because there’s no way to attach and search metadata within a shared drive – but this often devolves into a mess that looks like, “Project Artwork 01_FINAL_approved_ V2_edited” etc., where it’s not possible to tell by looking where an asset is in the approval process.

There’s another problem: what happens when a user accidentally saves a file to their personal machine, as opposed to the shared network drive?

Best-case scenario: the team lead has to walk around the office – a literal sneakernet – and then bother each of their team members until the required document is produced. This can easily waste a day or more if team members are situated across different locations. Worst-case scenario: the team lead has to go into a store and physically purchase a copy of their product in order to determine which is the latest version of artwork that they are looking for.

Lastly, it’s worthwhile to note that marketing, packaging, operations and artwork management team members aren’t the only people who could conceivably need access to packaging content. The C-suite, the legal team, packaging, branding, distribution, printers and so on are all stakeholders in a product launch, and they will all need or want access to product artwork content. Unfortunately, this content is siloed – it’s in a shared drive, and they don’t have access. If they want access, they have to work for it – which is not a great way to get a product launched to market in time.

Limited Visibility Hides Production Bottlenecks

Speaking of product launches, spreadsheets make it difficult to understand if everyone is on schedule. The team lead may even have a spreadsheet set up with detailed color-coding to represent who’s on time and who’s late, but for reasons already discussed, this system will degrade like a game of Telephone – with the message and the intent changing along the course of approvals and creating confusion and misinformation.

At a more macro level, lack of visibility means that team leaders can’t understand where other areas of the product packaging pipeline might be failing. Even if the whole team produces their work on time, there might be related externalities such as designers or printers that are delaying the product launch.

For example, team members might be performing their work adequately – but the legal department might be having trouble keeping pace with approving copy and images due to volume of reviews and other pressing legal matters that demand their attention. Legal and regulatory stakeholders are doing an important job because of detailed regulations concerning packaging – especially for F&B and life sciences industries – but product packaging has no visibility into their workflow so may not be realized the need to address any potential bottlenecks. The product packaging team has no clear visibility into the project workflow and status of stakeholder’s roles for creating a product or manufacturing the item itself – and vice versa.

This is why a centralized, automated approach with full workflow visibility, stakeholder accountability and streamlined content management is best. Rather than be forced to wait for approval from legal, for example, 04. Limited visibility hides production bottlenecks There could be related externalities delaying product launch 9 the team responsible for artwork can be proactively notified of all projects awaiting action and their status, to make prioritization easy and streamline projects through their workflows. Also, by using a centralized content library with preapproved copy, artwork and translations, managers can ensure consistency and create additional efficiencies around managing the product packaging processes. Also, rather than attaching a file to an email and hoping for the best, a centralized Artwork Management platform with a digital asset library offers print vendors access to approved artwork. Managers can check on the status of their workers, their projects, as well as the status of the entire product lifecycle.

Paper Proofing Doesn’t Spotlight Change

Once you’ve circulated artwork with all of those stakeholders and gone through all the revisions and approvals, how do you go about ensuring all of the necessary changes have been made? What are the chances that you take a look and sign off on what you believe to be your final amended artwork and you send it off to the print vendor just to find out you missed that subtle ingredient change on the multiple variant of that yogurt packaging?

An automated solution with online comparison capabilities helps to highlight those all-important changes. This type of automated solution enables high-resolution graphic artwork, labeling, web and video content to be viewed at the same resolution in real time, regardless of connection speed. It offers the ability to easily compare versions and highlight the differences between artworks, while allowing you to record all changes, annotations and approval/rejection decisions by user, task and date/timestamp. Other value-add features include full audit history of annotations, approvals and rejections for extensive KPI analysis, along with the ability to automatically compare versions and highlight the differences.

With a system like this in place, keeping versions straight is far simpler. You’ll rest easily knowing that the final artwork uses the correct and most up to date copy and images. Plus, you’ll have a more reliable way to manage localized content including phrases, translations and artwork for markets across the country or around the world. Text translation for artwork can be a costly endeavor, however, a library of common phrases, in any language, for multi-lingual copy requirements helps as you expand business and enter new markets. You can leverage workflow between stakeholders involved in the translation process while ensuring that only the latest, approved phrases are used in pack copy. That means, potential errors and delays will disappear.

Reactive Communications Account for Last Minute Holdups

One more problem with manual processes. Imagine the following: your product artwork is done. It’s all approved. The samples have been printed and they look great. All of a sudden, someone notices something – its’ the wrong color, there’s a typo, there’s important legal copy missing.

This isn’t a nightmare – it’s real life.

Errors like this happen when packaging requirements are divorced from the artwork creation process itself. To put it in simpler terms, the legal steps could be tracked in one spreadsheet, the design steps tracked in another spreadsheet and the list of approvals tracked in yet another. Somewhere along the line, one of these spreadsheets can get ignored, lost, or even deleted.

Mistakes in packaging artwork can have major implications for your business. They can result in non-compliance, customer dissatisfaction, damage to brand reputation, penalties and fines, delayed market entry, and most important consumer safety. Managers can either deal with the consequences or prevent the conditions that cause mistakes to arise in the first place. Preventing the likelihood of packaging errors means investing in a centralized Artwork Management platform that places all of the project requirements in a conveniently accessible repository and manages the product lifecycle with full transparency, visibility, collaboration and accountability.

Creating New Efficiencies

To manage product artwork efficiently you need an automated artwork approval process that can be incorporated into your product lifecycle and managed across your global enterprise. However, there are still many companies today using antiquated manual workflow processes for artwork management. Inconsistent data, limited access to a digital assets, poor visibility, reactive communications, and labor intensive and error prone processes mean that teams working in operational silos spend an inordinate amount of time creating and editing artwork.

This type of manual approach entails routing of printed documents through folders and emails presents a host of risks and inefficiencies. First and foremost, these documents can easily be lost, damaged (think of how a spilled cup of coffee might impact plans) or misplaced costing valuable time and energy. Ultimately, this means there is much higher risk that the product is delayed before it reaches the market or that potential mistakes ensue – forcing a costly and damaging recall that may even entail fines or lawsuits.

Even if the product reaches the market without any missteps, the process of getting there can be backbreaking. Excessive revisions will take their toll on any Artwork Management team – imagine the angst of continually sending drafts out for revision, waiting weeks for comments, and then scrambling when the draft is sent back with markups. Imagine all the time spent looking for up-to-date product artwork, spelunking in email threads, and trying to update spreadsheets – all before you get any actual work done.

Using a configurable, automated packaging artwork workflow you can digitally transform your product lifecycle process to reduce complexity and  risk of recalls, while improving traceability and regulatory compliance. On top of that, you can streamline the packaging lifecycle process, while allowing managers and stakeholders to track printed artwork and packaging material from each change request through the entire approval process.