Seeing Production Inkjet in Color: Why Print Providers Should Adopt Color Management Solutions

Picture this. You are walking through your favorite grocery store looking for a liter of Coca-Cola. You arrive at the array of bright red bottles and some look a tad darker in color or less vibrant than the brand’s notable fire-truck red. Would you feel put off by the inconsistency on the shelf? Would it influence you to second guess purchasing the product? One might feel confused enough about the label of such a well-known brand to question if it actually comes from Coca-Cola.

Print providers have a duty to provide perfect accuracy every time a piece of paper comes off their press. As technology has improved software and hardware offerings, the variety of solutions print providers can access is better than ever before. Print providers have always looked for easy color management solutions. However, the technology that needed to provide that high-accuracy output hasn’t always been available.

When it comes down to it, print is manufacturing. If we think about manufacturing vehicles or garbage bags, it’s always about productivity—getting that unit out for the lowest possible price, at the highest possible speed and the best possible quality. Color management is foundational to the print manufacturing process. At the end of the day, color management ties the different manufacturing processes together to deliver that final product.

Print providers have a duty to provide perfect accuracy every time a piece of paper comes off their press.

With advancements in technology and capabilities, print providers are reinvestigating that need and thinking retrospectively about their manual workflow—looking to leverage technology in ways that they couldn’t before. From a digital front end (DFE) perspective, the options are much more advanced now, including using automated capabilities for things like spot color matching, calibration, or running routines to check G7 compliance—a significant topic for the printing industry.

Production Inkjet Then and Now

On the production inkjet side, there are now integrated technologies that take manual processes from five years ago and embed that functionality into the DFE or into the controller to improve efficiencies and support the color-managed manufacturing process. Color management systems are now smarter, making better automated decisions through technology. There are great advancements being made in workflow offerings as well to support these systems. For instance, Canon’s PRISMAprepare, PRISMAproduction, and PRISMAsync workflow systems have gained enhancements to assist in making automated manufacturing decisions.

To put it into perspective, data streams may receive instructions for color that don’t produce the desired output. Print providers can leverage more and more of that smart technology to identify those colors and fix them in real time, whereas if we go back ten years they would have been fixed manually upstream.

Color management systems are now smarter, making better automated decisions through technology.

Another aspect for print providers to consider is the difference between toner versus inkjet. With inkjet, we mix colors similar to how food coloring mixes, managing color via a liquid carrier. Paper can only support so much liquid. Think about a paper towel. It can absorb a certain amount of liquid, but if there is too much liquid, the paper towel becomes completely wet. The same thing could happen with inkjet technology if we don’t manage the ink loads appropriately. Traditionally, this was a very complicated task that required a lot of special knowledge. We’ve taken that experience and developed a tool specifically for the Canon production inkjet platform that takes a lot of those old manual decision points and brings them into a tool that is much easier and quicker to use and gives better results.

Finally, we have solutions to trend color over time. Once the workflow is properly color managed it must remain color managed over time. Solutions such as Maxwell from Chromix can track and trend color and other variables such as temperature and humidity, color drift, and color heat maps to keep the print provider informed on the health of their color managed ecosystem. It is one thing to make the color right once, but it’s quite another to have the confidence it’s right every time, all the time.

Attention to Detail

One of the challenges for a print provider—whether a commercial print shop or in-house printing facility—is that the output is a manufactured product. But the input, the decisions on what kind of paper, what kind of quality, and what kind of application and data streams, are all customized. Printing is unique in that we want to manufacture a product at the highest possible speed, with the best quality, lowest costs, and custom one-off widgets every day. Every widget can be different, every job can be different, and, as a print provider, I’d want to know how to do it efficiently. The way we do it efficiently is to leverage these types of technologies—whether it’s technology in the RIP, with the DFE, in the workflow, in some of the color management products. We have to leverage this automation to be viable in the print space we occupy, to be competitive, to create a customized product using a manufacturing process.

For example, when manufacturing trash bags or car parts, we’re reproducing the exact same part every single day. Now imagine we’re manufacturing a part for a car, but every single day, every single order is a completely different part for a completely different car with a completely different configuration and completely different requirements. That’s the printing industry, especially when we look at commercial print, print-for-pay, and even in-house print providers. They are being asked to print more and more items that are different than, say, just producing statements every month. Print providers have to be smart and think about how to leverage all of these solutions to automate the manufacturing process but leave flexibility to produce different print products at the highest possible speeds, best quality, and lowest price.

It is one thing to make the color right once, but it’s quite another to have the confidence it’s right every time.

If I am a print provider, and I can confidently wake up every single day and know that I have no responsibility for maintaining accuracy or consistency in delivering a printed piece when it comes to color, then I don’t need to worry about it. But if I have clients or customers who are going to look at the piece and say, “Hey, this doesn’t look like the color I had yesterday,” or “This doesn’t match our corporate brand identity,” then yes, I really do need a color management strategy.

In transactional printing, there used to be this concept called transactional color. We could put down red for text or a blue box in the background to highlight something, and it was okay if the red was a little orange one day and a little more pink the next day Back then, there was little need for color management. The reality now is actually quite different, because on that same document would be a logo, whether that’s the logo of an insurance company, or a bank, or a credit card company. Suddenly, we go from color management not being important to color management being critical, because if we think that color logo differences don’t matter, say, on a transactional document, just talk to the brand identity department of that company. They will say the color of their logo is critical to that piece, their business, and their brand identity. If we receive a statement one month and the color of the company logo is way off, we may start to wonder if we’re getting the right piece from the right company.

Reality of Color Perception

How do we perceive color? Everything about printing is 100 percent a result of the lighting environment we are in.

For example, if I want to make sure I have the best possible color reproduction, I need to be in an environment that has the full spectrum of light. A color viewing booth or light boxes provide a full spectrum of visible light according to ISO specifications. If I’m looking at a printed piece, and I’m looking for a specific color, the reason I see that color is because the paper reflects and ink absorbs certain wave-lengths of light. The resulting mix of these two interactions reflects what I perceive as color. If I’m looking at a printed piece, and I’m looking for a specific color red, and I’m in a lighting environment that does not include that spectrum of red light, I will not see it on the printed piece.

We cannot have a color managed system and we certainly cannot start talking about color, if we don’t have the proper lighting.

This is why, when training customers, it is crucial to teach them how to view and describe color. They must have proper lighting. One way to do that is to go outside, since normal daylight is technically close to what a light booth displays. We must have that full spectrum of light. If we are missing part of the spectrum of light, we will miss that color in the printed sheet.

I like to look at the food industry. When we go to our favorite supermarket and we want to buy fresh fruit, the supermarket controls the lighting in that area very carefully. So, the fruit and vegetables look appealing, the colors are vibrant, and the fruit looks very healthy. Same thing if we go into the meat department and we want to purchase a steak; they control the lighting there so that it looks red and appealing. What happens when we bring it home? The color of the meat may not look as red and vibrant as when we picked it up from the store because of the change in lighting environments. If the lighting environment in the store was the same as in our kitchen, we probably would not buy the steak that looked dull and lifeless. Light is critical. We cannot have a color managed system and we certainly cannot start talking about color, if we don’t have the proper lighting. It’s not pivotal. It’s mandatory.

Color Management Matters

When it comes to color management systems, it is imperative for print providers to be equipped with the proper hardware and software to ensure consistency of output. Color consistency speaks to both a print provider’s professionalism and brand reliability, and inconsistent or mismatched colors can inherently damage a brand’s reputation. It communicates to your clients that you pay attention to the critical details like color. As a result, customers will be much more comfortable trusting you with their business.

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