AVT, GMI, and the future of press controls

Andy Tribute, of Attribute Associates, wrote a short article today on WhatTheyThink.com, one of printing’s original web news sources. In his article he poses a question on the future of press control based on AVT‘s recent acquisition of GMI.

The article doesn’t offer much in the way of meat, but Andy does get around to describing the histories of both companies, contrasting their markets, and then theorizes that the ultimate solution for a press control is to combine AVT’s inspection products with GMI’s color and register control products into one control product that does everything. He says that no such systems exist today. That’s not exactly true, but surely no such product is sweeping the market.

There are good reasons why such a product hasn’t been successfully introduced in the past:

  1. Inspection products are popular in roll-to-roll processes where it’s not possible to grab a sample to inspect. However in sheetfed and web-to-folder applications it’s easy to grab sample copies for inspection and quality assurance purposes. Why buy a product to automate sample-grabbing when you’ve got a press operator there to do it anyway?
  2. Color control isn’t the same kind of beast on Flexo that it is on Offset – see Dr. John Anderson’s excellent article Adding Flexo to an Offset Operation in the September issue of Flexo magazine for details – so bolting ColorQuick onto a flexo press isn’t going to work.
  3. Register control is also a different beast on Flexo label presses with much less space between units and different cutoff needs.
  4. Flexo label presses generally cost less than GMI’s typical host press, which means the ceiling for the total cost of controls is lower. This means a do-everything product needs to cost a lot less than the sum of its parts. Both companies make Cadillac products, and turning two Cadillacs into a Hyundai is no easy task.
  5. GMI’s strength has always been their use of a spectrophotometer to give true spectral data. However their Spectrophotometer doesn’t provide images, and AVT’s camera doesn’t provide true spectra data, so to get both spectral data and an image for inspection you really end up with both sensor packages. Even so, nothing is preventing anyone from buying both systems and installing them both on a press today. Anyone know of such an installation?
  6. AVT’s label product, PrintVision/Helios, already does die cut registration and color deviation. What is ColorQuick going to add?
  7. Last but not least AVT needs to digest GMI’s US and Indian development operations and get everyone working together, not always an easy task.

I don’t think a combined product is in AVT’s plans. There just isn’t much bang for the buck in such a system, even if they could make one affordable for the labels market. It’s seductive to think a “total image control system” is the ultimate product that everyone will want to buy, but unless such a product removes a body from the press line (care to guess how many operators are on a typical inline labels press?) or saves enough waste to earn its keep, folks aren’t going to buy it.

I think AVT needed to grow to meet expectations, and GMI provided a convenient way to do that and provide some adjacent market access at the same time.

Powered by ScribeFire.

The importance of accurate color reproduction

Since my employer makes pretty much the best inline closed loop color controls on the planet, I got to thinking about color. We make the assumption that color reproduction is very important, and that people will always pay whatever it takes to get accurate color. Of course, the purpose of our products is to reduce that cost, but if the value of color goes down you can see there would be a problem.

Why would it go down? Why has the thickness & quality of magazine paper declined over the years? Why are car bodies thinner and more easily dented? Why is a 2×4 actually 1.5 x 3.5? Everyone’s looking to save money, and if reproducing color costs extra, eventually it will be a cost to be saved. Someone will ask why so much money is being spent keeping color accurate, and suggest that maybe there’s no real consequence to letting it slip.

Seeing as Linkedin has a nifty Q & A feature, I decided to post a question:

What is the true value of accurately reproduced color?

Both in print and on the web much effort is made and money expended to ensure that color is reproduced accurately. It’s important that things “look right”, meaning the image looks balanced. But what is the real cost of images that aren’t truly accurate?

I got a number of interesting answers, as you can see below, but I was surprised that every answer more or less suggested that color carries an extremely high value. I believe this, but I figured someone would say it just didn’t matter.

The answers:

Ken Cooper

Good question. The answer is, “It depends”. There are many aspects to consider.

