Prepress & Workflow

The Color of Predictability

Posted: April 15, 2014 by

It wouldn’t be correct to call color management a solution in search of a problem—the problem is well defined, and the technology’s ability to solve it is beyond dispute. Packaging professionals who’ve seen the benefits for themselves say that no quality-control technique does more than color management to bring about a pleasing and thoroughly predictable outcome on press.

The tools are certainly there, and so are a host of good reasons to take advantage of them in all forms of printed packaging. “Color management” is a blanket term for software applications, instrumentation, and prepress procedures that, when used systematically, assure that the appearance of color will be accurate and consistent at every stage of reproduction. That means keeping in close touch with press color at all times, never displaying or outputting to proof any color that the final printing device isn’t also capable of producing.

In a color-managed workflow, the proof or the image on the monitor always simulates, as faithfully as it can, the eventual output of the press. In a workflow lacking the guidance of color management, the picture on the screen could be misleading. Worse, the press run might have to be “tweaked” to make the final product conform to an equally misleading—but client-approved—contract proof.

Expectation, meet reality
Color management saves everyone from this kind of frustration by “aligning expectations with what the process can do,” says Patrice Aurenty, global leader, SmartColour group, Sun Chemical. In accomplishing this, he adds, it also eliminates redundant “loops of approval” that complicate workflows where color management isn’t used.

A digital technique, color management happens in a mathematically defined space that the color characteristics of monitors, scanners, proofers, and other prepress devices can be “mapped” to. Once their individual color gamuts have been mapped and reconciled, the devices can work together to render the same press-accurate color throughout the workflow.

Part of the goal, as Aurenty puts it, is to “manage color without visual assessment,” thereby eliminating the uncertainties that creep into the process whenever people make subjective judgment calls about the appearance of color.

Software tools for color management are relatively new, but some of their basic routines have been elements of package design and production for decades. Because it’s a discipline as well as a technology, color management rewards its most scrupulous practitioners with the most consistently satisfying results.

First, get the house in order
Mark Causey, director of color technologies at Beck, a provider of graphic reproduction, workflow, pre-media services, and brand color management, reminds packaging producers that color management is only as reliable as the processes it’s applied to.

“Without predictable and consistent output, color management won’t satisfy anybody’s expectations,” he says. This means, first and foremost, getting input and output devices under control. Monitors and proofers have to be profiled for performance and then calibrated for stability in color rendering. Presses have to be “fingerprinted” for accurate data that can be used to predict future print runs.

“Color management is far more about managing process than it is about color,” agrees Larry Moore, director of software services and business development, EskoArtwork. Now that ISO standards, Six Sigma protocols, and similar quality programs have focused attention on the importance of continuous process improvement, he says, “people know that color management is about managing color all of the time, not some of the time.”
At CSW Inc., which specializes in brand solutions for packaging, “no project runs through the house that isn’t somehow color-managed,” says Marek Skrzynski, director of graphics R&D. Color management doesn’t stop in prepress, and in the pressroom, Skrzynski says, it means more than simply controlling densities and dot gain.

Color management also comes into play, he says, as a means of supporting the “fusion of art and science” that continues to define the prepress operator’s job. He also notes that color management is more than just a guarantor of color fidelity: It’s a broad strategy for process improvement that shortens package development cycles, reduces running waste, and moderates ink consumption as it underscores brand image and product appeal.

CM software as you like it
The earliest color management tools for graphics professionals were the color-space selection features first embedded in the operating systems of Mac and Windows computers in the mid-1990s. Today, software developers vie with each other to build comprehensive color management solutions for general and packaging-specific applications. This software can be provided as desktop applications, as controllers for RIPs, or as plug-ins for other software—whatever format best suits the end user’s workflow requirements.

