Why it's technically impossible to print better than standards?

Standards create a common language between print buyer and print supplier. Yet standards also create production stability within a company and enhance efficiency of production. Tarun Chopra and Satish Nayak, Ugra ISO colour consultants at Colour Mechanics look at the scenario of print standardisation among Indian print firms

28 Jan 2014 | By Tarun Chopra

In today’s age of cutthroat competition in print industry, growth is an ambiguous concept and it can be measured and interpreted in a variety of different ways. For a print service provider, it is running his workhorses 24 by 7, reducing wastage, improving start-up time et al. A print buyer, for that matter, looks at how his print vendor is different in terms of equipment or the capability with which he reproduces colours.

The business guru-mantra of cost-cutting may not necessarily make a business survive. In my opinion cost-cutting helps but is it the only way to run a business today? What about increasing efficiency, what about getting more value out of your investments?

If you take pride in your investments and believe that getting more value from your kit is the right strategy then you must explore the possibility of ‘print standardisation’.

What is print standardisation?

Indian print industry is probably the only multi-million dollar industry, which fails to operate according to standards. In this scenario, printer A's unit of one kilo gram varies from printer B's unit of one kilo gram and both tend to fight tooth and nail to justify that their printed material better than the other’s. However, the irony of the situation is that none of them is able to justify with tangible proof that they print the job correctly.

We read articles in print magazines that printers are printing better than standards. Can it be true? Is it technically possible to "better define" weight or length or anything else?

First let us understand what standards mean to any industry: Basically, standards define an ideal reference point based on which other parameters can be evaluated. For any manufacturing process, tolerances are defined based on practical process limitations.

For instance, ISO 12647-2 specifies an ideal  tonal value increase (TVI) behaviour of printing press (among other things) but experience has shown that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to print to that ideal TVI curve therefore tolerances have been defined. The defined tolerances are broad enough to take into consideration manufacturing limitations but not broad enough to let trash pass through.

The development of standards requires extensive research on the subject, which is an strenuous task for a print firm considering the scientific expertise and costs involved in the process. Therefore, such research exercises are undertaken by groups or organisations generally funded by governments wherein scientists work on specific subjects to reach a scientifically valid conclusion. To my understanding, underplaying any effort of such stature should be avoided at best. I am amazed as to how print firms justify their capabilities of outshining those brains and millions of dollars spent by those organisations.

The ideal way

When it comes to designing stage, the final print result is unpredictable even when design software with modern colour management are used, considering the press is not printing to standard. The ideal way for a print firm is to evaluate the printing parameters and it's conformance to standards share those with their print buyers and based on these parameters the designs must be created. We have never seen this happen.

Besides, there is flip side for the print buyer as well. It's okay to continue with this regime if the print buyer is working with only one print supplier. However, in today's free and price sensitive market it’s a rare scenario when print buyers work with only one supplier. The reasons are costing and logistics limitation.

The colour management experts would agree and understand the challenges one faces while delivering files in colour spaces which are unique to a print supplier and does not conform to industry standards. In addition, the resources that go into identifying unique print behaviour of any print environment is not only expensive but also the repeatability of derived parameters tends to be bleak. Hence, it is very likely that the print suppliers will not be able to follow their internal standards themselves.

Does use of high gamut inks make you better?

Many of us argue that printing better than the standard implies using high gamut inks. It has to be understood that printing high gamut is not standardised printing and such high gamut inks are used for specialised jobs only. Technically this statement is misrepresentation of facts to the print buyer.

The difference in appearance of printed product is due to the ink-set used and does not in any way highlight superior capabilities of a print facility. In order to fully utilise the extra gamut created while using high gamut inks, file handling in pre-press is very significant. The standardised colour conversion does not account for that extra colour and thus a part of valuable information is lost if colour conversion is not handled appropriately with target colour space in consideration.

Standards define many parameters like colour of substrate, colour of inks, TVI behaviour among others. The very moment any of the parameter tolerances are crossed the job fails the criteria of being following standard. So, technically the statement printing better than the standard does not hold any ground.

The industry should agree and acknowledge that standards are not the lowest denominator for any manufacturing process and sticking to them is not any easy task. Imagine buying a kilogram of apples from two different vendors both of them giving you their version of one kilo. Shouldn't we introspect as an industry?