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Navigating the Color Chaos

Limit Variables, Set Standards, and Remain Disciplined

By Gretchen Peck

 

Despite a laundry list of factors and variables that impact how color is created and communicated, print service providers (PSPs) in large format blend best practices with best-of-breed solutions to generate accurate, consistent, and better-than-pleasing color.

 

Learning about color and how to manage it requires hearing it from the PSPs involved in the everyday practice. Here, we profile four print providers keen on mastering color.

 

High Standards

David Brewer, VP of technology, Image Options, based in Foothill Ranch, CA, says the business’ sweet spot is in the point of purchase (POP) and trade show markets.

 

Serving a national clientele, Image Options often works directly with creative agencies or larger corporate clients with internal creative teams. Depending on the customer—and the scope of the job—the large format graphics the PSP produces may be distributed to as many as 200 to 300 retail locations.

 

Throughout a job’s lifecycle, a number of variables are introduced to the equation. Brewer says that he and his colleagues at Image Options seek to limit as many variables as possible.

 

“We’re trying to work in a world where we can go back to a reference,” explains Brewer. “So now we can say that we’re making a proof to a standard.” The standard he refers to is IDEAlliance’s GRACoL 7 (G7), a popular certification method that many color-centric PSPs strive to achieve.

 

“Of course that sounds all well and good when we’re in a 5,000 degree Kelvin viewing booth, in controlled lighting conditions, but then as soon as you go down to the store—where the lighting is different—everything goes out the window,” he laments.

 

In response, the company looked in to further enlighten its customers and themselves by creating a space to review proofs. “We investigated creating a light wall with LED lighting,” admits Brewer. “We know how color can shift. We have a client, a large financial institution that uses a lot of sepia tones. Sepia tones move very quickly, just because of the nature of yellow ink. If you change the light source a little bit, suddenly it’s not quite as brown as it used to be; rather, it screens red.”

 

Image Options runs a range of large format equipment, including EFI GS series printers. “We also have a Hewlett-Packard (HP) Scitex TJ and two Océ LightJet solutions from Canon Solutions America (CSA). We have multiple Epson printers—including the new SureColor S70670—and also a screen press,” discloses Brewer.

 

“We profile the printers to match GRACoL. Also, as a G7 certified printer, we have to renew the G7 certification yearly, but that shouldn’t be the only time calibration is checked,” he continues. Customer and print supplier must be able to effectively communicate about color, according to Brewer, who says that it most often creates GRACoL press proofs, because digital allows a run length of one and substrates vary greatly. Virtual proofing comes into play only when communicating about content rather than color.

 

“Not that it can’t be done. Not that the industry hasn’t done a good job at that,” stipulates Brewer, “but in the display space that we’re in, it’s harder because of the size of the graphics.”

 

Closing the Loop

While contemporary digital print engines may enable operators to tweak color on press, much of the color magic should happen prior to when the ink hits the substrate—at content creation and throughout prepress and proofing stages.

 

Quality-controlling color shouldn’t be complicated, according to Christian Schowalter, product marketing manager, EFI, who notes the Fiery XF Version 5 represents a color management hub capable of controlling everything that’s inkjet or wide format related in the graphic arts.

 

EFI bills the Fiery XF as a fast, high-performance RIP, compatible with many solvent, eco-solvent, and UV ink-based printers, including those from companies such as EFI, Epson, Canon U.S.A., Inc., CSA, Mimaki USA, Inc., Mutoh America, Inc., and Roland DGA Corporation.

 

Noteworthy to EFI Fiery users is the newest version’s completely retooled user interface, according to Schowalter.

 

“It’s fully customizable, so that means that the operator or administrator can assign the whole workspace for different users and eliminate tools or features that they don’t need. So we’re making it as easy as possible, while still providing all the tools that the operators need for day-to-day tasks,” he explains.

 

Jason Krammes, software business development manager, graphic systems division, Fujifilm North America Corporation, notes that ColorPath Sync is a highly successful color toolkit for digital offset applications, while ColorGATE Production Server—a suite of color and workflow tools—is embraced by wide format customers as a hub for controlling disparate RIPs that manage individual large format inkjet equipment.

 

“If a customer purchases an EFI printer, those printers usually come with a RIP that drives the device. Now, the customer has three or four different RIPs, so our strategy has been to give them one color management tool that allows them to create a profile specific to a standard, and then communicate that profile to these RIPs,” explains Krammes.

 

“Epson helps its customers manage color in several ways,” notes Larry Kaufman, product manager, Epson. “First, we employ precision manufacturing, ensuring close printer-to-printer output. In addition, Epson offers SpectroProofer, an inline spectrophotometer that can be installed on the Epson Stylus Pro 4900, 7890, 9890, and 9900 printers,” he adds.

 

“When driven by the latest software RIP front ends, this color measuring system automates virtually any color management process in a workflow, and offers the latest standards for color conformity between measuring devices. This allows print providers to benefit from perfectly consistent handling and dry times before measurement, eliminating variables in manual color measurement methods,” shares Kaufman.

 

Proving Color Integrity

Ricky Shannon, operations manager, Keith-Fabry Reprographic Solutions, located in Richmond, VA, estimates that the business is currently split, 50/50, between the company’s traditional reprographics services and the large format work that evolved from it.

 

Word of mouth and the realization of the possibilities of digital opened many windows of possibility. “People required posters and large color plots of buildings,” recalls Shannon. “And then, as word got out that we could do that, we began to advertise locally, and others began coming to us for photo prints, banners, and large format scanning.”

