Why Color IS a Management Issue
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, prep, or color matching department.
While managing the color is part of the process, the impact of color relates directly to the profitability of a printing or manufacturing process. But 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 digital printing in wide-format, much of the large-format world was done using silk screen or other analog methods, even hand painting of signage.
I remember back in the dark ages of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s working at a silk screener, and when we didn’t order ink from one of the ink companies, we mixed ink by weighing the bases using a triple beam balance and writing the values in a notebook and matching to our Pantone swatch book by eye. Not the most accurate, and there was always some back and forth with a customer until we got it just right.
With the advent of high-resolution inkjet printers, and color managed RIPs and workflows — which really powered the explosive growth of CtP systems in the commercial print space — the technology naturally migrated over to the wide-format and signage world.
Enter quality, controllable digital printers and affordable color measurement tools, and the world changed. Starting with CMYK aqueous printers, the standard quickly became solvent, then eco-solvent and UV, latex, and now resin-based inks.
Ink sets have grown from the original CMYK to 10 and 12 colors, and fluorescent inks, spot color, and varnishes have all been added. However, printers continued to chase color, trying to match it and keep it consistent on a wide range of substrates.
In 2006, IdeaAlliance introduced the G7 Method of creating grey balance (Neutral Print Density Curves) to help achieve more predictable color results, with the concept of creating specifications that can be used to independently use to control color. The G7 methodology — and the concept of neutral grey density — works as well in the wide-format and specialty printing world as the commercial world.
Overall, this methodology has given printers another set of process controls, but there are still other obstacles to overcome.
Recent Trends 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 1990’s, much of that driven by technological advances, and some by changes in the way media is delivered.
Major turning points for printing and graphics were the acceptance of the Internet, the introduction of the iPad and other portable electronic devices, and finally the Great Recession. All of these factors combined to reduce the number of printing companies significantly.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Graphics and Print industry declined in size 19% from 2009 to 2019, and that trend is expected to continue through 2029.
The average print job today has a net margin of about 3.6%, down from 5%, while operating costs have increased; prices may rise due to increased material costs or labor, but the profit does not increase commensurately. And while the wide-format market is still more lucrative than the commercial print market, there is downward pressure on margins as more companies enter the industry, so we need to reduce costs to increase profits.
But 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 2000’s employees productivity averaged $50,000 per year, and now, with the advances in technology, those same employees now produce an average of just over $80,000 per year.
Also, with the increasing availability and lower costs of quality measurement tools and software to control your processes, savvy owners and managers will take advantage of this time to train or retrain workers to help increase their productivity and reduce costs.
Management needs to see color as important as every other aspect of the process and start controlling it in the front office.
Color IT vs Color Management
First, and most importantly, we need to look at printing 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.
Except for bindery, color is critical in every stage, and yet I have never sat in a production meeting where color is discussed prior to the job being printed, only after a problem occurs. Shouldn’t color and the effect on the manufacturing process be part of every production meeting?
What if the estimating department had information based on the color consistency of the substrates and which will be most likely to produce an acceptable print? And what if the production department knew in advance that the printer needed PM because software was monitoring the press conditions, or that the humidity was too high? If a spot color is used, will the digital printer being used have the gamut to reproduce that color?
What if the production and prep were all using measuring tools that have been calibrated, and there was compensation for the differences in the devices so everyone was getting the same information?
All this information, and more (at least 10 factors) can easily be presented in a dashboard format so everyone can see it and help predict and prevent problems before they occur.
Enter Color IT. We prefer to say Color IT, because color is infrastructure, and with the advance data gathering capabilities we now have, it is part of your information technology platform.
The top 3 costs for a printer are:
In real life examples, proper profiling can reduce ink costs between 10-20%. Surprisingly, with proper profiling and control, less ink will many times result in better, more consistent color.
You can also reduce labor and increase productivity by tracking how much waste is generated by testing on a substrate. While make-ready is not a major factor in the wide-format like it is in offset, having the correct information and values for a substrates and choosing the correct output profile can help avoid costly mistakes and rejected jobs. Simply by adding process controls such as a color bar to wide-format job that can be read with a spectrophotometer will help keep quality steady.
But to see those returns, it is essential to build a database of substrates, printer conditions, compensation for the differences in measurement tools, environmental conditions, and profiles.
All this information can be uploaded and tracked, and will allow the astute business owner to use this information to address areas in the production processes that need to be improved, and use the same data to prevent rejected jobs because they will have accurate information to predict where there may be issues before they occur.
Jobs become more repeatable because all data is available; if printer conditions have changed, they will know and compensate for them, substrate specs are stored, and the correct profiles are applied and used for that job.
All of this is based on objective, quantifiable data. Rather than leaving color to “the expert” and only addressing color issues when a problem arises, savvy owners will start bringing color into their production management meetings and start moving the color to their IT departments.
Color management is making sure red is red, and blue is blue. Color IT is making sure every step is measured and tracked, every device is outputting the correct information, and all your output — across the spectrum of technologies — matches each other and produces accurate, repeatable color.
Marty Davis, president of Alder Color Solutions, has an extensive career in the printing and graphics, starting in production at a silk screener/dye sublimation house in the 1980’s. He has run two different training departments specializing in prepress and production, and was the senior workflow specialist for xpedx National Technology center before moving to Florida to take the position of graphic sales specialist, and later Capital Equipment Sales for the southeast US, and he later served as the director of Wide Format and Graphics for Mac Papers.