Keeping Color On-Brand
In marketing circles, branding is king. Ensuring that products make a strong first impression on consumers is paramount, so it should be of no surprise that color management expectations from packaging firms are sky-high, while customer tolerance for color variation is plummeting.
“The bar has been raised across all the brands that we deal with,” Ted Biggs, VP of manufacturing at Minneapolis-based AWT Labels & Packaging, says. “There is a lot more knowledge about color management on the brand side. They are educated on color management and know what they can expect.”
Biggs states that AWT works closely with clients to keep expectations within an achievable level. He notes that strong communication with customers is key.
“Maybe they want a Delta E of 1 on a certain substrate and it is just not something that we can hold consistently,” Biggs says, citing a metric for understanding how the human eye perceives color difference.
“We will talk it through and try to understand what they are really looking for,” Biggs continues. “Typically, at the end of the day, you end up somewhere right around a Delta E of 2 to 2.5.”
AWT has three manufacturing plants: narrow-web label production in Minneapolis, flexible packaging production in South Elgin, Ill., and clinical labeling production at Citation Healthcare Labels, a company subsidiary in Hauppauge, N.Y. The company produces labeling and packaging solutions for medical, industrial/OEM, food and beverage, personal care, health and beauty, household, and specialty markets.
With multiple locations and printing technologies, communication regarding color management at AWT is vital.
“A big thing for us is we communicate well with our teams and we will often meet and look at different packaging samples and discuss any potential issues and see what is achievable,” adds Tchyneng Yang, AWT’s ink tech supervisor.
If, for example, a customer requires flexible packaging that includes narrow-web flexo printed pieces along with digital output, AWT will start with the digital work and then match color on the flexo side.
“We have better control on the narrow web due to the pigment,” Yang points out. “So that helps us achieve color closer to the digital printing than if we did it vice versa.”
AWT stresses open communication with its customers to ensure everyone is on the same page from the beginning of the project.
“When we do digital to flexo, we are under a Delta E of 1 without any problem,” Yang says.
Shawn Oetjen, a trainer at Flexographic Tech, a non-profit flexographic printing education program that hosts classes at AWT, says that print buyers are not wrong to want the best possible color consistency, especially when it comes to company branding. But sometimes, customer expectations are just not attainable.
“If I say Best Buy, or Target, or Coca-Cola, you know the color that you are looking for,” Oetjen says. “They want to make sure they sell their product, and a big part of that is brand identity. It’s more important now than it ever was.”
Oetjen says that, inherently, some variation in the printing process is to be expected, especially when using different equipment, technology, and substrates.
“If it is a 13˝ web or 40˝ web, there is going to be some variation,” Oetjen says. “It comes down to process control.”
Oetjen offers some simple ideas that can be easily overlooked in the pressroom to boost color matching success. This includes using the same anilox rolls for repeat jobs and making sure they are clean. Additionally, changes in doctor blades and mounting tape can cause color variation.
“It all starts at the press setup and press maintenance,” Oetjen says. “If your press isn’t maintained, you are going to have a heck of a time matching color.”
Even operating preferences among press operators can make a difference when it comes to color, he adds.
“In theory, if you have good operating procedures and operators follow that process, it should be very consistent,” Oetjen says. “But the reality is there are a lot of shops that don’t. You may have one operator that uses a certain anilox roll and likes more pressure than other operators. Then you have the potential for more variation.”
Beyond improving maintenance and communication processes, there is no lack of color management technology for printers to infuse into pressrooms.
“It’s hard to walk into a pressroom today without seeing a spectrophotometer or various color management software,” Oetjen says.
As brands are pushing their supply chain for a higher level of color accuracy and color consistency, forward-thinking printers have implemented tools and operating procedures to take the guesswork out of color management and to create a more predictable manufacturing process, says Stephen Rankin, director, product development for Techkon USA, a provider of densitometers and spectrophotometers.
“Printers who have already made this investment in their color print process will know if they can or cannot achieve the brands’ expectation, and therefore are also in a better position to negotiate with the brand about what is really achievable,” Rankin says. “Printers are definitely getting the pressure from brands for tighter tolerances, and in most cases this translates to longer make-ready times, increased waste during production, and, unfortunately, lower profit margins.”
To ensure color accuracy and color consistency, variables must be controlled so that a repeatable and predictable print process can be established, Rankin says.
“Luckily today, printers have access to pressroom spectrophotometers, ink formulation software, color quality software solutions, and well-established industry color standards from organizations like Idealliance and the ISO,” Rankin says. “Together, these tools allow printers to take color measurements along the way, replace the guesswork and tribal knowledge with science and hard facts, and in the end, ensure a more predictable print process for shorter makereadies, more consistent color, and better relationships with brand customers.”
Printers can now deploy ink formulation software to remove the guesswork of mixing ink by eye, use spectrophotometers to validate new ink recipes, and even verify incoming ink shipments when an outside ink vendor is being used, Rankin explains.
“Many printers demand that ink leaving the ink department has been verified to be no more than one Delta E away from the color standard in the job and they use quality control software to ensure compliance and maintain their records,” Rankin says. “Adding these kinds of checks and balances throughout the entire color production workflow can go a long way toward establishing a more repeatable and quantifiable color print process.”
Bob Binder, solution architect, packaging, for color management solutions provider X-Rite, says that brands historically did not regularly monitor or enforce brand tolerances.
“If there was a blatant color issue, this would then cause fire drills for the printer,” Binder recalls. “What has changed is the emergence of new quality control tools, such as X-Rite’s ColorCert Suite, used by press operators that incorporate expanded reporting capabilities. Quality control tools provide brands a way to more easily monitor their package quality on an ongoing basis.”
Using ColorCert, brand owners, premedia firms, ink companies, and converters can connect color specifications from design to delivery, Binder says. This allows brand owners and converters to have a transparent evaluation of color quality results and shift from a visual to an analytical workflow to improve results.
“Because color is an important part of packaging and product recognition, I also talk to many brands and converters about their color maturity model,” Binder continues. “Most brands and converters start out using visual standards, and as they mature, they move to digital standards, dependent standards, and then onto full-blown cloud-based server tools.”
Using cloud-based server technology ensures that all converters globally are operating to the same color standards and are using the same tolerances for all print metrics, he points out.
“To use ColorCert as an example, all ColorCert job files have the standard and tolerance information built into them,” Binder says. “These job files are hosted on a repository server which is accessible to converters around the globe. This helps to assure that all converters regardless of location will be running to the same targets.”
Binder suggests that printers should embrace color management technology, not fear it. When properly implemented, color management software and hardware will help improve overall quality for the printer. Color management tools can also help decrease pressroom costs, he explains.
“For example, when a press operator makes the first pull after makeready, the software will report if each color is in or out of tolerance,” Binder says. “If you are out of tolerance, the software will let you know if it is possible to get within tolerance using the ink and substrate on press and what adjustments are necessary on press to get within tolerance. If it is not possible to get within tolerance, then the operator needs to call the ink technician.”
Binder maintains that having access to this type of color management information is very powerful because it allows press operators to have actionable data to guide adjustments and deliver accurate color the first time.
Binder also implores printers to invest in color management training.
“All the numbers in the world mean nothing if you do not know how to interpret them,” he says. “There are many color management training options available from eLearning, to webinars, to customized on-site instruction. Choose the format that best fits your unique circumstances.”