 

The business also grew in geographic reach as a result—expanding beyond VA to customers based up and down the East Coast. Today, it prints with a variety of big print equipment, including Canon imagePROGRAF printers for photographic work and eco-solvent and latex printers for banners.

 

“We use our HP latex equipment a lot for adhesive vinyl applications,” notes Shannon. “But our main workhorse is an Océ Arizona 550 GT UV flatbed with a roll-to-roll option. Those are the day-to-day machines that do most of the production work here.”

 

Keith-Fabry Reprographic Solutions also implemented Nazdar Consulting Services’ CATZper2 spot color matching system to significantly streamline color matching during prepress.

 

There have been cases in which a customer’s project was so color critical it required advanced communication.

 

“In those cases, we’ve had customers send a color matchproof, with maybe ten variations of a color. We print that on the actual substrate material and send it back to them. They’ll look at it, and find the color that they like best, and that becomes our target. And, in some cases, that’s all the color matching that ever needs to happen. It’s a very effective way to work with some of our clients,” explains Shannon.

 

He goes on to explain this all occurs well before the creative files are made, so no one ever needs to go back to prepress and tweak files. Everything about color is known up front.”

 

Schowalter acknowledges that some clients, some jobs, may warrant press proofs—production runs of one, or a few, on the actual substrate to be used for final output—but others may balk at the cost. And PSPs may want to think twice about tying up production printers with what is, effectively, a proof.

 

Virtual proofing for color-critical large format print work proves tricky for several reasons, not the least of which is scale. But there are developers eyeing large format digital graphics, and discovering new ways to communicate about color.

 

Tempting Graphics

Tempt In-Store Productions—powered by Quad/Graphics—is based in New Berlin, WI. The print supplier’s name is aptly demonstrative of the type of print work in which the company specializes, catering to a national clientele.

 

In recent years, the PSP enabled many of its customers to move away from lithography in favor of digital print production. Price point is very attractive to them, but making the transition presents its challenges with regard to color reproduction and managing expectations, confides Scott Engen, digital services manager, Tempt In-Store Productions.

 

“A lot of customers who used lithography—and some still do—were concerned not only about color, but about resolution and the clarity of the digital print. Early on, we had a lot of customers compare the two,” he recalls.

 

Inca Onset printers, supplied by Fujifilm, act as the digital workhorses today, though Tempt In-Store Productions also has plenty of jobs to keep its lithographic press humming too.

 

Engen acknowledges that the quality of digital printing equipment has gotten so good in recent years, that even tough, custom corporate and brand colors are more easily reproduced. However, challenges based on the array of substrates clients choose remains constant.

 

“Say you’re printing on foam core,” suggests Engen. “It could lean to yellow, or it could lean cool to white. Media may be coated or uncoated; that influences color. Styrene material may be warmer or cooler whites. Corrugate? Are you printing to the craft side or to the white side, or both? Yes, the variables in media alone make managing color a large task.”

 

Tempt In-Store tries not to bounce around with substrates; preferring certain suppliers and media, and try to stick to those. However, if a customer requires something new, the company is in a position to make adjustments at prepress or on the digital press to accommodate the clients requests.

 

Tempt In-Store Productions relies on two Epson printers—Stylus Pro 11880 and 9800—driven by an EFI RIP for hard-copy proofing per GRACoL recommendations. Based on one major customer’s request, it entered into virtual proofing by setting up a viewing station.

 

Best Practices

“You just can’t buy color management tools, place them in a shop, and expect to perform magic,” advises Jay Sato, CTO, Primary Color Orange County, located in Costa Mesa, CA.

 

Not to be misunderstood, Sato acknowledges that the technologies enabling color management—from content creation to prepress to modern-day digital print engines—are sophisticated and helpful in giving print buyers what they desire.

 

Primary Color made significant investments in digital print to be able to offer its vast customer base a variety of services—all of which with the goal of controlling color. Currently, the company uses Epson equipment—Stylus Pro 9800 and 9890 among them—and a range of engines from EFI, including two GS5000r printers and a TX3250r textile printer.

 

The print supplier’s most recent investment was in an Agfa Graphics :M-Press Tiger, chosen for its productivity. The automated feeder and stacker was compelling, according to Sato—as was its optional silkscreen add on.

 

Proofing runs the gamut, and is generally determined on a case-by-case basis. “There are certain projects that have the feel of the material, or the flexibility of it—something that cannot be communicated on an Epson proof or even a screen,” confides Sato. “Other projects, because of the nature of geography, and where people may be—or scheduling—may require us to exchange proofs over the Web browser.”

 

Sato considers color management to be a single tactic in a broader strategy for quality control—a quest he says is operationally omnipresent.

 

“It’s pervasive,” he qualifies. “From the workstations being set up correctly, to the monitors being calibrated to the RIPs, which also have to be set up and calibrated correctly, like the print devices, which are calibrated, as well.”

 

“But it’s like every part of our business,” he continues. “The people are the most important part of the equation. These are tools that allow them to perform their jobs better and allow us to give our customers great color.”

 

Limit, Set, Remain

Color management is more of an ideal than an out-of-the-box solution. It’s a philosophy that requires not only the thoughtful blending of hardware, software, and consumables, but a commitment to being a disciplined PSP.

 

Recognizing the limitations of one’s hardware, setting expectations regarding capabilities, and remaining in-the-know about the latest tools and standardizations helps to manage and control color across all devices found in house.

 

May2013, Digital Output

 

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