We’re now counting down to Fespa 2023 – this time being held in Munich, 23 – 26 May.
We know obtaining the best color output from your digital press is a complex process and that’s why we’ve created SmartMedia™; it’s a suite of components that make it easy for press operators who are not color experts to get great color from their press. It reproduces spot colors accurately and easily using extended gamut or 7-color printing, which is particularly important for print applications such as textiles and packaging where reproducing color accurately from the original artwork is key. It’s available with SmartDFE™, the full software and hardware stack that adds a print subsystem to the fully automated smart factory.
So come along to Hall B2-Stand B55 for your personal demo. We’ll be exhibiting alongside our sister company, Meteor Inkjet, on the Hybrid Software Group stand.
Twenty years ago it was common to find people RIPping jobs for production print with no color management. Indeed, many print service providers (PSPs), magazine publishers etc actively avoided it as being “too complicated” and “unpredictable”. You might read that as an indictment of their vendors for a lack of investment either in developing good product or in educating their users. Alternatively it might simply show that the printing companies were quite understandably risk-averse because it could be expensive if the client didn’t like the resulting color, especially in an environment like display advertising in a major magazine, or packaging for a major brand.
A decade after that more and more people (on both the buying and the printing sides) grasped the value of color management in print and were using it, but there was still a significant minority that had not managed to make the time to understand it. This is borne out by the uproar when Adobe ‘forced’ people to use color management by changing from using CMYK for the alternate color space for Pantone spots in Creative Cloud to using Lab1, and by the continuing demand for support for PDF/X‑1a, where everything has already been converted to press colorants before the PDF is made.
Now we’re in 2022, and the need for color management is accepted almost universally in print sectors that use an ink set based on CMYK. I phrased it that way because some of the industrial print space (textiles, ceramics, laminate flooring etc) have historically used many inks, but usually job-specific rather than CMYK. Some of those markets will continue to use job-specific ink sets as they transition to digital, while others would find a switch to digital extremely challenging without a concurrent switch to a color managed workflow2.
So, why am I writing this now?
It’s because I still talk to people who tell me that they don’t need to do any color management inside the RIP when processing PDF; they RIP it first and then apply color management.
I’m sorry, that just won’t work reliably and with maximum quality.
There was a time, back in the days when PDF 1.3 was the latest and greatest (which pretty much means last millennium) when a PSP could get away with this approach, because their customers were happy to define all their colors in CMYK and spots. As soon as they used anything else, including Lab or colors tagged with ICC profiles, they’d have to have some fallback to generate CMYK values from that data. It doesn’t need a full color management module (CMM), but they’d need something.
And then along came PDF 1.4, adding transparency. And transparency requires that you can convert colors between color spaces, potentially multiple times. That’s because PDF transparency includes the concept of transparency groups. Each group is one or more graphics that are blended with any graphics that are behind them in the design.
The blending depends on a number of parameters, the most obvious of which are the blend mode (Overlay, Multiply, Hard Light etc), and the blend color space. The result of rendering all graphics that are underneath the transparency group will be transformed from whatever space the RIP holds it in (often the CMYK for the output device) into the blending color space. The result of rendering all the graphics inside the transparency group itself is also transformed into the blending color space. Then the blend mode is applied, to do the actual transparency calculation, and the result is transformed back into whatever color space the RIP needs it to be in for further processing (again, often the CMYK of the output device). The blending color space is quite often sRGB, because that’s the default in a number of popular design applications.
So correct rendering of the transparency will often require color transforms between the color space in which graphics are specified (such as, maybe, an image tagged with an ECI RGB ICC profile), the blend color space (most commonly sRGB) and the output device color space (usually a specific CMYK). That’s just not possible without applying a pretty complete color management process during RIPping. And if you try to take short-cuts you’ll usually get a visually different result, sometimes very different.
