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Getting to color faster

Sep 1, 2002 12:00 AM


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With shrinking run lengths becoming the norm, a fast press makeready is key to making money on a job. And technology, say vendors, is key to making presses ready fast.

New presses come with a bevy of bells and whistles, from on-press automation to press-console software that allows job data to be electronically transmitted between prepress and the pressroom, à la the CIP3 ideal. With the added help of CTP and color-management devices, these capabilities have minimized makeready time while making press operators more efficient.

FASTER MAKEREADY, LESS WASTE

When Rapid Impressions (Broadview, IL) went shopping for a new press a few years ago, its average run length was 2,500 impressions. “We were a makeready shop — the faster we got to printing, the more money we could claim for ourselves,” explains Jim Kosowski, vice president of the $4 million commercial printer. “So we added a lot of automation to our new press.”

In 1999, Rapid installed a MAN Roland (Westmont, IL) 700 press with semi-automated plate-loading and the Advanced PECOM (Process Electronic Control, Organization and Management) press operating and networking system. The Roland 700 features automated format setting, ink/roller blanket washers and remote-control inking. Automatic washup and sheet-size and thickness changes are also offered.

In addition to the new press, Rapid fully upgraded its prepress department, implementing a digital workflow and a Creo (Bedford, MA) Trendsetter Spectrum platesetter. But with all these developments occurring in a three-month period, the printer experienced employee resistance to the new technology.

To demonstrate the new press' makeready advantages, Kosowski had Rapid's best press operator do a manual makeready and bring the press up to running speed. Kosowski then “operated” the Roland 700 with the company's least-skilled press operator doing only what the exec told him to do. The result: “Using the technology, I could make ready faster and with less waste than our best press operator could without it,” Kosowski reports.

CREDIT GOES TO CONSOLE

The exec credits the Advanced PECOM system for Rapid's reduced makeready times (now about 10 minutes per color). The system offers centralized control and automated makeready capabilities, a scanning densitometer, electronic job-ticket creation and offline ink-key setting from prepress data via the JobPilot module, and networking capabilities to certain management information systems (MIS) (originally the Optimus and Logic systems). The JobPilot module also enables operators to preset more than 100 automated functions on their MAN Roland equipment.

MAN Roland recently received GATF's (Sewickley, PA) InterTech Technology Award for JobPilot and the PressMonitor module. PressMonitor offers a remote and real-time window into the press, both during and after production.

“The automated-makeready features of the press eliminate the need for inputting subjective ink-key settings, manually adjusting for changes in size and caliper of paper, and more,” Kosowski wrote in the InterTech Award nomination letter to GATF about JobPilot and PressMonitor.

UP TO COLOR IN 200 SHEETS

Patsons Media Group (Sunnyvale, CA) is particularly fond of two extra features it opted for on the six-color, 29-inch Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) CD 74 press it installed last October: the ImageControl online spectrophotometer and the PrepressInterface. The two work together to automatically set ink fountains and achieve fast color balance. Ink profiles are sent from PrepressInterface to the press; ImageControl scans the sheet and maintains color throughout the run, initiating ink-key adjustments on the fly.

According to Joe Dellamano, plant manager of the $6.5-million shop, the spectrophotometer and prepress interface are especially useful during setup. “The PrepressInterface sends ink-key profiles right to press. With ImageControl, we save data from the previous run. It stores settings in the press, so an exact reprint comes right up to color,” he says. (For more information on this printer's pressroom setup, see “Halfsize presses: One size fits many,” August 2002, p. 52.)

According to James Mauro, product manager of Heidelberg's Prinect press products, ImageControl users are consistently saving a couple hundred sheets with each makeready. “Without ImageControl, the process is much more subjective and can take a lot more time,” the exec notes.

At Graph Expo, Heidelberg will introduce AxisControl, a spectrophotometric color-measurement system that can be integrated into the CP2000 Center console. AxisControl differs from ImageControl in that it only reads color bars, instead of the entire press sheet. “Think of AxisControl as the little brother to ImageControl,” Mauro says. “It's integrated in the console, so it saves space, is easy to operate and is affordably priced — even on the smaller Speedmaster presses.”

