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Troubleshooting color management problems

November 1st, 2009 / By: / Feature, Graphics

A print shop encounters a spell of color management problems on a theater project and learns to troubleshoot for a solution.

The Flag Loft, housed in a 23,000-square-foot facility in St. Louis, is a custom manufacturer of banners and flags that also distributes flags, flag poles and flag accessories. Founded in 1990 by Maureen and Rick Kelly, the company works on a national level supplying to a diverse clientele that includes corporations, hotels, museums, universities and theaters.

For the past 18 years The Flag Loft has been working with The Muny, the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theater, manufacturing appliqué and printed banners, and working with the stage production team on printed fabric for individual shows.

One of the summer’s projects was to create a banner for the musical “Godspell.” The desired goal, says Liz Silk, The Flag Loft’s graphic designer, was to produce an eye-catching banner with a “nice and bright color punch.” It would feature a clean and crisp digital print of the Godspell logo along with show dates.

When printing began, however, it was clear that something was amiss. “The printing for Godspell caused us to take pause; it just was not working,” Silk recalls.

The problem

Two Poly-Nance banners for each of The Muny’s seven shows were printed two at a time. Each 10-foot banner was printed vertically on a 72-inch DS 1800 Mimaki digital printer. The black copy on every file was colored with Pantone Black C in order to provide a rich, true black on both the DuPont Artistri and the Poly-Nance fabric.

Everything seemed fine until Silk noticed that the banners for two shows—one being “Godspell”—had a dull, muted appearance with the black areas appearing almost brown. Upon seeing the poor quality of the four banners, Silk reprinted them. Because all of the files were correct from the start, she changed nothing in the process and they printed fine.

While reprinting worked in this instance, a more specific cure was desired for the future. “This was a very strange occurrence and the fix to just reprint them seemed unreliable to us,” Silk says. “We felt that surely something had to be accountable for causing the issue.”

The exact source of the problem could not be identified internally. A number of potential causes were considered, including the possibility that there might have been air bubbles in the ink lines. However, it was determined that if this had been the case the result would have been more of an incremental ink absence, or an overall absence of a particular color ink—if the air caused the print head to dry out—rather than an overall, even dullness. “Because of the unlikelihood of this possibility in accordance to what the muted print looked like, this was not mutually agreed upon as a viable cause,” Silk says.

Sleuthing for solutions

Next, The Flag Loft sought out advice of industry experts through the Fabric Graphics Association, a division of the Industrial Fabrics Association International, and received responses offering several possible causes and suggestions. The general consensus was that the error could be attributed to one of three possibilities: poor sublimation, a problem with the slider board or a RIP error.

Based on The Flag Loft’s description of the problem, Paul Glynn of Portland Color believed the error could have been a result of poor sublimation. In such a case it would be important to examine the steaming process to determine whether the temperature dropped as the fabric was being steamed. The muted coloring could be a result of a lack of heat during the steaming process.

While the advice was sound, in this case poor sublimation seemed improbable as each banner was treated the same way using the suggested temperature, time and material footage as directed by support contacts at ITNH, a New Hampshire-based company.

“We did two banners per show, which was a total of 14 banners,” Silk explains. “Out of the 14 banners, 10 were perfect and four came out like this. They were all printed, steamed and dried the exact same way. The steam process was set at 240 degrees for 40 minutes with 30 feet of material for each roll.”

John Quintanilla, mechanical print supervisor for Fabric Images Inc., believed the issue was a slider board or its connection because even though the same steps were taken for each banner, only four came out lighter in color. The slider board is the interface between the main PC board and each individual head. It can affect print quality in many ways, he says. “It can affect anything from missing a directional pass, light color, or even cause the print to come out wavy.”

