Facing Today’s Color Management Challenges
Brand owners are more concerned than ever regarding the color accuracy and consistency of their packaging. This means ever tighter color tolerances are being passed onto their print suppliers. Therefore, package printers are seeking out effective color quality solutions that will help them achieve these tighter tolerances in a manner that is also more efficient and cost effective.
With this increased emphasis on color consistency, the pressure on package printers and converters to deliver accurate, repeatable print has increased, as they are relied upon to provide much needed peace of mind to brand owners.
“Print buyers and brands are educating themselves to be able to ensure they are able to work with their suppliers most effectively, and they want to see their products and requirements are being met,” explains Jordan Gorski, executive director of Idealliance. “They don’t want to be told something is good enough; they want to see firsthand. How far off is a spot color? How consistent is the press run? How aligned to a reference print condition is the job? Are they holding gray balance? Since it’s been more difficult to be on-press, or to sometimes even get a press sample, they want live data and to make sure it matches their expectations.”
Idealliance, headquartered in Alexandria, Va., creates many of the commonly used color standards in the industry, including G7, a prestigious certification based on specifications for achieving gray balance.
Cindy Cooperman, VP of brand global strategic accounts, for color solutions provider X-Rite, regularly works directly with brand owners and package printers on color consistency and accuracy.
She notes that the industry was moving toward digital workflows, and the pandemic pushed this into hyper-drive.
“When lockdowns began in 2020, many brands in the essential supply chain had to ramp up production and packaging while still maintaining quality,” she says. “With travel restrictions, their traditional means of visual assessment became very difficult, if not impossible. This meant that color approvals had to be done virtually between the brand and their packaging suppliers.”
Therefore, both brands and printers had to quickly pivot to digital workflows and remote tools for color evaluation, approvals, and reporting.
“Companies that were further along in their digital transformation and had digital print quality programs were able to quickly move to virtual approvals and saw significant cost savings,” Cooperman says. “Printers who can provide real-time job scoring and demonstrate accurate and consistent color have a significant advantage when working with brands.”
She adds that while virtual approvals became a necessity in 2020, they do provide distinct benefits and may last into the future.
“The ability to eliminate onsite approvals and use digital data to verify print quality leads to greater flexibility, cost savings, and a more sustainable process for brands and printers,” Cooperman says. “Even when travel resumes, we expect virtual approvals will continue and become standard practice when it comes to maintaining color consistency and accuracy.”
Dealing with Challenges
The quality of a brand’s color and its packaging can have a huge impact on consumer sales. In addition to the consumer trust that stems from color consistency, a recognizable brand color is an effective tool in the product marketing mix.
“In the current volatile market environment, effectively managing color can be critical to business success,” Cooperman says. “As brands seek ever faster speed to market to respond to shifting consumer needs, they are seeking agile suppliers that can react quickly, but importantly, maintain color quality and consistency to protect their brand image.”
While hardware and software solutions exist today to help printers achieve accurate and consistent color, printers must choose these tools wisely. After all, some of these tools carry high annual software subscription fees while others may be cumbersome to use, which makes them difficult to effectively deploy throughout the pressroom.
Stephen Rankin, director, product management for Techkon USA, a Danvers, Mass.-based supplier of a variety of color management tools, notes that occasionally, printers who have already made the investment in a color quality solution are later told by brand customers that a different quality solution must be used when printing their work.
“In these situations, printers may have to push back on the brands’ request and demonstrate the type of reporting that is possible with the color quality solution they have already implemented,” he says.
Cooperman notes rising costs for packaging and label printing make errors increasingly more costly. This can become a concern for global brands, as frequently, artwork and color assets are controlled by regional teams.
These factors can make it difficult for brands to meet design objectives and deadlines particularly when managing projects across multiple supplier locations.
“For the packaging or label printer, the main issues remain in press stops and rework due to unclear color or tolerance specifications,” Cooperman says. “They also suffer from duplication of entry data for quality control, low equipment utilization, tight deadlines due to late information, and poor planning. Add to that the challenge of managing on-press approvals with customers during a pandemic.”
By embracing digital tools, brand managers and print providers can take control of their color quality process.
Gorski says the latest press systems actively monitor consistency and output to give operators a chance to act, or remedy issues early on, which keeps the press running and productivity high.
“G7 and alignment to global standards gives everyone within the supply chain a shared target for quality and color consistency,” he says. “Regardless of where, or how a product is printed, G7 will ensure a printed package aligns with a wide-format display and a printed mailer or publication. Calibrating using G7 gives a uniform brand presence to maintain expectations of quality, consistency, and serving the consumers’ needs throughout the entire print process, and everywhere the brand is presented: on a shelf, in media, [and] globally.”
Addressing Quality and Efficiency
Rankin notes a shift from densitometers to spectrophotometers in the pressroom is currently taking place.