Beyond standalone products that assist with color control, Heidelberg offers its customers a color-management service: Print Color Management (PCM). Participating printers are taken through a five-step, hands-on program that includes a thorough evaluation of current workflows; standardizing production conditions and color definitions; calibrating all the required output devices, including proofers and imagesetters; optimizing color presetting profiles in the press' control system; and creating ICC color profiles. The service reportedly enables printers to reduce makeready times, cut waste and improve color fidelity.

SEQUENCED MAKEREADY

Komori's (Rolling Meadows, IL) latest press, the Lithrone S40 (LS40), is built on the Lithrone 40 platform, but includes faster and more comprehensive automation, which reportedly helps speed makeready. (The LS40 also can be equipped with digital-imaging heads. This model, the S40D, Komori's “Project-D,” is the only 40-inch DI press on the market.) Introduced at Ipex this spring and slated for show at Graph Expo, the LS40 boasts a new automatic plate changer that can reportedly change six plates in three minutes. The function previously took closer to six minutes, according to assistant product manager Doug Schardt. “It may not seem like much, but in a short makeready, that's a relatively large percentage of time,” he notes.

The press does not feed any sheets until it is operating at mid-speed, about 7,000 sph. This “hi-start” feature reportedly ensures the press is already at a steady print speed before ink hits paper, which Schardt says enables stable color more quickly.

The LS40 comes equipped with Komori's Color Connection software suite, which includes the Bladesetter ink-key tool that converts digital CIP3/4 data to Komori's ink-key profiles; the KHS high-speed inking system, designed to get presses to a standard density through the presetting of ink keys (and subsequent de-inking after a job is printed); and the K-ColorProfiler, which works with PDC-S (print-density controller with spectrophotometry) scanning spectrodensitometer for color management.

“We've sequenced all these makeready steps, and that's getting you to color quicker,” Schardt explains. “You are not waiting for the operator to say, ‘OK, we're done with the blanket wash, now we can get the press-sheet size.’ All these steps are tied together.”

MAKING IT ‘A LITTLE EASIER’

Quality Graphics Center (Roselle, NJ) is a 50-person commercial shop that primarily produces high-end work on two 40-inch, six-color presses from Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses (Lincolnshire, IL). Both presses can be set up automatically from a PressLink console, which is connected to a Mitsubishi Prepress CIP4 Control (PPC) server. The PPC server transmits plate information from the printer's Agfa (Ridgefield Park, NJ) Galileo platesetter to PressLink, enabling operators to preset ink keys, ink-fountain roller speeds, dampening systems and press speed.

Plant manager Ed Sadler says the first pulled sheet is typically 90 percent up to color; the second pull is usually 97 percent up to color. “If it isn't a critical job, we can be up and running in 200 to 250 press sheets,” he says.

The printer recently enlisted a consultant to help establish a formal color-management program. According to Sadler, this will include the calibration of presses, proofers, a desktop scanner and the prepress department's Macs.

“It will make everything fall into place a little easier,” remarks Sadler. “If the customer approves the first proof without another go around, and if we match our proof to the press sheet, that will save us money all the way through the process.”

At Graph Expo, Mitsubishi plans to introduce the new Diamond 2000 six-color sheetfed press. The 29-inch press has a running speed of 16,000 sph and is said to support fast makereadies and closed-loop color control. Demonstrations at the show will reportedly highlight the digital link to prepress operations via the Mitsubishi ColorLink CIP3 Server.

John Santie, product manager for sheetfed presses, says printers are highly interested in the front-end options the company has to offer, namely because they help reduce waste and improve makeready time. “Our sales staff quotes every press with all the front-end features,” he says. “It's becoming more and more popular.”

