Better Business Through Best Practices
Sometimes the best course of action to ensure progress means getting back to basics
By Robert Bittner
Michigan-based freelance writer and a frequent AICC BoxScore contributor.
Every trade show, every Drupa fair, maybe even every industry conversation likely highlights the extent to which innovation and forward movement continue to bring change and challenge to every facet of the box industry, from paper plants to corrugated converters, folding carton and rigid box manufacturers to printers large and small. Yet a growing number of box companies have decided that the best way to move forward is to foster a greater appreciation for the basics—those “best practices” that typify successful operations, but which sometimes can be overlooked or sidelined in the course of daily business.
“Our industry has become so complicated,” notes Dan Malenke, president of PKGPRO. “Raw materials, design, inks, all the way to dunnage and palletization—they’re all so inseparably related that it’s not enough for packagers to focus on their little piece of the puzzle. If there was ever a time to become more of a generalist in terms of understanding, this would be the time.”
Build a Strong Foundation
“Best practices to me means starting with substrates, understanding from a printing standpoint what you’re printing on, how it’s manufactured, what choices you have, and how they behave in different print processes,” says Kern Cox, a former corrugated professional who left to run the printing and converting research center for corrugated at Clemson University. (He is now a full-time lecturer in graphic communications at Clemson and a frequent AICC speaker.)
“Of course, converters and package designers can just say,‘We’ll do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.’ But is that the best way?” — Dan Malenke, president, PKGPRO
Malenke agrees. “It’s important to understand the appropriate materials available based on end-use requirements. Of course, converters and package designers can just say, ‘We’ll do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.’ But is that the best way? Now there are so many opportunities for material substitutions that could add value to the client’s packaging. If you understand your raw materials, you can put everything in context and advise successfully.”
While that may sound like a given, Malenke has seen plenty of evidence that it does not always happen. “Sometimes people make horrible choices, like putting a hardware product in an SBS carton. Obviously, they were focused on the graphics; they didn’t understand the physical protection necessary for that product. So that package showed up at a store and jumped out visually on the shelf, but physically it wasn’t successful. I’ve seen other cases where a package designed only for physical support falls down in other areas.”
Focus on Fundamentals
In addition to the basics of paperboard, Cox believes all of the following deserve to be on any list of industry fundamentals.
Inks and ink transfer. “It’s important to understand the different varieties of inks, why to use one instead of another, and how they interact with the substrates, cost and quality, and how to monitor that quality over time and make educated decisions about when to make changes and adjustments, when to recalibrate your system.”
Image carriers/plates. “It’s useful to understand how plates are made and what the current plate technologies are. A big need is knowledge about care and maintenance, how plates should be handled, stored, cleaned. Plates are expensive, but sometimes they get handled very roughly.”
Presses. “Sometimes people think of presses as a creative tool. But with a flexo press, there’s only so much you can do. Sometimes you spend too much time getting a press to do something unusual when you could have tweaked something earlier in prepress and saved time. Some of that happens with folks coming over from offset lithography, which does have creative capabilities, elements you can change or modify easier than on a flexo press. You have to break that mentality if you’re coming from lithography to a flexo press.”
Knowing what sets the standard for current and emerging best practices requires reaching out across the industry.
Malenke believes, “You need to be active in trade organizations, in doing your research, in attending the packaging expos and print trade shows.” It’s also important to be connected with other independents. “Independents are specially suited to help the little guys so they can work together as a team, collaborate, and pool their resources. In our industry, companies have relationships with their competitors; they’re usually transparent within their closed group of partner companies. Some even unite as buying consortiums to get competitive pricing from suppliers. We outsource to one another.”
Malenke also believes it’s crucial to be connected to industry-focused testing facilities. “We’ve got a proliferation of import options now in terms of raw material, and it’s going to be getting more interesting. We’ve had capacity expansion in Scandinavia, giving us more lightweight papers. There is growth in Asian pulp and paper, with excess capacity coming into this country. Those substrates are not traditional for us. If there ever was a time to cut through the snake oil and smoke and mirrors, it’s now! Get access to a test lab.
“Bring those new opportunities in and run them through legitimate testing to see how they perform. When the cost appears to be very attractive, understand that there’s a learning curve in knowing how you can best use it. It’s going to take some time to get up to speed so they perform for you in terms of quality and productivity, glueability, performance under different temperatures and humidity levels, fatigue, and degradation over time. With testing, you’ll know how all of those factors affect the end performance of that box.”
The kind of wide-ranging knowledge of materials and equipment needed to transform “best practices” into actual daily habits comes only with a commitment to ongoing learning and continual training.
“Being able to talk about printing, talk about specs, can take years to learn by osmosis,” says R. Andrew Hurley, Ph.D., professor at Clemson University and chief learning officer for The Packaging School, a partner of AICC’s Packaging University. “So, onboarding people at the outset sets a strong pattern for future success. That early training often gets overlooked. But if you’re going to continue to be an expert in your products—whether you’re in sales, design, the shop floor—that requires continuous improvement that needs to be part of a daily process.”
