(Watch Print Geeks Jim Raffel and Shelby Sapusek talk with Marty Davis about color management here.)
By Marty Davis, President at Alder Color Solutions
Color management is a term that has been used for years in the printing and manufacturing industries, but the actual process is usually delegated to an “expert” in the prepress or color matching department.
While managing color is part of the process, the impact of color relates directly to the profitability of a printing or manufacturing process. Interestingly, most print shop managers and owners leave the color to their experts, expecting good results and not really being aware of how the entire process affects the bottom line.
How and why does color management affect profitability and why should upper management be concerned and involved? A few reasons:
- Labor savings
- Material waste
- Make-ready times
- Reduced ink usage
- Faster Turnarounds
- Consistency on repeat orders
Color Management Historic Misconceptions
Prior to the advent of CtP and digital proofing (which drove the CtP revolution, but that discussion is for another time), color and color management were controlled by the scanner operators and the proofing department, which created MatchPrints or Press Match proofs. This had 18% dot gain built in, which helped compensate for the dot gain from film to plate to press. Press operators used densitometers to measure color bars and analog ink keys. Between the scanner operators capturing the color to film and the skill of the press operators, color was high quality, but not always repeatable over time. Interestingly, we accepted those values, regardless of whether that dot gain was accurate or not.
Enter high-quality and controllable digital proofing along with affordable color measurement tools, and the world of color management is changed. The first CtP devices were used alongside the old film devices; color was matched to the old film-based proofs, but the plates were much more linear and dot gain was dramatically reduced with the elimination of film. Printers continued to chase color, trying to match the press to the proofer and vice versa in a never-ending circular battle to control color.
In 2006, Idealliance introduced the G7 Method of creating grey balance (Neutral Print Density Curves), to help achieve more predictable color results. The concept was to create specifications that the proof and the press would independently target, and ultimately the two would inherently match each other, once meeting these targets (this is a simplification of the concept, but for our discussion it will suffice). Overall, this methodology gave printers another set of process controls, but there were still other obstacles to overcome (again, for a later discussion).
Recent Trends Are Driving Changes
Changes in the printing industry, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have drastically altered the industry landscape. The number of printing companies and employees has been steadily declining since the 1990s, much of that driven by technological advances and some by changes in the way media is delivered.
Major turning points for printing and graphics included the acceptance of the internet, the introduction of the iPad and other portable electronic devices, and finally the Great Recession. All these factors combined, and reduced the number of operating printing companies, significantly.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the graphics and print industry declined in size by 19% from 2009 to 2019, and that trend is expected to continue all the way through 2029.
The average print job today has a net margin of about 3.6%—down from 5%[*]—with operating costs rising. While prices may continue to rise due to increased material costs or labor, the profit does not increase commensurately, calling for a focus on reducing costs in order to increase profits.
The look of the commercial print shop has also changed as printers look for new and more profitable revenue streams, with most companies having multiple technologies under their roof, including lithography, digital output (toner and/or inkjet), wide format, fulfillment, mailing, and other ancillary services.
Not All the News Is Gloom and Doom!
While technology has reduced the number of employees and companies, it has also made those remaining employees more valuable than ever. In the early 2000s, employees’ productivity averaged $50,000.00 per year, and now, with the advances in technology, those same employees now produce an average of just over $80,000.00 per year.
Additionally, with the increasing availability and lower costs of quality measurement tools and software to control your processes, savvy owners and managers can take advantage of this time to train or retrain workers to help increase their productivity and reduce costs.
Management needs to see color just as important as every other aspect of the process and begin controlling it, starting in the front office.
Color IT vs. Color Management
First, and most importantly, printing needs to be seen as a manufacturing process rather than a craft, and all the components integral to the final products. This means closer integration of estimating, art, prepress, pressroom, and bindery, all overseen by management.
Apart from bindery, color is critical in every stage in the printing process, and yet it is common that color is only brought up after a problem occurs, and rare that color is discussed during production meetings prior to the job. Shouldn’t color and the effect on the manufacturing process be part of every production meeting?
Imagine if the estimating department had information on color consistency based on the media options and giving access to information that could help decipher which option would be more likely to produce an acceptable print? What if the pressroom knew in advance that the press needed PM because software was monitoring the press conditions and environment, including information like humidity being too high?
When a spot color is used, and is printed using process, companies figure in advance what the Delta-E will be and determine if a special mix is needed or if an alternate color can be used.
What if the pressroom and prepress all used measuring tools that were calibrated to standards specified by the company, and there was compensation for the differences between the devices so everyone was getting the same information?
All this information, and more can easily be presented in a dashboard format so everyone can see it and help predict and prevent problems before they occur.
At Alder Color Solutions, we use the term “Color IT” because color is infrastructure and with the advanced data gathering capabilities available today, color is part of a company’s information technology, as well.
The top three costs for a printer are: labor, paper, and ink. In real life examples, proper profiling can reduce make ready times significantly, cut paper waste by 10–15%, and reduce ink costs between 10–20%.
So, the question comes down to, how is this done? Reducing labor and increasing productivity can be done by tracking and analyzing how long the make ready for a job takes. Tracking the sheets that are measured during makeready when the color bars are read, and collecting that information to be stored for review in a database for that specific press and operator, can give companies the ability to analyze the hard data of their processes, and compare the information to their expectations. If there is a significant increase in make ready, companies can ask, “Is this due to equipment or press conditions, or does the pressman need more training?” Finding these points of vulnerability in the workflow or other points for improvement through analyzing data collected during the process can save companies on labor and wasted ink and paper, and again ultimately reduce costs.
To see those returns, it is essential for companies to build or have a database of substrates (paper specs), press conditions, compensation for the differences in measurement tools, environmental conditions, and CtP curves.
With the proper use of technology, data from all these different points can be uploaded and tracked digitally, and issues can be predicted before occurring, allowing the astute business owner to address areas in the production process that need to be improved or even prevent potential rejected jobs. Jobs can become more repeatable than ever with the availability of automated data.
Color IT Based on Objective and Quantifiable Data
Rather than leaving color management to “the expert” and only addressing color issues when a problem arises, savvy owners should start bringing color into their production management meetings and begin moving color to their IT departments.
Color management is making sure red is red and blue is blue; color IT on the other hand, is making sure every step of the color control process is measured and tracked, ensuring that every device is outputting the correct information, and that any given device or point in the workflow will color match other and produce accurate, repeatable color.
[*] A Snapshot of Imaging & Print Financials Over Last Seven Years, Keypoint Intelligence, July 22, 2021.
Marty Davis is President of Alder Color Solutions. Visit them at https://aldertech.com.