AUTOMATION INCREASES PRODUCTIVITY

“Most of our presses are older models, so they don't have much technology other than the press console,” says Kyle Weaver, manager of print production at Eva-Tone, Inc. (Clearwater, FL), a $45 million, 450-employee commercial printer that does fulfillment and mailing, and also offers various multimedia services.

Eva-Tone installed a 10-color KBA (Williston, VT) Rapida 105 with perforating unit about a year ago. The press was purchased specifically for its on-press perfing and scoring capability, but all types of commercial printing jobs are run on it. Eva-Tone also operates a five-color Komori Lithrone 540; a two-color, 40-inch Komori perfector; and a five-color Heidelberg GTO.

Weaver says the automation on the Rapida, as well as the ability to transfer job data from the platesetter to press, “are a huge increase in production.” The printer opted for “just about every feature you can put on the press,” according to Weaver, including automatic blanket and back-cylinder washers, automated plate hanging and an ink-line system that automatically feeds the ink. (KBA offers other features on its presses, such as automated pile logistics.) Statistically, makeready of a five-color job on one of Eva-Tone's older presses would take about 70 minutes for one side of the sheet. On the Rapida, makeready on the same job is performed in about 45 minutes.

CIP3 AND CTP

Bob McKinney, director of marketing for KBA, adds that KBA's CIPLink workstation is “one of the key factors” in the makeready process. The workstation integrates the digital workflow by automatically inputting ink-key settings from the same job-profile data used in platesetting. (An optional Densitronic S colorimetric and densitometric control system can help operators maintain color.)

While CIPLink is optional, “there's hardly a client today that does not opt for the unit,” McKinney says.

Weaver says Eva-Tone's press operators were excited when informed of the Rapida's CIP3 capability. “They do not have to set actual ink keys by hand, so there's a time savings there,” he explains. “It also gives our operators an exact starting point for almost every job.” He notes operators setting up a 10-plate job used to take about two to three minutes to set each plate. Now, all 10 plates can be hung in less than six minutes — and with operator variability taken out of the equation, there are reportedly minimal registration issues.

“CIP3 is the idea that we ought to be able to transmit information through departments electronically,” explains Komori's Schardt. “[To do that,] machines have to be able to talk to each other, to have language commonality. We do have CTP devices that can talk to presses, and that's the first step.”

CTP does provide efficiencies in getting up to color. The modern press is generally able to accept prepress data from the platesetter for automated ink-key setting, but printers also commend CTP for its quality improvements, which translate to less makeready time. Quality Graphics' Sadler reports its Galileo installation four years ago made the most impact on the pressroom. He says there are much fewer makeovers because of holes in the screen or the type.

“Vacuum frame was horrendous,” Sadler recalls. “If we took one plate, a grid and a piece of film, and burned the film six times on a plate, we would not get a single line to match up on the grid.”

OBJECTIVELY MEASURING COLOR

In 2000, MAN Roland released the job definition format (JDF) with Agfa, Heidelberg and Adobe (San Jose, CA). Hal Stratton, manager of MAN Roland's Graphic Training Center, says MAN Roland's goal is to show JDF as a working product with Printcafe's (Pittsburgh) MIS in the near future: Once the systems are able to generate a JDF job ticket, data will reportedly only need to be entered once, at the beginning of the request-for-quote phase on the Printcafe Internet interface, and presses will be set up from that information. Stratton says JDF should be a working product at beta sites in the next six months.

CIP4 talk aside, no matter how fast printers get up to color, the issue then becomes how to maintain it. “To get the most out of this [technology], you have to look at the whole system,” says Schardt of Komori. “It doesn't make sense to buy a pre-inking system to get you to color quickly if you don't have something to keep you at color.”

That's where color-monitoring devices come in. X-Rite (Grandville, MI), GretagMacbeth (New Windsor, NY), Beta International (Carlstadt, NJ) and Tobias Associates (Warminster, PA) are some of the main providers of spectrophotometers, densitometers and colorimeters (see “About color measurement,” p. 32). Many press manufacturers have partnered with color-device vendors to provide automated measurement systems for use with their presses.

