Print Quality Programs: Why They Matter and How to Manage

Why Print Quality Programs Matter

Many printers are familiar with the print quality programs required by some of their customers. For the brand, a print quality program assures that the printed product meets their color requirements. Brand colors are important and print materials often serve as a direct representation of a brand. Whether it's a product label, packaging or even a brochure, print quality can significantly influence a customer's perception of a company. The reasons print buyers put print quality programs into place is because of issues with print quality, brand colors, and the complexity of getting good print quality across their supply chain. While most think of brands when thinking of print quality programs, some printers also have internal print quality programs in place. In all cases the goal is the same, which is to ensure consistent and accurate printed products. The benefits for both the brand and the printer are similar as well – improve quality, reduce waste, increase efficiency, and save time and money. For the printer, the savings are faster makeready, time, and less waste. For the brand, the benefits are brand integrity, as well as less quality rejections and the idea that the printer only ships product that meet the agreed upon requirements. 

Developing Print Quality Programs

One of the big ideas of a print quality program is communication. This is the basis of where expectations and aims are set, and all print samples are evaluated against. The print quality expectations need to be clearly written, and provide supporting documentation, such as characterization data, measurement files and rule sets that can be used by the operators who are producing the printed materials. 
The components of a print quality program start with establishing a clear objective and defining quality standards. During this time the print quality process is standardized and documented, workflows developed, and key staff trained. In addition to documenting the aims, a key part of this involves creating the quality control steps, including testing procedures, monitoring and feedback mechanisms. Finally, a plan for analysis of the data and reporting is developed. All this needs to be straight forward and simple so that the print quality program does not needlessly slow down production, or over-complicate the entire process. Once these standard operating procedures are developed, it is time to implement the print quality program. 

Managing Print Quality Programs

The primary challenge to implementing a print quality program is busyness. At the very minimum print quality requires knowing what you want, communicating clearly, being organized, and watching what is going on. Most involved in design and print production have busy schedules filled with deadlines. Unless there is a clear benefit, adding one more set of tasks and follow activities is a recipe for nothing happening. Because of this, it is important that management stand behind and provide the time and resources to implement the print quality program. As many brands and printers can tell you the benefits are enormous but take effort and time to manage. This ‘too busy to improve’ problem can be helped by having scheduled milestones, such as weekly or monthly checks and reviews where results are reviewed, and an overview of the print quality program and results are observed. Without these built in milestones many print quality efforts fade into oblivion.

Print quality is not just about color. There are several print quality requirements that have to do with good printing as well as fidelity to the original artwork. For good printing we are seeking to make sure there are no major print defects. Examples include defects such as scuffs, mottle, scratches, hickeys doubling, and other indications of poor reproduction. Fidelity to the original artwork is also important. Some products have specific information that must be communicated, and the product must be able to be scanned and processed by retailers. Examples of these requirements include bar codes, dies and finishing, as well as meeting regulatory requirements, such as ingredients, instructions, warnings, and other critical information that may need to be on the package. 
Once the program is defined it is time to implement it. Most programs roll out with a small test prior to a larger implementation. For example, an in-plant quality program may start with one press and one substrate. For a brand print quality program, the brand may start with one product line, and one supplier. During the initial testing and startup, the goal is to assess the feasibility of the program. There are several important questions to assess during the startup testing:

  1. Is the program monitoring the right variables? 
    The first thing is check and make sure the program is inspecting the metrics that really matter. For an in-plant program this may focus on attributes like color, gray balance, and dot gain. In-plant is focused on tracking both machine print characteristics as well as ink and gray balance. For a brand, the program more likely would focus on gray balance and color. The brand cares about the visual and brand colors but is less focused on things that aren’t standard across the supply chain, such as an individual machine’s dot gain. Most important is that the metrics being checked are the right ones based on the brand or printers needs.
  2. Is the scoring working correctly?
    The score needs to reflect the goals of the program. Common in overly complex print quality programs are situations where the job has a passing score but does not match the proof. The scoring needs to catch only the things that matter and ignore the metrics that are not important. Based on the example above, the score should indicate the likelihood of the visual match to the proof and any critical brand colors while reducing focus on metrics that are not important. This test period is an important time to validate that the scoring system works. Often during the testing (which is often with a stellar operator or supplier) failures can be created on purpose to validate different scoring situations.
  3. Is the program the right amount of work (i.e. not so painful it impacts production and productivity)?
    During the testing period it is also important to gauge the print quality program’s impact on productivity. The best programs are almost invisible and require little additional effort for the operator or supplier beyond normal good printing. The more painful examples printers encounter today often require them to stop the press, manually and painfully, slowly measure a series of patches, make new plates, and then eventually return to production. The ideal program should be simple, quick, and provide helpful feedback. During testing, work with the operator or supplier to streamline the process so it is as least intrusive as possible. A poorly designed print quality program can be very expensive for all involved.

When satisfied that the program works as designed, it is time for implementation. While in progress it will be important to check the data and results. Suppliers and brands will benefit from feedback and can use the information to further optimize their process. For a printer, this may give them key indicators of when to recalibrate a press to keep their makeready as fast as possible. For brands, this will help them see which suppliers print best and can meet their needs, as well as which are deserving of more work. Print quality programs are an important part of the transition from craft to manufacturing and can become an essential tool for your process.About the author:
Ron Ellis is a consultant specializing in color management, automation, and workflow integration. An Idealliance G7 Expert, G7 Process Control Expert, G7 Expert Trainer, and chair of the Print Properties Committee (PPC). Ron has performed hundreds of G7 training and calibrations. He has conducted training and consulting for a wide range of customers in Europe, Asia, and North America. Well-versed in ISO standards, Ron specializes in creating and implementing working spaces for brands and agencies that allow them to work more efficiently with vendors, saving both time and money.

Learn with Ron Ellis at upcoming G7 Expert Training – January 22-26, 2024, and as part of the new Packaging Print Essentials at iLEARNING+. 

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Ron Ellis G7 Expert Trainer Ron Ellis Consulting
G7 Expert Trainer, BrandQ Expert Trainer, Chair of Idealliance Print Properties Committee & Global Print Supply Chain Expert