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Embracing New Proofing Technology

Proofing tools have come a long way in a short period of time.

If you don’t think things have changed much in the proofing arena in the past year, you are only partly right. Often, it’s the little things that make dramatic differences in the way people do business, and our industry has been moving slowly but steadily toward embracing technology that has been around for a while but underutilized. In addition, manufacturers have been steadily improving all aspects of the proofing environment-from cheaper, better spectrophotometers to advances in lighting technology, new inks for proofing devices, and more user-friendly software.

Education also has played a role in this trend, and although there are still skeptics, the trend toward color-managed proofing systems is strong. Yes, there are still plenty of shops still "eyeballing" projects rather than relying upon spectral readings, but there is a strong upsurge in companies that now do standards-based proofing.

But the best is yet to come. Several newly released technologies promise a huge improvement in color proofing in 2009, and I think you’ll see this equate to fewer comebacks in the long run as well as more satisfied customers overall.

The right light
It may be the most overlooked and/or taken-for-granted aspect to the proofing process: lighting conditions.

One consistent problem with color proofing is consistent, accurate repeatable light-viewing conditions. We have certainly come a long way in addressing the problem by developing industry standards for light viewing booths. However, there is still some inconsistency in the industry over which standards to use. And there are still a few issues that standards cannot resolve. One is the fact that even the best light sources available have more light fluctuation (spikes) than would be ideal, even if they do meet standards. The fluorescent lights often used simply have inherent characteristics that are less than perfect.

But new LED lighting technology promises to address those problems in rather dramatic fashion. Both Just Normlicht and GTi have been working on lighting booths that use LED technologies to provide more even and consistent lighting than fluorescent bulbs are capable of. In addition, the bulbs are more environmentally friendly since standard lighting booth bulbs use toxic metals like mercury.

Most interesting though, is the fact that manufacturers will be able to dial different lighting conditions from the same light source. In other words, it will be possible to simulate daylight, fluorescent light, incandescent light, and so on from the same bulbs in the same light booth. That option will be particularly of interest to print buyers and designers, because they’ll be able to view their proofs under a variety of conditions with one light source. Several companies are said to be currently beta testing this type of light booth or have one on the drawing board.

In addition, some companies are also now selling booths with integrated spectrophotometers to track any potential degradation or fluctuation in the viewing booths. There are also new booths out with space for up to two 30-inch LCD monitors so that shops and their clients can view a softproof, hard proof, and output sheet at the same time.

The Just Color Communicator2 is equipped with a USB communication interface that enables the software to adjust the brightness of the viewing cabinet and to match the image displayed on the monitor with that in the viewing cabinet automatically. For the first time, the image on the monitor and the printout can be compared directly under standardized light. Everything occurs automatically: The user simply puts the measuring device on the monitor and then into the viewing cabinet. The result is that a soft proof on the monitor and the proof in the viewing cabinet look exactly the same.

New inks, new gamuts
Manufacturers of inkjet printers used in proofing, mostly from HP, Epson, and Canon, have been competing fiercely to outdo one another when it comes to formulating inks that provide consistent and pure color that will not fade. These are ideal qualities for proofing inks. Part of the problem is that creating an ideal ink for proofing is not necessarily the same as creating an ink for outdoor colorfastness or long-term durability. For example, it’s critical that inks used for proofs dry as quickly as possible and have minimal color shift in the short term. In most cases, if the color shifts six months from now, it’s not a big deal. But if there is a dramatic color shift in the first few hours, that’s a major problem.

Achieving a high degree of color consistency over ink batches is also important for proofing inks. You don’t want to have to start from scratch every time you load a new batch of ink.

To achieve this consistency, manufacturers have worked hard to develop inks that are uniquely suited for proofing devices, and that means inks have changed pretty dramatically in the last few years, as have the print heads for these machines. But the bottom line is that print devices that are designed for proofing tend to have a clear advantage compared to machines designed for more general print production. In fact, some machines are not well suited at all for proofing simply because they are designed with other production requirements in mind.

Also of note: Manufacturers have presented to the proofing market a number of machines designed for very high color gamut output. There are pluses and minuses here. Some print providers like to have the option of achieving a higher color gamut so they can show more accurate spot colors or maximize saturation. If you are producing proofs to show what a printed piece will look like within a CMYK color space, however, the extra gamut these machines are capable of producing could be overkill. There may be more than a little temptation to produce a good-looking proof even if your final output won’t be able to match it. Salesmen and designers might want to "sell the proof" rather than the final product-which can lead to unhappy customers.

