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Check Your Print: New Tools and Methods for Reducing Makeready and Printing Better

by Ron Ellis and Marc Levine

Why Measure

G7 has helped to raise awareness of the benefits of monitoring and controling the print process. As Kenneth Druker stated, "What get's measured gets managed." Measuring in the pressroom matters. Through measurement we can see if we are matching our printing targets. Even more important, through measurement we can see if our print conditions are changing. Changing print conditions means greater difficulty hitting color - and maintaining profit. Regular monitoring of the print process can help you achieve color more consistently and with lower cost. Changing print conditions can be managed. Sometimes adjustments are mechanical and can be made by the press operator. Sometimes, however, changes are due to variation in materials, environment, or other factors, In this case we need to change something else such as a plate curve. Either way, printers need to identify print conditions and quickly determine what changed so that they can effectively manage their print. Ideally, management should routinely review measurement summary reports so that they can better understand the cost and variability of their printing.

At the most fundamental level this can all be done by hand, provided that the operator knows the benchmark print conditions and has the time to measure the required control patches by hand, and then type the values into a spreadsheet, and then manually evaluate and take corrective action. By taking measurements, they can then determine which part of the print condition has deviated. This assumes the operators are trained and proficient in measurement and process control, which is a big assumption in many plants.

Things fall apart

These basic fundamentals of process control make sense, but very few plants actually use it regularly. In many cases, it is the effort required by manual measurement and management that makes it all fall apart.  Process control is dependent on educated operators, and especially dependent on the operators having the time and discipline to measure and react.  People are busy and plants have fewer staff than ever. Because of this, manually-driven process control tends to be the first thing people stop doing when they are under pressure and busy. Simply put: when people are busy, they donÕt measure. Measuring data is expensive- but not measuring can be more expensive due to remakes, make goods, and lost customers due to poor quality.

New solutions for automated process control

While scanning systems have been around for a long time, the reporting and feedback provided to operators, quality assurance, and management has left much to be desired. Some solutions display info but do not alert the operator when key metrics are out of spec. Nor do they provide much in the way of trending and reporting for ongoing cost analysis. In effect there is no flashing red light to alert the operator or management when things are not going right. Most plants just keep printing until the waste becomes so great that something has to be done, or until a print buyer demands it.

One thing that has changed in the past year is the arrival of several new quality control products, focused on measurement, management, and automation. These products take measurement data and automatically track and report on print performance. Based on the results, these solutions can create live reports as well as trending information. Some of these products can even create correction curves to help the print process stay in control. Using quality measurements, these solutions can create correction curves, even without having to run a dedicated press run. While all of these can use manual devices such as i1 or other prepress spectrophotometers they really work best when connected to the automated press scanners. The three products are Alwan Print Standardizer, X-Rite PrintOptimizer, and MeasureColor.

Alwan Print Standardizer

The most fully automated of these products is Alwan PrintStandardizer. Alwan PrintStandardizer can record scans, discard out of spec information, and automatically generate alerts and new corrected plate curves when the process has changed. Print Standardizer does not need any dedicated press runs to get started. It can work with your existing plate curves and press conditions and start reporting in minutes once installed.

PrintStandardizer consists of three components. PrintStandardizer itself sits on a Mac and watches input folders from the pressroom scanners in multiple locations for measurement data. PrintStandardizer analyzes the data, produces trending information, and prepares plate curves when needed. The second component is PrintStandardizer Viewer, and it presents live feedback on the current scan. The third component is Print Verifier which works as a data capture and verification component for customers that do not have an automated measurement device.

PrintStandardizer provides sheet reports, press run reports and overall trending for press operations. A single copy of the software can monitor several presses (digital and conventional) in different locations. If you wish to create correction curves based on the reports, the software can automatically export them, giving you the option to correct your workflow automatically through Alwan CMYK Optimizer, or to manually import them and update your workflow. For those interested in trying PrintStandardizer, Alwan supplies an easy to install application called FileCollector. File Collector collects the scan files so they can be loaded later for trending and demonstration purposes. They allow you to run your press and see what type of reports and information Alwan will provide. Print Standardizer can be implemented into a pressroom in minutes and can provide real time feedback to everyone involved to ensure that the output device is hitting the Targeted Reference Condition.  If the sheet fails, it will instruct the operator on what they need to change to get it to the target (density direction change, dot gain adjustment, gray balance move.) It is designed to promote a conversation between the pressroom and prepress to ensure all components are ÒnormalÓ . Based on this information, press and plateroom work as a team to decide to use Print Standardizer to update the plate curves (or Tone Reproduction Curve for a digital press) to bring the shop back into alignment.

