On-Line Collaboration: The Next Frontier in Package Design

Internet accessibility may mean a more-efficient bringing together of the various people and resources needed to design and build a quality custom healthcare package.

by Colleen M. Canale

Bringing together the manufacturers, the designers, the materials, and the specifications of a custom medical or pharmaceutical package is a complex process. For each participant, a miscalculation, a graphical error, or a lost part of the specification can have a serious impact on the entire project. Package integrity, the project-completion date, and the overall project cost may be adversely affected.

Contributors to package design can work together in the on-line hub.
 

For medical and pharmaceutical manufacturers concerned with packaging their products safely and efficiently, on-line collaborative design may serve to ease the burdens of a resource-intensive process.

ON-LINE PLATFORM

"Current industry practices are highly stressful and time consuming," says Bill Schreiber, president of PackageX (Ojai, CA) and a veteran packaging professional. "The Internet offers a great platform to help us all meet the faster-better-cheaper challenge that we face each day." PackageX recently launched its service, www.packageX.com, created by a maker of various software programs.

Adds Robert DeNola, president of webPKG (Hayward, CA), "Over the last several years, marketing and product development have been streamlined using information technology. Now, the same tools are available to the package engineering process."

PackageX and webPKG (www.webPKG.com) are among the new businesses now offering on-line collaborative design tools to the packaging community.

"[On-line collaboration] is really the next step beyond the great strides that CAD software has made in the last 10 years," comments John Cogger, president of Innova Engineering (Irvine, CA), a firm that also offers collaboration services. "The streamlining of the design and redesign process offers tremendous cost-reduction opportunities," he says.

On-line collaboration offers many of the tools of PC-based CAD software, and it offers them live, in real time, for sharing instantly among the members of a project team.

A HUB CONCEPT

An on-line collaborative workspace is best envisioned as a hub with each spoke being a project contributor.

The workspace facilitates sharing of data by allowing package engineers, materials and substrate providers, tooling experts, molders, and end-user marketing managers to log on and view project details. "The project team makes changes to the spec, and each change is tracked and visible to all," says Diana Benedikt, COO of webPKG.

The pressure for precise, rapid design to be visible to everyone in the supply chain is incredible, according to webPKG's DeNola. "We see database-driven spec management through on-line collaborative design as a tremendous opportunity for the pharmaceutical and medical packaging industries."

THE SOFTWARE

The foundation of this on-line collaborative design is the software that allows designers to create sketches, detailed engineering specifications, machining files, wire frame diagrams, and 2-D and 3-D models. Software providers such as Solidworks and AutoDesk (AutoCAD) offer software to accomplish these tasks.

But this way of working, with software being housed on individual users' PCs or workstations, is changing significantly. Experts predict that soon software will be used on demand—rented on-line instead of owned and housed on individual machines. Some firms refer to providers of on-line software as ASPs (application service providers), meaning essentially that the software is used on-line—"rented," rather than owned. Reet Randhawa, director of software development for software provider TOPS Engineering Corp. (Richardson, TX), noticed heightened awareness of the technology about six months ago. "There is an increasing awareness and demand for an ASP model for software," he says, "versus outright software purchase."

Both engineering firms and software producers are establishing ASP businesses to enable such on-line use.

IS IT FEASIBLE?

There is healthy debate as to whether integrating collaborative design with commerce and order transaction will work, particularly for pharmaceutical and medical packaging.

According to Innova's Cogger, only dedicated on-line design will succeed in pharmaceutical and medical packaging. Innova provides package design and drug-delivery design services, primarily to pharmaceutical companies.

"In our experience, pharmaceutical and medical companies want a relationship built on trust, often developed over a period of years," says Cogger. Innova allows long-established partners to share data through its engineering repository, offering clients the ability to share data in any format in real time.

"Everyone who logs into the Innova extranet is an additional node, and we charge a subscription fee by node," says Cogger. "We don't charge by taking a percentage of an anonymous transaction."

According to Schreiber, "Structural designers and packaging engineers need several software applications to create, illustrate, resize, and customize each project for their internal and external customers. These formats range from EPS (graphics), DXF (production), high-resolution JPEG (renderings), to HPGL (for driving an automated plotter)." PackageX.com has an on-line design library with hundreds of 3-D–rendered designs that can be customized and downloaded from the Web site. "Each selection in our library can be resized with the click of a mouse and downloaded in a wide variety of formats," he says.

"This ability to work across various file formats is critical," says Cogger. "Imagine creating a squeezable bottle containing eye drops, for example. Materials engineers need to look at the initial design and choose a material. An injection or blow molder must take the design and incorporate it into its molding process. And packaging engineers must determine if this design fits their production line. At each step, each person is using a different piece of software." Cross-format communication, he says, means that the design can pass easily from one person to the next with no rework.

Even still, some healthcare and contract packagers admit they are not yet convinced that on-line collaborative tools are superior to the design tools commonly in use.

On-line design can help project participants visualize how a product composed of various parts comes together.

