Commentary & Analysis
Color Expert John Sweeney Talks about Open Digital Color Standards
With Graph Expo around the corner, attendees should take some time at the show to investigate the latest developments in color management, a field that is changing quickly due to the availability of a broad array of new technologies. In an interview with Senior Editor Cary Sherburne spoke with John Sweeney, Business Development Manager for matchmycolor talks about color management developments inside and outside the printing industry.
By Cary Sherburne
Published: September 4, 2014
John Sweeney has been very visible in the printing industry over many years in various roles, and these days is doing business development at matchmycolor LLC. He shares some background on matchmycolor and his thoughts on the current state of color management technologies and strategies.
WTT: John, tell us a little about matchmycolor.
JS: The technology embodied in matchmycolor has actually been in development for about 40 years. It originally came out of the Colibri® business of Ciba Specialty Chemicals, now part of BASF. In 2009, that part of the business was bought out in an LBO by Michael Jakobi and Judy van de Langkruis, current partners in the business. We are sort of a “best kept secret,” though we count 400 companies in our customer base with 1,400 active licenses.
WTT: What industries do you serve?
JS: We have customers in the printing industry, of course, but perhaps we are better known in paint & coatings, plastics, fibers, ceramics, cosmetics and perfumes.
WTT: That’s quite a mix and I can see a need for color management in those industries. But perfume kind of has me puzzled.
JS: When you are paying that much per ounce for a product, and you put a new bottle on the shelf next to an old bottle, they had better look the same! We are pretty dominant in that industry.
WTT: And what about the printing industry?
JS: We are not new to printing and packaging and we have customers in that space. However, we could not sell to new customers until our non-compete from the LBO expired January 1 of this year.
WTT: So what exactly is Colibri?
JS: It is a software solution that consists of four modules: ColorSpec to specify brand colors and standards; ColorMatch for color matching and prediction of color feasibility with different applications and substrates; ColorQuality for monitoring, certification and approval; and ColorTint for dispensing of color recipes in production.
WTT: I am assuming that users must purchase color measurement instruments separately.
JS: Yes. We don’t manufacture instruments.
WTT: So talk a little about how it works.
JS: Imagine, for example, a beverage company whose primary color is red. That must be produced on bottles, cans, label substrates, paperboard and corrugated cartons using a variety of technologies including flexo and screen printing. Once the brand owner specifies the color, the software houses the specification and with an Illustrator plug-in, designers can populate color palettes with pre-approved colors using the Colibri data. They can also determine if it is even feasible to produce the right color based on the technology and substrate being used. We sell our technology to partner companies who then implement it into the market.
WTT: You’ve been involved with color management for a long time. We think about it from a printing point of view, but do those same technologies and techniques apply across other industries?
JS: We don’t operate in a silo; color is color. It is not oriented to a specific industry. If you look at the major industries where color really matters—paints and finishes, plastics, textiles, food, cosmetics—there is the product and the package, as well as marketing material, signage, direct marketing. So for example, for a paint company, there is everything from the label on the paint can to the brochures and swatch cards in the retail outlets. Everything needs to align, and all of these industries have a big print component somewhere in the supply chain.
WTT: Are you starting to see a broader use of spectrophotometers, across all industries and more specifically, in print?
JS: Spectrophotometers are not new to the printing industry. For example, every ink manufacturer uses or deploys spectrophotometry for color matching. But using the tool doesn’t necessarily mean you understand color science. For example, the operator behind the paint counter at a home improvement store knows how to operate the machine, and that’s all she needs to know. It is not her job to understand color science, any more than it was the job of the mini-photo labs to understand photography in the old photo days. That being said, for color-sensitive industries, including print, you better be using spectral values to measure and manage and communicate color. Spectrophotometers are ubiquitous and affordable. There is no reason not to use them. But you can’t just hand an instrument to a press operator and expect them to immediately know what to do. They still need some training.
WTT: Do you think people need less training these days with more sophisticated systems and instruments?
JS: In some sense that is true. The whole vision of closed-loop controls is coming into play. If you have an on-press closed-loop system, the instrument is measuring the data and making adjustments to the system, like cruise control on a vehicle. The press operator never touches anything in a true closed-loop system unless the instrument gives specific instructions. Open loop is look at the speedometer and don’t go over 60; closed-loop is cruise control.
WTT: What do you see happening with regard to color measurement and management over the next year or so?
JS: I predict there will be a huge move toward on-press spectral-based closed-loop color control in flexo and packaging where spot color is very big. Not all printing is of equal quality. There are many factors involved in quality: standardized inks, G7 compliance, availability of instruments, print being done on newer and more productive machines. Standard 4-color printing is a commodity. Can anyone differentiate themselves these days by saying they have the best quality? Is anyone demanding a premium because of the quality of their 4-color printing? I don’t think so. Beyond printing, spectral data is the key, the link among all industries and the basis of color measurement, regardless of what you are measuring.
WTT: Another area that seems to be an issue is monitor calibration, since most everything begins with a digital design these days.
JS: Even that is changing. You can buy certified monitors that are hardware calibrated for less than $1,000 from suppliers like NEC, Eizo and BenQ. And there are also new ISO standards coming down relative to monitor certification. While some people might not want to make that investment, if you think about it as a 3-year investment, it’s about $1 per day, less than the cost of your telephone or Internet service. How could you be looking at color on a screen and not have a calibrated display when monitors and instruments are so affordable? It would be like not vaccinating your kids or something.
WTT: So in a sense, you could almost have a closed-loop color system from design through production.
JS: This is not new technology. You should be able to push a color accurate soft proof to a standard for color guidance at the press. But the key enabler here is the ability to store and share color standards, view them on a monitor calibrated to standards, and then pass the information along to the press for automatic set-up. Even tablets can be color calibrated.
WTT: Do you think printing is ahead of the curve or behind the curve compared to other industries in adopting modern color measurement and management technologies?
JS: It depends on the industry. In plastics, they are still FedExing standard color chips all over, and that is a huge amount of waste in the system. Increasingly, we are able to rely on soft proofs for at least the majority of the process in printing. Plastics will get there, too. If you think about paint, those paint chips could be faded or old; who tracks and replaces those? So it varies.
WTT: Any other trends you want to identify before we close?
JS: The last color trend I would mention is that next-generation color management is predictive color management and no-chart profiling. GMG Open Color is a good example. It is designed for proofing non-process jobs. On that orange juice carton, I don’t have CMYK plus spot colors. I am more likely to have orange, green, blue, black and maybe violet. The GMG system gives me a let-down of the inks based on spectral data. They can predict the color behavior of overprints. If a CMYK chart is 1,750 patches, how many patches would it take to manually profile a 7-color job? It just isn’t feasible. Next-generation color management will be predictive using spectral data.