Even so, back in the early 2000s a PSP could avoid the need to upgrade software, process control and operator training by insisting that their customers supplied files in a format such as PDF/X-1a, which prohibited device-independent colors and transparency. But making a PDF/X-1a file from a rich design in a creative application requires a number of compromises affecting graphical elements that were originally specified in device independent colors, or which use transparency. Both risk degrading the quality of the final piece.
These days insisting on PDF/X-1a to avoid the need for color management in the RIP is no longer widely acceptable to customers3. And therefore neither is color managing after the RIPping is complete.
Your check-list is therefore:
Don’t use PDF/X-1a. In fact don’t use PDF/X-3 either. Both are two decades old. PDF/X-3 may allow device-independent colors, but both of them force the creation tool to flatten transparency, discard layers and a bunch of other potentially damaging procedures. It’s over ten years since PDF/X-4 was published, and that’s currently the best balance between capability and getting too far ahead of common usage in print workflows.
If you’re a print service provider, converter, industrial printing manufacturer or digital press vendor, don’t cut corners; use a workflow that applies the color management in or before the RIP4. It shouldn’t be hard; all the leading RIP vendors (and therefore leading press vendors, because they license technology from the RIP vendors) supply suitable systems.
Notes 1 – If a spot color will be emulated using process inks on press, then using a CMYK alternate gives predictable color numbers in those inks, but is less good at producing a predictable color appearance. Using Lab for the alternate color space often leads to unpredictable color numbers on each separation, but a more predictable color appearance on the print. There is a benefit to both models, but when it comes to paying for printing the color appearance usually wins!
2 – if run-lengths on digital are long enough to justify warehousing a variety of inks, and changings inks on inkjet presses, it can be reasonable to stay with job-specific ink sets, especially if it’s difficult or expensive to make usable inks for all of CMY and K. As an example, the best Magenta ink for inkjet printing on ceramics is made with gold. Any move to using digital presses for short-run printing more or less requires a fixed ink set to allow for quick job changes without excessive waste, and that typically means CMYK+.
3 – and I say that as the chair of the committees that developed PDF/X for many years, first in CGATS and then in ISO.
4 – There are situations where applying color management in a color server before the RIP can be useful, especially when multiple presses will be used in parallel. This approach brings its own challenges around handling spot colors in the job that will be emulated on press, but can produce excellent results when used with care.
Whenever we start working with a company who’s interested in using Harlequin Core™ for their Digital Front End (DFE), there are always three technical topics under discussion: speed, quality and capabilities. Speed and quality are often very quick discussions; much of the time they’ve approached us because they’re already convinced that Harlequin can do what they need. In the remaining cases we tend to jointly agree that the best way for them to be convinced is for them to take a copy of Harlequin Core and to run their own tests. There’s nothing quite like trying something on your own systems to give yourself confidence in the results.
So that leaves capabilities.
If the company already sells a DFE using a different core RIP they will almost always want to at least match, and usually to extend, the functionality of their existing solution when they switch to Harlequin. And if they’re building their first DFE they usually have a clear idea of what their target market will need.
At that stage we start by ensuring that we all understand that Harlequin Core can deliver rasters in whatever format is required (color channels, interleaving, resolution, bit depth, halftoning) and then cover color management pretty quickly (yes, Harlequin uses ICC profiles, including v4 and DeviceLink; yes, you can chain multiple profiles in arbitrary sequences, etc).
Then we usually come on to a series of questions that boil down to handling spot colors:
Most spot separations in jobs will be emulated on my digital press; can I adjust that emulation?
Can I make sure that the emulation works well with ICC profiles for different substrates?
Can I include special device colorants, such as White and Silver inks in that emulation?
Can I alias one spot separation name to another?
Can I make technical separations, like cut and fold lines, completely disappear, without knocking out if somebody upstream didn’t set them to overprint?
Alternatively, can I extract technical separations as vector graphics to drive a cutter/plotter with?
