Improved quality, faster print speeds, more choices in media, and lower system costs have all combined to make large format output a practical option.
For digital press owners, sign production has emerged as a lucrative service opportunity. Respondents to the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) 2005 Wide Format Survey report that their top service specialties were outdoor signage, indoor signage, and POP displays—12.2, 11.5, and 18.9 percent, respectively.
But for many sign printers, especially those who have only recently migrated to digital systems, color management and proofing may entail responsibilities and issues they’ve never faced before. "In the past, color was a secondary issue for many sign producers," notes Marc Levine, product manager for pre-media solutions at X-Rite, Inc. "They were happy as long as the work they produced could sit outdoors and not fade."
As they get more involved with digital work, though, they are handling files with multiple lives, and customers expect the finished product to always look the same. "What people are looking for is color consistency, and to match the color they provide. Sign makers are starting to get more savvy about the process and what they need to guarantee consistent color."
Eric Neumann, product marketing manager for color and proofing products, Enovation Graphics, sees the same challenge. "As corporate identity colors are commonly produced with a number of printing methods, it is increasingly important to make sure these tie together and match."
"Design agencies are being required to take more responsibility for corporate identity and raising their quality expectations from their manufacturers—like sign shops," Neumann continues.
"People are starting to step back and recognize all the details involved," adds Levine. "They are embracing color management systems with accurate color profiling to gain control over the process. And, they are giving clients the opportunity to review and approve the project prior to printing with a range of proofing solutions."
Deborah Hutcheson, senior marketing manager, Agfa’s Digital Solutions Group, North America, believes some sign shops are finally learning to address the challenges posed by proofing and color management. "Sign shops have a tendency to do a one-off of a job to show the customer the final product," she says. "The problem is it gets to be very costly, and ignores one of the more critical aspects of proofing—the colors."
"Most are struggling with the fact that they don’t have a centralized workflow," Hutcheson notes. "They are beginning to recognize they need an integrated solution that does file management and color management, and then sends the project out for final output."
Sign shops that have gone digital have learned to be flexible when it comes to proofing. They’re adapting to client demands, providing everything from mini- to full-sized versions produced on the sign press, to soft proofs viewed at the client’s site, on computer monitors. A few are beginning to explore the feasibility of equipping major clients for remote proofing on their site.
And for some, providing a proof is not much of an issue yet. Jay Snyder, owner of Quick Signs in Tustin, CA, reports that only a share of his customers require any form of hard proof. Most of the company’s business is in vinyl banners, magnetic signs, and decals. Print systems include a Roland 545 vinyl printer, a VUTEk UltraVu 2600 by EFI, Inc., and an Epson Stylus Pro 10000, all running with an Onyx RIP.
"We just haven’t dealt with a lot of requests for a proof yet," Snyder admits. "Our customers seem to be much more concerned with quick turnaround."
Business comes from the immediate area as well as clients who find the company on the Internet. Most place their order online, then submit their files electronically. After the file is prepped and ripped for the appropriate output device, the company sends back a file of how the finished product should look.
When clients do require a proof, most are satisfied to receive a JPEG to give them an idea of how the finished sign will look. "A lot of the people we deal with aren’t that particular when it comes to proofing for color, " Snyder says.
When color is a concern, something more is required. "The problem with an electronic proof is that the way the job appears is all determined by the monitor it’s viewed on and how it’s set," Snyder explains.
In most cases where the client requires a hard proof, he supplies them with a smaller version of the full-sized job, rendered on the Epson, or a sample of the image, produced on the actual press which will be used to print the sign.
"When we’re working on vehicle graphics, where they want real photographic quality, we’ll show them that sample of the image," Snyder adds. We’ll blow the image up to full size in [Adobe] Photoshop then chop out a 2x2-inch area where color is most critical for printing, then send that to them for approval."
Keeping Customers Satisfied
At ABI Digital Imaging in Conroe, TX, marketing manager Damon Henrichs says the company is ready to provide whatever the customer requires in terms of a proof. He estimates half the company’s business is in creating large format billboards. The rest is divided among print products like tradeshow graphics, POP, and vehicle graphics. Print systems at ABI include the VUTEk UltraVu 5330 and PressVu printers by EFI, Inc., a Seiko solvent inkjet printer, and a HP130 for proofing—all running an Onyx RIP.
"We do a combination of proofing, and find out what the customer is comfortable with at the start of the job," Henrichs says. "Sometimes, it’s determined by turnaround time, and how quickly they want the job done."
Matching client expectations begins with job submission. "First, we want to make sure they give us a file and artwork we can work with," Henrichs explains. "We like to have them send us a production file and art, set up as we need it."
"Our preference is that they also provide us with a physical print of how they expect the job to look for us to match," Henrichs continues. When that sample print or PMS reference for spot colors is provided, the company’s technicians prep the file using ICC profiles in the Onyx RIP, then email the clients a PDF as an FPO proof.
On jobs where a printed proof is required, the company usually furnishes a smaller version of the sign from the HP printer, printed with the Onyx RIP to match the color profile of the intended large format printer.
