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  • Automated Cross Platform Color Management is Now a Thing

    "What do you want the job to look like, where is it going and what are the rules for mapping out of gamut colors?"

    Sean O’Leary
    Chief Technology Officer | Print Planet

    I was recently involved in producing case studies documenting a half dozen large commercial printers’ installations of high speed production inkjet printers. The featured inkjet models were built by Xerox, Fuji, Ricoh, HP, Konica-Minolta and other major manufacturers and they had been installed over the past 18 months.

    After listening to hours of interviews with the owners and managers of these shops, one particular scenario popped up again and again: virtually all of them were operating with a triple combination of printing technologies that included offset, high speed inkjet and color- toner-based output. These commercial printers represent the spear tip of a trend that is only beginning to get traction. Whatever their origins and core business, each company had formulated a strategy that would migrate existing jobs to the new inkjet printer, while also hoping to expand business opportunities with the new capabilities.

    Each of the print companies had thoroughly researched the incorporation of high speed inkjet into their workflow and had developed detailed plans for what types of jobs would be run on the new printer. According to plan, the inherent benefits of inkjet began to manifest themselves. Customers began to grow comfortable with the new technology and predictable job categories began moving to the inkjets. In particular, variable print production in which the shell had been printed offset and the variable content on toner-based were be shifted to inkjet. These moves were generally obvious and expected.

    But as is always the case in the real life implementation of disruptive technologies, unanticipated outcomes followed the introduction of the new production machines into the workplace. Less expected in most shops was a quickly escalating business case for running single jobs on more than one platform: toner and inkjet, offset and inkjet etc. For example, a promotional brochure could be printed as a fast turn, short run prior to a company meeting, while the main job would be printed later on offset equipment. Other hybrid jobs began ending up on the inkjets as well: emergency jobs in which other production was down or limited by tight schedules and jobs with declining widely changing quantities from run to run.
    Along with this good news, there was a small elephant lurking in the room: The challenge of achieving repeatable color consistency across multiple print platforms. When a job was printed on multiple platforms for whatever reason, the inkjet material was expected to look like the original toner or offset product and be run on the same or darn similar print media. This was a déjà vu experience recalling the introduction of toner color, but even more complex.
    With fundamentally different print engines, along with diverse ink types and varying substrates, each iteration of the same job involves a daunting range of potential color gamuts. With inkjet especially, the challenge is compounded by print media compatibility, a factor intrinsically related to the specific print engine. The introduction of pre-treatment issues carries with it the potential for a whole new mess of variables.

    The rapid adaptation of high speed inkjet only adds to numbers of producers committed to matching color output from multiple printers. For a growing number of shops, emulating and repeating color attributes across platforms is now critical in terms of meeting customer demand in the 21st century. Mixed runs are quickly becoming the norm and customer turnaround expectations ever more demanding. In this latest paradigm shift, the only viable answer is automating color workflow and progressively taking the process out of the hands of operators.

    Thwarting the Holy Grail: A Brief Detour In Time
    Color management automation tools aimed at optimizing digital output began to develop as digital printing became a reality in the mid-nineties, especially in wide format RIP software. These software solutions provided the means to measure and standardize the color parameters of digital printing via colorimeters, calibration utilities and profiling tools. The concept was that the color space for any given set of printer, ink and substrate would be quantified by generating a custom ICC profile, which could be plugged into the software to produce repeatable results.

    Naturally, as quickly as these tools appeared, pre-press operators began to avoid using them if they could.

    I know this because a good friend of mine earned his living as a sought-after color management consultant during the first decades of the digital printing revolution. His gig involved training print providers, service bureaus, screen printers and other early adopters in the methods of calibrating monitors and printers, spending long hours outputting target swatches and creating ICC source and output profiles. The goal was to help these shops generate predictable output from early electrostatic and inkjet machines, easier said than done at the time.

