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Managing color for profit

Nov 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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Great Western Industries (GWI) (Dallas) has come a long way since its inception in 1992. Founded as a sheetfed printing, converting and fulfillment services company, GWI has spent the past 11 years diversifying its product offering. Today it is a provider of high-end cartons, plastics, point-of-sale materials, trading and game cards, and fine papers. The company also is known for a reflective-paper technology, GemKote, which covers all the colors in the color gamut.

GWI occupies a 250,000-sq.-ft. plant that houses a fully integrated printing, finishing, packaging and fulfillment operation. Most plastic/vinyl and foilboard printing is done on 40-inch, six-color Komori presses with interstation UV curing.

In addition to providing customers with a one-stop shop for all their graphic-communications needs, GWI boasts another competitive advantage: its color-management workflow. Using this workflow, the company has been able to give customers a near 100 percent guarantee of color output from start to finish.

Pushing color management

Many credit GWI's recent successes to the leadership of Brian Mason, the company's executive chairman who also became the CEO this past June. Mason has a heavy background in the prepress industry. He is best known for founding The LTC Group (Irving, TX), a global digital-media firm he grew to multiple locations before New York-based Big Flower Press acquired it in 1995. (It has since become the digital prepress division of advertising-services giant Vertis, Inc. [Baltimore].)

Mason joined GWI in 2002. At the time, GWI was using different brands and generations of color-measurement technology. “We found that we were obtaining different readings from different devices,” relays Mason. “We were making decisions based on erroneous data.”

GWI also produces a great deal of work using its GemKote product. Because traditional measuring devices can't accurately measure reflective surfaces, all of GWI's color management on jobs using GemKote was done visually. According to Mason, this was a major catalyst for GWI's drive for state-of-the-art color management.

“The customer should never have to question our ability to get great process-color reproduction the first time, and every time after,” the exec explains. “We developed a process for controlling color with every service and product we offer.”

The tools

GWI's color-management system is simple. Mason says it only requires purchasing the right technology, then training and empowering employees to manage and control each process. He notes employees were enthusiastic about implementing a sound color-management process at GWI. “If there were some doubters up front, once they realized the quality benefits, they became believers,” the exec says. “These tools help them be more successful at their craft. I don't know anyone who doesn't prefer to look good at the end of a project.”

The company began by standardizing with X-Rite's (Grandville, MI) hardware and software across the entire production process. “Since different brands of measuring devices use different mathematical calculations, we decided to consolidate all devices under one brand for consistency's sake. X-Rite was the only manufacturer that offered all the devices we needed.”

GWI ultimately invested in multiple units of the following:

  • The MA68II multi-angle spectrophotometer, for controlling color on metallic and non-metallic reflectants for plastic products. The three-way spectrophotometer was originally created for X-Rite's automotive client sector, but because it allows evaluation of changes exhibited in various color finishes, GWI opted to use it in its color-management workflow.

    A remote-operation feature allows measurement data to be stored, printed or downloaded to certain color-management software. By providing empirical measurement data to visual standards, press operators were able to use the spectrophotometer to control color for jobs using GemKote.

  • The 530 handheld spectrodensitometer, for reading dots on printing plates. The 530 is said to combine the capabilities of a high-end densitometer, colorimeter and spectrophotometer. Because the 530 measures color targets as narrow as 1.6 mm — most spectrophotometers reportedly measure a 4-mm spot size — GWI gets accurate algorithmic data to make any necessary adjustments to the plate prior to production. The device's portability and accuracy allows it to be used against a variety of substrates and operating conditions, according to Mason. At GWI, it is typically used in the prepress and quality-management departments.

  • The DTP41 SeriesII AutoScan spectrophotometer, which measures an entire row of printed test targets in about 20 seconds. A single scan reportedly verifies the quality of a digital or conventional proofing system. GWI calibrates all of its presses in two or three scans. With five or six scans, the DTP41 can create a full color-management profile. GWI also uses the DTP41UV, which adds a UV filter for measuring reflective materials and fluorescing properties, to measure its foil-board products.

  • The QA-Master II software, a color-quality-assurance application, to organize and control color data. Once the software captures the measurements, GWI can break the information down into several areas, including dot area and contrast ratios, customer-specific standards, CIELAB calculations, and other spectral and density information. “We use all of this data to pinpoint and correct color problems before we go to print,” explains Mason. The software stores data by customer and job, for future use on repeat work.