These new machines will offer a relatively huge color gamut and meet the needs of printers who are printing in a wide-gamut space. At the same time, they’ll be able to produce proofs that are simply unmatchable on a CMYK printing device. If these devices are used to show critical spot colors that will be printed as a separate ink, they will be able to produce much more accurate proofs for that application. For packaging printers, these expanded gamut devices can allow proofing in areas that were difficult if not impossible to create digitally in the past. But if it turns out that critical spot color is going to wind up converted to CMYK and won’t match the proof at all, it could spell trouble. Such a piece of proofing equipment is a bit like giving someone super powers-those powers have to be used wisely.

I should point out that the use of multiple inks (6, 8, 10, and even 12 colors in some printers) is also designed to provide more even, accurate, and consistent ink lay down and to help eliminate problems like banding in gradients. The point, that increased color gamut is not always a good thing when it comes to creating proofs for the CMYK color space, is still an important one to consider.

Proofing by the numbers
Another important trend has been the addition of built-in spectrophotometers in inkjet proofing devices like the HP z2100 series (other companies also are rumored to be readying similar devices). In addition, all of the major makers of proofing devices have been working with calibration-device manufacturers like X-Rite to put together systems for making calibrating and profiling devices simpler, if not automatic.

The essential thought behind all of this is that producing an accurate proof is one thing, but having some way of verifying the accuracy of the output is an important part of communicating color. Print providers are replacing the traditional "sign off" on the proof with a digital signature indicating that the proof is within a specific range of accuracy.

What it means is we are no longer eyeballing the proof and injecting the rather subjective human input, but instead are reading proof data with objective, accurate and repeatable electronic devices. If the proof is off, the device will know it.

As in all aspects of proofing, there is a margin for error. The truth is, even the very best most accurate and most expensive devices for reading color will have some degree of variance. But these devices allow printers, buyers, and designers to agree up front what tolerances are acceptable, and to demonstrate objectively that the final proof is within those tolerances.

These "digital color spies" are also handy for keeping print devices calibrated and consistent, and the best part is, for many of these machines, the calibration process is automated.

Device link software and G7 color proofs
Software and workflow tools that support device-link profiles allow finer control over color conversions-especially CMYK-to-CMYK transformations. This can be used for color conversion, total area coverage control, and reducing ink costs by replacing CMY ink with cheaper black ink.

Kodak Colorflow, Alwan ICC Color processor, GMG Colorproof, and EFI Colorproof XF are all examples of software that can be integrated with a variety of RIPs to create and utilize device-link profiles (a special kind of ICC profile that directly converts the color space of the input device into the color space of the output device). Many color-management experts I’ve talked to strongly recommend RIPS that support device link profiles. These days, that’s not hard to find.

SpotOn! Press LLC, meanwhile, has released one of the first technologies to institute process control in the pressroom using the G7 methodology. SpotOn! is recognized by IdeAlliance as an official G7 Support Tool. It gives the user a visual dashboard of press conditions by attaching a small target to each job, simplifying the data-gathering and evaluation process. The SpotOn! technology displays how a press or proofer performs to the ISO 12647 standard for inks and overprints, along with the G7 Neutral Print Density Curve and gray balance. Users run an i1 scanning spectrophotometer over the color control strip and SpotOn! automatically generates easy-to-read graphs and tables arranged in a "dashboard"’ style layout. The technology filters jobs by job number, job name, customer, press, operator, paper name, paper grade, paper finish, run length, and custom data.

Using this filtered data, trend charts are generated that show variance from the ISO standard, Neutral Print Density Curve deviation, gray balance deviation, Density to DeltaE trends, and other data. The trend graphs indicate how close to the ISO 12647-2 standard the press is performing and what solid ink density is necessary to keep the inks and overprints within specification. The software also trends data over time so that printers can see how different papers, inks, and other print supplies affect print performance.

Across the marketplace
Other new developments in proofing and related technologies have also cropped up across the marketplace in the past few months. Here are just a few examples:

* For large production houses, Colorgate has released a Quality Assurance Module (QAM) for ProductionServer5, to integrate quality-assurance technology throughout the shop for high-end large-format printing. The system makes it possible to make reliable statements on color consistency in digital printing as well, allowing users to monitor any fluctuations in quality and provides a built-in assistant with a direct connection to the system’s MDS technology (Media Device Synchronization) for recalibration.

