Color management tools enable print service providers (PSPs) to ensure color accuracy on jobs that may be printed on multiple devices or repeat jobs on the same device.
Toby Saalfield, U.S. director, color management, Ricoh Americas Corporation, believes in today’s digital printing world, color plays an important role. “From producing eye-catching colors in signage, to color matching for brand consistency in cross-promotional materials to simply ensuring a brochure has the right color appeal to be read and reread by prospective customers, how a printer manages color in their customers’ print pieces is as important today as run time and paper capacity. This is where color management comes into play,” he says
This article discusses best practices in selecting color management tools, challenges that must be overcome, the importance of third-party tools, and highlights solutions on the market.
When selecting color management solutions, a variety of considerations, including the ink and substrate used, come into play. The type of printing a shop offers, as well as its core job offerings, affect when color management tools and software are best for the particular environment.
Saalfield points out that the color tools for a print provider doing mostly direct mail campaigns are different from a printer that produces mostly large signs and displays. “A shop with capabilities for a little of everything will most likely need a variety of color management and production tools to ensure perfect color every time,” he says, adding that these tools include workflow solutions that automate manual tasks and calibration tools. “In the end, the right mix of software and tools can mean the difference between producing competitive, cost-effective, high-quality jobs and not.”
When relying on calibration tools, the quality of color measurement data is critical. “It is important that the color measurement device provide accurate and consistent data. The measurement of color can be impacted by the presence of optical brighteners and gloss level in the paper. To overcome this problem, the measurement device should use a light with a reference amount of UV and it should also provide the option to use a polarization filter,” explains Allison Lakacha, marketing manager, Techkon USA.
Mark Gundlach, solution architect, X-Rite, agrees, stating that it is increasingly critical to calibrate all of the rapidly growing number of displays and output devices in the workflow to ensure everyone views color the same way. This requires profiling and calibration of everything from laptop and desktop design stations to both digital production printers and conventional presses.
The evolution of print technology brings new and exciting tools to the table; however, it also comes with new challenges. Issues specific to color management include press performance, consistency, and commitment.
Repeatability of the press is a primary color management concern. To manage repeatability, print providers look to the Delta-E (dE) unit of measurement, which quantifies the difference between two colors. According to ColorWiki, the concept is that a dE of 1.0 is the smallest color difference the human eye can see and that any dE less than 1.0 is imperceptible. However, the site admits that it’s not that simple. Some color differences greater than one are acceptable. “Also, the same dE color difference between two yellows and two blues may not look like the same difference to the eye and there are other places where it can fall down,” explains ColorWiki.
Marc Welch, director of strategic accounts, GMG, says it is difficult to build accurate color management of 1e if the performance of a press can vary by 5e. From job to press, the colors can be noticeably different.
Sometimes, PSPs experience inconsistency in color quality prints due to inks and substrates from a specific manufacturer varying over time. “Despite all of the technology available, correctly reproducing brand colors on different paper or substrate types still remains unreliable. This is partly due to limitations of color gamut achievable with the inks used and the limitations of color management software in converting the brand colors to ink values. Brand colors cannot be reliably reproduced on different substrates,” explains Lakacha. She suggests print providers regularly re-profile substrates and ink.
Saalfield adds that in today’s printing world, the myriad of devices and printer types plays a role in the inconsistency of colors without a color management strategy.
Isaac Pickary, color department manager, ProImage Americas, points out that color management would be much more effective if everyone was on the same page. “One challenge is to convince all partners in the industry to comply with an advanced mechanism to share output ICC profile across all production stages.”
The print industry also battles with the commitment of working towards improving color accuracy. “The greatest challenge rests in the actual commitment to measure and manage your color process. The benefits of managing color by now are well known; finding the organizational will to make the investment and see it through is the challenge,” says Robert Barbera, senior manager, production solutions marketing, business imaging solutions group, Canon U.S.A., Inc.
In addition to color management software and in-press color management features, third-party tools complement the process to ensure better color accuracy.
Gundlach says that while a growing number of printers and printing presses have incorporated inline spectrophotometry and calibration routines, third-party tools add another level of certainty to the color management process.
He believes this is especially important when a shop uses multiple print engines and printing technologies. “A printer may be calibrated and delivering good color, but if its color doesn’t match that coming from other devices, customers will not be satisfied.”
Lakacha finds third-party tools complement the incorporated technology within the digital press. For example, a vision system provided by the equipment manufacturer does not allow a comprehensive solution to cover all the daily needs of the customer. She explains that this vision system can check for misfiring ink nozzles and inaccurate registration, but it does not have the ability to ensure ideal color quality and accurate prints. “Third-party tools allow such inspection.”
Michael Riebesehl, iGen business manager, confident color marketing manager, Xerox Corp., believes that third-party tools are able to color manage a more diverse set of equipment from offset to digital presses and inkjet, but each tends to have a specialty. “The key to selecting a third-party offering is to learn how well they integrate and automate with the gear on your shop floor,” he recommends.