It does not, however, need to be overly time-consuming.
“If you’ve got 15 or 20 minutes, you can go through part of a curriculum, absorb some basic information, and review it,” Cox points out. “Much of the online learning available now is designed for consuming in bite-size chunks, understanding that people are busy.”
Unlike high school or college courses, the learning happening in these moments can be put to practical use the minute the team gets back to work.
“Because adult learners know what they’re up against, the ‘aha!’ lightbulb moments come up quicker as they’re going through this training,” Cox says. “They’ll immediately see what’s going to be of value to them. In an academic environment, students don’t have the real-world knowledge to know what they’ll most benefit from.
“People do like to educate themselves and are accepting of the need to learn more. If you have a company where some people are going into training sessions and others aren’t, these people come back to their positions with more knowledge. That can bring other people on board with learning. Everybody’s going to feed off of each other in that situation.”
Today, there are numerous options for tailoring the training your team needs around time and budget constraints.
“I think AICC has done a phenomenal job with education and training options for people,” says Cox. “We live in a digital age, so it makes sense that there’s lots of online content and curricula that people can go through. There are other organizations, too, that have meetings and forums where education and knowledge are shared. When it comes to training support, I look to the associations first.”
It is also important not to overlook offerings from traditional schools. Hurley, Malenke, and Cox have all been involved in seminars and courses offered to industry professionals by Clemson University. “Folks can come in for a two-day crash course where they get to sit down as cross-collaborative teams and evaluate packaging,” says Malenke. “Those courses have been fabulous. We’ve had close to 85 companies come to the Clemson seminar; about 500 people have attended.” In fact, some of the curriculum originally developed for the Clemson seminars is now being offered online through AICC’s Packaging University.
Of course, sometimes moving forward means experiencing missteps and confronting hurdles. Cox notes that “there will be setbacks along the way. The challenges will depend on where you’re coming from. There may be time robbers, so you can’t focus how you need to. We may run into market pressure: for example, ‘greener’ packaging that forces us to do more with less material or with unfamiliar material. Suddenly, what we knew flies out the window, and we have to recalibrate to work with lighter materials or, say, more recycled content that may not absorb ink very well.”
In the end, such thoughtful troubleshooting becomes a training opportunity in itself.
“I think AICC has done a phenomenal job with education and training options for people. … When it comes to training support, I look to the associations first.” — Kern Cox, lecturer, graphic communications
Embrace a Systems Approach
At the heart of this renewed focus on best practices is a belief in the benefit of broad industry expertise over a more insular approach. It emphasizes teamwork, cooperation, and open innovation that extend not only throughout a company but down the entire line from client to printer, packager, and shipper. As a result, corrugated converters and folding carton/rigid box manufacturers are not simply boxmakers; they are consultants involved at multiple steps in the life of a product.
“The systems approach to package design and production planning is big for me these days—where all contributing elements, even the product itself, work together for good,” says Malenke. “Primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging are teammates. Paper machines, functional coatings, sheeters, presses, die cutters, gluers, and filling lines are all touch points [that] contribute to the end result.
“We all have to work as a team to better understand how we can arrive at collaborative conclusions,” he adds. “Unfortunately, we still have a lot of ‘siloed’ companies who essentially just do what they do. And I get that. When times get tough, most companies don’t think they can afford to do this kind of cross-functional planning. So they’re tempted to lean on their supplier and do what’s been done in the past, over and over again. They’ll rely on their supplier for education about changes and opportunities. But the more sophisticated brand owners are successful because they understand the entire industry. They readily communicate with raw material suppliers and all the way down the chain.”
“People who are not out there always pushing, always trying to continuously improve, are going to disappear.” — Andrew Hurley, Ph.D., assistant professor, Clemson University
A systems approach weighs the contribution of every link in the chain, assessing how well it integrates and whether it can be improved. “People who are not out there always pushing, always trying to continuously improve, are going to disappear,” warns Hurley. “Look at Nokia. Years ago, they were the No. 1 mobile phone company in the world. But they stopped pushing the envelope because they had everything. Now? Nobody has a Nokia phone. Never forget that this is very much a commoditized industry. And next year, the innovations of last year will just be part of the commoditized structure.”
In a commoditized industry, where most if not all companies can provide essentially the exact same end product, it is attention to detail that sets the leaders apart.
“The decision-makers in the organization need to ask themselves, ‘Am I aware of the trends and changes in best practices in the industry? Am I still working with the same set of tools I had 10 years ago, or am I engaged in continuous improvement?’” Malenke says. “The key decision-makers are the ones who drive that down into the entire organization.”
“You have to be willing to shake up the box a bit when it comes to what you can provide,” Hurley adds. “Constantly look at ways to improve things. It is unbelievable how much low-hanging fruit—how much opportunity—is available at most companies.”