 

Some are content with the tools they already have. "Exchanging graphics through e-mail works well for us," says Bill Arnold, design manager for PCI Services (Philadelphia), a packaging design and manufacturing firm. PCI uses AutoCAD and Solidworks for 2-D and 3-D design and works with a broad range of companies throughout the packaging supply chain. When necessary, Arnold says, the company can create an FTP site that allows it to exchange large files with partners. "We also use a program called Snag-it," he says, "that allows us to capture an image and save it as a JPEG file. We can send graphic images via e-mail, and the customer or supplier receives them almost instantly."

Certain other companies eager to benefit from on-line collaborative technology have tried the services and been unsuccessful. "I would definitely be interested in a seamless system that would take us from concept to mold to prototype to testing," says Lon Spada, senior project engineer at Allergan Pharmaceutical Development (Irvine, CA). "I have tried using an on-line service a couple of times, but found it difficult to use. I couldn't quickly find the initial design I wanted, and I couldn't manipulate a design with a few keystrokes. I think most people want to be able to log on and begin working immediately."

And for some other firms, packaging design is not the top on-line priority. Tolas Health Care Packaging (Feasterville, PA) feels that providing product information and technical assistance on-line are more of a priority than on-line design systems. The company is investing its resources in software and hardware to give its customers order-status visibility first.

Dana DeNinno, training and development specialist for Tolas, is part of a team that is pulling together the company's e-commerce strategy. "We are prioritizing order management, product catalogs, and support services," says DeNinno of the converter, whose primary products are lidding material, pouches, and rollstock. Although Tolas has design capability, says DeNinno, most customers approach the company with a package design already formulated. "Our customers look to us for our expertise in materials and coating technology," she says. "Our technical staff, which includes engineering, R&D, and sales, is primarily responsible for design, and our current tools, including AutoCAD, do a great job for us."

ISSUES TO CONSIDER

The availability of high-speed data access is critical to the design process hitting the next phase. "Most companies we work with do have high-speed lines, but not all of them," says PCI's Arnold. Without high-speed access provided by cable, DSL, and T1 lines, graphic file transfer can be slow and problematic. For users, this can mean waiting several minutes for a file to be transferred. Furthermore, a slow analog connection may drop the transfer of a file midstream, requiring the user to start over.

Ease of use as it relates to various job functions is also a key concern. Today, personnel in various types of job functions need access to the status of packaging projects. These people, says Arnold, "are not solely packaging engineers, but also manufacturing staff, product management staff, materials experts, and product development chemists. These important contributors may not be experienced in working with engineering software, which can be complex and difficult to use."

WebPKG's user-friendly software has gained the company an agreement with xpedx (Covington, KY), a distributor of packaging supplies and equipment. The xpedx Web site will integrate the webPKG software for use by xpedx packaging customers. Xpedx's decision to work with webPKG was based on webPKG's understanding of the custom packaging arena, its experience, and its work with key xpedx customers, according to David Wallace, director of e-business at xpedx. "We feel on-line collaborative custom-package design is a very viable model that will deliver value to our customers and our sales team by enabling a more streamlined process," says Wallace.

Schreiber of PackageX agrees. When it comes to accommodating a range of users, he says, "PackageX is user-friendly and can accommodate both novices and expert users. Our services are designed to be accessible both to brand managers and purchasing agents with simple tasks to perform, as well as to designers and engineers with multiple projects in various stages of development."

Also critical is the issue of security. "Our parent company, Cardinal Health, has established a high-security fire wall technology," says PCI's Arnold. Any changes in the company's software use, he says, would have to adapt to this technology. "At this point we are not ready for on-line collaboration, but when we are, I know that security will be a major concern."

"Throughout a project, the database must be under tight, documented control," adds Cogger of Innova. "Pharmaceutical companies want legacy data, and they want to ensure regulatory compliance." System integrity, he says, ensures this type of control.

LOOKING AHEAD

The ultimate customer base for on-line engineering software may not be exclusively large companies. Cogger describes his target customer base as firms with under $100 million in sales. "Pfizer could set up a complete system for on-line collaborative design within a few months. Smaller firms don't have those kinds of resources in Oracle, wide-area networks, and extranets." But by using the extranet on a temporary basis, Cogger says, small- to medium-size firms can get the work done without a huge capital investment.

And ASPs and other software providers are gearing up to help make it so.

PTC (formerly Parametric Technology Corp.; Waltham, MA) recently made an equity investment in NetIdeas Inc. (Laurel, NJ), a firm experienced with Windchill, the primary PTC product for Web-based collaborative design. Moreover, PTC has created a separate business unit called Windchill Netmarkets Group, which provides the firm's design capabilities to on-line exchanges.

Also, software provider TOPS Engineering is preparing an ASP initiative. And firms like Innova are ahead of the game, having already established ASP capabilities to offer their clients.

"Priorities are cutting time and cost, boosting the quality of output, removing barriers between people and resources, and creating connections so people can achieve common goals," says Schreiber. Internet accessibility, he says, streamlines the process, improves access to resources, and ultimately saves the user time and money.

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