"When they are looking for higher quality or to match a specific color or company logo, we’ll provide them with that printed proof," he says. "Where you can run into a challenge is when they want photographic quality. That can involve a lot of going back and forth," before the project gets client approval.
The Push for Soft Proofing
Big Ink Display Graphics of Eagan, MN specializes in large format print. Alan Stratton, technology manager, says that all of their large format customers expect color-matching capability, and about 75 percent require it.
"Most of our customers are color-sensitive. In the display print industry, everybody is selling their product or service, which means their logo and identity are on display. Having the correct corporate color is extremely important to them," says Stratton.
"Our policy is to give everybody a soft proof in PDF form, and we indicate that it should not be used as a color-accurate rendition. We record and list the Pantone colors that exist in the supplied art and show this information in our slug in the PDF document. Hard proofs are requested by the customer usually because they have other parts of a larger project already printed that need to be identical in color, or they just want to make sure they get the color they expect," Stratton continues. "For projects involving large quantities, we will generally recommend providing the customer a printed sample before hitting the print 500 units button."
All of Big Ink’s jobs are proofed for content by postscripting the file at a reduced size to an Acrobat Distiller watched folder, to create an email-friendly PDF. "Theory states that with our Onyx Production House RIP, we can do proofing/color simulation of large format printers using a smaller cheaper inkjet with a larger color gamut. In practice, we have determined that maintaining and color managing the print devices along with the proofing printer is very time consuming and not as accurate in practice as in theory. Therefore, when requested, we will print a color-sensitive portion of the job on the actual printer and material for customer color approval. In other cases, we match color internally to Pantone or supplied collateral," states Stratton.
Big Ink relies on ExtremeZ-IP file server and print server for file and printer sharing to Mac workstations from a Windows-based file server. "ExtremeZ-IP allows us to create unlimited virtual printers that can redirect files for sending to a RIP for processing," says Stratton. "This way, we send the actual artwork in postscript format to wherever we need and we can catch technical problems in files at proofing stage."
Talking Up Remote Proofing
An approach to introducing new efficiency into the proofing cycle is being investigated by IDL Merchandising Solutions of East Butler, PA. Tim Lis, manager of print operations, reports the company has been investigating the practicality of remote proofing. "It’s something we’ve started to discuss with some of our larger clients, but there hasn’t been any takers yet," he says.
With this approach, client facilities would be equipped with a printer for producing smaller versions of signs printed from files prepped and profiled for the actual large format output device. "It’s something we could justify for bigger clients we regularly do a lot of work with," notes Lis. "One of the keys to making it work would be calibration, making sure the printers are always well calibrated so we are always looking at the same results."
For smaller clients, with the need for the occasional sign, he expects established proofing methods will continue to offer the most practical solution for the foreseeable future.
The company is equipped with Agfa Grand Sherpa, Sherpa 4300, and Epson 9800 Stylus Pro printers, as well as an analog Matchprint system. "We like to provide our customers with at least a half-sized proof," he says. Analog proofs serve "for some newer customers who may not be comfortable, or who have had a previous bad experience, with a digital proof."
Problems can arise, he says, when an uninitiated client signs off on an 11x17-inch proof, then is disappointed when they see what they think is a much lower resolution version coming off the press. "Sometimes they just have to back up and see it from a distance before they understand the difference," Lis says. "There can be a lot of hand-holding with customers who are completely new to digital printing."
Digital can facilitate the proofing process when discerning customers want assurance about how their job will roll off the press. "Digital makes it very easy to provide customers with press proofs, because it’s so easy to print just one," notes Glenn Huish, chief technical officer, BelAire Displays, Emeryville, CA.
Most of BelAire Displays’ digital large format work is in producing interior signage for major retailers. Print systems include the Scitex XLjet grand format printer, Hewlett-Packard 5500’s, and the most recent addition, the Sericol Inca Spider 320. A variety of options are employed to ensure accurate color. For internal purposes, the company uses X-Rite 500 series densitometers to ensure accuracy where color matching is critical.
"We’ll use PDFs, but strictly so customers can take a look at content and layout as it appears," he says. "Our standard is still a contract proof, and the best option for an exact match of the color is a digital proof right off the press. For large images we might print it at half size or only a portion of it where the color is absolutely critical."
Looking ahead at color proofing, Neumann at Enovation Graphics expects to see "continued and increasing use of color management and calibration technologies that provide consistent, accurate, and predictable results."
"We’ll be seeing more and more sign makers employing color management and process controls," agrees Levine at X-rite.
"Remote proofing and soft proofing are two aspects of the integrated workflow that are making the most fiscal sense and therefore the greatest potential gains in the sign market," adds Agfa’s Hutcheson. "In our market, time is money. Everyone is looking for ways to cut time out of the production cycle without sacrificing quality, and remote proofing addresses that need."
The trend for the future seems to be that shops will continue aiming to meet customer requests. Sign makers will provide whatever proof a client requires to move the job along, as they embrace the tools and profiles to ensure large format output matches client expectations.