Bringing a New Dimension to 3-D Imaged Packaging

You're at the store pondering the many choices of toothpaste. Over the years you've sampled everything from tartar control types to baking soda brands. You've even tried the bubble-gum flavored formula that was a last resort after you discovered your six-year-old son was the only person in the house with any toothpaste left. In your mission to find something new, you have a moment of clarity: "They all do just about the same thing!" And to make it even more confusing, they all cost about the same, too. So how do you decide? Do you say (perhaps on a subconscious level), "The bright blue one is nice, but the red and white is attractive, too."

Sound ridiculous? Think again. Packaging very often is the determining factor for consumers. In the fight to grab a browser's attention, end-users today know the importance of the printing, the color, and the design of a package. They want it to "jump out" at the consumer, and making that happen through patented three-dimensional printing and converting techniques is precisely the goal of Gary Jacobsen, president and CEO of Web Communications Group Inc. (WCG), Itasca, IL.

3-D: Now and Then
Three-dimensional printing techniques have been around since the 1950s, according to Jacobsen. "The name [for the process] used in the past was 'stereoscopic' printing. If you wanted to view or print images stereoscopically, you had to have a camera with two lenses. You would then take a picture of the same object with this two-lens camera, but each [picture] was stepped at a different angle; it gave each a different parallax. Next, you would make two slides out of it, put the two slides into a projector, and they would criss-cross and project onto the wall. It's actually an illusion, not really 3-D, but your brain makes it appear three-dimensional to your eyes."

Jacobsen continues, "Over time, the technique used to create the images underwent further development. Rather than have two lenses, a single-lens camera used in the process would 'ride' on a little track. It would move and, let's say, take 25 shots, stepping each one. After making the final set of film, which was called a 'barrier grid,' there would be 25 different shot images that were stepped sequentially in between the lenticule on the lens. The image then did the same thing: It shot out in a criss-cross pattern from the lenticule, the brain would intercept it, and the eyes would see it as dimension."

According to Jacobsen, those wanting to utilize this 3-D look today can create images by the above camera process or combine the process with special computer programs that produce the same effect. The images then are printed on the smooth bottom side of the lenticular plastic. The top side of the lenticular substrate is covered with tiny grooves called "lenticules." This side is what makes the image appear as if it is three-dimensional, and the 3-D representation can consist of just about anything a photographer/designer can imagine.

Jacobsen is careful to point out that lenticular printing and hologram technology are not the same. "A lot of people confuse holograms with three-dimensional, but it's totally different technology. [Holography] uses lasers and prisms, and lights bounce off [the image]. It is printed on a metallic substrate, but there's no ribbed lens. It's flat."

Less Steps, Less Cost, More Products
Jacobsen says printing on a lenticular lens, until just recently, had to be done through a sheet-fed method -- a time-consuming and costly production process. But after almost ten years of research and test runs, Jacobsen has secured two US patents (additional patents are pending) to take the 3-D process from sheet-fed to roll-fed and cut the expensive multistep process to just one press pass. According to Jacobsen, the patents make it possible to mass produce the eye-catching, three-dimensional images for a vast array of applications at a minimal unit cost.

A visit to Jacobsen's Itasca office by Paper, Film & Foil CONVERTER included a look at 3-D samples of this "vast array," including video jackets composed of the lenticular substrate, compact disc case inserts, beverage cup graphics, trading cards, direct mail tip-ons, FDA-approved food in-packs, magazine inserts, backlit and reflective posters, and many more.

Jacobsen says that, while three-dimensional printing on lenticular has been used previously in marketing pieces and on product packages (most commonly in the form of sheet-fed-produced tip-ons), his company's innovations make it possible to produce more efficiently (and less expensively) packaging comprised of the lenticular lens substrate and SBS [solid bleached sulfate] board. The video jacket/box is a good example of this "integrated" lenticular packaging.

"Previously, [the manufacturer] would print the lens separately, sheet fed; they'd print the box, the sides, and back," Jacobsen explains. "The pieces would then have to go to a sheet-to-sheet laminator to bring the two together. Next, the piece had to go to the die-cutter, then to the scorer, and finally to the machine that makes it into the box. But now, using my patent, I can print the lens and the SBS board in-line, then glue it together, and it comes out in die-cut blanks. Now, all I have to do is take it to the folding machine. I've bypassed three to four steps.

"The printing is done simultaneously on the paper and the lens and then laminated together-all in-line, in a single press pass. The only difference is going to be the cost of the extra lens. I can do almost the entire box [using the lenticular substrate] for the cost of just one piece [of traditionally printed lenticular plastic]," asserts Jacobsen.

