Shade and color variation in textile printing – why it’s important and what you can do about it

Printing soft furnishings

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:

“New techniques to eliminate in-lot shade variation when printing textiles with inkjet.”

Or visit the PrintFlat website: https://www.printflat.com/

Further reading:

  1. What causes banding in inkjet? (And the smart software solution to fix it.)
  2. Streaks and Banding: Measuring macro uniformity in the context of optimization processes for inkjet printing

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  1. Digitally printed textiles are estimated to be between 2% – 5% of the total printed textiles market. Estimated at $146.5 billion in 2018 by Grand View Research

What’s the difference between PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-4?

PDFX-1 PDFX-4

Which PDF/X should I use?

Somebody asked me recently what the difference is between PDF/X-1a (first published in 2001) and PDF/X-4 (published in 2010). I thought this might also be interesting to a wider audience.

Both are ISO standards that deliberately restrict some aspects of what you can put into a PDF file in order to make them more reliable for delivery of jobs for professional print. But the two standards address different needs/desires:

PDF/X-1a content must all have been transformed into CMYK (optionally plus spots) already, so it puts all of the responsibility for correct separation and transparency handling onto the creation side. When it hits Harlequin, all the RIP can do is to lock in the correct overprint settings and (optionally) pre-flight the intended print output condition, as encapsulated in the output intent.

On the other hand, PDF/X-4 supports quite a few things that PDF/X-1a does not, including:

  • Device-independent color spaces
  • Live PDF transparency
  • Optional content (layers)

That moves a lot more of the responsibility downstream into the RIP, because it can carry unseparated colors and transparency.

Back when the earlier PDF/X standards were designed transparency handling was a bit inconsistent between RIPs, and color management was an inaccessible black art to many print service providers, which is why PDF/X-1a was popular with many printers. That’s not been the case for a decade now, so PDF/X-4 will work just fine.

In other words, the choice is more down to where the participants in the exchange want the responsibility to sit than to anything technical any more.

In addition, PDF/X-4 is much more easily transitioned between different presses, and even between completely different print technologies, such as moving a job from offset or flexo to a digital press. And it can also be used much more easily for digital delivery alongside using it for print. For many people that’s enough to push the balance firmly in favour of PDF/X-4.

For further reading about PDF documents and standards:

  1. Full Speed Ahead: How to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press
  2. PDF Processing Steps – the next evolution in handling technical marks

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software
Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey is Global Graphics’ Chief Technology Officer. He’s currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT and is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a new guide offering advice to anyone with  a stake in variable data printing including graphic designers, print buyers, composition developers and users.

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How do I choose the right PC specification for my digital press workflow?

When planning the implementation of your first or next digital press, the PC specification you choose to run your software workflow will play an important part in the data rates you will be able to achieve. Assuming you are not bottlenecked by disk drive performance due to requiring intermediate disk accesses, you can generally expect data rates to rise with the computational power of your PC.

It might therefore make sense to review the PassMark scores for a range of CPUs within your budget and make your choice based on that, but this alone won’t be enough to tell you whether you’ll be able to drive your printer at full rated speed. Similarly, you may already have an existing PC system in mind but need to know if it will be powerful enough for your new requirements.

Ideally, you could set up an evaluation system to run some typical print jobs to get a definitive answer, but this could be costly and labor-intensive, especially if this is your first digital press.

It’s for this reason we created Direct Benchmark™: an analysis tool that exercises Harlequin Direct™, our ultra-high data rate RIPping and screening solution, with your choice of press configuration and print jobs, stepping through a tuning cycle to obtain a series of data rates and line speeds that can be achieved.

There are two main ways Direct Benchmark can help you: firstly, if you have an existing PC system to run on, you can install Direct Benchmark and gather your own results; secondly, you could base your decision on a database of Direct Benchmark results we are gathering here at Global Graphics Software from running a variety of jobs on a range of PC specifications.

Running Direct Benchmark yourself

Whilst a real Harlequin Direct system would be connected to printhead electronics and driving your press directly, the Harlequin Direct invoked by Direct Benchmark doesn’t require this connection. This makes it very quick and easy to install and start gathering performance numbers. The screenshot below shows the settings you can use to reflect your printer configuration and define the print jobs to benchmark.