EskoArtwork’s primary offering for color management in packaging is Color Engine, a technology that measures color using both colorimetric and spectral data. Spectral analysis, according to Moore, provides more detailed profiles of ink behaviors in specific printing conditions than colorimetric measurement alone. He says that a packaging prepress workflow built around Color Engine takes the ambiguity out of achieving uniform results from press to press—a key benefit for designers trying to assure the consistency of branded and spot colors.

At the heart of color management is color space transformation: essentially, sending profiled color data from device to device in the reproduction chain and finding the nearest equivalent of the look of the desired final output at each stop. Mark Welch, director of strategic accounts at GMG, says that the company’s color-space transforming Color-Server software lets package designers and printers achieve consistent color under different press conditions. In this way, the creative intent can be preserved wherever the printing takes place.

Managing metallics
Metallic effects are gaining in popularity among package designers, but the printed appearance of metallic inks and substrates can be hard to envision in prepress. Color-Logic’s answer is its Process Metallic Color System, a color communication tool that lets designers create and proof metallic-enhanced images using familiar process inks.

Mark Geeves, Color-Logic’s director of sales and marketing, explains that the product’s software plug-ins let designers create the look they want in files that printers licensed and certified by Color-Logic can output onto whatever substrate has been selected for the package. By laying down CMYK over a silver ink from Color-Logic, printers can provide color charts of 250 metallic effects.

These charts serve as swatch books that let the designer know what to expect in an actual production run. A variation for digital printing produces the effects with CMYK and white ink over a metallic proofing substrate.

In purely technical terms, color management is about measuring and sharing color data in ways that machines can understand. But ink is a physical product, and in a color-managed workflow, a machine’s best guess about how ink will perform when it hits a printable surface isn’t sufficient. With Sun Chemical’s SmartColour system, says Aurenty, it’s possible not just to predict, but to “really know” how an ink color will look in combination with a specific substrate.

SmartColour is a library containing 250,000 combinations of ink, substrate, and printing process. These data sets, Aurenty says, represent about 80% of the color printed in offset, flexo, and gravure packaging. SmartColour combinations can be displayed within color management applications from EskoArtwork, GMG, and other partnering software providers.

Aurenty says that designers working with SmartColour will find “that there’s no guess here—it’s not a projection,” but a reliable replica of the final printed result.

A good friend to flexo
Color management supports all printing processes, conventional and digital. It may be most helpful, however, in a process that used to be regarded as a second-tier solution for quality package printing in color: flexography.

Although flexo is renowned for its ability to print on a wide range of packaging substrates, its reputation for print quality still has room for improvement. According to Welch, “you can hardly find two flexo processes that look alike,” and the inherent variability of the method sometimes stymies color management products when they’re applied to flexo packaging. “That is definitely the master course,” he says.

But, says Causey, whose company does about 75% of its packaging print management for flexo, the times are changing from the days when designers had to “dumb down their expectations” because of the shortcomings of the print process. Today, he says, advances in flexo prepress, platemaking, and inks make it possible to color-manage the process to a point where its quality is starting to rival that of offset and even gravure.
In Skrzynski’s view, proof that “most software vendors don’t recognize the packaging world as a business opportunity” can be seen in the fact that their color management solutions are built primarily for offset applications, not flexo. He says that even the packaging-specific color management software he’s used “is not flexo-friendly” because its parameters “don’t represent the specific color requirements of a typical flexo press out there.”

Nevertheless, Skrzynski thinks that flexo—formerly “a puzzle full of unknown missing pieces”—is becoming more amenable to color management thanks to improvements in inks, plates, and anilox composition. Better tools and tighter process controls make it possible, he says, for package designers and printers to get closer to an accurate forecast of what ultimately will come out of a flexographic press.

Flexography has seen many technical advancements, and inks, says Aurenty, “have to adapt to it.” Sun Chemical continues to seek better flexo ink performance with improvements in rheology (flow), resins, and pigmentation. The company also has introduced WetFlex, a high-resolution printing method that Aurenty describes as a wet-trapping, electron beam-cured process carried out on a specially adapted Comexi flexo press.

