About a year ago, three eminent print industry technologists decided it was time to create what they describe as “the world’s largest graded image database”: a universal reference library for press performance built of inputs from a new methodology of equipment testing. With hundreds of such tests behind them, the founders now say that they can offer the industry the most comprehensive tool for determining how reliably its presses are operating and how acceptable to customers the output from those presses will be.

The initiative is called Image Test Labs (ITL), and its chief spokesperson is Henry Freedman, the longtime publisher of the Technology Watch news portal for the graphic sciences. Freedman and partners Peter Crean and Peter Dundas are the triumvirate behind the ITL Image Grader, a system that invites printers and press manufacturers to print and submit test forms for analysis by ITL.

The result is a detailed report card for the submitter and, for ITL, a steady accumulation of metadata that gives it a 10,000-foot overview of the comparative performances of nearly every type of press now in use.

To designate a press for evaluation by the ITL Image Grader, its owner purchases a PDF test target from ITL and prints it as a job normally would be run on that machine with any stock the owner wants to use. Through a combination of instrument measurement and visual inspection, ITL examines the sheets and rates their printing characteristics. The owner gets a simply formatted but thoroughly documented report with A-B-C grades, bar charts, and other rubrics of print quality and press performance.

Freedman says the report yields a “grade point average” that expresses how well or poorly the press is performing both on a stand-alone basis and in comparison with other machines in its production category. The main grading criteria are color, solids, and text and lines, each with attributes and sub-attributes such as “facial color” and “line edge noise.” ITL’s close assessment of these key performance indicators, says Freedman, is the equivalent of “an X-ray machine for the press.”

The report assigns the press a set of attribute-specific grades as well as an overall grade that then can be displayed alongside data ITL has collected for other presses of that make and model. The grades also can be compared with whatever data ITL has for all runs in the machine’s general classification: sheetfed digital, for instance, if the machine being evaluated is a press of that type. The comparisons additionally show where the press ranks in various percentiles for its population.

ITL says that because its evaluative metrics are unique and process-independent, ITL Image Grader is suitable for footprinting all conventional and digital printing equipment. Another distinguishing characteristic of ITL’s testing is its scope. According to Freedman, the system conforms to “the law of requisite variety,” a precept of cybernetics. In this context, it means that every variable of press performance that can be accounted for by a testing procedure must be accounted for by that procedure.

Because this is precisely what ITL Image Grader was designed to do, says Freedman, it gives press owners an end-to-end testing regimen that takes in the entire picture of job production, not just individual elements isolated for process control. When findings are this granular, he says, “we can predict the success of the press and the acceptance of the printing.”

There are some restrictions on what can be reported. Grade information sent confidentially to customers pertains only to machines in the same families or print segments as theirs. ITL does not show customers how their machines stack up against machines from different manufacturers, nor does it rate one manufacturer’s products against another’s.

To avoid conflicts of interest, ITL refrains from offering post-test consulting services. But, says Freedman, every client gets a “helpful hints” follow-up call with suggestions for improving the results—for instance, by adjusting toner fusing temperature if that appears to be causing problems.

Freedman, Crean, and Dundas use their eyes as well as their instruments to scrutinize and grade what the test forms tell them about press performance. A visual check is essential, according to Freedman, since achieving print quality isn’t exclusively about running to numbers. “You wouldn’t take a densitometer into an Apple store” to appraise the site’s retail graphics, he says. This is why ITL’s hybrid grading method parallels what would be done by the human eye of an art director or a production manager on a press check.

ITL’s founders have long and distinguished records of telling good press sheets from poor ones. Crean, the holder of a PhD in nuclear physics from Princeton, played major roles in the development of some of Xerox’s best-known systems for production printing. Dundas, with a doctorate in physics from Imperial College London, was a principal color scientist for Xerox and the person in charge of training the company’s worldwide corps of color analysts. The son of a Philadelphia printer and an RIT alumnus, Freedman has published Technology Watch for more than 35 years and holds patents and awards for inventions such as his “resometer.”

In 2004, the trio became the first to match a digital color image to an offset image on a single page in a true production-length press run. Today, they focus on giving everyone the benefit of their pooled expertise by making ITL Image Grader accessible and easy to use.

Printing companies, says Freedman, are staffed by craftspeople and tradespeople, not imaging scientists. This is why the goal was to create a “drop-and-play” test target and a reporting form to present the results in a clear and straightforward way. He says that in designing the grading sheet, ITL asked an English teacher who is a member of Mensa and the spouse of a printing company owner to help make sure that there would be “no misinterpretation of what comes off the page.”

Armed with positive results from an ITL press test, says Freedman, a small shop can make as convincing a pitch for the quality of its printing as a large shop. Most of the testing services listed at the ITL web site cost less than $500, pricing with which Freedman and his partners hope to attract printing companies of all sizes. ITL also wants industry trade associations to represent the services to their members. The Pacific Printing Industries Association (PPI) and Graphic Arts Alliance (GAA) are two groups that have agreed to do this, Freedman says.

ITL’s other user base consists of press manufacturers, and it is to this segment that outreach initially was made. Freedman says that “almost every single one” of the press makers has taken ITL up on its offer of a free test run—a strategic move that lets ITL maintain neutrality while it builds up its repository of imaging data.

According to Freedman, the manufacturers like ITL testing because it helps them double-check and validate the claims they are making in their demo rooms and sales presentations. When the grades are good, they can be potent promotional assets. At Graph Expo, for example, Konica Minolta was pleased to report that nearly half of the Konica Minolta presses ITL has graded are in the top 20% of all sheetfed toner digital presses graded by ITL. This means, says Freedman, that in ITL’s view, “the KM bizhub line holds the dominant position for printed color image performance.”

ITL and its testing services aren’t the only options printers and press makers have for measuring print quality. Freedman says that while ITL isn’t out to replace G7 certifications, GRACoL guidelines, and similar protocols, its patent-pending Image Grader goes beyond what they do in its examination of the entire imaging process. He claims, in fact, that “some of our biggest advocates are the vendors’ G7 trainers and implementers of GRACoL, since they get the very valuable contribution of new ways to see how their work performs on a given press.”

Freedman says that if there is an upsurge in testing requests as ITL Image Grader catches on, he and his partners will be ready. They rely on e-mail and express delivery to share the workload of grading the sheets, but Freedman is confident that the process can be automated to stay ahead of it.

“We can go fast,” he says.