Addressing a Spectrum of Color Management Issues

We all acknowledge color is important, and consistent, accurate color essential. So, how do you ensure your prints are color managed correctly? What equipment and software do you need? What skills are required of your staff? What environmental factors can play a significant role in inconsistent color, and how can you ensure they become non-factors?

And finally, when your color is inconsistent, resulting in the inevitable need for color management expertise, where can you go to get assistance?

This month, we put the broad spectrum of such queries to experts from a variety of companies, gaining an assortment of colorful responses that should strongly benefit your color management efforts.

Ensuring Proper Color Management

How can you ensure your prints are color managed properly? The answer is by printing consistently, said Bart Fret, director for wide-format sales in the Americas for Hingham, MA-based GMG Americas, a high-end color management and workflow software solution provider for the graphic arts field.

”You need to be consistent in everything,” he reported. “You need a software platform that allows you to correctly color manage, hardware that allows you to measure everything correctly, people who maintain the devices and are very accurate in the maintenance and cleaning, and a stable environment, meaning clean with certain controlled humidity and temperature.

“If the printer itself is not accurate, nothing else is going to be.”

Put that same question to Julie Bauer, senior applications sales manager with Esko in Miamisburg, OH, and she answered with one word: Verification.

“The basis of any color management is process control,” she said. “One of the main components is verification. You have to measure the input and verify the output. And you have to do that on a daily, weekly, monthly, hourly basis.”

A fundamental knowledge of color is essential to color management, added Liana Calicchia, global communications specialist with Salt Lake City, UT-based Onyx Graphics, Inc. In addition to that basic understanding, workflow should include processes that ensure color management. Accurate on-screen color-managed previews play a large role in a color-managed workflow.

“Lastly, verifying your design, printer settings, printer calibration and accurate profiles are crucial to color managed output,” Calicchia said.

Equipment Decisions

In terms of equipment, PSPs need spectral measuring devices that are a fit for the kind of print, application and media being used, Fret said.

“More in detail, if you have a printer that has a very big dot structure, or you’re printing on structured media, you need a measuring device that can make accurate readings in these types of challenging circumstances,” he said.

As an example, he points to a printer that has both very large dots and a very course dithering pattern.

In that case, the PSP needs a measuring device with an aperture large enough to make a good average of all the dots that have been printed, Fret said. If the aperture is too small, a good average reading will not be obtained, and the measurements will not be correct, nor will they be correctible afterwards.

In addition, PSPs need software that allows for correct linearization, calibration and profiling of printer and media, Fret said. It’s important the software enable not only the creation of a good profile, but the same consistent results later. “A lot of software allows you to make a good profile,” Fret explained. “But it’s very difficult to maintain that specific profile quality.”

The equipment and software needed will vary with the task, said Bruce Wright, technical support specialist with X-Rite, a Grand Rapids, MI company that is a world leader in color specification and identification technology

“Profiling and process control are two separate things to consider,” he said. “They’re interrelated but separate. They have separate software associated with them, and often different measuring devices.

“If it’s someone who is using a grand format press, they’re concerned with process control. Once they print their first print, they want to ensure that subsequent prints are as close to that first one as possible. That person would be measuring a spot area and getting a delta e.”

Other users in the offset world would be running a color bar, and using a methodology for maintaining consistent color referred to as G7. “People’s expectations are that color is absolute; they don’t understand color is going to change depending on the substrate, inks and printing process used,” he said. “In the world of wide-format, you may be printing on a flexible or rigid substrate, with solvent, UV cured or latex inks. These variables can have an effect on color.”

Calicchia reported a spectrophotometer is crucial to accurate color management. In combination with quality software, this piece of equipment can help all users achieve accurate color. “RIP software from Onyx Graphics can give users confidence in their output at all stages of production, from job preparation through color-managed output,” she said. “Print operators can ensure accurate color through features included in Onyx RIP software, such as Quick Sets and the ability to create their own color profiles.”

Bauer maintains that what is needed is equipment and software that allows PSPs to generate a controlled output. In the world of digital output, the RIP is a key control mechanism, she said. “It is necessary to drive the device, but also contains the controls necessary to color manage the device. You need a RIP that has the ability to give you the controls. You need process control, which basically means good standard operating procedures in place.”

Skills Required of Staff

Mark Gundlach, manager of training and curriculum for X-Rite, reported staff must be familiar with how color is edited within their applications. Operators do have some skills in how to manipulate color, he said. But the real issue is that they’re working with uncalibrated systems. “If they are editing color on an uncalibrated display, they may get color pleasing on that display,” he said.