* EFI has launched a new option for its EFI Fiery XF and EFI Colorproof XF RIP products. The XFlow option is a powerful prepress and production workflow tool to process digital documents easily, automatically, and accurately on wide- and superwide-format devices. The new option for XF is designed to give professionals in large-format inkjet production and graphic arts a PDF-based workflow tool for consistent, accurate printing with Fiery XF and Colorproof XF. XFlow is a pre-flight automation tool with built-in management tools to automate the color control process. EFI also has launched Colorproof eXpress, an entry- level proofing product targeted at creative professionals, graphic designers, small agencies, prepress houses, and print buyers; it’s designed to output accurate proofs from a single RIP/inkjet printer configuration.

* Chromix, the color-management company, has put its new product called Maxwell through some thorough beta testing for nearly a year and now is making it available. Essentially, the system loads and analyzes all color data using an online data base. It also retains your profiles and allows access to customers you allow to see them and use them. It keeps track of when you last calibrated and can even let you know when you have gone too long without calibrating.

* GMG Connect is a software solution that permits simple integration of GMG products in Prinergy, EskoArtwork, and Dalim workflow environments. The software is additionally of great benefit for efficient remote proofing, enabling cross-platform checking of print job statuses via the Internet, for example.

* Oris continues its "reiterative" approach to color proofing with the release of Press Matcher, a new version of the company’s Press Matcher Pro product line designed for the digital and wide-format market (the previous Pro version was designed for high-yield production presses like the Xeikon, iGen, and Nexpress). This is a server-based color control system designed to control all of the machines with the same basic data, using device-link profiles. The CGS approach to color proofing is to repeat the process of evaluating test print files until the profile created is as precise as possible; this methodology eliminates the subjective factor of using human input to "tweak" color, relying instead on mathematical algorithms to bring the different color capabilities of each output device into one common color gamut. By using this method, even shops with limited color expertise can get all of their machines in sync.

* Onyx Graphics has just released Version 7.2 for its workflow software packages-Onyx ProductionHouse, PosterShop, and RIPCenter. The new features include added support for HP Professional Pantone emulation technology on select HP printers and spot-color mapping algorithms for more accurate matches of out-of-gamut Pantone spot colors. Integrated RAL and HKS color libraries are now standard and the new Pantone Goe uncoated colors have been added to the existing color-matching library.

* X-Rite Optical Brightener Correction Solution (OBC) is designed for use in conjunction with X-Rite’s i1iSis family of automatic spectral chart readers, and ProfileMaker or MonacoProfiler profiling software. The solution allows users to compensate for color shifts in custom ICC output profiles caused by optical brightening agents (OBAs) in papers and other printing substrates.

* Earlier this year, SAi introduced its Color Solutions suite, which includes ColorExcel color-verification software as well as a Sprint spectrophotometer and Snap color-profiling guides. The ColorExcel color-verification software compares colors to determine the Delta E difference between them; it can compare color samples printed with various devices on differing media. The program analyzes information from a spectrophotometer and offers a "pass" or "fail" rating for color consistency, ensuring that corporate colors match. Additionally, user-created master files enable users to determine color tolerances to set custom standards. The ColorExcel master files work with any printer; the program has a built-in calibration system that works with standard spectrophotometers, and works as a standalone or integrated system.

* Datacolor’s Spyder3Print is a print-calibration solution that includes software and a Datacolor 1005 spectrocolorimeter combination for consistent and accurate color as well as black-and-white output. The SpyderGuide enables users to create custom profiles with standard color or black-and-white targets.

* The latest version of Caldera’s wide-format RIP solution 7.55, features: integration of Pantone libraries for spot-color support, including Pantone Goe and Pantone Color; and integration of the RAL color library for spot color.

* Earlier this year, Wasatch upgraded its ColorRIP product to 16-bit color, designed to maintain color data and produce output that’s faithful to the original source image. Color subtleties and gradients in raster images are maintained with detail, while vector gradients remain perfectly smooth at any output size.

Putting it all together
You get the idea: Color proofing has come a long way, and the latest technology is considerably better than what was available a few short years ago. Machines are faster, inks are better, and calibration equipment and software are much more user-friendly. That doesn’t mean you need to throw away everything you are using now and buy everything new. But, if your current proofing system is slow, inaccurate, or otherwise not meeting your needs, it may be time to consider an upgrade.

Prepress veteran Stephen Beals writes from his home in Seneca Falls, New York.

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