Komori's PDC-S hardware, provided by X-Rite, applies numbers to colors, “so you can tell how much ink you're putting on a sheet and that it is the right shade,” Schardt explains. “It takes the subjectivity out of color.”

Komori's color-measurement software allows operators to run color-bar strips on print jobs and take color readings over time. The resulting average, which Schardt describes as a movie of the press rather than a snapshot of how a press is running on a single day, allows a proofer to stay within the color gamut of the press.

CALIBRATING PROOFERS, PRESSES

“Our goal is to make ready any job and be up to color within 40 minutes and 300 sheets maximum,” relates Kent Zwingelberg, president of Sprint Denver (Denver), a $15 million high-end commercial printer affiliated with web and packaging printer Sprint Press (Ft. Worth, TX). “We're getting close — we're probably 80 percent there.”

Sprint Denver operates all Komori sheetfed presses; two of its 40-inch presses have full automation. “The proofing system might be capable of producing 10,000 colors, while the press can only produce 4,000. The K-Color Profiler won't let the proofer proof beyond what the press is capable of producing. It speeds up makeready, and allows you to get accurate color much quicker,” Zwingelberg explains. (For more information on this printer, see “Fullsize press trends,” May 2001, p. 28.)

Calibrating proofers to presses is one of several things printers can do to control color. After getting little advice from industry peers on the issue of color management, Rapid Impressions created its own color-management system. Every quarter, the printer runs the PrintConsult feature on its Roland 700, which evaluates the process printing on gray balance, density and dot gain. A standard density is established, and Rapid's Epson 9000 and 10000 and Creo Trendsetter Spectrum are calibrated to those numbers. Rapid uses Kodak Polychrome Graphics (Norwalk, CT) Matchprints.

Other printers emphasize printing by the numbers. “We do a lot of pharmaceutical work, which is really [color] critical,” says Quality Graphics' Sadler. “We have standards to go by with every job, and we submit those standards with the job.” Quality Graphics uses an Autosmart scanning densitometer from Graphics Microsystems Inc. (Sunnyvale, CA) for its color control.

The Grover, NC, division of AGI Media, which does mostly four-color booklet, folder and package printing for CDs, DVDs and other media, runs four Heidelberg sheetfed presses, all Speedmaster 74's or 102s. AGI equipped each press with X-Rite's Auto-Tracking Spectrophotometer (ATS) System. The system automatically scans a sheet, often in a few seconds, and gives readings on the colors.

COLOR MANAGEMENT BY THE NUMBERS

The ATS allows the facility to run strictly by standard density. Because of this policy and AGI's quality relationship with customers, operations manager Bob Nickel says about 26 percent to 31 percent of the printer's work is done without proofs.

The Grover division of AGI has an average run length of about 14,000 to 18,000 impressions; operators pull at least two sheets every thousand impressions, per company policy. Presses are reportedly ready for production on the third pull. “On the first pull, we get the register,” explains Nickel. “We get [job] data through the presses' CIP3 feature, and that preprograms our fountains. After corrections on the second pull, we're up to color on standard four-over-four work.”

Nickel admits the printer doesn't wash up its presses a lot — “it's just four over four, hanging eight plates and running the press.” Even with that in mind, makeready statistics are impressive: During one week in mid-August, makeready was accomplished at an average of 210 sheets.

CRAFTSMANSHIP STILL NEEDED

Compare that with the data posted by AGI's four other facilities before they installed the ATS on their presses: Makeready reportedly took about 12 to 18 minutes per plate (now down to about six minutes per plate, at least for standard four-over-four work). It also used to take about 500 sheets to come up to color.

All of AGI's facilities use the same brand presses, the same blankets and inks, and calibrate their plates the same way. And because they print to standard density, print jobs can be divided between locations — files and color data are communicated electronically.