“It is well understood that spectrophotometers can go beyond just the density and TVI functions of densitometers and are capable of objectively evaluating the reproduction of spot colors and brand colors alike,” he says. “Spectrophotometers have also allowed for press fingerprinting and calibration methodologies like G7 to take hold in the pressroom and provide a baseline print condition, which can ensure a more repeatable, color, print manufacturing process.”
Additionally, he notes color quality software solutions are also being installed in the pressroom to communicate job color standards and tolerances, provide PASS/FAIL feedback for operators, offer recommendations to quickly achieve desired color targets, and provide reporting of job color metrics to internal and external stakeholders such as brand customers.
Press-side and on-press color quality solutions are available in several varieties depending on the print technology being used. However, they all have the common goal of collecting color measurements, interpreting the data into clear, corrective actions for the operator, and ultimately slashing makeready times in the pressroom.
“Offset presses can benefit immensely by adding or updating to a newer press-side sheet scanning spectrophotometer with automated closed-loop software,” Rankin says. “These systems can easily cut the waste in half with intelligent ink presetting functionality that can actually learn from previous jobs to minimize the number of sheets that are required to get up to color and get into production.”
He adds that all press-side color quality solutions can be important assets to helping press operators slash makeready times and ensure more accurate and repeatable color.
Specifically, these solutions help operators by providing a platform for the communication of job color standards and associated tolerances for press operators; distilling color measurement data into clear, precise, and actionable feedback for operators, removing the color guesswork; and trending color metrics and print attributes over long press runs and proactively warning operators before color drifts out of tolerance. This enables operators to take action early and prevent color problems before they occur.
Meanwhile, Rankin adds, in-line solutions can provide even more efficiency in the process.
“These systems provide an even greater advantage by automating the entire measurement process and capturing color measurements during makeready and at full print production press speeds,” Rankin says. “These devices eliminate all of the stops and starts on press that are required when using a handheld spectrophotometer and can dramatically reduce makeready times and increase profitability.”
For package printers to remain successful in today’s demanding color consistency environment, establishing a predictable color replication process is imperative.
To accomplish this goal, Rankin notes, all of the variables that affect color reproduction must be tied down and color measurement becomes an essential task all along the way.
“Calibration or ‘fingerprinting’ of the press is a requirement to establish a known and repeatable print condition,” he says. “This can be done using an industry standard print condition like CRPC6 or with G7 methodology. In either case, it provides a baseline print condition for which all other color management can be applied on top.”
Cooperman says print quality control software can impact makeready times when it is used as a tool to guide operators through a consistent, repeatable process and gives guidance on how to make corrections, as needed.
“When the software is implemented with these two guiding principles, we see continuous improvement in quality every time,” she says.
The Tools for the Job
Given the importance of color accuracy and color consistency, it has never been more important for package printers to be sure they are delivering a printed product that meets the brands’ color expectations.
Therefore, Rankin says a handheld spectrophotometer combined with color quality software at each flexo press would be a worthy investment, while an in-line spectrophotometer would provide an even higher level of convenience with its automated measurements and ability to more quickly reduce press makeready times.
“Brands are increasing the number of SKUs, decreasing run lengths, pushing printers to deliver a higher level of color accuracy and color consistency, and even pushing for lower prices,” he says. “As a result, printers face an increased number of makereadies, longer makeready times, increased waste, and ultimately, lower profit margins. Color management and pressroom color quality solutions offer salvation and have become pivotal to the profitability and survival of packaging printers.”
Cooperman adds that package printers should invest in digital workflow solutions that help streamline color communication, measurement, and quality control software.
“We see printers adopting PantoneLIVE for digital color communication, eXact handheld spectrophotometer or Intellitrax2 Pro for automated scanning, and the ColorCert Suite for quality assurance,” she says. “These solutions work together as part of a digital workflow to help operators reduce the time and complexity associated with managing color standards and minimize waste, ultimately reducing reprints and rejections, and increasing the number of jobs they can run per shift.”
Profiling, calibration, and verification software are essential pieces of any production workflow. Soft proofing technology is also growing with remote verification and approvals to align with the data being presented with press verification and score carding.
“Establishing a tightly controlled color workflow is the first step, then maintaining that process comes with it for the return on investment to keep presses running, and finally communicating those results and the color quality gives the print buyer the assurance that their needs are being met,” Gorski says. “All of the tools to do these things include the ability to align with standards. Aligning to those specifications makes the entire workflow clear and consistent for all involved.”
A graduate of the University of Miami, Keith Loria is a D.C.-based award-winning journalist who has been writing for major publications for close to 20 years on topics as diverse as healthcare, travel, and tech. He started his career with the Associated Press and has held high editorial positions at publications aimed at entertainment, sports, and technology.