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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Expanded Ink Sets for Offset Printing

As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said, “The more things change the more they stay the same.”

In the case of custom printing this definitely holds true. I was amused to see (when I was reading “Key Themes at drupa 2016 Bring Industry 4.0 to the Forefront” by Cary Sherburne, 6/27/16, on WhatTheyThink.com) that “fixed color palette printing” was one of the major trends in commercial printing.

The reason I found it amusing was that I had seen essentially the same (or perhaps similar) technology when I was an art director in the 1990s. Then I thought the concept was intriguing; now I’m pleased to see its return.

The Science Behind Color on Press

When you produce a job on an offset press you have a few options for adding color:

  1. You can add no additional color. That is, you can print the job in black ink only, or with additional screens of black (i.e., gray).
  2. You can print the job using the four process color inks (i.e., cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). By overlaying halftone screens of the four transparent process color inks, you can simulate a large range of hues.
  3. If you cannot quite match your chosen color with a process color build, you can add one or more PMS inks. These are special colors mixed by ink companies or in-house ink specialists. You print a PMS color using one of the inking units on press rather than simulate the color by overlapping transparent screens of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink.

The problem is that you just can’t simulate all of the possible colors within the PMS color gamut using only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. If your corporate logo color (for instance) has to be an exact match, you often need to add a PMS color to your CMYK (process color) ink set to make the match. (You can also use an additional “touch plate” of a PMS match color–say a deep blue–to enhance an offset litho reproduction of a fine art piece, or an intensely colored fashion, food, or automotive poster.)

The reason adding additional colors is problematic is that you need a larger press with more inking units (perhaps five or eight units rather than four). And this will raise the commercial printing price of your job.

From the point of view of the printer, shifting a press ink configuration from four colors to 4CP plus additional PMS colors can be time and labor intensive as well, because he will need to wash up the ink units to change the ink configuration. This will take time, so he will lose money (or need to raise his price).

The Idea Behind “Fixed Color Palette Printing”

To remedy these problems, ink companies have been working on expanded color sets—for a long time.

Back in the 1990s when I was an art director, one company I worked with added orange and green to the four process colors and called the result “Hexachrome” (apparently this became a Pantone-trademarked process). Another company had a version of the process they called “high-fidelity color.” Back then, the goal was to create the widest possible color gamut and match the most PMS colors. Saving money on wash-ups seemed to be less of an issue.

Now, according to “Key Themes at drupa 2016 Bring Industry 4.0 to the Forefront” by Cary Sherburne, the technology is back, known as “fixed color palette printing” or “extended gamut printing.” To quote from Sherbourne’s article describing the fixed-color offerings shown at drupa, “Companies including X-Rite Pantone, Esko, Asahi Photoproducts, Kodak, Heidelberg and more shared thoughts and solutions about this process printing technique using up to seven colors (CMYK plus orange, violet and green or blue) that enables more than 90% of Pantone colors to be achieved.”

What This Means: The Implications for Customers and Printers

Here are some thoughts:

  1. First of all, it’s interesting to note that between my experience of Hexachrome or Hi-Fidelity Color in the ’90s and the present moment, we have had a huge improvement in digital custom printing. For many years I have seen inkjet presses with “extended color sets.” That is, in order to expand the number of colors a large-format inkjet press can produce, manufacturers have added light versions of cyan and magenta; different black inks; orange and green; or red, green, and blue inks to the usual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. In other words, by adding these colors (and creating a seven- or eight-color ink set), inkjet press manufacturers have dramatically enhanced color reproduction capabilities in large-format inkjet presses.
  2. The trend toward bringing this color management technique back to offset lithography and flexography tells me that the more traditional press manufacturers are trying to stay relevant by addressing the customer’s need for more accurate color.
  3. Moreover, a printer running presses with a fixed color palette can avoid extra wash ups and also gang together a number of jobs on press. In the past, with some jobs printing in process colors and other jobs printing in black plus one or more PMS colors, it was usually not possible to lay out a number of different customers’ jobs on the same press sheet. With fixed color palette printing, as long as all customers’ jobs are on the same paper stock (which is conceivable: say a 70# white gloss sheet), the only major determinants as to whether the jobs could be ganged up would be the dimensions of the jobs and the available room on the press sheet.
  4. Custom printing multiple jobs simultaneously and avoiding wash-ups by always using the same inksets will save the printers money and time. Quicker make-readies and ganged jobs will reduce the use of expensive materials, speed up the printing process, and therefore make offset printing more competitive with digital printing for shorter press runs. And for longer print jobs with no personalization, there will be a market demand for which offset lithography and flexography will still be the most cost-effective solutions.

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