How to Successfully Engage and
Work with a Packaging Manufacturer
03 January, 2016
The art of communication
The most important thing about getting your packaging produced is communication. You need to get your packaging design agency, your product manufacturer and your packaging manufacturer in touch with each other, freely communicating, so that they can foresee any opportunities or issues that may occur.
If you don’t encourage this conversation early in the process, you may end up with packaging that isn’t suitable for transporting your product, or a packaging design the manufacturer can’t print or produce or, worse-still, a finished job that you are entirely unhappy with.
You are in charge – your power counts
The secret is getting your manufacturer in early, and regularly. Insist on progress meetings where the decision-makers for each organisation are present and make sure you are there to chair the meetings. You will forestall and avoid all problems this way – or at least resolve issues before they become insurmountable. These meetings can be in person, on Skype or on the phone.
Producing your packaging is very much a team effort and you are responsible for appointing the best people for the job and ensuring that the team are communicating with each other.
There are limitations – get to know them early
You need to start working with a manufacturer as early in the process as you possibly can. This is because there will be limitations in the manufacturing that will affect the scope that your packaging designers have. For example, if the manufacturer can only screen-print, you won’t be able to have beautiful images on your packaging as screen-printing doesn’t allow you to do that. You will need to discuss with the design agency whether this should be accommodated, or whether it’s so limiting that another manufacturer should be appointed. It will depend on your product and where it is to be sold generally.
Selecting a Manufacturer/Printer
Just as with appointing a packaging agency, you should speak to a few different manufacturers first. Ideally, you want to go and visit their factories and see the standard that they work to. You can tell a lot from the look of a factory. Is it clean and modern or old and messy? Just like the way you keep your home or office, factors like organisation and cleanliness can indicate what’s really going on behind the scenes and how reliable this company is going to be.
A referral is good
Your design agency should have some contacts that you’ll be able to tap into. There’s nothing better than a recommendation. If your agency steers you towards a couple of printers, go check them out. A packaging design agency will have worked with hundreds of different printers and knows the good from the bad. Printers will be keen to do a great job for you if you have come via a packaging agency as it’s likely there will be more work for them further down the line if they impress.
Ideally, you will have a conversation with your packaging agency prior to commencing your search. They should be able to give you some criteria that the manufacturer needs to meet.
- The weight of card they need to be able to print on
- The materials they will need to use
- The print processes that will or won’t be appropriate
- The finishes (eg varnishes, sealants etc) that will need to be used
Once you have selected a couple of possible packaging manufacturers, have a chat with your packaging design agency and ask what steps they recommend from here. Each project is unique and needs to be handled in its own way. It could be that your packaging agency will give you a dieline (an already existing outline of the box or packet), which your manufacturer will use, or amend and use. It could be that your manufacturer will want to supply the dieline. It all depends on the characteristics of your product and the number of packs you are going to be producing in your first run.
When you get a quote from your packaging manufacturer, here are things you should ask/check:
What will it cost to print more/less?
If you’ve asked for a quote for 12,000 units, what would it cost to print 10,000 or 15,000 instead? Often once the job is running on a press, the cost to the printer of keeping the press running for an extra thousand or so units is minimal. It’s worth understanding this at the outset – it can be a lot more expensive to do second print-runs, rather than printing more up-front. You’ll need to juggle your overall print budget alongside the lack of current sales (and therefore cashflow) versus second print run costs coupled with minor print changes that will be required on the pack. These minor changes are almost inevitable – so allow for them in your upfront thinking.
Don’t be afraid to ask your printer to quote on several different volumes so you really understand the cost implications. They’re used to doing it. If there isn’t much of a saving to be had by printing volume, you should probably keep the first production run low. Consider it a bit of a beta-test. There are so many different variables at hand, it’s good to go live with a pack that you know you can tweak before too long.
Once you have printed one run, what’s it going to cost for your second run?
There are some non-recurring initial costs that the printer is accommodating within this first print run that won’t need to be paid for again. Things like creating the tools required to cut your specific dieline. Try and get your head around these things by asking as many questions as possible.
What is the proofing process?
Before your pack is manufactured, you will need to see some sort of proof for approval. What will your printer provide you with? PDFs for you to review? Or printed proofs on the actual stock? The closer that the proof is to the finished item, the better your understanding of what will be produced and the lower your risk.
Can you and/or your packaging agency press pass?
Press passing means going to the printers when the job is on-press and approving it there and then. This is well worth doing if your printer is in the same city as you – most will welcome you in because it’s an extra layer of protection for all concerned.
Home vs Away
There is a trend towards Australian businesses getting packaging produced in Asia, and in particular China. It’s very easy to understand why this tempts so many companies. The prices can knock Australian printers for six. However, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly – there are many pros and some big cons to taking this route, which I’ll discuss here. You may, having read this, decide that it’s something to do further down the line, rather than now.
- The Costs – The costs are overwhelmingly in favour of production in China. You may find that the same print job will cost a quarter of the price in China versus Australia.
- Embellishments – Things like foiling, embossing, de-bossing and die-cutting are far cheaper overseas. See information about these in chapter 6. In Australia, your printer will often have to send your packs out to a third party to get these embellishments. This adds costs to the job. In China, the same factory will often do all embellishments in house to a very high standard.