Fixing “a big disconnect”
For all of its demonstrated benefits, color management has been something of a hard sell: initially, few printers and even fewer designers and brand owners knew what it was or understood why using it could be advantageous. While there’s no question that the packaging market has grown more receptive to color management, universal adoption remains a goal to strive for.

Brennan Higgins, senior vice president of strategy for the DePersico Group, a branding agency for food and beverage packaging, says that where there used to be a big disconnect among package designers about responsibility for color management, there now is a realization that it can’t be up to the printer alone.

Designers, he says, are now more willing to “slow the process down conceptually” and gain an understanding, early in the project, of how their color requirements are going to be met. They know they can’t afford color-related production problems that might slow down the delivery of a branded package to its marketplace. Competitive pressure has made it impossible for designers to overlook their roles in color management, Higgins says.
Estudio Ray, specializing in branding and package design for Hispanic and multicultural markets, works with package printers based both inside and outside the U.S. Christine Ray, visual strategist and manager of client services, says that some of them are much better than others at maintaining color consistency.

As for color management, Ray says it’s her impression that “people haven’t been talking about it” as much as they once did. A Chicago-based printer recently visited the studio with a pitch for the method, “but they were three times the cost of those who don’t offer color management,” Ray says.
Not as straightforward as it may seem.

At Estudio Ray, the 2009 winner of the Package Design Makeover Challenge, “we’ve had successful jobs without color management,” she adds. Ray isn’t unappreciative of color management’s potential. But, like other designers, she faces problems of a more fundamental kind when it comes to getting color right and keeping it that way.

For example, she says, it’s become impossible to get high-end contract proofs made in Phoenix, AZ, Estudio Ray’s hometown. All of the local color trade shops have closed their doors, so the studio has to make do with color lasers as proofs for printers and clients.

Then there’s the issue of monitor calibration, a basic best practice of color management. Ray knows that her monitors aren’t calibrated to the same color specs as the screens her printers and clients use. Device synchronization is hard to achieve when there isn’t much face-to-face contact among the parties, and it’s never been clear to anyone in color management where the lead responsibility for assuring common monitor calibration should lie.

Ray thinks that as long as everyone understands the limitations of color reproduction, expectations can be managed. But, she notes, given the fact that printer A never does anything in exactly the same way as printer B, the best advice for a package designer sometimes is, “keep your fingers crossed.”

“Slowly but surely”
Causey maintains that when designers see color management in action in their own projects, they begin to embrace it—especially when they recognize that the practice has a direct effect on their ability to market their brands consistently.

Winning broad acceptance for color management is a matter of educating packaging professionals who need it, says Skrzynski, noting that brand managers and designers typically aren’t trained in the technicalities of prepress and production. Because the desire for brand consistency is universal, he sees the industry moving “slowly but surely” into an embrace of color management as a way to obtain consistent color output from vendor to vendor.

In the beginning, says Geeves, color management was a technical contest to see “who had the best numbers” in measurement and profiling, but it wasn’t the broad exercise in print quality that it should have been. Now, he says, thanks to “tremendous gains” in press performance inspired by the GRACoL and G7 methodologies, “we’re not using mathematical formulas as a crutch for bad process control.”

Although brand owners and package designers won’t necessarily ask for color management by name, notes Welch, they will insist that their suppliers be “consistent across the process”—and not just in package printing. The demand for color consistency also touches aisle banners, floor graphics, and every other piece of printed matter that advertises the brand.

Welch believes that meeting this mandate, which applies even more urgently to globally distributed brands, is one of the strongest arguments in favor of adopting color management.

The pros’ wish list
Like any other evolving graphic tech-nology, color management can always get better at doing what it already does well. Its advocates have clear
ideas about where they would like to see improvement.