Suggestions Quintanilla provided for troubleshooting included:

  • Reboot the printer.
  • Remove the top cover with the plastic guard on it. Sometimes the slider board connections rub up against the cover, which could cause a dull, muted print.
  • Look for any anomalies by checking the cables from the print heads to the slider board while the printer is off.
  • Check the connection that runs from the slider board to the track.
  • Look at the color bars that print on the side and see if they print in a different position than prior prints. If so, this is an indicator to reboot the printer again, which should result in restoring the position of the bars and color appearance.

Once again, while the advice was solid, it wasn’t applicable to The Flag Loft’s specific situation. If the issue had been with a slider board, says Silk, it doesn’t seem probable that only a few in a bunch would be affected and nothing was “fixed” per say.

Due to the fact that the finishing process was identical for all of the banners, Roberto Santos, print production manager for Fabric Images Inc., hypothesized that the error was RIP related. “While I am not familiar with the production processes involved, the description of the problem ruled out all production steps other than the RIP,” he says. “It was the only step that The Flag Loft did not claim everything was done consistently. That is where I would look first.”

Based on his experience, the problem was likely a result of an operator error—failure to use the correct settings when submitting the job to the RIP. Printer settings, such as resolution, are linked to the RIP. Choosing to input a job at 300 by 600 dpi and then at 600 by 1200 dpi may have no apparent effect on image quality, Santos says, but the RIP may have settings such as ink limiting, linearizations and ICC profiles tied to one particular resolution and not another.

“Generally,” Santos says, “errors at the software stage (prepress and RIP) come from misunderstanding or misusing software functionality.”

His suggestion for resolving the issue? Replicate the error by printing a small sample with different RIP and printer settings in order to see how one original file can change at output.

In the Godspell case, a RIP error could be ruled out because the reprint worked without changing any settings.

Positive outcome

The most challenging aspect for The Flag Loft was trying to pinpoint what happened. They wanted to determine the cause of the error so steps could be taken to prevent it from happening again.

“We immediately started troubleshooting and contacting anyone we thought could help after our own research was exhausted without resolution,” Silk says. “Luckily all we needed to do was reprint the banners and we stepped up the pace to ensure we met our client’s deadline.”

The production process, from the first run to the reprints, only took about three days. However, the troubleshooting and attempt to figure out what happened drained another two weeks of time. About 50 feet of Poly-Nance material was lost, in addition to ink and labor costs.

“We still met our deadline, but it was close,” Silk says. “Had we not had to reprint two of the shows, the job would have been completed with greater ease.”

In this case, the overall outcome was positive because although the banners suffered from undetermined color quality, the reprints came out OK and the client was satisfied with the finished product.

Customer service

In order to avoid customer service issues associated with color management problems, Pat Hayes, CEO of Fabric Images Inc., says that it is important to understand a client’s needs, clarify your capabilities and define specific outcomes.

“Most errors occur at the onset of an order, by both the client and the service provider not being clear on expectations, as well as outcome,” he says. “It continues to amaze me how many times a casual request for a ‘general’ color match turns into a ‘specific’ need once a sample is provided. The resolution is always through communication. Let the client know what your capabilities are.”

Hayes also suggests attending seminars, such as at IFAI’s Expo, or touring another facility to see how processes are handled by others in order to optimize production. “We have a competitive industry, but at the same time it is one with members who want to raise the bar in putting out a better product for our clients and increasing the market potential,” he says. “You will find those that are willing to help, and Expo has always been a great place to meet and talk to gain information.”

A learning experience

As a result of the experience, Silk made some valuable contacts with experts she can call if problems arise in the future: a person who can provide advice on finishing processes, an ink connoisseur, an authority on color issues, a specialist on digitally printable fabrics.

“We now have a few contacts that we know are willing to offer advice, which will help us immensely if we stumble on any new issues in the future,” she says.

Not only has Silk learned who to go to for advice, but the process has taught her certain avenues to go on her own when searching for a resolution to certain issues.

“I’ve learned much more about the workings of our Mimaki digital printer and the finishing process, not only by obtaining advice but by researching and testing and will be able to troubleshoot on my own in the future if similar issues arise.”

Chelan David is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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