- Language – Unless you speak fluent Mandarin, you are going to find it incredibly hard to communicate with the factories. It’s rare to find anyone within a factory who speaks perfect English and the terminology, jargon and expectations are often very different. This can be unbelievably frustrating, time consuming and expensive in that jobs may have to be repeated – often at your expense. If something goes wrong, you’ll find it very difficult to get any recourse with the overseas printer.
- Time – You will need to factor in the time taken to ship samples from China to Australia. It’s not a case of someone in Sydney just popping the samples/proofs on a motorbike and sending them over to you same day. You will need to wait at least one week for each approval from request to appearance – and a week for each consequent revision. This can happen two, three or four times per job because of the communication difficulties and confusion in understanding your requests. This can be incredibly frustrating to entrepreneurs who are keen to get their products on the market and start receiving an income from them. Then, of course, there’s the time involved in shipping the goods from China to Australia. Six weeks is pretty much the standard time quoted, and you should allow more as a margin for error. If your print run is relatively small, then air freight may suffice, but the costs are considerable for a sizeable print run so sea freight is the usual method. You may find air freight costs are roughly equivalent to the savings you’ll make in going offshore.
- Press Passing – If you print your items in Australia, you or your design agency can attend the print house when your job is on-press and approve the quality/colour of the finished article. If you don’t like the way it’s looking, you can request small tweaks (do check with your printer that this is a service they offer, rather than assuming it’s fine). If, however, you print your work in China, this is not, normally, viable unless your print run is massive. Your add-on costs of airfare, accommodation, food, translators and so on can get away from you.
- Face – Unless you are very well versed in Chinese culture, you may not understand the concept of ‘Face’. Simply put, ‘face’ is reputation amongst your peers or business associates. Chinese people will go to great lengths to maintain good ‘face’. For example, I’ve had an instance where the rep did not want to tell us a job would run late because this would mean a loss of face. The nuances of a culture have to be taken into account so that you understand all the possible outcomes – and can plan accordingly.
- Risk – The risk associated with printing overseas is far bigger than that of printing in Australia. Imagine, for example, if your print job runs late, or the ship is delayed, or stock sits on a wharf waiting to be cleared by customs and you miss your deadline for delivery into Coles or Woolworths. It could be that the store will refuse to accept your stock if it arrives even a few days late. You will then be sitting on packaging and goods that you need to quickly sell into another store, or warehouse at greater expense until you find someone else willing to purchase the goods. If the goods are perishable, this is even worse news. The other risk is that your final packaging is not up to the standard you had wished for – perhaps due to communication difficulties – and your stores reject them upon delivery. This would be horrific, particularly if it was your first delivery to the store. Your reputation would be ruined and it may take some serious negotiating to get the store to consider another shipment.
- Volume – Generally, unless you are printing large volumes, you will find the costs of producing in China and shipping to Australia are higher than the costs of producing in Australia. This often tempts people to print higher volumes and get their first run printed in China. This is completely understandable as the initial quotes are much lower than an Australian printer can match. But we have seen time and again how costs are added into a job, unexpected issues arise – that cost – and overall the end cost is much closer to the Australian cost, albeit with exponential costs in frustration! The model we suggest is to do a reasonably small print-run in Australia and get it into the market as a beta-test which you can then review and re-print after a few months. There is always going to be something on a pack that needs to change after the first print run.
- Aussie Aussie Aussie! – Aussie’s love Australian Made things. We’re a land of loyalists and patriots. It’s no secret that words like ‘Australian Owned’ and ‘Australian Made’ on packaging can help make sales. Many Australian printers are small business people – perhaps just like you – and you might find that supporting them pays off in the long run anyway. You can build a good relationship with suppliers who will help you out of a jam in the longer term, and it’s also good for our economy. And the real bottom line is; it may not cost more anyway!
- Agent in China – It’s possible to hire an agent in China who can represent you and act as a negotiator/translator between you and the Chinese printer. It’s not easy to find someone who you can trust to do this – the most reliable source of finding this person is word of mouth. Bear in mind their costs for negotiating on your behalf.
- Local printer outsourcing to China – Some Australian printers have negotiated partnerships with Chinese printers. This gives you the benefit of working with someone local who you can easily communicate with and allowing them to do the hard work of liaising with China. Obviously this will come at a cost, will still take time and you don’t have total control, but it can still prove cheaper than printing in Australia.
- Print first run locally, then move production to China – This is a longer-term cost-saving solution. Get the first packs produced in Australia, then send sample packs over to China, along with the artwork so that the factory in China clearly understands exactly what it is that you want them to produce. This drastically reduces the confusion. You can set this in motion very soon after your first local run is produced. This way, once the local run is sold, your new shipment from China will be in your warehouse.
- Print samples in Australia and ship them to China – Similar to the above, but you ship high quality samples to China to reduce the initial confusion factor. There is still an awful lot of risk involved but it does reduce the possibility of confusion from just a written brief alone.
- Print in Australia! – This may cost slightly more, but it will save hours of time, lots of frustration, and you will have full control on those first crucial product runs into new stores and on to new consumers. Build your reputation first with quality control over all aspects of your packaging design and print and then, once you’re established, start finessing your costs.
- Start the communication process early
- You need to be in charge of the work flow and communication process between design team, product team and print team
- Listen to printers – they’ve often got very practical and pragmatic advice
- Ask for prices across a range of quantities
- Engage in the proofing process – it’s your last chance to get it right
- Printing overseas is cheaper – but often frustrating
- It’s often safest to do an initial print run in Australia then consider going overseas
By Gwen Blake