Jacoben reports that the patents also open up a new world to marketers and advertisers who want to add "eye-popping quality" to their promotional material and other marketing pieces. "Some pieces-for instance, a four-by-five-inch, eight-page mini-catalog that would go into a video clamshell-can be enhanced with a full three-dimensional page. But, without using the patented technology, this four-panel, two-sided piece with the three-dimensional image placed on the third page would be impossible to produce. Even if a printer tries to go off-line for some of the steps, he or she can't place the 3-D where it should be."

It's All in the Lens (and the Printing)
The lens is critical to Jacobsen's process. "The lenticular lens [in this process] is a custom-made, extruded plastic," he says. "Each lens is of a unique design in order to fit various types of customer orders. For focus issues, its lenticule design, its pitch, its focal and viewing angles, and its thickness are important; the different lens designs are chosen according to the viewing distance for the final product." Vinyl Plastics Inc. manufactures all of WCG's custom-designed lenticular lenses.

Jacobsen adds that WCG has web printed on lenses ranging in thickness from 8 to 17 mils, and the company currently is developing a proprietary ultra-thin lens (0.005) that can be used in the mainstream packaging industry in such applications as blown-on, pressure-sensitive, 3-D lenticular labels for on-packs as well as consumer-packaged goods, cans, bottles, cups, and more.

For the highest possible quality, web offset is the printing method best suited to his process, notes Jacobsen, but he adds that flexo, gravure, and rotary letterpress methods are possible (which also are covered in the patents). "Web offset provides a higher print quality, because offset can print 400 to 600 lines per inch; the other methods typically print in ranges from 150 to 200 lines per inch."

WCG has manufactured some of its lenticularly printed products on full-size, retrofitted, commercial quality web offset presses built by Heidelberg and Hantscho. The patented process calls for special inks and curing modes so the final image will set properly on the substrate and keep the heat-sensitive lenticular plastic from warping. Says Jacobsen, "Print register and alignment to the lenticules are crucial." He adds that many of the materials, processes, and other elements in the manufacturing process are proprietary.

The Man Behind the Patents
During PFFC's visit Jacobsen talked of the many years of research and trials that went into the development of his patents. "I started working on this concept around 1990. I examined how things were being produced at the time and researched the US patent office data banks. Knowing the equipment as well as I do, I formulated a different way of doing it. As I was writing the first patent, I tested [the process] on my own, with my own money, to see that it would work. It wasn't easy; there were a lot of mistakes. You know, it's like Edison working on the light bulb: a thousand tries, and 1,001 -- boom! 'Hey, it stayed on!'"

But, like Edison, Jacobsen didn't necessarily start out his career as an inventor. "I got into the business by default; my father owned several binderies and printing companies in Chicago, and I started by 'playing' at the web printing shop as a kid. I would fix equipment and invent things in Dad's shops. People began calling me 'Dr. Print.'" He adds that the nickname has stuck to this day.

As a teen, Jacobsen actually started working in his father's operations. "I did everything from sweeping the floor to running the presses to operating bindery equipment," he says. "Then I went to work in the office and got into sales, production estimating, bought paper and printing equipment, and did plant layouts. I eventually became vice president for my father's companies."

In 1984 Jacobsen struck out on his own, he says, "to work for other companies, to learn from other people and masters of the trade. I worked for the Banta company, a Fortune 500 printer, for more than five years. That's where I started to learn in-line finishing systems on web offset presses."

That same year Jacobsen and his father formed WCG as a side, noncompeting business (with Banta) to accommodate customers with unique or unusual printing jobs/requests. "There was a lot of project work that could not be done internally in the plants in which I was working. I had the technical know-how to get an unusual or complex promotional job done. I got a lot of business because I was a creative problem solver."

In 1989 Jacobsen left Banta and moved full-time into WCG, and with two 3-D lenticular patents, six other printing-process patents (and more pending in both the US and Europe), ten employees, and a lot of business later, the company is still going strong.

Jacobsen's entrepreneurial spirit is being put to other uses as well. The title "doctor" will one day be a reality for Jacobsen; he currently is working toward a customized advanced degree in printing management/technology, imaging sciences, and integrated marketing from a major, accredited university. And, he notes, "Right now, WCG is looking at licensing its patents and partnering with the right people, both in product development and in manufacturing.

"Companies spend a tremendous amount on identity," Jacobsen says, "and this is something that [my process] can help them do. They can [run a 3-D advertisement] and then follow it with a three-dimensional package. Packaging is more important than ever. It's the first thing people see. Yeah... Packaging is where it's at."

Supplier Information
Vinyl Plastics Inc., Sheboygan Falls, WI; 920/467-6422; fax: 920/467-2692.

Heidelberg/Harris, Nashville, TN; 615/831-5700; heidelberg.com


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