Commercial Printers on Color Matching Jobs with Digital, Inkjet and Offset Printing Methods
As the silos have broken down across the printing industry and firms no longer see themselves as exclusively lithographic or digital printing operations, the need to mix runs with materials that are produced both through offset and digital means continues to increase. That entails color matching to various degrees, from “pleasing” to “exact,” and any stops in-between.
Turn the clock back 10 or 12 years ago, and the idea of color digital output being within the same ZIP code as traditional ink-on-paper was not widely embraced. The printing quality was admirable, but no one would dare compare it to offset. Fast forward to 2016: While a trained eye can certainly still see the distinction between the two, the differences are no longer so obvious.
Today, color matching is an interesting proposition, as a growing number of shops employ offset, toner-based digital and production inkjet digital workflows. Certain jobs that call for a combination of methods can be challenging when brand colors are involved and/or very specific colors need to be “hit.” With moody substrates providing another variable to the equation, caveats abound.
“To me, the biggest challenge has to do with managing customer expectations,” notes Chris Greene, president of OneTouchPoint Mountain States in Denver. “Buyers are less and less experienced, plus they don’t have a background in offset and digital, or know the different output devices within those disciplines and what they mean. Customers have to understand what is feasible, which is something our sales reps need to be aware of.”
Greene points out that certain jobs will call for an initial shorter digital print run, such as the unveiling of marketing collateral for a customer’s board meeting. The pieces must match the regular offset run, which may be done weeks after the fact. For a general commercial shop like OneTouchPoint Mountain States, this is a frequent occurrence.
“Technology wise, we’re at a point now where it’s easy to [color]match,” he adds. “We have a Xerox iGen 150 digital press, and you have to be pretty savvy to pick out which piece is offset and which piece ran on the iGen. It’s become a selling point for us.”
Digital output devices have certainly stepped up their games, according to Greene. His shop has both the iGen and HP Indigo machines. On the former, he notes, the shop can nail matching close to 90 percent of spot colors through trial and error. Still, the company can also run a fifth color PMS match on the Indigo.
Greene recalls a promo poster the printer did soon after installing its iGen. One side of the poster was done on the iGen using a matte, dry ink, and the reverse side was printed, with the same image, on a KBA sheetfed offset UV press. It was tough to tell which side was printed on which machine, he says.
What can get a printer into trouble, though, is not providing adequate consultation for a customer who opts for a substrate that is not conducive to digital printing, like uncoated sheets. That goes back to customer management, according to Greene.
“There are still a handful of sheets that don’t produce as well digitally as they do on offset,” he says. “Sometimes, you have a client who is very critical in terms of quality, smoothness and consistency, so it’s a piece that has to be perfect. There’s still enough variance in digital output that they’re not all going to be perfect — you get a streak here, a spot there. If it needs to be museum quality and there have to be 500 identical pieces, you shouldn’t be running them on a digital press.”
One shop that dabbles in toner digital, inkjet and conventional offset printing is Documation of Eau Claire, Wis. Dealing with toner, inkjet and conventional ink is really a matter of hitting those numbers, says Martin Aalsma, president and COO.
“Know your limits. Fingerprint, print color gamut/scales on each piece of your equipment, on each stock you use to print,” he advises.
As in the case of OneTouchPoint, a popular color matching issue arises when the client needs samples in advance of the full run, or requires short-run digital output after the primary offset run. In some cases, a recurring job will move over to digital when the job count slips under the level where it’s no longer feasible to run it offset.
When it comes to production inkjet printing, Aalsma points out that deep reds (Pantone 485 or 187) can be tough to match, along with oranges and deep blues. Documation does well with deep blues and greens. For its toner devices, orange can be a real bear to match.
As for hitting the customer-pleasing colors, Aalsma says that science replaces operator skill levels. “Printing by the numbers is the key,” he says. “You have to be able to measure color. It gets you to pleasing color faster.”
One of the more challenging matches Documation handled involved a directory that had, for years, been printed conventionally. “Understanding the variables and the gamut — based on a set of swatch scales we print for each type of stock — our team color matched and transitioned the directory to digital inkjet,” he notes. “This included a spot color.”
Of the company’s growing color management proficiency, Aalsma says, “I credit our great team that took initiative, with assistance from the ink genie.”
The onset of the high-speed production inkjet age has ushered in a whole new way of pricing for the printer and a new way of designing for customers, Aalsma adds. That opens the door for the printer to play the role of consultant and guide clients until they have a firmer grip on the technology’s capabilities and limitations.
Another printer wonders whether his company, and printers in general, has done a sufficient job in letting customers know they have the capability to color match different printing methods within a given project. Paul Hudson, CEO of Salt Lake City-based Hudson Printing, notes his company doesn’t do the high degree of difficulty digital/offset mixture and laments that it is an unflexed muscle. Hudson Printing will print a magazine cover offset, with a digital element, such as an insert card or cover wrap, or an insert that will be polybagged with a printed piece.
Hudson Printing does a fair amount of color matching of digital output from its continuous-feed HP inkjet press and its cut-sheet HP Indigo. HP’s ElectroInk is different than inkjet ink, but Hudson surmises that the base colorants are similar enough to produce a very good color match between the pair.
Hudson points out that his shop may not be able to get the same density on inkjet that it does on the Indigo or on an offset press, but through color management, they’re able to create what he calls a “shared appearance” for commercial work on coated papers.
Even if one color gamut is smaller than the other, as long as there’s gray balance, the printer can arrive at a color that has roughly the same total values. On uncoated papers, Hudson Printing can match the GRACoL uncoated offset spec to well inside of one Delta E.
Hudson Printing is among the minority of printers that are doing commercial work on inkjet web presses rather than books or transactional jobs. Like his contemporaries, Hudson takes great pains to guide clients on what will and won’t work with inkjet from an output quality or cost feasibility standpoint.
“We’re very honest about where we think it might look a little different than offset,” Hudson says. “We are also honest about the advantages of introducing variable content into a project. Hopefully, those benefits outweigh the negatives of not being quite an exact match to offset. The people who get it, get it. People who understand inkjet will rave about it because we’re very good at doing color on inkjet. But if your only point of comparison is offset, depending on the paper, you may be disappointed today. But, it is getting better.”
Hudson Printing recently produced a calendar with the cover done on the HP Indigo and the body courtesy of inkjet, which was matched well. However, the customer made a mistake with the inside pages, which needed to be reprinted. The results were still amazing, with a consistent color bar on all of the pages.
It seems that the pivotal element to color printing, like expectations, is all about managing color.
“We think we can do a pretty good job, through color management,” Hudson notes. “We can create a nice, shared appearance. Being in control and color managing to a smaller gamut standard give us the ability to make the appearance similar, if not perfectly matching. To me, that’s the key component.” PI