In the world of retail, colour is king. Get it right, and your carefully selected shade can be as good as a free sample in making the consumer crave a certain foodstuff. Get it wrong, or end up with a colour too similar to another brand's, and - as feared by Cadbury, Veuve Clicquot and Christian Louboutin, which all last year fought high-profile battles to gain ownership over their brand's colours - the customer might not think the product's the real deal.
Of course protecting a brand’s colours is as much the printer’s responsibility as it is the brand owner’s. Reflecting this, a whole raft of new colour-calibration modules were launched at Drupa, promising to make the world of colour management more user friendly and accessible.
It might be assumed, then, that printers would be falling over themselves to invest, desperate as most are to give themselves the edge in the buyer’s eyes in an area as critical as colour matching. But therein lies the rub. Some would question whether opting for one of these new systems, from the likes of X-Rite, Esko, Fujifilm or GMG, will change much from the buyer’s point of view. Whether they will therefore be worth the outlay, not to mention the considerable upheaval that installing new software can entail, is a contentious point.
The reason the customer may not notice a difference in the finished result, is because the core technology behind most software packages hasn’t in fact evolved since previous colour-calibration software incarnations.
"There’s nothing really new to the whole story from a core technology point of view, the spectral readings have been around for quite some time already," explains Jan de Roeck, director of solutions management at EskoArtwork, the company behind new workflow system Suite 12 and its colour-calibration module Color Engine 12, launched at Drupa.
The new packages won’t necessarily, then, allow printers to match more colours or offer colour matching on a wider range of machines and substrates than previously. And that’s because there is little reason for them to do that: most current colour-profile-building software is advanced enough that the majority of printers offering colour-critical operations already promise all clients who come their way that they can match brand colours over a range of products. In the vast majority of cases, after a bit of proofing and tweaking of profiles by experts in the printer’s pre-press department, a good match will always be created.
What the software updates released at Drupa have aimed to do instead is make the process easier. Be it GMG SmartProfiler or Fujifilm XMF ColorPath Sync, the emphasis is very much on how easy the process of colour-profile building now is for the printer, with the emphasis on greater automation and less trial and error.
Kristel Moncarey, digital manager at large-format and POS printer Gardners, says that a recent switch from a system that entailed working with many different RIPs, to GMG’s much more user-friendly Smart Profiler colour-calibration module, part of GMG’s new workflow system ProductionSuite, has very much delivered on what it promised.
"It’s saving me time but the customer won’t necessarily notice any difference," reports Moncarey. "Now I know my greys will be neutral first time. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t make the neutral grey before, but in the past it took a lot more fiddling to get to the same place. It’s a wizard type system where you click next, then next again, and the computer does the work for you."
Fujifilm’s XMF ColorPath Sync package takes things to a similarly automated level, says Fujifilm’s business strategy manager John Davies.
"Traditionally, you’d print a colour chart, read it into the system, create a profile, then measure it and then from that new, calibrated position you’d go through the process again," he says. "Quite often you needed to go through the process three or four times, whereas now you only need to do that twice before you’re well within tolerance of the specification."
Whether the printer should rush out and invest in this new software will very much depend, then, on just how hasslesome colour-profile building currently is. Crucially, it will depend on whether time saved here could be passed on – in the form of shorter turnaround times – to the customer. This would, of course, deliver ROI for the printer and improved services for the client.
Tim Hill, managing director at large-format printers Speedscreen, says that his company deals with enough different processes and substrates that this could potentially be the case.
"Anything that can take the complication out of colour is a good thing because it is a minefield at the moment," he says. "We have a different profile for every different substrate and then on top of that we have different profiles for the different software applications that the machine is capable of working with."
However, Andrew Tramaseur, finance director at POS printers AnchorPrint, is unconvinced that enough time would be saved for this kind of software to pay for itself. "We don’t find colour profiling a big job," he says. "We’ll just keep tweaking things until we get the right colour – two or three attempts and we’re usually there."
But another benefit more automated software can bring, the vendors would point out, is more intelligent division of labour. That is, with colour profiles easier to build, colour management no longer has to be the domain of just one or two experts privy to its dark arts.
The XMF ColorPath software is designed with particular emphasis on sharing responsibility for colour management. It incorporates a cloud-based system that allows users to access colour management information from any part of the factory.
"The idea is that anybody should be able to pull a sheet off, measure it, see a report on screen that has come back from the cloud, and be able to say: ‘Yes, we’re still printing okay,’ without relying on one person who is responsible for colour and quality to come and check it," says Davies. "If more people are using these tools there’s more chance standards are going to be maintained over time."
Demystifying colour management
Speedscreen’s Hill can again see the potential. "At the moment, colour management is still shrouded in mystery, so anything that deskills it is a good thing," he says. "If I’m honest, I’ve got one person who’s really skilled and another one that’s 50% there – it’s taken quite a while to get them to where they’re at."
While Speedscreen’s customers might normally be oblivious to colour profiling being the domain of just two employees, they would certainly know about it if for any reason these employees weren’t available. The argument for more user-friendly software is for some, then, not about offering something new to the customer, but ensuring they never experience deterioration of turnaround times or quality.
Some might counter that there’s more of a danger of quality deteriorating if those with less skill get involved. Opening such a critical area as colour management to the printroom masses may not be something every printer is comfortable with.
But there is another argument up the software manufacturer’s sleeve, and this one might just be the clincher. To say that the latest batch of software doesn’t enable the printer to offer the customer anything radically new might be short-sighted, the manufacturers argue, when it actually offers something of increasing value to the average buyer: the means of understanding how colour matching will be achieved.
