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RIP Roaring Color

A Color Management Hub

By Thomas Franklin

An English poet once observed that “colors are the smiles of nature.” For many print service providers (PSPs), color just as easily evokes a furrowed brow. Ensuring color accuracy has never been more important, as the demand for out-of-home advertising surges and the multiplying number of substrates makes color consistency a watchword for brand managers and marketers. Fortunately, the tools for locking in consistent color are becoming automated and centralize around the same RIP software used to drive wide and grand format presses.


Color cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a PSP, observes Danielle Mattiussi, director, product portfolio and business development, ONYX Graphics, Inc.


To help manage it efficiently, RIP software programs offer built-in color management tools, or integrated modules that a PSP can add on if needed. These modules range from software plug-ins for ICC profile building to software and hardware bundles that include a color measurement device and robust software tools. Some vendors include color management training classes as part of the purchase as well.


“A RIP does not have to be the heart and soul of a color management process. Some large format RIPs don’t feature profiling engines, but it does simplify things to have both, especially if you need to synchronize color across various presses,” observes Jeffrey Nelson, inkjet solutions product marketing manager, graphic systems division, Fujifilm North America Corp. “Trying to manage color consistently across multiple devices and with different RIPs, or profiling outside of the RIP, makes it more difficult.”


RIPs are also adding color management engines, such as X-Rite, Inc.’s i1Prism and Adobe Systems Incorporated’s Color Management Module, to enhance color capabilities. “With the i1Prism option, customers benefit from state-of-the-art algorithms to print colors at a higher accuracy that were not reachable with previous profilers,” says Sebastien Hanssens, VP of marketing, Caldera Graphics, one of the companies that incorporates the i1Prism engine into its RIP products. For its part, Shiraz Software, adopted Adobe’s Color Management Module, due to the wide penetration of Adobe creative software among graphic designers.


Without color management tools in a RIP, a PSP doesn’t have the control or intelligence over their printer that’s required for optimum performance, shares Ryan Lee, channel manager, Wasatch Computer Technology, LLC.


On a particularly color critical job, many PSPs get tripped up with spot colors if things aren’t centralized. “A common mistake is to not preserve those spot colors, which means that Pantone colors are re-interpreted from RGB to CMYK,” notes Hanssens. “We urge clients to keep the spot colors activated and let the RIP do the color correspondence calculation.”


It’s important for RIPs to include tools for profile building because canned color management doesn’t always satisfy the need of the increasingly diverse varieties of media that PSPs access, adds Ed Thomson, product manager, ONYX. Greater sophistication hasn’t necessarily come at the expense of ease of use. Most color management tools are now wizard-based, with step-by-step guidance on building and using media profiles. However, it’s still not a one button solution, at least not yet, acknowledges Leon Williams, chief scientist, EFI.


Speed is also a crucial factor. “You’re ultimately looking at how to get the best sellable output in the shortest amount of time,” continues Williams. The more integrated the solution is, with the printer and other color management tools, the faster and more efficient the print process. Efficiency in process is not just a money saver, it’s key to meeting customer expectations.


“A PSP needs to achieve precise colors and not print multiple trials to get it right—a trial and error process will only lose money,” seconds Hanssens.


For those whose color needs are more modest, accessing libraries of pre-built profiles is also becoming easier. “We just launched an online profile library where PSPs can register their printer and access an updated library of color profiles,” says Francisco DeBrito, color services supervisor, Mimaki USA, Inc. Downloading those new profiles takes a single click.


“Almost 90 percent of our customers are happy with the profiles supplied to them—either through our Web site or distributor partners,” shares Tom Mooney, business development manager, Shiraz. For those who require more control, the company offers a color module that allows custom ICC profiling, along with access to support and training tools to guide end users through the process. “The more controls, the greater the chance to get something wrong,” observes Mooney.


Getting Stringent

RIP engines track with computing processing power to deliver greater horsepower when it comes to rendering. Several RIPs range from eight- to 16-bit color rendering, expanding the number of steps along a tonal curve from 256 to over 65,000.


ONYX developed its own 32-bit color profiling engine specifically for the needs of digital wide format. Coming in a May 2011 update to ProductionHouse is the ability to perform G7-compliant calibration. “This allows a PSP to certify that the printing process from beginning to end is meeting G7 standards.” Bringing in a more systematic, rigorous, and standards-based approach to color initially appeals to businesses with exacting color needs, but is slowly becoming the norm as the tools proliferate among both hardware and software suppliers.


Fujifilm’s ColorGate also offers a G7-compliant color module.


In addition to more robust engines, RIPs keep pace with evolving media and ink options, observes DeBrito. “We recently launched a module within Mimaki’s RasterLink RIP for handling silver ink—color swatches with silver inks are possible, because right now, there is no Pantone metallic library.”


As with so much software these days, there are cloud-based color services as well. Fujifilm recently incorporated its Taskero Universe remote monitoring solution into its wide format inkjet RIP as an option. It allows PSPs to upload color measurements that alert them whenever the printer is drifting off of a set of predefined specifications. “It’s like OnStar for a PSP,” explains Nelson. The subscription-based service also helps customers recalibrate printers to achieve optimal performance.