Since the answer to all of those is ‘yes’ we can then move on to areas where the vendor is looking for a unique capability …
But I’ve always been slightly disappointed that we don’t get to talk more about some of the interesting corners of spot handling in Harlequin. So I created a video to walk through some examples. Take a look, and I’d welcome your comments and questions!
With fewer design limitations, a faster turnaround, no minimum run length and higher margins (not to mention reduced use of power and water, and of pollution), it’s not surprising that the digitally printed textile market is growing.1 Inkjet has certainly made textile design and printing much more flexible than screen printing – and that goes for everybody involved, from the designer through the printing company, to the buyer.
But printing textiles on inkjet doesn’t come without its challenges: as a software provider focusing on print quality issues, we often hear from print service providers who can only digitally print two thirds of the jobs they receive because they would not be paid for the quality they could achieve on the others.
Shade or color variation is a common problem. It’s not new in digital printing (it’s always been an issue for screen-printed and dyed textiles as well) and is usually managed by providing a shade band, which printer operators refer to, to check allowable color variations between pieces.
But, unlike screen-printing or dyeing, the color variation on an inkjet press can be visible over a small distance, just a few centimeters, and this results in visible bands across the output. Banding describes features that tend to be 1 – 10 cm across and they’re often caused by variation of inkjet pressure or voltage differences within the head, which typically results in a frown or smile shape. We also see a certain amount of manufacturing variation between heads so that one may print lighter or darker than the head next to it in a print bar. Some types of heads can also wear in use, which can result in less regular banding that can change over time. This means that large areas which should be flat color may not be.
When such a variation occurs it can greatly complicate a lot of post-print steps, especially if you need to put more than one piece of textile together, either in sewing or use (such as a pair of curtains). If that’s the case, then a significant difference may be unacceptable and your printing rejected by your buyer. Ultimately this leads to print service providers rejecting jobs, because they know their digital press can’t handle printing those tricky flat tints or smooth tones.
What can you do about it? The first thing many companies do to try to overcome this banding is to adjust the voltage to the inkjet head, but this is often time-consuming and expensive because it requires an expert technician. A better alternative is to make the correction in software, which is a more cost-effective and faster solution. It means it can be automated and can act at a much finer granularity, so printing is more accurate. There’s no need to mess with controls that could damage the press, and printing companies themselves can make corrections without the vendor sending a technician on-site.
Our solution at Global Graphics Software for improving banding is PrintFlat™. It corrects tonality to hide banding based on measurements from the press. It adjusts every nozzle separately and doesn’t need a specialist engineer to make press adjustments. PrintFlat can be integrated into different digital front ends, using a variety of RIPs, including Caldera and Colorgate and, not to mention, our own Harlequin RIP®.
Over the years of working with many press manufacturers we’ve discovered that many technical issues and solutions are common across different sectors, including transactional, wide-format, commercial, labels and packaging, and industrial, including ceramics, wall coverings, flooring and of course textiles. That means that we already have years of experience in correcting for banding. Using PrintFlat in your press means print service providers can now take on those jobs they would normally reject.
To learn more about how to eliminate shade and color variation when printing on an inkjet press, listen to Global Graphics Software’s CTO Martin Bailey’s talk for FESPA 2020:
There are many costs that can impact your profitability when running a production digital press, from power consumption to the substrate you’re printing on. One of the most variable costs is ink consumption, which often varies from job to job and therefore can be difficult to estimate. As you might expect, the content to be printed is the key determining factor, but you also need to consider the resolution, screening method, drop sizes and choice of colorants. This can bring quite a challenge for a press shop when quoting for a job, especially if the client is open to hearing a range of options.