Getting a repeatable process

Once the investment was made, the challenge was to put it all together into a repeatable process.

Training was an important factor in putting together a comprehensive — and effective — color-management workflow. GWI worked with X-Rite's applications and training team to better understand how the technology could be used in different areas for better quality control. A customized training schedule was built into GWI's employee-training program.

“It was critical for us to not only understand how we use the technology on the job, but why,” observes Tom Baker, director of prepress for GWI. “This has enabled our team to strengthen our processes, resulting in a more efficient overall operation.”

Currently, customer-provided prepress files are normally accompanied by a digital halftone proof. Using a 530 handheld device, GWI employees check solid density, dot gain and laminate LCH/AB values for consistency to GRACoL standards. If solid PMS colors are specified, GWI's color manager also performs LCH/AB on an ink drawdown for consistency. Then, staff applies plate-exposure curves to match ink-on-substrate dot-gain characteristics between the proof and printing sheets.

GWI has designated one color-management device as its master calibration device. Twice each month, all other devices are calibrated to the master. X-Rite calibrates GWI's master control to its own on a quarterly basis. Explains Mason, “This helps ensure consistent results within our building and to outside measurement, as well.”

Best color-management yet

The past year has been spent refining the color-management workflow, by adding more unique plate curves to accommodate differences in subject matter. “We have one packaging client that makes a variety of food products. We found that subtle adjustments to the curves based on the specific subject matter made for a better match to supplied proofs,” explains Mason.

The graphic-arts company has also been using the X-Rite color-management software to make press-match quality proofs using seven-color inkjet proofs. Though not without its difficulties, GWI reportedly now makes inkjet proofs that are closer to printed results than contract halftone proofs and intends to convert to inkjet next year.

“In the past, there were too many missing pieces of the technology puzzle to really use an integrated color-management system in a daily workflow,” Mason observes. “We are now able to maintain the tightest possible process-control standards, from dot-gain profiling and plate- and proof-variation control to troubleshooting press-match issues quickly and conveniently.”

Mason acknowledges that GWI can still occasionally experience a press-match issue — “but when we do, we can diagnose the cause and implement a solution on the spot, without long periods of downtime. Customers are almost as impressed when you solve a difficult press-match problem within a half-hour as they are when the first sheet up is a perfect match.”

Program results

GWI claims its color-management technology investment has been one of its best company decisions to date. GWI has reportedly cut its makereadies by 50 percent in the past six months. Other improvements include reductions in paper and ink waste, and higher overall printing quality. Combined, these results have led to a higher level of service, and the graphic-arts service provider is more confident today in its ability to exceed customer expectations.

“We've come a long way in our approach to customer satisfaction,” notes Mason. “We can make guarantees to the customer today that we could not confidently make two years ago.”

In the past, GWI would supply visual samples to its consumer-packaging customers that represented the darkest and lightest acceptable variation from run to run. But relying on visual samples left a lot of room for interpretation, says Mason, “not to mention dryback and fading issues.” GWI now provides visual samples along with spectro analysis, defining the acceptable delta of variation and then working to narrow that delta over time. “We are dealing with hard measurements instead of ‘I think it looks OK, how about you?’” says the exec.

Customer-approval time for each job has therefore shrunk considerably. GWI's customer-approval rate was four to five sheets just three months ago; today it is 1.8. Any plate modifications that are required during production take less than 30 minutes.

“Less time on customer approvals means repeat business for GWI,” explains Mason. “Our customers don't have time to inspect sheet after sheet after sheet. They want it right on the first or second sheet. We can deliver that today.”

‘Immeasurable’ ROI

Going a step further, the graphic-arts company uses its QA-Master software to formulate reports on customers' color-measurement data. Analysis is performed on all pull sheets, then displayed in a graphical format for easy feedback to customers and employees. Management then compares color variation within a given press run, and on reprint items, from run to run.

Having this information on hand has helped both printer and clients to eliminate misunderstandings about job specifics or confusion on the timetable. “Working together with our clients, we set ever-tighter process-management goals for reducing color variation,” Mason explains. “The software takes the subjectivity out of the analysis and lets us rely on empirical data.

“When you add it all up, from reduced makereadies to acquiring new customers and winning repeat business, the ROI is almost immeasurable. We are always looking for ways to differentiate ourselves from the competition. Customers are often willing to pay a little more for superior color reproduction and consistency. That's proof to us that we're doing the right thing and that our color-management investment was the right one.”