    As often as not, the person filling the prepress job was trained as a graphic artist, already skilled at image manipulation in Photoshop (already a mature software) but considerably less interested in colorimeters, workflow automation and hot folders. When printed results did not match monitor displays or even produce pleasing color, the preferred solution was to dig into the Levels, Brightness and Contrast or Curves dialogs. An awful lot of expensive pre-coated stock ended up in the landfill as a result. Management dreamed of better.

    So, the color management students would sit quietly while the benefits of a controlled color workflow were explained over the course of two or three days by the itinerant color guru. And yet, when my buddy the consultant finally threw his bags into the airport cab, many of his erstwhile students (there are no actual statistics for obvious reasons) reverted back to their comfort zone, some even before his flight took off.

    Things have slowly changed in the interim. For companies operating businesses with multiple print technologies under roof, the need to efficiently control and streamline color management has become a necessity, not a luxury. Because economic realities dictate that print devices be able to reasonably simulate other print devices, inevitably that the process needs to be driven by numbers and data.


    Onboard Measurement and Profiling
    “Common Visual Appearance” is a term that should be used more often, as it is an excellent description of the color simulations applied to locations with multiple print technologies under one roof. This means that despite differences in inksets and print media, a close approximation can be achieved by optimizing the calibration of the print conditions, and creating accurate ICC profiles.

    The rules of color management across platforms can be boiled down to: What do you want the job to look like, where is it going and what are the rules for mapping out of gamut colors? In a color workflow, the components are defined as the Source Profile, the Destination Profile, and the Rendering Intent.

    You first need to quantify the color attributes of the primary or key print conditions. This ICC profile is typically created by outputting a specific series of color patches on a calibrated printer, and measuring them with a spectrophotometer. These measurements are then loaded into the profiling software and mapped to the color ingredients of the original color patches. The resulting data becomes the ICC Source Profile. The companion printer or printers are also calibrated and profiled, creating one or more Destination Profiles.

    In principle, the process of simulating the output of one printing device on another is not complicated, but in practice it is time consuming and error prone, especially reading test patches with a handheld measurement device. The more of the procedure that can be automated the better.

    In the past several years, practical progress toward CMS automation has been driven by the digital device manufacturers themselves. The incorporation of inline spectrophotometers and cloud driven CMS software embedded into toner and inkjet devices has helped many shops make a move toward science based color management. Not only do these systems allow print time calibration and real time monitoring of color accuracy, in some cases they provide the capability of creating output profiles from the printed material itself.

    This trend actually began with toner-based systems sporting embedded measurement devices, and continues with such high speed inkjet printers such as the Rialto 900 and KM-1 Accurio, which are now equipped with built-in automated spectrophotometers, scanners and color profiling software.
    Another relatively new automation solution is Xerox’s Integrated Plus ACM, which offers alternative methods of collecting spectral data for printers without an inline spectrophotometer, including non-Xerox equipment. The system provides for offline (free standing spectro), nearline (scanning spectrophotometer) and inline color data collection. The latter option is incorporated into Xerox toner based machines, which read the spectral data during printing and send the data to the company’s cloud based CMS software.

    This increasing level of integrated color management has evolved in the context of a slow but relentless movement toward the automation of all other workflow components.

    The Human Factor, After All
    Printing is not the only industry affected by automation. The onslaught of brilliant, soulless technology often produces amazing leaps in performance, but may also discount the heart and soul of humanity. And yet the beauty of the human spirit is that it does not like to be discounted, and often asserts itself in spite of automation.

    In the context of cross-platform color management, it turns out that the physical realities override the technical prowess of CMS. Inkjet has come a long way, but the lesser color gamut is still the lowest common denominator for color accuracy in most cases. While it is possible to come very close to duplicating color results for inkjet, toner and offset printers, perfect accuracy can still be elusive for every scenario, automation or no automation
    .
    This is where CEM (Customer Expectation Management) comes in. Printers who are successful in emulating color results on multiple print technologies are also likely to be adept at explaining the limitations of the technology to their clients. And as it turns out, even customers who may have previously considered themselves color elitists have been able to suspend their standards in favor of other benefits, such as faster turnaround and lower costs.

    And isn’t that the human spirit at its best?
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