 

X-Rite PressOptimizer

Another software product with powerful features is X-RiteÕs PrintCheck and PressOptimizer. Using PressOptimizer you first tune the ink and overprint values using a wizard that follows standard ISO procedures, and then generate either ISO or G7 curve information. PressOptimizer walks you step by step through the calibration procedure from ink qualification to curve generation. Once completed you can record the print condition. From this point on PrintCheck can be used to monitor the press. While it supports devices such as the i1 and other X-rite desktop spectrophotometers it is designed to use pressside scanning spectrophotometers such as X-riteÕs EZ-Trax and Intellitrax. When the operator starts a job PrintCheck will watch the scans and compile them, giving job compliance information, and tracking trending across the job. PrintCheck can print job detailed job reports, and the report information can be customized to show data relevant to the userÕs needs. 

If the jobs are failing and problematic, PressOptimizer also provides the user the ability to regenerate the curves. By loading information back into the press calibration module, PressOptimizer can create new curves to pull the press back to the original print condition. Again, it is important to make sure this is not a press or materials issue but if needed, curves can be easily regenerated based on the color bar, without requiring a full calibration run. Unlike any other automated product in this category PressOptimizer can create curves based on the NPDC values rather than simply returning them to a prior state. This means new curves can be made that take paper and material changes into consideration.

MeasureColor

The final product is MeasureColor. Like the two previous products, MeasureColor watches press spectrophotometers and records data. Unlike the two previous products, MeasureColor is really a scalable process control platform. The client-server architecture works equally well with one press in one location, or multiple presses in a single location, or multiple presses in multiple locations. This means that MeasureColor can serve common control standards to multiple printers and/or locations and track and trend print quality for the entire production process. Like the other two products, MeasureColor can analyze print quality data from multiple jobs and create new curves for use in the workflow. However, MeasureColor offers some key differences. One big difference is that MeasureColor directly interfaces with the measurement device. While the above tools Òbolt-onÓ to the existing measurement software, MeasureColor replaces them. In other words, MeasureColor does not pick up export files from other software, it directly interfaces with all popular measurement devices (X-Rite, Techkon, hand-helds and scanners), providing a common interface through which print operators can manage quality.

Another key feature of MeasureColor is its ability to track and control both process and spot colors. Both Alwan PrintStandardizer and PressOptimizer only deal with CMYK colors. MeasureColor provides the user with dedicated spot color control tools, allowing the operator to measure and manage quality from references in the centralized database. If you are in the packaging market this is a critical capability.

MeasureColor also provides many kinds of reporting. For the operator, the MeasureColor client offers both numeric feedback and control recommendations for how to correct the problem. For the quality-control manager or owner, MeasureColor offers both basic and extended quality reports to help better understand print cost and quality, and how to impove them. For printers looking to control quality on a larger scale, or for those working with consumer brands and spot colors, MeasureColor is worth a look.

Process based manufacturing

Historically, print has been as much a craft as it has been a manufacturing process. Today, the market is different. Expectations of efficiency and low cost have changed the way print is purchased. Printers are finding that the only way to compete is to invest in solutions that reduce the cost of their print. As a result, the market is seeing a new breed of control solutions that help printers do exactly that. A look at these relatively new products shows a glimpse of the future. By measuring constantly and automatically, printing plants will know how well they are doing, and will be able to make corrections to maintain standardized print conditions easily and efficiently. These new products will change the cost and quality of color, showing printers the way to improve their businesses and the print industry.

 

Marc Levine is VP of Business Development at Colormanagement.com. He brings years of experience with complex color management integration. Prior to his current position he was product manager for Monaco Profiler and other products at X-rite.



 Ron Ellis is a Boston-based consultant specializing in color management, worflow integration, and press calibration. He has provided installation and training services to dealers, manufacturers, and content creators since 1986. An IDEAlliance G7 Expert and chair of the GRACoL Committee, Ron has performed over 100 G7 calibrations. In addition to calibrating pressrooms for customers such as Pantone, Ron also specializes in creating internal working spaces for brands and agencies that allow them to work more efficiently with vendors, saving both time and money. Ron is published frequently in industry magazines, and has produced training materials for numerous printing industry vendors and publishers. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at www.ronellisconsulting.com.



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