Customer Profile: Making Advances

Located in North Andover, MA, Advance Reproductions produces a range of wide and grand format output on a number of platforms. The company’s commitment to color is part of its overall quality orientation signified by its ISO 9001 designation, says Paul Nigrelli, VP, Advance. It stocks an array of equipment, most recently a QS UV flatbed from EFI VUTEk. They adopted the EFI Fiery RIP for the flatbed because of its ability to handle print sizes for output as large as 126x40 feet. The RIP is also a money saver. “Once you factor in how much ink is going to be put down, you’re saving money. You also improve quality; some substrates need less ink than others,” explains Nigrelli.


The approach to color management is methodical. Everything is process-based, beginning with a prepress department that inspects files for resolution and print quality. Before any run, a half-sized proof is made, and possibly a full mag strip if the resolution is in question. “These are for customers to sign off on or for the firm’s prepress head to visually inspect. Custom profiles are built for each piece of media using an X-Rite i1. The company manages color and drives its VUTEk GS3200 via the Fiery RIP and its Seiko Instruments USA, Inc. ColorPainter H-104s printers using ONYX ProductionHouse.


The i1 is also pressed into service for monitor calibration. Roughly 95 percent of the jobs run through Advance are “color critical and contain PMS colors the company is required to match,” says Nigrelli. “Print consistency is very important to us” and everything is closely scrutinized before it leaves the door.


“The Fiery RIP has an option to print a color verifier control print to quickly verify a profile, which I find helpful,” observes James Rountree, employee, Advance. The profiles get Advance close but sometimes they’ll print a PMS chart to make any final adjustments, he adds.


“Ultimately, we’re a service company,” shares Nigrelli. Since every business can go out and buy the same equipment, it’s incumbent upon Advance to get the best results it can while offering the highest quality customer service. “The only advantage you have is through the service you offer and making sure the finished product is what the customer expects.”


High Fliers

In the year 1010, a monk known only as Brother Elmer ascended to the top of the abbey in Malmesbury, Britain with a set of makeshift wings and attempted to fly. He failed, although he did survive the attempt. Brother Elmer’s act of foolhardy experimentation put Malmesbury and its abbey on the map. It was Elmer’s exploits that inspired the name of Malmesbury’s print shop—Flying Monk Graphics.


Although they don’t date its origins to the 11th century, Flying Monk has been in business for 11 years and was founded by former employees of Raster Graphics. “We were selling printers and RIPs, and decided we saw enough to start our own business,” says Shaun Gath, co-owner, Flying Monk. From the outset, the approach was to offer higher quality output, leveraging the technical experience of the founders. The initial customer base was other PSPs.


The company has since incorporated a mix of business to business and direct sales serving trade shows, exhibitions, and retail point of purchase, among other markets. But while the business has evolved, the approach to color management remains consistent. “We’ve always approached color management from a very technical basis, with both the hardware and the consumables that we buy,” explains Gath. The reason is simple—there’s nothing worse than having a customer reject your output.


The key to color-managed workflow is to understand the printer and its variables. “If you’re changing printheads frequently, you need to recalibrate often. Even small changes in printhead performance are a big difference down the line. But now the printers do their own calibration, which is brilliant,” explains Gath.


Today, the company operates a Hewlett-Packard (HP) Designjet Z6100s, solvent-based HP Designjet 9000s, and an Océ North America Arizona 350 GT UV flatbed. They employ an ONYX ProductionHouse RIP because of the need for color consistency across various printing platforms. Gath builds profiles right within ONYX because the technology is good enough for a close match across different devices and media.


The ease-of-use was also attractive. “The wizards within ONYX mean that even if you’ve never created a profile before, you are guided through it and get a quality print with very little training. Mind you, I’ve trained people on color management, and it used to take them days or weeks before they could produce a good profile. The alternative is to have a dedicated person tweak the color constantly,” says Gath.


Customers, particularly major retail or international brands, are more demanding as well, he observes. “They give us a proof and parameters; they were tired of getting different colors from different printers all over the world.”


Having seen the development of RIPs and color management over the years, Gath thinks the tools are easier to use. “In the old days, reading an ICC profile could take an hour of your time. Now it’s five minutes, and you can walk away after one.” That said, he indicates there are a few more color management tools in his wish list. “I’d like a prompt to come up for a printer, like ‘It’s Monday, calibrate me.’ Some people might find that annoying, but for others it would really help.”


Getting in the Groove

Ultimately, as accurate and user friendly as color management tools are, it won’t matter unless a PSP embraces the ethos of the workflow. “To me, color management describes a data set—the gamut of a particular device and what it can or can’t do,” says Fujifilm’s Nelson. “It doesn’t create procedures or workflows in a shop with respect to how to produce predictable results. Just having an ICC profile doesn’t make a process consistent over time.”


In the quest for better color, tools have improved, but customer expectations have ratcheted up as well, explains Charlotte Pueckmanpel, director of product line management, EFI. “Customers are more demanding as far as matching brand colors.” In such an environment, understanding customer expectations is crucial. “A lot of what PSPs may hear from end users is that the color isn’t right, but what they really mean is that the color is not what they expected.”


With the right RIP and attention to detail, meeting expectations—even great expectations—is no longer a problem.  


Click here to view the Managing Color with RIPs Target Chart - an all-inclusive information resource!

May2011, Digital Output

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