Higgins hopes for a proofing system capable of “nailing exactly what you want” with spot colors and coatings on production substrates. A solution that could accomplish this without the need for expensive wet proofs would be an “unbelievable” advantage for color management, he says.
Ray, likewise, would welcome a “universal proofing system,” supported by all printers, to replace the Matchprints she can no longer obtain.
For Causey, the holy grail of color management would be “the ability to repurpose and recalculate data sets from one condition to the next”: from press to press or from inkset to inkset, for example, without having to reprint to capture new data from specific output conditions.

A standard for ensuring that all spectral devices measure color in the same way is high on Aurenty’s list. He says that his big wish is for a proofing system for special effects, which remain difficult, if not impossible, to render in hard copy.

Aurenty thinks that even with technical progress on all fronts in color management, the industry still has a long way to go before it arrives at a complete digital communication color workflow that everyone can understand and trust.

When that tipping point is reached, predicts Moore, “color management will be one of the biggest hot spots for the industry to improve productivity.”

 For more information, visit
Beck, www.beckcompression.com
Color-Logic, www.color-logic.com
CSW Inc., www.cswgraphics.com
DePersico Group, www.depersico.com
EskoArtwork, www.esko.com
Estudio Ray, www.estudioray.com
GMG, www.gmgcolor.com
Sun Chemical, www.sunchemical.com

 

 

What Makes Package Color “Pop”?
The packaging specialists interviewed for this story were asked to comment on notable trends in color usage and special effects for package design. Here are some of their responses:

• Brennan Higgins, senior vice president of strategy for the DePersico Group, foresees greater popularity for metallic inks and substrates; soy- and vegetable-based inks (for “green” credibility); iridescent and holographic effects; and structural printing directly onto packaging surfaces. He also anticipates a rising demand for custom colors as more brands seek their own distinctive counterparts to “Colgate red.”

• Mark Causey, director of color technologies at Beck, urges keeping an eye on expanded-gamut printing—CMYK plus orange, green, and blue—for a greater range of reproducible color on press. With the ability to make proofs and separations in up to seven colors, printers can do more color matching with less dependence upon custom-mixed spot colors. This, Causey says, can eliminate press washups, re-inking, and other time-consuming changeovers when color requirements change.

• Marek Skrzynski, director of graphics R&D at CSW Inc. and a flexo evangelist, says that this printing method—once a problematic choice for packaging because of technical limitations such as its low lines-per-inch output and restricted color gamut—is being used more often because it now can provide higher resolution, brighter images, and more predictable and repeatable color. Convinced that the process is closing the quality gap with offset and gravure, he declares, “You won’t find another packaging segment advancing as quickly and as fast as flexo.”

• Thermochromic treatment—the temperature-triggered color shift that turns the Rockies blue on Coors Light labels—looks like a rising star among packaging effects to Patrice Aurenty, global leader, SmartColour group, Sun Chemical, who also counts textural UV coatings, aroma strips, and even taste strips among the techniques that brand owners will use to lure shoppers. “The more interactions you can have with consumers, the better,” he says.

• Larry Moore, director of software services and business development, EskoArtwork, believes that as brand owners and designers become better acquainted with color management, they will begin their creative planning with specific ink sets in mind—a strategy that will give them a much better idea of how the ink will look in production. Moore is also a believer in expanded color gamuts and expects CMYK-plus gamuts to gain popularity in snack foods, beverages, and other packaging categories.

• Naturally, the extent to which these techniques will be used depends on brand owners’ willingness to pay for them. “Everybody wants their package or brand to be different,” observes Mark Geeves, Color-Logic’s director of sales and marketing, “but once they find out the cost associated with it, they have a tendency to step back and form a backup plan.”
On the other hand, competitive pressure is making it difficult to justify not spending money on enhancements that could make a package stand out on the retail shelf. As Mark Welch, director of strategic accounts at GMG, observes, “It’s really hard to make the red redder and get people’s attention.”

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