ICC Color Management -- Saving Time And Money
"On a $1,000-per-hour web press, it's almost unimaginable how expensive it is to not match color on the press," says Michael Graff, senior executive vice president at Sandy Alexander Printing in Clifton, NJ.
These days, however, plate remakes due to color issues are down to 20 percent of what they were before, Graff reports. "We've had a perceptible improvement in time of matching proofs, and our makeready time is down considerably."
Repeated rounds of color proofing used to be very costly for Que-Net Media, as well, reveals Brian Gaughen, color quality manager of the Quebecor World subsidiary in Los Angeles. But, recently, "we've taken the Spiegel account from four or five rounds of color down to one or two—with a $90,000 savings in materials alone over two quarters, just from this one account."
These financial and productivity payoffs are among the early benefits of adopting color management based on profile specifications developed by the International Color Consortium (ICC). From photographers to magazine publishers to motion pictures, professionals who deal with color images are increasingly using ICC color management to solve problems of consistency and control that have dogged them for years.
This adoption has accelerated as ICC and its members have refined the specification and crafted solutions for specific implementation difficulties that arose in the marketplace.
"We're in a very aggressive developmental stage right now," notes Michael Rodriguez, technical director at RR Donnelley. "Color management is being used quite widely right now. People are getting into it and discovering what needs to be tweaked to make it work really well. All of the problematic aspects are being identified and developers are working on solutions."
Key Cog in CIM Workflow
Many industry players see effective color management as the key to realizing all the benefits of fully digital workflows, along with the completely computer-automated manufacturing processes print will require to remain competitive in the future.
Today's printer lives in a world of shrinking turnaround times, enormous pressure to cut costs and virtually no margin for errors. It's a world in which plate remakes can eat up the entire profit of a job, and clients just don't want to wait until the fifth try before the color is right.
Going digital has brought the printing industry many opportunities for new efficiencies and speed. But those opportunities came packaged with challenges, particularly when a print job had to be handled by a series of different devices from different manufacturers, each of which interpreted and displayed color in its own way.
"With so many devices involved, the complexity of jobs quadrupled, and there was a lot of finger-pointing," says Graff. "We knew we needed a standard control method."
From the graphic designer's workstation to the scanner, from the preliminary proofs to contract proofs and finally to press output, color needed to be consistent and predictable. But this was much more easily said than done.
The industry's most visible response to the challenge was the International Color Consortium. ICC was created in 1993 by eight industry vendors and has since grown to more than 60 members, including consultants and academic experts, as well as vendor personnel. The goal was to create a mechanism to allow color images to be moved from device to device—among capture, viewing, proofing and printing systems—with consistent, dependable results.
The tangible result of the group's work is the ICC Profile Specification, which is now in version 4.1. But, as Rodriguez puts it, the real task goes beyond specific device profiles. "It has to do with putting standards in place for the efficient implementation of color management," he explains.
The device profile relates the native color space of each device in a workflow to a standardized, independent color space. This enables the data to be imported into the native color space of any other device, regardless of platform or vendor, while maintaining the desired color. The users still have to control all of the devices in the process and communicate the relevant profiles to those undertaking other parts of the workflow to obtain the color required. Many standards being developed by the industry use profiles conforming to the ICC specification as part of that wider specification.
The ICC specification divides color devices into three classifications: input, display and output. For each device class, a series of base algorithmic models are described that perform the transformation between color spaces. These models provide a range of color quality and performance results, which provide different trade-offs in memory footprint, performance and image quality.
ICC profiles allow the input for digital workflows—which is generally captured as RGB data at the very beginning of a job—to remain in RGB throughout the workflow. However, ICC profiles can also be useful in CMYK workflows (where data is transmitted in CMYK) to enable proofing and re-purposing of data.
Que-Net Media has implemented ICC-based color management at 15 prepress facilities, including eight major locations that serve both Quebecor World printing plants and other customers, Gaughen says. "We do 18,000 scans per month," he notes. "We can do 400 to 500 per day with four scanner operators, all because of color management."
Que-Net launched its ICC implementation about three years ago. "It was a hard sell to management back then because it costs $20,000 per facility for hardware, software and training," he recalls. "However, we needed fewer rounds of color because it was more efficient," Gaughen says, citing the Spiegel account and its $90,000 in materials savings over six months as an example.
Incoming images at Que-Net tend to be split evenly between transparencies and digital files. Incoming digital files are usually in some form of RGB color space, but Gaughen says the company converts them all to a consistent format keyed to the Kodak Approval proofing system. "We work with one profile," he reports. "Our benchmark is the Kodak Approval, and we have everything else geared to that."
One result is that the image capture process no longer requires a high skill level. "Before, we had to have our #1 guy on the scanner, and had to rely on the scanner for color corrections," Gaughen says. "Now, we can have five scanner operators. We gain more flexibility, more quality and more efficiency."
RGB to CMYK for Printing
The skill crunch comes late in the process: when RGB is transformed to CMYK for printing. "You still need a very highly skilled person to turn it to CMYK," adds Gaughen. "You still need to know color."
Proofing has also been a critical area. Traditionally, printers and customers have been willing to accept "good enough" proofs for layout checking, proofreading and similar mid-process tasks, but insisted on a top quality proof for final approval before printing. Eliminating industry standard, film-based proofs, complete with halftone dots, has been a big job, particularly when many users felt the ink-jet output devices that were so well-suited to quick, cheap, digital output weren't good enough for contract proofs.
"Color management-assisted proofing is probably the largest success of ICC to date," contends Donnelley's Rodriguez. "In ink-jets especially, it has been a humongous success."
William Fechner, CEO of Advertisers Printing in St. Louis, agrees that ink-jet devices are getting very good. So far, though, his company has relied on high-end systems like Digital Matchprint. Even so, the $100,000-plus price tag for this type of machine creates a strong incentive for ink-jet manufacturers to boost their products to the highest tier of quality.
"In 18 to 24 months we might have very high acceptance of ink-jet proofing," Fechner predicts. "We're also trying to switch over to stochastic screening, and ink-jets are actually a better representation by far for stochastic jobs."
Advertisers Printing has also seen significant savings in the pressroom, according to Fechner. ICC color management, he adds, "worked early on and has continued to work. We're getting much, much better results now than we ever did with film."
LAGraphico, in Los Angeles, followed a fairly atypical growth route when it decided about five years ago to make a major investment in sheetfed offset presses to complement its longstanding prepress business. Today, the company runs two Heidelberg sheetfed presses: a five-color Speedmaster CD 74 with coating and a six-color Speedmaster 102 with coating.
"We have had color control on the presses, with ink presets and full sheet densitometry," explains William Jacot, vice president of manufacturing. "But, as our work became more complex, we were looking for something that would help us control our color even better."
After a lot of trial and error, ICC color management emerged as the solution. "It's not perfect," he says, but adds that it's "now running in about the 90 percent range." The immediate dividends are much shorter makereadies. "Many of our makereadies are now as quick as 15 or 20 minutes, and they average about 30 minutes. That's obviously a big savings," Jacot points out.
ICC itself, having just finished a decade of work, continues to refine its specification and respond to field issues, aiming for continuous improvement.
For information about the ICC, visit www.color.org, contact the secretariat c/o NPES, 1899 Preston White Drive, Reston, VA 20191, phone: (703) 264-7200, or e-mail administrator William K. Smythe at email@example.com.