1. Color has value to its owner. The amount of value will vary according to the perception and requirements of the owner.
2. Color has been shown to influence sales. Warm colors are said to sell better than cool, etc.
3. Color can and should be controlled in production environments.
4. “Good enough” color is really good enough in many cases. In others, no.
5. Consumers are influenced by color, yet unaware.
6. The cost of bad color can mean rejected orders, lower sales, etc.
7. There is also a cost when high-end color controls are used and paid for but not needed (when “good enough” is good enough).
8. Color is both objective and subjective. The question is, in a way, like asking: “What is the value of well-tuned music?”

So, yes, color does have value. Entire industries are rely on it. However, color is also a commodity. In general, our world is more colorful than ever these days, and better for it.

Clarification added 16 days ago:

Another interesting question: “What is the liability of poorly reproduced color?”

Robert Dolezal

Accurate representation of color is essential when “look and feel” elements are used to make purchase selections of items like clothing, shoes, paint, etc. and failure to accurately match color may result in higher-than-necessary returns of merchandise, shipping costs, etc. Very slight differences in the color, hue, saturation, and tint of an article of clothing (for instance) may cause the potential customer to forego the purchase.

There is even some empirical data that shows that off-color trademarks introduce doubt about the company–the Eastman Kodak yellow and Fujifilm green logos, for instance. Their business depends on consumer belief in their products’ ability to provide accurate color.

Finally, despite much effort and expense, accurate color rendition remains elusive for subjective reasons: the light in which the printed page is viewed, bounce of color off walls causing apparent off-color appearance, monitor color temperature settings (uniformly set way too high by the factory), CRT, Plasma, and CRT variations, and (of course) the source color provided. As a result, all reproduction of color except by spectral sources is only apparently accurate.

That does not mean that one should give it up as an impossible task.

In my experience, producing heavily-illustrated books, mismatching of color from image to image is much more apparent to consumers than is an overall color shift.

Randy Snavely

Ever been to a meeting when 4 or 5 people from the same company present business cards and each one is a tone or half tone different. Imagine buying uniforms or sneakers and each one is a tone off. Labels on products produced in different plants but placed side by side on a store shelf. Color consistency is critical in the marketplace as studies show off color goods sell at a reduced rate compared to on color goods.

William Cobbs

I think the two answers you recieved earlier were close to the mark. The importance of color is really a function of what it is being used for. I spent many years in the reprographics industry and I can tell you that the importance of color depended very much on the nature of the clients business and the message they were attempting to convey.

If you talked to someone in advertising or product marketing they would absolutely tell you that accurate color representation was critical. That missing a shade or a hue could have a multi million dollar impact on product sales. whereas someone responsible for business communications might not feel the same passion for color accuracy so as long as the overall message was conveyed.

One thing I can attest to is the amount of R & D investment companies like Xerox, Canon, and HP make to insure that they continually improve the output of their color reproduction devices. For companies like them producing accurate color reproductions represents billions of dollars in business opportunity.

Jim McCloskey

Imagine if you went to buy a soda, and the “Coke” cans were orange instead of red. What would you think?

Exactly. Color has immense value to a brand, and it’s not crazy to insist on perfect color matching. Consistency is worth the money.

Luca Ubertini

As a designer, for me “color” is a word that implies so many different arguments an encyclopedia couldn’t fit them. Simplifing it to the bone, if you read “color” as “light” (which essentialy is), colors are the medium you see the reality through.
But we are talking of business here, and business with color is graphic design. So, let’s just talk about 3 points in which color accuracy is critical:

1- color selection
Color is a language, and if you are paying someone to comunicate a message, not reproducing it correctly means obtaining a different message than the one you have paid for. Cheap example: you sell medical insurance, and your business were designed with a sky-blue background, that gives a calm and reliable sensation (i feel safe when the sky is clear). The prints came out to be a bit too dark and green, like a dirty sea (i feel usafe in dirt sea). A quick way to lose potential clients.

2- color balancing
Colors are accurately balanced. It is not a work of art (alone), well color balanced composition is nicer, more desiderable, and quickly spotted. Ruin this balancing work, and your desk product will fall behind others, unnoticed.