During benchmarking, you will be presented with a screen showing statistics for each run and a real-time graph of data rate at the bottom, and then you will be able to export the results at the end. If you would like to see Direct Benchmark in action, you can view a short demo here:

Using the Direct Benchmark database

If you aren’t in a position to run Direct Benchmark yourself, we are in the process of gathering results for a range of press configurations and print jobs, running on a variety of PC hardware specifications. This is being conducted in conjunction with Proactive Technologies, who are providing access to some of the machines we’re using. Whilst it is too early to draw any conclusions or share our results at this stage, if you have some typical print jobs and a press configuration in mind, please get in touch with me, ian.bolton@globalgraphics.com, because we may be able to generate the results for you.

For more information about Direct, please visit globalgraphics.com/direct

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About the author:

Ian Bolton, Product Manager, Direct
Ian Bolton, Product Manager – Direct

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.

 

Future-proofing your digital press to cope with rising data rates

When we hear the phrase “big data”, we’re meant to think of extremely large data sets that are too complex to process in traditional ways. But, in the context of the next generation of digital presses, you’d be forgiven for thinking it refers to the ultra-high data rates required to drive them.

For example, consider a typical narrow-web label press: 13 inches (330mm) wide, 4 colors, 600x600dpi, running at 230 fpm (70m/min). This requires 0.9 GB/s of raster data to drive it at its rated speed.

Assuming next year’s press adds three more colors (Orange, Green and White) and is upgraded to 1200x1200dpi and expected to run a little faster at 330 fpm (100m/min), the required data rate will jump to 8.6 GB/s: almost a factor of ten increase!

Already this is a data rate far in excess of what the fastest solid-state drives can manage, so what hope is there for a traditional disk-based workflow when moving to 20 inches wide, duplex or 200m/min? Clearly, any part of the workflow involving a disk drive is going to become a bottleneck.

Ditch the disk with Direct
Ditch the disk. Rather than write intermediate raster files to disk between RIPping and screening, or between screening and the printhead electronics, everything takes place in memory.

This was one of the reasons behind the creation of Direct™, the integrated software pipeline we announced at the end of April. Rather than write intermediate raster files to disk between RIPping and screening, or between screening and the printhead electronics, everything takes place in memory.

There’s more to future-proofing your press than eliminating comparatively slow disk accesses, however. You’ll need a system that’s scalable and built from the fastest components, which is why Harlequin Direct™ is composed from a configurable number of Harlequin Host Renderer™ and ScreenPro™ instances working in parallel to make the best of the most powerful desktop PCs available.

When it comes to adding new colors or supporting duplex, the scalability extends to multiple Harlequin Directs across multiple PCs, one per print bar.

When it comes to adding new colors or supporting duplex, the scalability extends to multiple Harlequin Directs across multiple PCs, one per printbar.

An added advantage of this approach is that each printbar need not use the same resolution or drop-count etc. For example, you might wish to use a lower resolution and disable color management for white or varnish. Our Press Operator Controller user interface is supplied to manage your configuration, along with submitting and controlling your print jobs.

Our Press Operator Controller user interface is supplied to manage your configuration, along with submitting and controlling your print jobs.

The beauty of a software-only solution like Direct is that once you have built it into your workflow, you are free to upgrade your PCs over time for greater performance without any further software integration expense. A Direct-based system will evolve as your needs evolve, making it the ideal choice for future-proofing your next digital press.

For more information about Direct, please visit globalgraphics.com/direct.

To be the first to receive our blog posts, news updates and product news why not subscribe to our monthly newsletter? Subscribe here

Ian Bolton, Product Manager, Direct
Ian Bolton, Product Manager, Direct

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.

What’s new in Harlequin Version 12?

Yesterday saw the launch of the latest version of the Harlequin RIP®. It’s the first major PDF RIP for production printing to offer compatibility with the PDF 2.0 standard and is packed with features for high-speed digital printing, including Advanced Inkjet Screens™ that improve output quality, further additions for labels and packaging applications, and new features for wide format and envelope printing.

Check out the video, where Global Graphics CTO Martin Bailey introduces Version 12 and highlights compatibility with PDF 2.0, dynamic overlays and In-RIP bar code generation:

You’ll also find more information on our website: https://www.globalgraphics.com/globalgraphics-software/products/harlequin-host-renderer-sdk