Solving 3 Common Myths in a Packaging Color Workflow
Packaging is recognized as one of the last truly mass platforms for brands to communicate with their consumers, and it comes with the added power at being at the point of transaction. A recent CMO Council report found that in-store activities and resources – including point of purchase displays, in-store advertising, and product packaging – have the most influence over consumer behavior. As a result, brands and CPG companies are updating their packaging and displays more frequently to hold consumer attention and relevance.
For the packaging converter, short runs and multiple iterations of a single product present a need for accurately matching colors across several jobs and printing locations. But achieving consistent color for multiple clients can be a challenge and can lead to costly rework, missed deadlines and unsatisfied customers.
To stay competitive in today’s increasingly fast-paced digital world, packaging converters need to re-evaluate their color workflows. It’s time to debunk three of the most common myths in the packaging color work to build a more technically viable color measurement and management process for packaging converters.
Myth #1: A physical printed standard is the best way to match colors in production.
You can hold a physical standard and use it to visually gauge whether color tolerances are being met, and physical standards, such as the Pantone Guides, have been a critical part of the color workflow process. But like any press proof, there is some variation in every press impression. They are intended as a visual guide for design; they are not a production standard. Over time, physical guides can degrade or deteriorate depending on how they are cared for. This also applies to physical standards used by brand owners. If you are only relying on physical samples or standards, color errors and inaccuracies can add up over time and put you out of tolerance.
Another commonly used physical reference are ink drawdowns prepared by the ink room. Although they are also useful, they are not perfectly uniform. You can get different values depending on where you take a measurement.
While physical color references continue to play an important role in specifying and managing color, printing and converting operations should move to digital for the most accurate standards. Digital standards provide the spectral values – the DNA – of the color. When digital standards are used correctly, every step of the prepress and production process is measured against the same digital standard. Packaging converters should see close results with very small deltas between the print and the digital standard and achieve better color matches across the entire supply chain.
Although many brands are starting to supply digital standards, don’t worry if your client does not. You can implement a digital standard at the start of your production process.
Myth #2: I can rely on L*a*b* values alone to measure and manage color.
L*a*b* data is good, but it does have limitations. L*a*b* numbers must be accompanied by other information, including illuminant and observer data, which is often omitted; forcing operators to work from their best guess. If they choose the wrong variable, they will be targeting the wrong value.
Other questions converters need to ask when considering L*a*b* that can lead to more variability in results:
- What was the source of the L*a*b* data? Was it measured by an unskilled in-house operator?
- Were the right settings used?
- Was the correct backing material used? Measuring on top of white sheets of paper is not sufficient. Even white paper has color and can contain optical brighteners, which will affect the accuracy of the measurement.
- What was the condition of the sample being measured?
- Did the operator measure the original standard or a reproduction?
Equally important, L*a*b* does not provide all of the information needed to meet today’s increasingly sophisticated brand owner requirements. Brands are concerned about how packaging will appear under all of the lighting conditions it may encounter once it leaves the print shop. Brands may specify D50 or D65 daylight, cool white fluorescent, and increasingly LED (for which the standard is still in development). A color may look different under each of these lighting conditions, and L*a*b* data cannot accommodate them. We call this color flop or metamerism. This is a condition that results when two colors are created with different sets of pigments, and they match under one lighting condition, but not under another.
For example, a converter might get a good match under one lighting condition but a different result under another. Although the color change may be a very small Delta E and still within tolerance, it may be visible to the naked eye. Consider a cosmetics package. If the label on the bottle and the folding carton were printed with two different inks, they might visually match well in a viewing booth with D50 daylight, but look like very different colors on the store shelf with cool white fluorescent. A customer will likely notice the color discrepancy, question the product’s quality, and move on to a competing cosmetic, impacting the brand’s reputation.
Full spectral data helps reduce metamerism. Spectral data accounts for these variables, making it easier to ensure the color is correct, even under disparate lighting conditions. This is because L*a*b* describes a color under only one lighting condition — usually D50 daylight in the printing industry. Spectral data, however, includes reflectance values across the full visible spectrum, and can be calculated to values under any lighting condition. Some brand owners are now requiring that their inks are formulated to match under D50 daylight and a secondary condition, such as a store lighting condition.
