Expanded Gamut Printing: Fixed Inkset Printing with Extended Opportunities
Delivering efficiency and quality in packaging graphics has been a challenge for decades. Until recently, printers have been conditioned to choose one or the other.
All packages and labels used to be printed with custom spot colors. Each brand color was reproduced with custom mixed ink sets and printed on separate decks of the press. In the 1960s and 1970s, four-color CMYK process printing was used for images — but not for vector elements or brand colors.
People thought: “If we can print images with four-color CMYK, why can’t we print brand colors the same way?” The entire value chain — from brand owner through converter — is aware of the inefficiencies of the custom spot color workflow. Consumer product companies have continued to seek ways to reduce costs throughout the supply chain. Advancements in digital prepress, digital plates and conventional and digital presses, along with software to manage the process, have made stable process color printing a production reality.
Some printers are doing this by standardizing a brand’s and its extensions’ packaging on one, single, multicolor ink set — often called expanded color gamut (ECG) printing. Doing so extends the color gamut, providing a number of advantages for both for the brand owner and converter.
Fewer Inks Provide More Colors
ECG technology is applied in the prepress department, where packaging graphics are converted from RGB, CMYK and spot colors to up to seven process colors. About 90% of all Pantone spot colors can be reproduced within 3∆E of a good set of extended gamut inks. If ECG can produce a gamut covering the desired spot colors, spot inks are no longer needed.
While many people believe ECG is a quality enhancement story because it can produce extremely vibrant colors, it is really an economics story. “Fixed inkset printing” may be more descript of the economic benefits. It’s about using the same seven colors on every job, eliminating the costs associated with custom mixing in the ink room, custom setups and cleanup on press, and running every item as a separate job. Creating an infinite number of colors from seven process colors allows “ganging,” mixing and matching multiple jobs in one press run.
ECG enables conventional printing to compete with digital for short to medium runs. Printers report that using ECG technology profitably in a production environment has let many of the world’s largest consumer product companies convert entire product packaging lines to expanded gamut.
With fewer spot colors, there is reduced ink inventory, and the luxury of printing jobs together at the same time results in less product inventory. Meanwhile, the designer gets additional color latitude to create appealing packaging. In short, ECG preserves the balance between visually appealing brand identity and printing economics on traditional presses. And, for most package printers, implementing up to seven process colors is the single largest step they can take to increase profitability.
Gamse Lithographing Co.: Expanding the Range of Its Printing
Baltimore-based Gamse Lithographing Co. has been in business since 1896. It currently employs 175 people and goes by the tagline, “We Label America’s Famous Names.” It specializes in the prep and printing of labels, sleeves and lids for leading food, beverage, spirits, cosmetics and tobacco companies. Its particular expertise is in metallized papers, cut-and-stack labels, pressure-sensitive/diecut labels, shrink sleeves and gold stamping. Gamse understands how to create and print high-quality labels, and how to work with label manufacturers to ensure flawless application of their products. Gamse boasts a state-of-the-art prepress department and is one of the few printers with litho, flexo, rotogravure and digital capabilities all under one roof.
“About a couple years ago, we were getting a lot of small runs from a big customer, but the typical label required six colors, and to mix them on a sheet limited what we could do,” Alan Roe, prepress manager at Gamse Lithographing Co., remembers. “I knew about extended color and Esko Equinox, and we decided to test it out.”
The customer required hundreds of product labels with many colors. One label might have a lot of violet, but the next might be a label with primarily orange and green.
“It was difficult to conduct combo runs because of all of the spot colors,” Roe says. “It was ideal to run all of these labels on one press with CMYK plus orange, green and violet, and see what efficiencies we could gain by not changing the press over the entire week. That’s what we explained to the office and our test results were amazing.”
The biggest hurdle was gaining pressroom confidence. “Customers liked what they saw, but our pressmen worried about fit, consistency, and how to get correct color,” Roe comments. “We got the fingerprinting done and the confidence to make the plates, hang them on press, and prevent ourselves from doing much adjusting. For any print change — plate, line screen, dot shape or color — you need the pressroom to buy in and be a part of the process. Over time, they really welcomed it.”
Gamse has dedicated one offset press in particular to 50% ECG jobs. It groups ECG jobs together so that the makeready time between jobs is minimized. There is no wash-up and jobs begin with minimal adjustments. Seven-color jobs also decrease the number of inks in inventory, reducing costs.
Printing More With Less
“The diversity of color on press is remarkable,” Roe says. “When I give a plant tour, we always stop to show extended gamut printing on the press and pull a couple of sheets. People do not believe they are seven-color sheets when they see the intensity of color. We are still trying to sell expanded gamut printing to many of our existing customers. A lot of people are entertaining it, and it will ultimately open doors for us.”
Gamse is able to print variable quantities on certain labels.
“There are many times that I see a press sheet and among all of the other labels, is one label of one particular flavor,” Roe says. “We could not have previously done that on a 2,500 sheet run. Customers are able to affordably test market with small quantities because of expanded gamut printing.
“There were some prep hurdles,” Roe notes. “For example, customers typically want their proofs and files returned when they are edited. Some want to see them as four-color plus spot colors, while others want to see them separated as an extended gamut proof and file. That’s two different ways. So, we created an automated workflow process to convert the four-color plus Pantone to ECG, but give the customer what they requested. That was a mindset change, but pretty easy to do. The way I see it, when the company wins, everyone wins.”
Gamse is now experiencing both work and cost savings. It gets more vibrant images and a better press match, with production efficiencies. There are no dedicated runs, and it is not limited to the eight colors of its press.
“With expanded gamut we produce a phenomenally quality product that, in my opinion, exceeds our expectations,” Roe says. “The clients absolutely love it.”
The toughest challenge is convincing other customers to agree to it, because they are moving from a spot ink to a process mix of their corporate colors.
“We can match most colors, so it’s a hurdle we will get through,” Roe says. “We can show customers how good it will look. Those with an open mind and flexibility are interested. I highly recommend expanded gamut printing. It is an option that allows us to be more consistent on press and more productive but, most importantly, more cost efficient.”
Mark Samworth, a member of the Flexographic Technical Association’s Hall of Fame, is a color specialist at Esko. Samworth joined Esko in 1997 and has been actively consulting in screening, calibration, G7, color management and expanded gamut printing. He holds 11 patents in digital imaging, including FlexoCal, hybrid screening, plate cell patterning, concentric screening, Equinox expanded gamut technology and PressSync. Samworth received his bachelor’s degree in printing science from Rochester Institute of Technology and his MBA from the University of Delaware.