While color-control methods vary, printers and vendors agree there are still many variables in printing to account for — which is why craftsmanship is still needed at the press. Some printers maintain that press technology has transformed the industry to more of a manufacturing mindset, but others note that operator skill and experience are still necessary to eyeball color and troubleshoot press problems.

“Consoles today are so user-friendly it might not take the skill level required 10 years ago to get the most productivity out of a press,” acknowledges KBA's McKinney. “But I don't think you can put an 18-year-old right out of high school on a press and be happy with the results.”

Agrees Weaver of Eva-Tone, “You still have all the same printing problems, such as paper not feeding or marking. You still need ink and water balance to hold color, and the operator still has to know if there is a roller-setting problem that's causing color variation. The press automation simply allows the operator to do everything faster and easier.”

About color measurement

There are three instruments that printers use to measure color: spectrophotometers, densitometers and colorimeters. Spectrophotometers, which render spectral data, provide the most detailed information on color. Densitometers apply a density value to laid-down ink; colorimeters measure RGB values — they are suitable for monitor measurements.

All three tools are available in handheld/manual models, in semi-automatic scanning/strip-reading designs and in fully automatic versions for web presses. Handheld devices can be purchased for less than $3,000 from vendors such as Beta Industries (Carlstadt, NJ), GretagMacbeth (New Windsor, NY), Tobias Associates, Inc. (Warminster, PA) and X-Rite (Grandville, MI).

Popular products

Bill Owens, worldwide product marketing manager at X-Rite, says the company's handheld densitometers and spectrodensitometers, such as the new 518 spectrodensitometer, are its most popular pressroom choices, though demand varies according to a printer's specific requirements.

The portable SpectroEye spectrophotometer, coupled with ink-formulation or color-quality software, make up GretagMacbeth's best sellers, according to Liz Quinlisk, director of field marketing, digital imaging. “We're finding more printers are interested in the entire workflow — not just one instrument at press,” she says.

Beta Industries offers customers four pre-assembled press kits that contain tools for different types of operations. Each kit includes a gray-balance color bar, a color densitometer and a Beta Color Viewer. The kits reportedly cost about the same as standalone densitometers from other manufacturers; any system component is available separately.

Beta's color bar is customized to fit the exact size and ink-key spacing of the customer's presses, and it features yellow, magenta, cyan, black and gray-balance targets in every ink zone. At every fourth ink-key zone, a 50 percent black tint is placed next to a gray balance for visual verification. According to president Arnold Eagl, this “range finder” feature helps operators discern even slight color deviations with a simple glance. Each densitometer features light-emitting diodes for 1/10-second measurements and a gray-balance measurement program.

“In many cases, printers want to make sure all files are color-managed before they actually receive them, and there are tools throughout the workflow that are making makeready easier,” reports GretagMacbeth's Quinlisk.

GretagMacbeth has introduced Color Exchange Format (CxF), an open XML-based format for streamlining digital color communication, which it hopes to establish as an industry standard. This format is free of charge to other manufacturers to incorporate within their products.

CxF functions as a container for communicating all the elements of individual spot colors. It uses the color reference data supplied by the content creator throughout the production cycle, which reportedly ensures a more accurate, faster workflow with higher security. CxF provides a language that can be undertood by all parties in a graphic-arts workflow, from designer to prepress to print production.

Tools assist with accuracy

Ray Prince, senior technical consultant at GATF (Sewickley, PA), noted in the May/June issue of GATFWorld that reading a 40-inch sheet for density, dot gain, trap, print contrast, hue error and grayness with a handheld device can take more than 17 minutes, while a scanning unit can take the same measurements in about 20 seconds.

“These systems are a dream come true,” Prince wrote. “They work, and what we see is far faster makeready and far better density control through the run.” The downside of these scanners is that they require a significant capital investment.

According to Owens, X-Rite has made great strides in improving the ROI for such systems, such as its Auto-Tracking Spectrophotometer (ATS) System. ATS automatically finds and measures one or more color bars and indicates when and where color adjustments are needed. It includes a handheld spectrophotometer for spot measurement within the printed image.

