Navigating the Challenges Of Color Management

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 10.09.09

Color is the main test of quality in printed products. With a vast array of equipment, software and technical support available to printers on color matters, it has never been easier for them to avoid mistakes with color.

The objective behind color management systems is to ensure that printers know exactly what their customers want because color requirements can be transferred into electronic data. Color-matching software has eliminated the necessity for customers to send samples to printers or to try to explain verbally their color preferences.

Although these systems have helped to considerably raise color control standards during the last decade, operators within the printing supply chain in Europe are still struggling to satisfy needs for color consistency.

These difficulties are posing problems for European ink makers and their suppliers, such as pigment manufacturers. They have the capacity to provide vital assistance in matters relating to color. But they are also reluctant to cross over the line between ink production and printing. This will inevitably bring them into contact with printers’ customers.

“Color management is a tricky issue at the moment,” said an executive at one European ink producer. “Printing companies are understandably concerned about ink producers getting involved in areas outside the ink market, especially if it means that we will be talking to their customers and even their customers’ customers.”

The arrival of sophisticated color measurement equipment, much of it relatively inexpensive, has only increased demand for more color accuracy, not only within the printing industry but also among executives and creative personnel working for printers’ customers and end-users.

However, there are still gaps and deficiencies in the color control technologies, especially in the software.

Ink makers can play a useful role in ensuring that printers do not make errors with colors by helping them to set up quality control systems, which often comprise links with the ink companies’ own color control equipment.

Also, suppliers of ink ingredients, particularly pigment producers, can contribute to greater color consistency. Some have developed their own color management systems to assist in achieving uniformity through the printing supply chain.

Defining Their Role

Ink producers and their suppliers have the delicate task of deciding how much they want to participate in sorting out difficulties that impinge on the relationship between printers and their customers.

As a result, ink companies often restrict themselves to color management services tied to needs rather than standardized color control procedures.

“Traditionally, ink companies are at one end of the printing process and are not expected to stray much beyond that,” said an ink company sales manager. “We know a lot about producing the right colors in ink formulations but we are considered not to know much about converting these inks into printed products.”

In fact, many printers appear to be skeptical not only of the ability of ink producers to understand the intricacies of their job but also the desire of ink companies to comprehend fully the complexities of color control in the printing process.

“From the printers’ point of view, digital color matching is a completely new area for many ink makers whose expertise is in the chemistry of formulations and their ingredients,” said a marketing manager at a printing services company. “Furthermore, since much of the color matching takes place at the pre-press stage, they consider that it is not a part of printing that ink makers tend to understand a lot about or even want to get to know about.”

On the other hand, not just ink companies themselves but suppliers of color management systems also believe ink makers can and should be encouraged to do much more in educating printers about color control.

“We work very closely with ink manufacturers because they have a lot of expertise in color management and also do a lot to help printers sort out color problems,” said Gillian Caddy, a marketing executive in the U.K. for color management specialists X-Rite.

“It is also in the interests of the ink producers to ensure that their customers use their inks correctly,” she adds. “In a highly competitive ink market, it can be an added bonus for them to be able to offer both advice and equipment for color control.”

For most European printers, color measurement devices are now part of their basic equipment. In fact, color management systems are underpinning a trend toward standardization of printing so that variations in quality between printers are being substantially narrowed.

“Printers used to think that their work was better than the competitor down the road because of subtle differences in their printing,” said Alan Dresch, sales and business development manager at Typemaker, Birmingham, England, a color management consultancy and software supplier.

“Now that print can be distributed worldwide digitally, printing presses are tending to print the same,” he continued. “Printing is no longer a black art but a standardized production process like you have in other areas of manufacturing. The differences are in the way the process is controlled.”

Still, in a major European market like that in the U.K., the majority of small printers tend to restrict their color control hardware to densitometers or basic spectrophotometers.

“Probably only a minority are using the more sophisticated spectrophotometers and quality control systems whose latest software gives them far more data and a higher degree of accuracy,” said Ms. Caddy. “The ink companies can help make printers more aware about the necessity for higher grade equipment, particularly because they are so well qualified in matters relating to color.”

Makers of color management products now sell their equipment in all sections of the graphics supply chain through to designers. Customer sectors such as packaging are also a major market. Other outlets include sectors well outside printing such as the automobile and textile fields.

The wide availability of color management system has increased clarity in the communication of color requirements from customer to supplier, but even advanced software packages are not able to take fully into account the variety of factors which can alter colors on printed products.

“All along the supply chain we are using different bits of kit to measure the same colors,” said one ink producer executive. “You can get good results in color control but sometimes it does not work very well. It is still necessary for people to put their own interpretation on color control figures.

“One of the difficulties is that at each stage of the chain, people don’t fully understand the difficulties of others along the chain,” he explained. “A designer might choose a color on white coated paper but be unaware that it will look different on flexo-printed metalized film or on brown carton board.”

There are circumstances where ink makers can hardly avoid being active down the printing chain to ensure color uniformity with their products. Color management backup becomes vital with new inks, particularly with those which have properties outside the spectrum of conventional inks.

“There is a lot of standard color management equipment available for use on conventional inks,” said Mr. Dresch. “With new or specialty inks, this equipment has to be adjusted or entirely new software is required.

“New inks now need to be supported with a color management system,” he continued. “That means that the ink maker has to be prepared to spend extra money, particularly since copies of the software may need to be widely distributed. An average small printer has approximately 10 suppliers of color separation services.”

BASF recently launched, in support of its Novaspace ink range, Hyperspace, a color management CD-ROM package using International Color Consortium (ICC) profiles. This enables sheetfed offset printers and Novaspace users to take full advantage of the new four-color ink system which extends the color space by 30 percent without any special colors.

“If printers had created their own ICC profiles for Novaspace it would cost around E5,000 ($4,900) per print shop,” said Juergen Riedlinger, BASF’s marketing manager for sheetfed offset inks. “Instead, we have developed through Hyperspace our own ICC profiles for printers and suppliers and customers, which costs them only E89 ($87) per CD-ROM.”

BASF has positioned Novaspace at the premium end of the sheetfed offset market. It is designed for large printers working for global companies, like automobile manufacturers, with artwork being provided by leading advertising and public relations agencies.

Designers’ Role

In marketing the ink, BASF has been targeting designers at the agencies rather than the printers, which means that the agencies need to have access to Hyperspace.

“They require it for proofing purposes so it is needed in some respects right down the supply chain,” said Mr. Riedlinger. “This is a high quality ink and the designer’s main concern is primarily quality rather than cost. The designers will tell the printer that Novaspace should be used. But this is unlikely to happen the other way round, with the printer telling the designer that Novaspace would be the best ink for the job.”

In fact, new color management technologies have probably given designers more influence than ever before in determining exact color content.

“Designers are in a much stronger position because theoretically at least they have the means of ensuring that printers follow instructions,” said one color control expert.

Within the printing supply chain there is an absence at the moment of a coordinator able to take ultimate responsibility for ensuring color consistency through to the finished product. Perhaps the designer ought to be the person to fulfill that role.