3- color consistency
You may have a color, in you logo, in your uniform, or in your mass produced good. Have two should-be-same colors mismatching, and your given perception of quality will fall to ground. Jim and Randy, above, made very good examples of this.

Have a colorfull day.

Clarification added 16 days ago:

in point 2 by telling “it’s not a work of art” I mean it’s a work of science. That’s why color wheels are for

Scott Thomas

I’m going to come in with perhaps one of the more simple answers here. The value for me is the difference between acquiring my business or not.

My company sells compact discs to disc jockeys around the world. We have a few different brands within the company, and the primary differentiator between them (aside from the on-disc content) is color. Each series has an identifying color which helps the DJs find the CDs in low-light conditions.

We work with local digital color printers to create the needed inserts for our products, and over the years we’ve learned that some “get it” and some do not. In our recent corporate move from Denver to the Seattle area, we’ve had to shop for vendors all over again — and the ones that couldn’t match our colors perfectly simply missed out on the sale.

I’ve found over the years that color, especially with small business, can be a major advantage. Competing against larger companies, we stand out because we look GREAT and often more professional than the others. Keeping the color consistent, then, is a big deal to me. If we had a great color look, but wavered on the quality we’d be just another small business trying to “play it big.”

Jeffrey Engel

Your question was about the ramifications of not having accurate colors. It is all relative. First, we know that when people view two completely different things, then people focus on each thing as two separate things to categorize. However, when people are presented two very similar things, with only minor differences, those differences can engender great debate, controversy and comparison. Earlier, someone mentioned having a corporate meeting and people from the same business having business cards that are slightly different colors causing a perception of unprofessionalism. This is one ramification: perception of value. However, at the same time, if these two people were from different departments, and the design of the cards was exactly the same, but the color field was different, this could be a positive perception if the company has introduced this concept as part of its identity and people already know this (ie, the brand already has a strong presence).

However, let’s change things a bit and pretend you’re on a clothing site. I want to buy a BLACK shirt. Problem is, there are different kinds of blacks. Warm blacks, cool blacks, etc. Imagine I’m trying to coordinate a black blazer with black pants. I bet everyone here has had the realization that this can be a huge problem if they don’t match.

This is a huge problem in the online retail environment. Accurate color representation is crucial to keep customers happy and returning to buy your products. If you do not produce accurate color, and think AHEAD of time about color combinations, you may get lots of returned items, but not returned customers.

Don’t make your customers think about how accurate colors are. Let them know they are accurate by showing them accurate color and comparing them to other items that are the same color. HELP them know they are seeing exactly what they will be getting. You will save $$ in the long run because your customers will come back, and you might even get known for your attention to detail.

Clarification added 12 days ago:

BTW, getting known for your attention to detail could even help build your brand by being a characteristic of it. You could own that word in your market space and it could be a deciding factor for many shoppers.

Gary Pool

You can’t control the color of web images. Not only does the environment flavor the color you see but most people don’t even know you can calibrate a monitor let alone do it. When I check an image I have on the web I go to the library where they never calibrate their monitors. I always calibrate my monitors and can’t do otherwise. If you want your web colors to be the same on every monitor you will have to calibrate every monitor they are viewed on.

Alan Bucknam

The real cost is the degradation and loss of value to your brand image. A sloppily-executed piece equals the perception of a sloppy organization. While I don’t think that a majority of consumers would be able to tell you “hey, that’s not the right color”, subconsciously, they will note the difference, and know something is “off”.

Jim Campanell

These answers all make great sense. Except to those that may be color-blind in one way or another. Then, all of your pains to use the proper colors go out the window.

In fact, sometimes use of color (say in graphs or documents, where color is intended to have a specific meaning) is a bad thing, in that you aren’t conveying the intended information to a subset of your target audience.

So to a large majority, your colors may convey exactly what you want. To others, well, not so much. So I wouldn’t attach too much importance to conveying information with colors. For aesthetic purposes, sure, go nuts. But not to convey information.

Séphine Laros

In the business to consumer market, image is more important to keep clients than in the btob market. The visual identity (colors are a part of it) is a good way to build or support you’re image. So look right is important, if you want your clients to come back… In the business to business the service level is more important than the image. But it’s always an combination of emotion (image) and rationality (experienced service/quality).

