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01 April 2019

The print behind the packaging

We caught up with Steven Emsley to chat about his new role as print technical manager, what’s happening in the industry and the Holy Grail of packaging materials…


Hi Steven, tell us a bit about the role of print technology at Equator, and how important it is in packaging design overall…

From a design agency point of view we want to recreate the design in a consistent and quality way. When a variable changes, for instance a different ink is introduced, we examine the output and ensure that each print has the same consistent result. We’ll look at the data and ensure the colour is within a two-point range of target, then we’ll go back and look at the capability and make adjustments, and that’s all done ahead of going to print of course.


Has a growing focus on sustainable packaging among retailers and consumers changed the face of print tech?

Things are moving along rapidly in terms of sustainability. We’ve got within the team someone who deals exclusively with pack science, so we’re looking at the viability of materials to be recyclable or compostable. These days all the retailers are looking at environmental concerns, and most of them have made statements or have published specific targets relating to their sustainability goals, whether that’s in terms of provenance, packaging or reducing the carbon footprint in their logistics. Often, it’s all three, so we need to be responsive, not just to our clients’ needs but also recognising that these changes are in direct response to the demands of consumers.


What’s different about Equator Design’s print technology, compared with others in the packaging industry?

What we can offer at Equator is expertise and innovation at a pace with the latest developments within the industry, and our advice is independent to a client’s supply chain. We’re aligned to a waste hierarchy, which provides guidance on reducing waste at all stages before final disposal, from preventing wastage by using less packaging, to reuse of the product and ensuring recyclability. Packaging design according to the waste hierarchy might mean assessing the unfilled space – let’s say it’s 40% air space – and reducing that unused space, which results in a reduction in the materials that go into making it.


What does your role consist of?

My role is a new one to Equator, and I think it demonstrates how the design agency is responding to what retailers want right now. My role oversees tech support, pack science and print and colour management, being able to bring teams together on all three sides and ensuring the branches work well in conjunction with one another. From what I can see, there’s no one else out there that’s doing this combination. It shows how important sustainability is to retailers, and how important it is to us here at Equator that we help them succeed.  


In your experience, how has printing technology changed over the years?

I’ve been in the industry for 29 years, so nearly three decades already! I’ve seen some incredible changes, particularly since the advent of digital technology. I worked in it when it was non-digital, back when we did wet-proofing, and now we use digital prints to profile, with data management in place to achieve the consistency I mentioned before. Of course, print tech is never stagnant, and the constraints as well as the possibilities are always shifting and expanding.


What direction is printing technology taking now?

Today, the emphasis is going into the types of substrates being used. Packaging with a reduction in materials, first of all, but particularly substrates that can be run at high speeds and at high volumes. Plastics overuse is a problem, and where companies have tried to replace plastics with alternative materials that are more sustainable, it’s not always proven to be effective when run at high speeds. Also, the material has to be a viable choice to contain the product itself. There are advancements being made in the field of plastics science, and we’re waiting to see a material that functions as well as plastics do, but without the environmental aftermath. So, something that’s versatile like plastic, and that could be run at high speed and at high volumes.


And it needs to be cost effective, right?

Exactly – in terms of packaging materials that would really be the Holy Grail. But until that wonder material arrives, we are working to provide clients with the print quality that will give them on shelf standout, while helping them to satisfy the sustainability goals they have placed in their corporate objectives, or have posted online as part of their social responsibility commitments. All arriving in budget and with speedy turnaround times.


So, is this is an exciting time for print tech?

Absolutely. Today’s capabilities are far beyond what we ever anticipated twenty or so years ago, and since consumers and retailers have been vocal about environmental concerns, it’s added another dimension to what we are doing now and where we’ll be going in the future. It’s definitely an exciting time.