Owens notes that many printers only want to sample a handful of color patches for measurement control. “Many just don't have the time to measure every inch,” he says.

Peake Printers (Cheverly, MD), a $23 million commercial sheetfed and web printer, uses GretagMacbeth SpectroEye spectrophotometers and D19 densitometers to help create the curves for matching proofs to press. Prepress manager Fred Paul explains that press operators don't use the SpectroEyes on a daily basis; the D19s are used more regularly to measure ink density, dot gain and other standard factors.

But Paul says the SpectroEyes are crucial for jobs with complex color issues: “If you have a job with a tinted-cream dull varnish, by the time your eye notices a change, the job could be out of tolerance,” he observes. The SpectroEye takes an L*a*b reading, which he says is more accurate and changes more quickly than a densitometer reading.

“You rely on the human eye first, and the spectrophotometer can help confirm what you're seeing, or confirm it quicker than you can,” Paul says.

On a dot-gain crusade

Dan Remaley, process-control technical consultant for GATF (Sewickley, PA), is on a crusade of sorts: He proclaims that press operators are measuring the wrong attributes at press. “We measure solid ink densities, which are irrelevant of gray balance,” he says. “The solids can be correct, but dot gain and gray balance may be all over the place.”

Remaley notes the primary concern for a scanner operator is gray balance: If a color moves in any direction, it will show up in the neutrals first. The first step in scanning is to verify that all areas are neutral in the subject matter, and to then make the color correction. “If you don't check the gray balance, you make corrections that shouldn't be there,” Remaley says.

Beta Industries' (Carlstadt, NJ) densitometers feature a gray-balance measurement function. According to president Arnold Eagl, only one measurement is necessary with the system, “because gray balance is directly proportional to solid ink densities and their respective dot gains.” The Beta system detects which ink color has an incorrect density deviation and in which ink zone, reportedly enabling operators to quickly, efficiently make corrections.

So why aren't printers measuring gray balance?

“It's an education issue,” Remaley says. “Not all densitometers have the functions necessary to read dot gain. And even printers that have densitometers with that functionality have never used it because no one ever showed them how.”

Fast makereadies without technology

While technology does wonders in speeding makeready, some printers simply can't afford to buy a new press. Here are some other suggestions to help get up to color faster:

ELIMINATE BOTTLENECKS

Work on your workflow, suggests Doug Schardt, assistant product manager at Komori (Rolling Meadows, IL). “One of the big holes in workflow in any shop is the waiting time between jobs, whether that's caused by supplies, plates not being ready or the customer not being there,” he observes. “Make sure the press has everything it needs when you want to get that job up.”

INVEST IN SOME TECHNOLOGY

Even a handheld densitometer can take a lot of the guesswork out of coming up to color, says Schardt. And if you have CTP, “I would definitely investigate the ink-key downloading feature,” he adds. “It's a lower-cost method of really cutting down on makeready time.”

IS YOUR PREPRESS THE BEST IT CAN BE?

If you can't afford CIP3 and automation on your presses, “you're really relying on your prepress to output good plates,” observes Kyle Weaver, manager of print production at multifaceted printer Eva-Tone (Clearwater, FL). “That has to be No. 1.”

NEVER RUN WASTE PAPER

According to Ed Sadler, plant manager at commercial printer Quality Graphics Center (Roselle, NJ), running waste paper during makeready is counterproductive because the spray powder and other residue on the sheets will end up on the rollers. “It causes more problems than it's worth, including hickeys, bad blankets and folded-over sheets,” says Sadler. “You're better off buying extra paper than running waste.”

MAINTENANCE

Above all, maintain your presses. “Fast makereadies are never done on equipment in need of repair or maintenance,” declares Ray Prince, GATF (Sewickley, PA) technical consultant, in the May/June issue of GATFWorld. “Roller condition, roller setting, and blanket condition and settings are crucial to the accomplishment of a good/fast makeready.”