Even with a static job that might be suitable for a test print run to get a cost that can be multiplied for the number of copies, it’s still not ideal to have to spend any time or other resources using the actual press. It’s much better to be able to get an accurate ink cost estimate away from the press, which is where our Job Cost Estimator comes in. It’s available as part of our Direct™ software range as well as our Harlequin Host Renderer™ and ScreenPro™ products. It uses the same setup that drives your printer, calculating a very accurate estimate of the ink cost for a specific job. Self-contained, it doesn’t require any connection to your printer, which makes it ideal when you want to give a job cost indication away from the print shop.
The screenshot above shows a calculation performed using our Job Cost Estimator for a 1200×1200 dpi version of our two-page Direct brochure, screened with 4-drop pearl. Under Cost Per Page, this is the average cost per page per colorant based on the two pages that were analyzed, with a final row showing the total (All). This is then multiplied by the total pages and the number of copies to get the Cost Per Job for each row.
Obviously, no costs can be determined without knowing how much the inks cost per liter, so you can set these within the application. Similarly, you will need to configure your printhead(s) to specify how many picoliters of ink are used per drop size.
As you can see from the left image above, we have assigned a different printhead for Black called Budget_PrintHead, which will have fewer picoliters per drop size than the Default_PrintHead shown on the right, to represent a possible response to a hypothetical jump in the price of black ink.
The Job Cost Estimator has been designed to be extensible, so it would be possible in future to incorporate other costs, such as paper, or factor in ink used periodically for nozzle refreshing, for example.
If you’d like to know more about the Job Cost Estimator, watch my short demonstration here:
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About the author:
Ian has over 15 years’ experience in industry as a software engineer focusing on high performance. With a passion for problem-solving, Ian’s role as product manager for the Direct range gives him the opportunity to work with printer OEMs and break down any new technology barriers that may be preventing them from reaching their digital printer’s full potential.
Recently my wife came home from a local sewing shop proudly waving a large piece of material, which turned out to be a “swatch book” for quilting fabrics. She now has it pinned up on the wall of her hobby room.
It made me wonder how many separations or spot colors I’d ever seen in a single job myself … ignoring jobs specifically designed as swatches.
I think my personal experience probably tops out at around 18 colors, which was for a design guide for a fuel company’s forecourts after a major redesign of their branding. It was a bit like a US banknote: lots of colors, but most of them green!
But I do occasionally hear about cases where a print company or converter, especially in packaging, is looking to buy a new digital press. I’m told it’s common for them to impose together all of their most challenging jobs on the grounds that if the new press (or rather, the DFE on the new press) can handle that, then they can be confident that it’ll handle any of the jobs they receive individually. Of course, if you gang together multiple unrelated jobs, each of which uses multiple spot colors, then you can end up with quite a few different ones on the whole sheet.
“Why does this matter?” I hear you ask.
It would be easy to assume that a request for a spot color in the incoming PDF file for a job is very ephemeral; that it’s immediately converted into an appropriate set of process colors to emulate that spot on the press. Several years ago, in the time of PostScript, and for PDF prior to version 1.4, you could do that. But the advent of live transparency in PDF made things a bit harder. If you naïvely transform spots to process builds as soon as you see them, and if the spot colored object is involved in any transparency blending, then you’ll get a result that looks very different to the same job being printed on a press that actually has an ink for that spot color. In other words, prints from your digital press might not match a print from a flexo press, which is definitely not a good place to be!
So in practice, the RIP needs to retain the spot as a spot until all of the transparency blending and composition has been done, and can only merge it into the process separations afterwards. And that goes for all of the spots in the job, however many of them there are.
Although I was a bit dismissive of swatches above, those are also important. Who would want to buy a wide format printer, or a printer for textiles, or even for packaging or labels, if you can’t provide swatches to your customers and to their designers?
All of this really came into focus for me because, until recently, the Harlequin RIP could only manage 250 spots per page. That sounds a lot, but wasn’t enough for some of our customers. In response to their requests we’ve just delivered a new revision to our OEM partners that can handle a little over 8000 spots per page. I’m hoping that will be enough for a while!
If you decide to take that as a challenge, I’d love to see what you print with it!