“But they go to print, and it’s also not calibrated, without ICC color management, and they wind up with very different colors than expected. So they need to have the skills and tools to calibrate and profile all these devices in their system to get optimal and predictable results within that printer’s capabilities.”

According to Fret, to ensure top-quality color management, your staff needs to be comprised of people who are dedicated to their tasks and are responsible, diligent and aware that the machine needs to be maintained, cleaned and monitored to ensure the maintenance of great color.

Bauer reports the skill set of prepress operators needs to include a fundamental understanding of color reproduction, a knowledge of the digital output device and expertise in how that device reproduces color.

“The other main component is knowledge of how to manipulate a digital file in order to achieve the best possible output,” she added.

Calicchia revealed Onyx Graphics has developed a Print, Read, Next workflow that requires only a basic understanding of color management.

The skills are built into the software and simplified for all users. “Onyx RIP software also appeals to advanced users with a greater understanding of color management with our Black Diamond tool set. This is ideal for users who want to take more control of their color management settings,” she said.

Environmental Awareness

Environmental factors can lead to inconsistent color, which means care needs to be taken to ensure they don’t. Temperature, humidity, cleanliness and consistency of the media are among these factors, Fret said. “Unfortunately, you can’t control it that much, and printers will always shift with changes in humidity,” he added. “That’s why GMG has a unique recalibration feature that makes sure you can continue to print consistently, even when your printer shifts.”

It’s not just the room temperature and humidity that play a huge role, Bauer says. It’s also the environment created by the operators using those devices. Are they using them correctly? Are they following standard operating procedures? “It’s the human factor,” she observed. “It’s not the device in a room by itself. The operators contribute to, and influence, the environment.”

For her part, Calicchia said the environmental factor of temperature can affect ink performance, while humidity affects how the ink reacts with the paper.

The simple solution to ensuring environmental factors do not interfere with output is to control the environment. Storing media in the environment in which you will print is one step you can take to control your environment, she said.

“I don’t think you can ever avoid environmental factors,” Wright added. “But you can manage them and compensate for them. For example, someone doing wide-format printing in a humid environment will spend a lot more time controlling climate in their room, compared to someone in a more moderate environment.”

Metallics, Decorative Effects

When it comes to color management with metallics, traditional methods do not work, says Mark Geeves, director of sales and marketing with Color-Logic, a Cincinnati software firm specializing in metallics and decorative effects.

There are three aspects of color management, Geeves said. They are calibration, characterization profiling and process control. “For metallics, you must have calibration, and also must have process control,” he reported.

“But ICC profiling doesn’t work. Currently, there is no method to come up with a mathematical formulation or techniques to address metallics. You have to produce the color on press to do it correctly, to really know what you‘re going to get using the printing process, factoring in the substrates, inks and coatings. It has to be done on press to do it accurately . . . With wide-format, there is not much you can do but adjust curves, and that involves a lot of trial and error.”

Color-Logic lets printers create their own swatch books, which are given with the company’s plug-ins to the designers. That way, he says, the designers know their expectations are going to be met, with no need for trial and error.

As for skill sets needed of operators, not many operators today are experienced in metallics. Designers haven’t been trained in print in general, and certainly haven’t been trained in printing with metallics, he said. There is a good niche market in labels, point-of-purchase and signage sought by consumer goods companies, athletic wear brands and sophisticated luxury goods.

“We take our experience in color and our experience in design, and use a systematic approach to help printers enter these new markets,” he said.

Getting Help

Color management is often associated with great difficulty, Fret said. Supposedly, no one truly understands color management other than the experts, who have to be retained again and again, he observes. If that is the prevailing opinion, where then can print service providers go for answers?

“What we do is put our knowledge inside the software, so the operators don’t have to be color experts,” Fret said. “With very simple steps, we can ensure everyone, whether it is one of our own people or the operator, will get exactly the same high-quality results, and gain the same high quality week after week, month after month and year after year.”

Bauer reported that there is “a ton of resources online” that can enable users to better understand color reproduction, color management and process control. “For many users out there, their first point of contact for help is going to be their vendors, their suppliers,” she advised.

“Within Esko, I’m someone my colleagues and customers know specializes in color management. There is always going to be a color management specialist for anyone who supplies color management tools. And there are the professional organizations like SGIA, too.”

Wright agrees that sign industry organizations can prove very helpful. “And I will pitch our own stuff,” he added. “We have trainers who go onsite and do color management and workflow training.”

Calicchia observed that in addition to the assistance that can be obtained through organizations and online resources, Onyx Graphics offers professional services that include a “Color Management and Profiling” consultation by an Onyx color expert. “Their expertise can help users master the skills for calibrating, generating a color profile and maintaining color management parameters across devices,” she reported.

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