Printing and Design Tips: December 2016, Issue #185

Printing in the Emergency Room

I took my fiancee to the Emergency Room yesterday. She was having an allergic reaction to a cortisone shot she had received a few days prior. Once we had determined the cause of the increasing redness in her face and I had given her Benadryl, we sped off to the hospital.

To make a long story short, when you spend seven hours in an unfamiliar location, you actually notice your surroundings. Or maybe it was just that I was so grateful when the doctor had confirmed the diagnosis and was administering Morphine and steroids that I actually paid attention to what the nurse was doing. He was scanning my fiancee’s hospital bracelet and scanning the medication he was about to inject.

The nurse was using a combination of traditional printing technology (bar codes printed with ink on a plastic wrist band and on the medication packaging) and computer technology (the scanning device) to ensure accuracy. After all, people have allergies to certain drugs. In addition, some hospitals have made mistakes, like misreading a chart and amputating the wrong body part. Needless to say, I was relieved that this nurse, and this hospital, had procedures in place to maximize success and minimize error.

When we got home (and I was just as delirious with happiness driving home as I had been with panic as I had driven to the hospital), I did some research into the barcodes, scanners, and even all the little numbers printed on the packaging for the five medications my fiancee had to take upon her release from the hospital.

Here’s a rundown:

1. First of all, everything is computerized at the hospital now, in direct contrast to all the paper records I’ve seen throughout my life in doctors’ offices. This means that everybody is working with the same information, which obviously improves the outcome.

2. The items the nurse was scanning were (according to my reading and study back home) bar codes on the hospital bracelet and the medications. Apparently, since this requires “line of sight” (i.e., if the patient has rolled over onto her bracelet, that’s a problem), hospitals are also using RFID devices that operate on radio frequencies instead of a direct visual line between the scanner and the barcode.

3. The barcodes themselves are an example of functional, or industrial, printing. That is, their main function is operational rather than decorative. A street sign would be another example of functional printing. So would all the letters on the computer keys I’m using to write this. When you look at the realm of functional or industrial printing, “printing” as a craft expands in a huge way and touches almost everything we do.

4. When you look closely (with a printer’s loupe) at the medication “blister packs,” which have a base of paper or foil covered by a plastic bump or well into which the medication has been deposited, you see a few things. First you see the telltale dots comprising all of the type. This indicates that an industrial inkjet printer has printed the information. Furthermore, when you look closely, you can see the batch number and the expiration date of the medication, as well as a unique barcode. So you can scan the information or read it visually.

In my book, anything that reduces error (and it was not lost on me that the nurse checked and rechecked his scans), to me is a great relief. And so is my fiancee’s health.

Fixed Inksets

I have written about fixed inksets before under the guise of “Hypercolor” or “Hexachrome.” I’m sure there are many other branded terms for this process, which is essentially adding colors to the traditional cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inkset used in process color offset printing.

Why do printers do this? Basically, you can simulate a lot of colors using traditional process inks, but there are a lot of colors you just can’t match. That’s why designers will often specify additional PMS colors when designing marketing collateral. When the colors in the company logo have to be just right, a designer will usually pay extra to add PMS match colors to the core set of CMYK inks.

One other benefit of doing this is that if you pump up the cyan in a photo on one press form, the logo colors inline on that press sheet will not take on unwanted color casts. A PMS color will always be the same from press signature to press signature.

That said, it costs money to do this, and there’s another way to expand the “color gamut” to match more colors on an offset press. You can add extra colors such as green, orange, or violet. When you do this, and separate the imagery, screens, and even the color builds for the corporate colors into seven ink colors rather than four, you can match a much larger range of PMS hues.

This is not news to inkjet presses. I’ve seen large-format inkjet equipment using cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow, and a number of different black inks, plus red, green, and blue—or any number of other colors. The goal is the same: to match more colors dead-on rather than just close.

Economically, in the realm of offset printing, this approach has merit as well. Beyond just matching more colors, it actually saves money. When the printer has to continually wash up one or more inking units on press to change the inks from the PMS “match colors” used in one job to those used in the next job, this takes time and materials. It also necessitates the making and storing of the PMS inks, and it precludes the ganging up of multiple jobs that do not have common colors.

In contrast, when a printer uses the same set of seven colors to create all full-color images and match all corporate logo colors, the stations on the eight-color press do not need to be washed up time and time again, and dissimilar jobs can in fact be ganged up on press. This makes for quicker make-readies, faster throughput of jobs, lower costs, less ink storage, and higher profits—while still providing consistent quality and a wider range of more vibrant colors than those achievable through CMYK printing alone.

I just read an article that explains this process. It is entitled “Expanded Gamut Printing: Fixed Inkset Printing with Extended Opportunities,” written by Mark Samworth and published on 10/21/16 on This article gives a good overall view of the process, taking into consideration the point of view of the printer as well as the designer (which is what I find interesting).

Samworth’s article shows how expanded gamut printing can benefit both the design aesthetic and the bottom line. To quote Samworth, it “enables conventional printing to compete with digital for short to medium runs.”

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He 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.]