The Rise of Workflow Automation in Wide Format Graphics: Confounding Color

Ryan McAbee
Sep 27, 2017

Color is one of those things that everyone knows and has an opinion about, but very few understand how it works. We all understand reference colors. We expect the sky to be blue and grass to be green. Getting that grass to be the same green across different print technologies (analog vs. digital), types of ink/toner, substrates (paper vs. vinyl), and lighting conditions (daylight vs. fluorescent bulbs), is the confounding part. Getting consistent color requires commitment, the right tools and people to execute a process, and diligence to repeat and monitor the process.

Color is important to your customers and your operation. In a InfoTrends 2015 study, print-for-pay print service providers indicated that 55% of their work required accurate color matching and expected that requirement to grow to 64% of work this year. Printers cited the benefits of a successful color management program including less rejected/reprinted work, better equipment utilization, and reduction in ink costs. Despite the benefits, color management is not without its challenges. A lack of dedicated staff, time, and skillset were common obstacles but the highest response was due to changing print conditions. To minimize those challenges, it’s important to dedicate the resources to succeed and develop a program that addresses the 5 C’s of color management.

InfoTrends 5 Cs of Color Management

  1. Calibration ensures the printing device is at its optimal printing condition and establishes a baseline for repeatable output. Manufacturers of the equipment provide a recommended calibration schedule but tightly controlled shops typically calibrate a minimum of once per day.
  2. Capture and quantify the color using a color measurement device, typically a spectrophotometer.
  3. Characterization relies on the data from the capture stage and characterizes the color capabilities of the printer using a specific ink/toner and substrate pairing. A color management system (CMS) is software used to create profiles during this step. If variables change, most notably substrates, then a new profile needs to be created for those new print conditions.
  4. Convergence is the interplay between color spaces and how the printer will output the print. For example, a brand color like Coca-cola red is converted from a device-independent color space into the color space (gamut) the printer is capable of reproducing.
  5. Conformance of the printing conditions to the pre-determined color specification or standard, e.g. G7. Measuring the output checks if the printing is within tolerance of your standard, usually viewed as a simple pass/fail report form the color management system (CMS).

While the capture and characterization steps can be time intensive, the good news is that the other steps require less time and can often be automated. If this is your first attempt at developing a program to manage color, then hiring an independent industry consultant or someone certified from your preferred vendor is highly recommended. These experts can guide you to the best process, create a plan of execution, establish standard operating procedures, educate staff on those procedures, and develop a plan for continued implementation. You’ll also need a measurement device and software to create the ICC profiles.

Tools to get started:

  • Spectrophotometer, like those offered by Barbieri, Konica Minolta, and X-rite.
  • There are numerous software packages that can create ICC profiles, but fewer that also offer ink optimization and quality control features.
    • All global equipment manufacturers have their own or license color management software.
    • There are independent vendors including, but not limited to, Alwan, CGS, Chromix, CMI, gmg, and X-rite. There are also many regionally strong vendors.
    • The RIP/DFE vendors usually offer color management capabilities or, at minimum, the ability to use ICC profiles.

Now that you are armed with a basic understanding, it’s time to rally your staff, engage your vendors and experts, and get started! With implementation and practice, what was once confounding will become routine, increase automation, and improve the operation.

Read more in the Rise of Workflow Automation in Wide Format Graphics blog series.

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