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Finding the Color Management Sweet Spot, Part 2

 To get consistency, we calibrate.

We also need to upgrade our media slightly. The budget-type 20 lb bond paper is not able to hold a consistent image. For a little practical exercise, try holding a sheet of 20 lb bond between you and a strong light source. You’ll see that it appears very uneven. Images you print onto this sheet will reflect that same unevenness. Even worse: if we use this paper for calibration, we’ll get inconsistent readings and the feedback we want to give to the printer will not be accurate. 24 lb bond is good, but for best value consistency choose 28 lb bond.

If you fit the 80% accuracy requirement group, you should calibrate before every important job and especially those jobs you expect to reprint in the future. Remember: calibration brings you back to your baseline, so if you calibrate before every important job, your output will look consistent.

To calibrate, you’ll need a densitometer or a spectrophotometer. Densitometers read amounts of ink or toner, while spectrophotometers read the color of the ink or toner. In the digital world, most people prefer spectrophotometers for their versatility. They can be used to calibrate a printer, or to create custom printer, monitor, and projector profiles if you add profiling software to them.

Most of the Ricoh Production printers come with a spectrophotometer. The level of accuracy of the spectrophotometers is vastly superior to any scanners built into a printer. The scanners in today’s production printers are built for high-speed scanning and copying, but not for the ultimate in colorimetric accuracy.

If your customers require you to print accurately, as well as consistently, you’re in the 95% accuracy requirement bracket. Here you’re dealing with marketers and designers who pay close attention to their corporate identity. Most end users who ask for accuracy refer to corporate colors or other solid colors (also called spot colors). Pantone® colors, for instance, are spot colors.

Printing spot colors accurately is very important. Marketing professionals pick spot colors to represent their brand. In 2011, Coca Cola® came out with a white and silver holiday can for their regular soda. This turned out to be a disaster, because the can looked so similar to the Diet Coca Cola® can that shoppers mistakenly picked the regular over diet cola. While that’s not a big deal for most of us, some diabetics may have had a problem with it.

With a 95% accuracy requirement, calibration alone won’t do the job anymore. Custom profiling has to be part of your workflow and distinguishing high accuracy jobs becomes very important.

You might have ten different types of media for customers to choose from: super high gloss photo paper, pearlescent coated stocks, plastics, non-tear material, labels, recycled paper, coated, uncoated, t-shirt transfers, thin paper, thick paper, NCR and probably much, much more. Customers want versatility and you can give them all of it. The two questions you have to ask are: does it have to be accurate and does it have to be consistent? If a customer asks me to print on anything that looks like my Sunday newspaper, I can probably assume that they are not interested in an ultra high accuracy contract proof. On the other hand, if somebody presents me with a high-resolution design with corporate logos, crop marks, and color control bars, and wants to have it printed on the highest grade, gloss-coated paper I can get, there should be a red flag going up.

The most important thing is to know which customers expect what quality on what type of media. For most environments, there are two or three main types of media that make up 80% or more of production volume. That’s usually a coated and an uncoated stock, plus some sort of high-grade premium house stock.

Make sure to create custom output profiles for the media that generates most of your revenue. There are a variety of options to choose from when it comes to picking a profiling solution. Depending on your workflow and types of printers, I can recommend EFI’s Color Profiler Suite and Xrite’s i1Publish Pro2. Both come with a handheld spectrophotometer and cost somewhere around $2,000. If you have a multitude of printers or if each one of those 10 papers or substrates makes up an equal 10% of your revenue and you have to end up profiling everything, a higher-end solution like CGS Oris Pressmatcher and CGS Oris Lynx may make sense. These solutions usually come with automated spectrophotometers and can quickly top a $20,000 budget. That sounds like a lot, but if you get bad reviews online, have to reprint a few larger jobs or, worst case scenario, lose a large customer just because some corporate colors were not accurate enough, you will end up regretting not investing in a color management solution that made sense for your business.

Most profiling software – even the inexpensive ones – have a verification feature. It lets you check if your printer is operating within a set of tolerances you can specify. Verifying your output is a couple minutes well spent. If the output is out of tolerance, calibrate! If it’s still out of tolerance after you calibrated, re-profile! If it’s still out of tolerance after you re-profiled, call for service!

You can either verify the printers with a dedicated verification sheet or print a few patches with your design. The latter usually only works if you have a job that requires cropping. The former requires you to print a dedicated job before you run your actual production job. In both scenarios you will measure the output with a spectrophotometer and have the software tell you if it’s good or not.

The environment in which a print is evaluated plays a huge role in how we perceive color. Did you ever try to evaluate a print in a bright room while wearing a neon yellow or bright red shirt? Try it!

All right, so what if you want to be part of the elite group that requires 99% accuracy? This is the world of contract proofing, packaging prototyping, and other niche markets that require ultra-high accuracy and consistency. If you require this level of accuracy, be prepared to invest in the best hardware, software, consumables, paper, and staff available in the color management industry and put it all into a tightly monitored humidity and temperature-controlled environment. There are so many technical and process-related considerations that it would make the rest of this post a very long and, for most readers, a very boring read.

The 99% accuracy environment works similar to the 95%: print, verify, adjust, verify again. However, the tolerances are much tighter than at 95%, which means higher frequency in profiling and calibration routines. Most of these businesses can’t live with the accuracy of ICC output profiles and have adapted to Device Link Profiles for even greater control over color accuracy. These businesses also send their profiling and calibration devices to the manufacturers at least once a year for internal re-calibration.

Whatever your operation looks like, if you’re producing convenience color, or you’re shooting for ultra-high accuracy, it’s important to occasionally check your Standard Operating Procedures. Most businesses organically grow into a certain state and inefficiencies become part of daily life. Mark your calendar at least once a year to sit back and take a look at your business. If you think you’re too immersed in your day-to-day operations and you won’t be able to see the forest from the trees, Ricoh’s Color GAP Analysis might be a good option. The GAP Analysis is designed to identify your sweet spot and gives you a roadmap based on your near-term business goals.

Just to complete the spectrum: 100% accuracy! 100% accuracy is not possible in the real world. Every print device has slight variations, and there is no perfectly consistent sheet of paper. Even the most accurate measuring devices come with tolerances on the spec sheet, so there is always at least a tiny bit of variation.

No matter what your level of expertise or your requirement for accuracy is, Ricoh Color Management Services are designed to help you run your business. You can outsource your color management to one of our over 80 IDEAlliance certified Color Management Professional Masters and G7 Experts, or learn effective color management yourself, and even become an IDEAlliance qualified G7 Master Printer in the process.

It’s easy to get carried away trying to produce the perfect print and to forget about the end users’ expectations. The more you are aligned with your customers, the more you will see your bottom line improve. A lot of times, this journey begins with finding your color management sweet spot and I hope this post can help you to get started. If not, give us a call and we’ll work on it together.