Not only, many report, are brand owners becoming increasingly picky about what result they will accept as a match, but also inquisitive about how the printer intends to keep achieving a consistent result.
"We’ve found that more and more customers like the big supermarkets are more knowledgeable about colour," reports Gardners’ Moncarey. "They send in questionnaires asking how we will make sure our machine prints the same in the morning as in the evening, or this week compared to next week. I need to justify not just what we do, but how we do it."
In the past, this ‘how’ would have been very difficult to explain without bamboozling the buyer with complex technical information. With their software, claim the vendors, it is not only the average pressroom worker who now has a language with which to understand colour calibration, while the software takes care of manipulating data to do this automatically – now the end-user can speak this language too.
"What the printers can give back to customers at the end of a run is a very clear colour report that actually shows how accurate the job was at the point of printing," says Fujifilm’s Davies. "That’s important as I think people are looking for quality assurance confirmation these days. Customers will be saying ‘I hear what you’re saying and it sounds very good,’ when printers talk about the software they have in place, ‘but how can you prove that you’re printing to a high standard?’"
The package that has most fully developed this concept of a colour calibration language that brand owners can also speak, is X-Rite and Esko’s jointly developed PantoneLive software, launched at Drupa.
This is a cloud-based library that stores the digital value apportioned to a certain colour when printed on a particular machine and substrate. The end user can then use this library to check what’s been printed before, and can use its digital values to check work has been printed correctly and to commission future jobs.
What this does mean, however, is that, armed with their brand colour’s data, brand owners can now switch much more easily between suppliers. And this of course might not be something printers will be keen to facilitate.
"Before, the way a colour was reproduced was almost like a trade secret of the converter," recognises Esko’s De Roeck, who admits printers may feel divested of their value if it’s no longer they alone who know the data behind arriving at the right colour for a customer.
Competence becomes indisputable
But the pros of welcoming the buyer into the supply chain far outweigh the cons for the printer, says Jon Drennan, operations director at packaging printer and PantoneLive user Chesapeake.
By helping the customer to understand that colours can be viewed as certain, indisputable digital targets, the printer’s competence in colour matching also becomes indisputable in the client’s eyes, he explains.
"Historically, a print buyer would have only judged colour by his or her own expectations so it would have been a completely commercial process," says Drennan, explaining that the final verdict on whether a proof was the right colour could therefore be a subjective one. "But now the brand owner’s expectations are set at a quantifiable level that is achievable – it’s not a debate any more."
So the situation, as Drennan paints it, is win–win. The buyer enjoys the peace of mind of knowing that the colours have definitely been matched, while the printer enjoys a solid reputation in this area.
But it’s still early days for the democratisation of colour, admits Drennan. Chesapeake still has customers who don’t want anything to do with the converting side of things.
"Some customers have even been willing to invest in measurement equipment, but some don’t want to get involved because they feel it’s the job of the printer, which is fair enough," says Drennan. "Those customers have physical targets because they haven’t developed the confidence to move completely to a digital supply chain."
So whether a printer should invest in one of the latest automated, user- and buyer-friendly colour management packages now on the market depends not only on how much of a headache building colour profiles currently is, but also how colour savvy their clients are.
Some printers might be well-advised to follow the maxim "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it," says Fujifilm’s Davies.
Food for thought, however, might be De Roeck and Drennan’s conviction that it is only a matter of time before clients request digital signifiers that their colour has been matched and take work elsewhere if these aren’t forthcoming.
In this scenario, whether a printer deems it a good idea to get all staff involved in colour management, or share data that may enable clients to take work to another supplier, will be irrelevant. It may finally be necessary to surrender the closely guarded secrets of colour management, and bring this dark art firmly into the light.
GMG Smart Profiler
What does it do?
Smart Profiler is the colour-calibration module of GMG’s new Production Suite workflow system. "It’s very easy to use and wizard driven," says UK technical sales consultant Simon Landau. "We’ve taken all of the guesswork out of building profiles as the software automatically works out where to place its ink limits for CYMK to maximise the gamut of the machine."
Who is it aimed at?
Large- and wide-format printers who, says Landau, are now much more frequently being asked to ensure colours on POS displays closely match those on a product’s packaging.
Will the buyer see the benefit?
"Large-format printers can see straight away the savings in time and money," says Landau. "And the print buyers can be absolutely confident about what they’re going to get day after day, week after week."
Fujifilm XMF ColorPath Sync
What does it do?
This is a cloud-based colour-calibration system which allows printers with different devices to switch off the colour management element of each different RIP, and coordinate colour-profile building through one system. The software also allows printers to monitor colour quality, with the cloud element allowing stats to be viewed at multiple portals throughout the factory.
Who is it aimed at?
Printers with both screen and wide-format equipment.
Will the buyer see the benefit?
"The customer might not notice anything different in the job results but there are cost and time saving implications," says business strategy manager
John Davies. "The printers can pass cost savings on to their customers or take on more work during the shift."
What does it do?
PantoneLive is a cloud-based colour library that stores spectral profiles of colours that have been printed once before, showing buyers what is possible on which substrate and giving them the means with which to ensure colours have been printed correctly.
Who is it aimed at?
Any printer and print buyer dealing with colour-critical products such as packaging and POS work.
Will the buyer see the benefit?
Vendors of PantoneLive Esko and X-Rite say this system could herald a new approach to colour management, with brand owners becoming much more involved.