Best Practices in Color Management Yield Best Results
Color management (CM) commonly refers to the methods employed to ensure quality reproduction of four-color process printing. From the perspective of the printer, converter, or trade shop, color management is all about reproducing color on a printing press to match a target. From the brand owner's perspective, however, color management is about managing the appearance of the brand. The former requires a set of hardware and software tools to measure and control color. Brand color management views color management as a collaborative tool to share accurate color across the packaging supply chain.
Color management's value
Simply put, explains Marek Skrzynski, director of graphics, R&D at CSW, Inc., a provider of integrated services for packaging based in Ludlow, Mass., "Color management today should be a given. If a prepress provider doesn't have it, it shouldn't be in the business." For CSW, he explains, "The light went on in 1994. Since then, we've continued to expand the role of color management in our operation. Today, CM isn't just a desktop prepress tool, but rather a critical part of what we call 'image engineering'. Everything starts with the color profile."
Jason Hess is graphics technology manager for The Multi-Color Corp., a global provider of label and packaging services based in Batavia, Ohio. The company performs gravure, offset, and digital work with a variety of label styles, including in-mold, shrink sleeve, heat transfer, pressure-sensitive, and cut-and-stack.
"For the thousands of labels we produce, traditional four-color process is the exception, not the rule," Hess says. "The average job we work on would be seven-, eight,- or nine-color, and would be made up entirely of spot colors. So when we talk about color management in packaging, we're really talking about building continuous-tone images out of spot colors."
"Taking into consideration the hundreds of different spot colors we have to be able to simulate, and factoring in the consumer brand libraries and ink systems for the various printing modalities, you wind up with a tremendous number of variables to manage," Hess says. "No company could put all those variables into a press profile. We needed tools that would enable us to capture all of this color data without running ten thousand different fingerprints."
According to Hess, it has been in just the past couple of years that the software tools have become available on the packaging side of the industry to begin to transform color management from an art to a science. For example, he explains, "In the past, we had to work with very expensive analog proofing systems to produce a proof that would reasonably predict what you might see on press. Not only was the process costly, it was also very time-intensive. Because speed-to-market is so important, it helps enormously to have access to a variety of tools designed to simulate press results before we go to print." For Multi-Color Corp., those tools include not only handheld devices and automated strip readers from X-Rite (www.xrite.com), but also integrated tools like the Equinox software from EskoArtwork (www.esko.com) and Kaleidoscope, also from EskoArtwork, which features a built-in ink book system and a database for conventional spot colors. "We use Equinox as the input tool for extended gamut color, and Kaleidoscope for digital proofing," Hess says.
"Our ultimate goal is to proof every job," Hess continues, "even when a proof is supplied." By way of explanation, he says that Multi-Color considers a traditional proof "two-dimensional" when based on density and dot gain alone. "When it's color-managed, we call it three-dimensional color. Since we have device-specific data from our presses, generating a proof that takes advantage of our color data is an opportunity to determine whether the file will meet our customer's expectations—before we go to press. Producing a digitally color-managed proof up front eliminates nasty surprises at the end of the development cycle."
The price of failure
The potential impact of a badly color-managed file on the packaging supply chain can be catastrophic. "You don't want a press operator to have to fight the color separation on press," Skrzynski says. Inconsistencies can result in delays on press as operators try to adjust colors on the fly, rejection of the press run by the brand owner, causing more delays, and may negatively affect consumer decision-making at the point of sale. Ultimately, brands—as well as brand loyalties—can erode. Setting realistic expectations among all parties up front—"pre-engineering" the job, Skrzynski says—is crucial to the achievement of successful results.
"Color management in our environment gives us the ability to see what's going to happen on press and avoid costly surprises during production," Skrzynski says. "By combining good color management with good color proofing, we can create predictable, trustworthy, repeatable results from lot to lot and job to job."
Unfortunately, Skrzynski notes, it can be an uphill battle to get all parties to recognize the value of color management. "We have definitely noticed a trend to cut costs by compromising some of those good results," he says. "That's why it is so important to have all the players—the designer, the brand owner, the print buyer, the converter, the ink supplier—agree on the goal ahead of time." Once the parties are on the same page, a key step is to schedule a press profile to target the substrate, aniloxes, and ink formulations to be used in actual production.
Skrzynski credits X-Rite with playing a critical role in developing Macintosh-based color management software for the packaging industry and flexo-friendly robotic spetro-scanners. In the past, he says, "It would take me about 45 minutes to measure one target with about 200 color patches by hand. With a robotic color measurement system like the iOne/iO robotic, automatic chart reading system from X-Rite, I can spend the same 45 minutes reading 3,000 color patches and repeat that reading multiple times. One color technician can do those measurements and simultaneously work on another job." Best of all, Skrzynski said, "What X-Rite brought to the table specifically for us and our customers was the ability to deal with variability of substrate thicknesses. It used to be impossible to read a corrugated board without destroying it by peeling of the top liner. Back then, thick or flexible substrates were particularly difficult to deal with, and that, for the most part, is what flexo prints on."