John Manoogian III

Great question. And instead of a business reason to support color fidelity technology, here’s a more “experiential” post on my love of color tech and specifically, color chips and weird color names: http://blog.jm3.net/2007/05/03/the-power-of-holding-a-color/

Laura Curran

Ask a UPS Marketer. UPS has a trademark on its shade of brown.

Amit Kumar

Accurate color reproduction is important to have the consistency of brand. Any visual inconsistencies are very easy to notice and color being a key part of any visual representation. In print or on website if a completely different color is used it may be done deliberately to catch attention, but if slight variation is there it may amount to being careless and can affect the brand negatively.

Louis D’Esposito

Many good points were made about colors consistency in branding. And good color balance is important to reproduced photography. Flat muddy color in print is a turn off to consumers, so its important to strive to properly prep an ad for print publication to the magazines specifications, and provide high quality proofs to the publication as well. That will give your ad an edge over the competition. Because computer screens are backlit – images tend to pop more and look brighter, so you may have to tweak your banner ad to match your print ad, but I would not sweat it because all screens have different brightness characteristics.

Most importantly we must take into consideration that colors interact with each other and will appear very different when placed upon or next to other colors. This can have a profound effect on photography as well. You may want to check out “The Interaction of Color” by Josef Albers which is available at Amazon.com. It is a short book, about 100 pages but Albers did a great job and I would recommend it to any visual artist no matter what medium they use.

Dave Walker

Accurate colour is very important, but colour can also be very subjective. If you have a difficult colour to describe (I have a pair of ski boots that are greyish purpleish), 5 people can describe the colour 5 different ways. If you ask those 5 people to make “army green”, you will have 5 very different “army greens”. This is one reason why colour correction and balance is so difficult.

One of the methods I have found to be very effective (and it has been tested in the classroom) is to describe a colour in HSV (Hue, Saturation, Value: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HSV_color_space).

Having said that, reproducing a colour accurately is very important, especially in catalogue applications. If you order a brick red shirt, you don’t want to receive a fire-engine red shirt. Also, clients know their product and I have found that if the colours are off, they are not happy. Unhappy clients = no repeat work.

Colour balancing more subjective things like sunsets and skin tones is a bit more craft than science, and there is more leeway in trying to create a mood. However, you will always want clean blacks, whites and greys – it’s a great place to start.

Take the time and if you are unfamiliar with colour reproduction, learn it. Even if you are a designer, and not a “production person” (designers always think that production is beneath them – yeah, right), you need to know how to reproduce colours accurately.

Eric worldwide

No matter what settings you use for a monitor or what hex values, color is subjective to the eye of the viewer.


Razvan Stoica

Well, the answer should be obvious. You aren’t dealing with naive audiences, most of the time – everyone has seen other websites and other prints. What follows is that an informal standard (a set of tests, if you will) exists in every man’s mind as to what constitutes “proper” printing and “proper” web design. Fail to reproduce colors accurately enough (there’s mounds of literature on what is “accurate enough”) and you will have failed one of the tests. The cost to business is your customers will think of you as unprofessional.

Help out a researcher

Adam Dewitz is one of the few printing bloggers out there, and I would have to say that he is one of the best. He posts regularly, on topic, and has been doing it for just about a year which is longer than most blogs make it. One of the things that make it easier, I suppose, is that Adam is doing research on printing. More specifically his thesis is on web to print, a pretty hot topic these days. It has to do with the infrastructure behind getting content from the publisher to the press.

Anyway, Adam is a student at RIT, the flagship institution for printing technology, and is currently working on his thesis. Since this is a heck of a lot of work, RIT considers him to be a full time student.

Unfortunately the folks over at The Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation didn’t agree, and three days into the semester decided to pull his scholarship – one he’d received for the second year in a row. So Adam, being the entreprenurial soul that he is, has mounted a fundraising campaign. He’s asking folks who believe in the value of what he’s doing to contribute.

Think back to the days when you were in school, and trying to finish your studies, plan for your future and have a life and some fun at the same time.

