Customers expect great color. In today’s printing industry, where print services providers (PSPs) have access to myriad tools and systems to help them meet the needs of even their most persnickety clients, quality color is a part of what customers expect in exchange for payment.
With the rise of digital printing systems, which have brought toner- and inkjet-based machines onto shop floors; and convergence, which has resulted in, for instance, the use of wide-format inkjet or digital label printers alongside commercial offset printing workhorses, PSPs increasingly find themselves challenged to achieve consistent, repeatable color regardless of printing platform, Gorski notes.
The Foundation of Consistent Color
Jordan Gorski, Executive Director at Idealliance — the leading developer of specifications and certifications in the graphic communications industry — has worked to help PSPs achieve color consistency, particularly through the G7 color standard, which uses gray balance to harmonize color. Idealliance’s work also includes working to develop a common language for color and quality, which has previously consisted of proprietary spaces that included their own unique languages.
G7 is the foundation of color consistency, according to Gorski. And while it was started with of focus on lithographic printing presses, it has expanded to include all presses — analog and digital — that use four-color process. By locking in on a neutral, he says machines can then be calibrated so that, for instance, inkjet inks on a non-porous vinyl substrate and flexographic inks on highly porous uncoated corrugated will have the same hue. “All will look the same,” he explains, “and brand colors will be consistent.”
As a color standard, G7 has become known and desired among print buyers. Gorski says it is increasingly common for buyers to require its print providers to adopt and use it. He says this started with large brands, but has expanded from there. Being G7 Master Printer qualified, he adds, can be both a competitive advantage and a key differentiator. Among PSPs relying on G7, a strong commonality is the willingness to know and understand their processes and to do what it takes to address inconsistencies.
Gorski believes digital printing technologies — whether toner or inkjet — have been fine-tuned to bring better color control, and the integration into tools such as spectrophotometers has served to raise the bar on color quality. In fact, he points out the increased repeatability of digital color has, to some degree, pushed manufacturers of analog printing presses to step up their game, innovating and automating greater production control. The result is that printers “can move jobs from press to press, regardless of press type.”
Asked how PSPs can begin their journey toward greater color consistency, Gorski advises they must be willing to “own” their processes — to take them on and be able to maintain them, to position themselves as good printers. Further, a commitment to color consistency must be built into the company’s culture, which should include top-down commitment, employee training, and sales teams knowing how to set customer expectations. “Everyone needs to understand it,” Gorski notes.
Controlling Color, Seeing Benefits
At Chanhassen, Minnesota-based IWCO, which Mike Todryk, manager of color technical support, describes as “one of the largest direct mail printers in North America,” achieving and maintaining color consistency has been transformative. The company, during the past eight years, has made a significant transition to high-speed production inkjet web printing presses, most recently in those manufactured by HP.
Currently, about 70% of IWCO’s production output is digitally produced. The remainder is largely run on offset presses.
Todryk says one of the biggest needs for color consistency has been that IWCO is often printing numerous elements for a singular package that includes statements, inserts, and letters, which are likely to be printed on different systems. “They all have brand colors,” he points out, “and they all have to look as though they are a part of the same piece.”
In 2015, during the company’s initial push into production inkjet, responsibility for color consistency was put in the hands of IWCO’s prepress department. Prepress pushed back, saying color should really be its own department. Enter Todryk, who was working as a color consultant at the time. He was brought on staff “to get everything dialed in.” Today, his primary focus is on maintaining process control. “We know what we’re doing,” he says, “and we know what we’re trying to achieve.”
One of several G7 Master Printers on staff at IWCO, Todryk has held that title since 2008, and describes himself, “not as a color scientist, but as a color ‘make-it-workist.’” His enthusiasm for G7 is strong, he adds, “because it works.” Several years ago, when the company was using a fleet of Canon 3900 inkjet printers, production had an average Delta E of 1.4, he notes. Once G7 color was implemented, Delta E decreased to an average of 0.4 — less than the threshold of visual perception. “The machines were printing identical, on a variety of stocks,” according to Todryk. This brought additional flexibility to the pressroom. “We use G7 to calibrate everything that can adopt it,” he adds.
Prior to IWCO’s strong push into color consistency, Todryk says, “one customer was having monthly meetings with the company to see how color could be tightened up.” After reliable color consistency had been achieved, the meetings became less and less frequent as time passed, then ceased altogether. “We haven’t had a problem strictly due to color in a couple of years now, due to calibration,” he says.
Asked how cross-platform color consistency has made IWCO more competitive, Todryk says it is because they can prove it. They can show how something printed offset can line up visually with something printed on a digital system. They have reporting that demonstrates how a job ran and the quality provided. He adds that while his company has lost a few customers who sought a lower price, “they have come back because of our color consistency.” G7, he contends, and the IWCO’s strong commitment to quality, “puts us in the upper 5% of printers regarding accuracy.”
As a method for minimizing waste and costs, Todryk says the company’s color consistency efforts help them discover problems before the job gets to the press. To illustrate how profound (and expensive) color problems can be, he says IWCO does jobs as long as 10 million pieces with 15 different versions.
At those volumes, getting it right is truly paramount.
Among the ways Todryk has seen the value of consistent color demonstrated is when the IWCO sales team pulls him in to help a customer: “When the salespeople think it’s an important tool and service to offer, that speaks to the value of color and consistency.”
Go. Big. Red.
For many PSPs, a primary focus of color consistency is, of course, image quality — skin tones, hues of nature that look wrong when printed wrong. Perhaps one of the biggest foci of color consistency, however, is in the replication of brand colors, and the bright red brand color of the University of Nebraska (we know it as PMS 186) has to be right, points out John Yerger, director of print, copy, merchandising, mail, and distribution services at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “In Nebraska, if you bleed, you bleed 186,” he jokes.
The university’s in-plant printing operation, the production of which, Yerger says, is about 75% offset, is the fifth largest in-plant for higher education. Its facility also utilizes digital presses, including a new AccurioJet KM-1 inkjet press that is currently being installed, as well as wide-format inkjet devices.
According to Yerger, one of the strongest benefits of the shop’s G7-based efforts to achieve consistency is, “It just makes my job a lot easier.” He describes himself as an “old pressman” who came up during a time when subjectivity and preference were much more prevalent. “G7,” he says, “takes the personal opinions out of the way.” G7 establishes a defense against those who “feel” a color is not right. Further, the shop works with external PSPs that also follow G7. This means their colors will also match.
A great deal of the initial effort to seek the benefits of G7 was to take subjectivity out of what the customer wants. The shop was doing reprints of some work and was not achieving the color consistency it sought on others. G7, he says, changed that. The in-plant can now achieve a match from each of its presses: offset, digital, and wide-format. “The investment has certainly paid off,” he says.
The scope of G7 expands beyond the in-plant’s presses. He says his team has worked with many of the designers on the university campus to calibrate their monitors to G7. Consistency in; consistency out.
Initially, the effort to implement G7 in the shop faced pushback from press operators who didn’t want to change their favored — though subjective — settings. Yerger and his colleague, Michael Chaplin, worked to convince the production team to believe in the process and the resulting color quality: “If we go with G7, we all know what the customer will get.” The true maker of the success of the efforts in color consistency is seen in the reduction of press approvals. “They’re not coming anymore,” he says. “They know it’s going to be right.”
Yerger believes color consistency has added value to the university’s printing operation by reinforcing its branding efforts, fulfilling the need for quality and continuity in that space. He says when the shop’s printed product is on view, in mailboxes, or as a part of on-campus displays, and the color is right, then it helps bring value. “If branding matters to the University,” Yerger concludes, “then color is key to that.”