It was precisely to avoid production mishaps based on faulty proofs that Multi-Color made the investment in a system-wide implementation of color management technology during the last six months, Hess says. "When the proof is not a realistic representation of what's in the file, you let yourself in for on-press tweaking and a lot of guesswork. If, as occurred more often than not in the past, you have a closed-loop system with one print process and one traditional analog proofing solution, and your plates also are being produced in a closed loop, you'll probably be fine because there aren't a lot of variables involved." Today, however, with different substrates, inks, and techniques, brand color management has become a 24/7 global challenge to match color in different factories or with different processes. "Companies are routing production to areas where they have capacity," Hess says. "You might be accepting files from California for one job, Cincinnati for another. You might have offset presses next to flexo. Without color management and process controls, you'll struggle."
Depending on the printing system being used, the properties of a given substrate, press speed, ink film thickness, color gamut, and a range of variables have the potential to constrain results such that the brand owner's expectations cannot be achieved. If the ink is formulated correctly, based on a proofing system that is calibrated to the press, using the right materials, and with all of the end-use properties disclosed, the printing process could be straightforward. If, however, the color expectation is set based on an unrelated print technology, different materials, and different end-use requirements, the production work might be problematic.
When a brand color is reprinted using different printing technologies, for example, it is important to re-separate the colors every time using color profiles of the actual inks on the actual substrates for each printing process, e.g., a corrugated shipping container printed flexo, a carton printed offset, etc.
Above all, Skrzynski insists, it is vitally important that package designers learn what they are designing for. "If I am a fashion designer, I am expected to know everything there is to know about fabric, sewing techniques, and the like," he suggests. "It seems, however, that a large slice of the package design community has only a vague notion what is entailed in the printing and converting of those packages later on. That is why CSW participates in a lot of initiatives to bring some of those folks back to the classroom. We either have designers and/or brand managers come to our facility for training, let them visit various industry workshops CSW participates in, or we will go to their location."
Skrzynski largely dismisses the so-called limitations of the flexographic process—the inability to hold a certain percentage dot and details, and the compression of tonal range due to high dot gain, among others. He points out that when utilized together with the newest trends in digital platemaking, color management techniques can help increase the tonal range and expand the color gamut in flexo.
"In flexo, we are still struggling with process controls and standards," Skrzynski acknowledges, "but so-called limitations of the flexo color gamut are an urban legend. In fact, he continues, "Flexo has abilities other systems don't have. For example, offset can do folding cartons fairly well, but the challenge lies in the ink layer delivering the kind of 'pop' brand managers demand. We are selling our flexo plates to offset providers. Offset manufacturers are adding flexo features to offset environments, not the other way around."
"We think flexo is really on the march," Hess agrees. He points to investments Multi-Color has made during the past two years, including a flexo press with a gravure station that enables the company to do combinations of flexo, gravure, and screen printing.
Given today's shrinking budgets for print, radio, TV, and online advertising, brand owners increasingly view the package itself as a prime opportunity to get their messages in front of the consumer, who typically will make a split-second buying decision at the point of sale. As a result, more attention is being paid to the message and the to look of packaging graphics than ever before.
The cost of manufacturing is another factor driving the development of more robust color management systems. According to Skrzynski, the fact that pricing is based on the assumption that everything is going to go well is a tremendous motivator to get it right the first time. "I want to be able to trust in what I see and not have to think twice about my decisions in prepress," Skrzynski says. "At CSW, we say we can't afford to make the same job twice."
Easier said than done
It's axiomatic: The best color management practices, including press characterization, the use of proven color management software, as well as accurate proofing and plating, will yield results that are in line with the brand owner's expectations.
"If you want to understand process control, you have to think in terms of eliminating as many variables as possible and controlling those that remain," says Hess, who was given an opportunity to oversee the company's implementation of "scientific" color management in the U.S. during the past six months. He is currently collaborating with his counterparts overseas to achieve the same transition on a global basis within two more years.
"The tipping point for us was our customers simply saying, 'We want color management'," Hess says, but it was buy-in from Multi-Color's senior management team that really made it happen. Once the ball got rolling, however, "We quickly realized that the savings we could achieve in time, materials, and other costs would be well worth the effort when multiplied across a large organization like ours," he says. He cites the critical need for process controls to be able to put accurate, repeatable standards in place despite multiple plants and printing technologies involved.
"It's great to invest in state-of-the-art CM tools, but at some point you really have to be able to go in and dig into the details of how it works at the plant level," Hess says.