Tools and Software
A wide variety of color management tools are available to print providers in all environments. Here, we highlight a few software solutions and calibration tools designed to promote effective color management.
Canon U.S.A., Inc.
Canon provides its PRISMAsync Advanced Color Management software. According to Barbera, its differentiating feature is G7 greyscale calibration. The solution targets commercial printers, in-plants, and quick printers utilizing Canon imagePRESS digital color presses with the PRISMAsync print server.
All GMG solutions can be used on traditional and digital presses, as well as with large and small printers involved with commercial printing, package printing, and wide format. Solutions include GMG ColorServer and GMG SmartProfiler. Both components can run in a client-server model so that all tasks are shared across a network of multiple client components operating simultaneously.
The testing and normalization of diverse PDF data is time consuming using conventional methods. GMG ColorServer reduces this time by providing fully automated color conversions for all printing processes, guaranteeing consistent results for a variety of printing processes and substrates.
According to Welch, GMG ColorServer allows highly automated color management workflows, saving time and money for everyone involved.
GMG SmartProfiler is a software wizard that allows any user to calibrate, recalibrate, and profile digital and large format printing systems easily and without advanced knowledge of color management.
Together, GMG ColorServer and GMG SmartProfiler are designed to ensure consistent color and automated color management.
ProImage America Inc.
OnColorEco is an ink optimization tool that automatically detects image color space and converts it to the proper printing destination color space prior to gray component replacement performance.
While not software or a tangible tool, Ricoh offers its Color Management Services to help print providers manage color effectively. Ricoh Color Management Services include a color conformance audit service, G7 master printer qualification services, and color GAP analysis delivered by Ricoh’s IDEAlliance-certified color management professional masters and G7 experts.
For the color conformance audit service, Ricoh production engineers work with the customer to select a color specification such as GRACoL or SWOP or a custom reference point. The engineer color manages each device to that standard once per month or once per quarter depending on the customer’s preference.
The G7 Master Printer Qualification Services consist of equipment calibration, personnel training, and process control consulting leading to a G7 Master Printer qualification for the organization.
Ricoh’s Color GAP analysis revolves around the idea that color management is a fundamental part of any printing operation. The Color GAP Analysis includes evaluations of printer accuracy and consistency, employee color vision and tolerance tests, lighting and other environmental evaluations, as well as a comprehensive analysis and action report that outlines the findings and suggests changes to standard operating procedures to maximize utilization of the current equipment in place.
SpectroEDGE from Techkon is an inline spectral measurement embedded inside a digital press for scanning of color bars, density across the page, and in-image spot color measurement. It allows ICC profiling on the fly and precise monitoring and control with support for M0, M1 and M2 measurement modes. This is priced at $5,000 USD.
SpectroDENS is a handheld spectrophotometer with spot and scan capability and built-in features for ICC profiling, and conformance to G7 and ISO standards. On average this is around $5,500 to $6,900, depending on feature sets.
SpectroDRIVE is an automated spectral scanning of color bars on press sheets, priced at $15,000 to $25,000.
The ChromaQA is enterprise color quality control software to connect multiple locations and centralize color management priced at $1,995 per seat.
Xerox MatchAssure offers centralized press profiling and uses a single spectrophotometer to provide optimized color rendition for the photo market, optional color data monitoring, and optional profile customization.
The company also offers Xerox IntegratedPLUS Automated Color Management, which combines a cloud server, local applications, and powerful digital front end workflow solutions to manage color at one or multiple locations. It uses process control as the basis of all color management, automates printer monitoring, and validates Xerox digital front end and press settings to ensure proper setup. It also works with Xerox and non-Xerox digital, inkjet, and offset presses.
X-Rite eXact Scan is a handheld color measurement solution for understanding, controlling, managing, and communicating color to avoid reprints and rework. It includes an integrated, patented trackless measurement wheel that eliminates the need for rulers and backing to guide the measurement process and enables consistent and repeatable measurement regardless of the speed with which patches are read.
The company also offers the X-Rite i1iSis 2 spectrophotometer/chart reader, which speeds up and automates printer profile creation. Its switchable illumination captures M0, M1, and M2 in a single chart measurement cycle. It comes with a built-in vision system that aligns charts as they are fed into the system, automatically correcting for misalignment. Barcode reading for chart identification adds further ease of use and error reduction. It reads up to 2,500 patches on a single sheet in approximately ten minutes.
This instrument is ideal for higher volume printing environments supporting profiling of multiple printers.
Another option from X-Rite, the i1 Basic Pro 2, is an affordable, professional-level spectral color measurement instrument for color calibration and profiling. It allows users to ensure that what is captured on cameras, displayed on screens, viewed on prints or proofs, and shared online reflects consistent color. It is also used to capture spot color measurements.
The importance of color calibration and management is evident. Without the tools and software to succeed, it will be difficult to match colors from job to job and press to press. A proper color management strategy allows efficiency no matter the equipment or substrate used.