You can donate via paypal (credit card) here

Traceability to Standards – does it matter?

One of the many issues surrounding closed loop color control is the issue of traceability to standards. Some folks seem to place great value on it, and certainly it sounds good. The idea that the accuracy of a device used in production can be quantified relative to a known, presumably â??perfectâ?? source, somehow suggests that device must be more accurate and therefore anything itâ??s used for must somehow turn out better.

But does it?

QuadTech has a pretty sizeable machine shop. We have fully automatic machining centers that boggle my mind when I think about the stuff they can do. We have traditional non-automatic tools as well, and even have the usual manual measurement tools. Like micrometers.

As a mechanical guy, I understand micrometers. You calibrate them using gauge blocks â?? little metal blocks made very accurately to size â?? that are in turn calibrated by someone else, and so on until you get to the Big Cahuna gauge block owned by NIST in Washington. Using this system a few times a year we make sure our micrometers are as accurate as they can be. This is required by our quality procedures, as it is at most competent companies.

The problem is that if you use a micrometer to measure the diameter of a cotton ball, the accuracy of the device relative to the accuracy of the measurement becomes irrelevant. Cotton balls, being pretty squishy, donâ??t need to be measured to .001 inches, they only need to be visually correct â?? assuming anyone anywhere is measuring them at all. But this is where the analogy falls apart because folks definitely are measuring color.

When youâ??re measuring the color of a web flying by at thousands of feet per minute, it doesnâ??t matter if the surfboard on the cover is within .1 DeltaE or .2 DeltaE. Whatâ??s important is that itâ??s good enough for the customer.

Once the job is past make ready, closed loop color control is really just cruise control â?? the target values have been determined, and the system seeks to maintain them, albeit via some sophisticated algorithms in some cases. With that comes measurement and data collection, of course, but thatâ??s for analysis and process improvement, not for control. Now, you could argue that much higher levels of accuracy have value in these measurements because they could signal subtle shifts in color. My answer to that would be to look at a graph of density versus time, and think about how much noise is in that data, and also the accuracy of the other variables needed to make use of the data.

Another way to look at it is to consider when things donâ??t go well. Suppose that for whatever reason the color doesnâ??t pass muster. Is anyone going to contact the manufacturer to check the calibration? Is a detailed trail of documents showing the pedigree of a sensor going to solve the problem?

Not likely, because the reason why the color is wrong isnâ??t because the system made it wrong, itâ??s because either the press cannot hold the color or the color isnâ??t possible to reach given the plates, paper and ink (I was astonished to learn that you can not actually print every color you want to â?? a fault of the way printing works) or the wrong color was set in prepress.

So, does traceability to standards really matter?

Attack of the printing blogs

I have lamented several times here that the printing industry seems rather anti-Internet. Part of what leads me to that opinion is the number of print industry blogs out there. For an industry this big, there just aren’t many. I think I’m the only person employed by a printing company who’s blogging at all about the business.
If not, I’m sure all of us would like to hear from you.

There were four of us, really about 2 and half because neither Joel Friedman nor I have posted a bunch lately, leaving Dr. Joe and Adam Dewitz to do the heavy lifting.

Now there is a new guyDimitri Ploumidis, with PrintColor. He’s at RIT with Adam, and it will be on color management, ICC profiling, soft and hard copy proofing, etc.

Welcome to the party Dimitri!

Control > Measurement

In the closed loop color control world, there is a lot of hay made of one side of the equation, with little to no attention paid to the other. This is really pretty stupid, but like many stupid things it makes sense. It is ironic that the arguably more important part of the control system never really gets explained, or even mentioned.

Everyone is obsessed with the measurement part of things. Are you using a camera, or a sensor? Densitometry, or spectrophotometry? Are you measuring targets (i.e. a color bar) or not (i.e. markless, or “in the work”)? Opinions abound on the veracity of the methods, the claims made by manufacturers, and the ultimate suitability of each solution.