Myth #3: If I measure a single press run and get great results, I should be good for the rest of the day, week, month, across all jobs.
The question here is whether repeatability and process control are all about hitting the same color that was shipped last time you printed this product. Many converters and printers will hold on to what they call “retains,” the last approved output they produced, to match the next time the job is printed. Picking up where you left off last time is fine, to an extent. But with each press run, while you stay within tolerance of your last press run, you will still encounter variance from the original physical standard; causing color to drift over time. Every press run will add to the variance, potentially moving farther and farther away from the standard. Another problem with this approach is the lack of history, making it difficult to determine how color has drifted from the original specification over time.
A better method is to run the jobs to digital standards, going back to the same digital standard at the beginning of each run. This allows you to control and eliminate drift over time. It is still a good idea to hold on to retains from the previous run as a guide to where you left off, NOT as a guide as to where to start. The standards can be industry standards like SWOP, GRACoL, FOGRA, etc., or custom standards.
In addition to always printing to a digital standard, it is important to record the data for management reviews at a later date to see how color is trending over time. Is it getting better or worse? Is there a lot of variability or is it fairly consistent? This trending data is valuable for the continuous improvement process.
There are a variety of software products available to do this. These tools not only provide a quick visual guide to help operators hit standards quickly, they also ensure you are always bringing up the same digital standard and working consistently. A good software package will not only identify where there is a problem area, but also provide insight or even explicit direction on how to fix the problem.
To take it a step further, using a scorecard solution to track trends will provide insight into how the job ran and allow you to drill down on details. This is important for continuous improvement. Scorecards can also help management look at trending data to compare results across operators, shifts, presses and locations. By measuring over time, you can see the impact of your process changes, such as to methods, ink or media.
The Bottom Line
To keep up with customer demands, converters need to adapt their workflow processes and re-evaluate many long standing, tried-and-true methods of package conversion printing. Here are the keys to achieving more consistent color:
- Move to a more stable and consistent digital standard; then ensure everyone throughout the workflow – designers, proofers, ink room, press room and quality control – is working to the same digital standard.
- Use spectral data, not just L*a*b* data, to specify and control color under different viewing conditions, such as store light and daylight.
- Implement a process control system that provides pressmen with guidance to make color corrections on press and reporting for management to look at over time.
When converters have physical proof in terms of production reports that validate color performance, it places them at a competitive advantage in our increasingly competitive packaging landscape. Today’s converters have the ability to implement a color management process based on industry best practices and leverage the capabilities of the latest color technologies. This leads to better plant efficiencies, more effective job planning, higher press utilization rates, and trend reporting that will deliver continuous improvement over time.
The ability to deliver predictable output leads to more efficient job planning, especially if you are looking to combine or gang jobs in a fixed color palette (Extended Color Gamut) workflow to drive increased throughput. Predictable printing in a standard environment leads to a variety of production efficiencies:
- Faster, more accurate ink formulation, with inks right the first time, every time.
- Shorter make-ready and less waste.
- More consistent quality that delivers increased customer loyalty while reducing expensive rework.
- Cost savings through reduced waste of time and materials on press and better use of ink returns that directly benefit the bottom line.
Thanks to a wide range of solutions on the market today, converting operations can reach these goals with a very fast ROI. It’s the cost-savings gift that will keep on giving for years to come.
Mark Gundlach, solutions architect for X-Rite, has more than 24 years of experience working in photography, design and print environments. He worked for seven years as a commercial photographer, and was one of the first to adopt and use digital photography and color management in a commercial studio. Mark was an early advocate of a fully digital workflow process. Later he used his experience as a system integrator to install and train users on color management, prepress production, pressroom process control and digital workflow best practices. Mark is a certified IDEAlliance G7 Process Control Expert, Apple Color Management Pro and Color Management Trainer, and has helped hundreds of companies take control of their workflows during his 17 years of professional training. Follow X-Rite on Twitter @XRitecolor