People miss that the best measurements in the world make for great reports, very happy prepress folks and very little else. Certainly nothing that ships out the door as a finished product. It is the control part of things that actually affects all those skids of goodies the customer is paying for, yet no one is talking about how the control part is done. They just assume that if you can measure it you have the numbers and they’re all you need, right?

As I wrote some time ago, the problem is you are controlling ink keys at the start of an ink train. The ink train is like a bureaucracy – you cannot control it, and you can barely predict it. Imagine figuring out exactly how much your blood pressure will rise while renewing your green card a the INS in Chicago and you have some idea of the difficulty involved.Dogpic So knowing with great accuracy what your target blood pressure is doesn’t really help you judge how much medicine to take with you to Chicago, does it? The ability to convert a decent measurement into a good ink key move is just as difficult or more so when you consider what adjacent keys are doing. This is where the fancy measurement tire hits the money-making road, and the actual benefit of color control is created.

The reason why these algorithms are not discussed is simple – they’re all software. There’s no cool lighting, or visible machinery to inspect, just software. It’s easier to show someone a stuffed dog than explain an algorithm.

Another reason why algorithms don’t get much mention is that the press OEM may be doing more of the heavy lifting than you think. It makes sense, as the OEM has far better understanding that most of the controls manufacturers out there, certainly on their own presses. But what this means is that the same color control system is mounted on different presses made by different OEMs, you can end up with different performance.
So, if you are shopping for one of these systems, at some point in the process push the prepress folks out of the room and ask about the control side of the product. It might nor might not change your mind but it will add a lot to your understanding of what your buying, which should always be welcome.

Wild claims – drives me crazy

Ok, so maybe it isn’t a drive but a short putt. Still, you’ll see what I mean.

In my job I’m on the receiving end of a lot of calls and email regarding the industry, products and competitors. A lot of it is rumor, single-sourced tidbits coming from just about anywhere. Of course, it’s the whole of it all with a little analysis that brings the value, not the individual pieces, but I digress.

I get this call from one of our salespeople. He tells me that he’s heard from a customer that they saw a demonstration where one of our competitor’s closed-loop color control system brought color “in spec” (I use quotes because the specs in question are often very subjective) in FIFTY REVOLUTIONS. Very impressive, if it weren’t for the fact that this number has to be off by a factor of at least 10.

Now the purpose of a color control system on a printing press is to remove the need for an actual live human being to manipulate controls on the printing press to make the printed colors (which are produce via four process colors and half-tones) look the way the customer wants, and to do this as fast as possible. After all, every inch of paper that comes off the press with the colors wrong is waste, so reducing make-ready waste is a very big deal in all printing. Naturally, what the colors need to look like is entirely subjective, and is determined by a representative of the printer’s customer. Despite popular belief, printing presses can’t always reproduce every color faithfully, so there is some compromise and fiddling that must be done.

On a large, web fed offset printing press the color is controlled by controlling how much of each process color is fed into the system in each of many areas of the press’s width. This is done with widgets called ink keys, which move in and out to allow less or more ink onto a series of rollers. All of these rollers roll against each other, transferring ink, and smoothing it out until its really thin, and distributed across the width of the roller just so. There are a lot of these rollers – like 20 or more, and the ink is very thick, like tar. This entire mechanism is called an Ink System, and it’s like a bureaucracy: You just can’t get it to move faster than it wants to.

When you add all of this together, the unfortunate truth is that ya just can’t make the ink move that quickly. Depending on how things start out, and what levels of ink are already on the rollers, there are times when it can happen quickly but no controls manufacturer is stupid enough to sell that as the normal situation.

Now I’m not saying this competitor is run by charlatans, we know them to be quite competent but not crooked and there’s no evidence they made the claim. This is simply a misunderstanding. Printing presses are very complicated, depend on a lot of physics to run properly, and the control systems needed to make them run at their best combine the complexity of both.

That’s the problem – a customer misunderstands, and customers talk. Another customer hears from “one of his kind” that a certain product does this or that and they just latch on to it despite what any of the manufacturers say. This is what drives me crazy.

So, if you are a printer looking at buying this equipment, please lean on your vendors for education. We want to help you, and it’s not in our interest for you to learn anything but the truth.