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Spot On - The State of Spot Colors in Inkjet Technology

The sign industry has been discussing spot colors for inkjet printers for over a decade. Are we getting any closer to quick-and-easy action?

By Jennifer LeClaire

The sign industry can’t get away from spot colors. The question is how to do it most efficiently. Experts share their thoughts on the state of spot colors in inkjet technology today and predict future developments.

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  • Inkjet printers take you a long way, but the truth is that lots of printing jobs demand one or even two spot colors. That’s still somewhat painful in much of the inkjet world.

    Spot color mixes custom ink to the required shade, such as Coca-Cola red or IBM blue. Even if you aren’t working with Fortune 500 companies, it’s quite possible that the clients you do have will bring you some custom colors that force you to explore this process.

    Here’s the challenge: there is some current, but minimal, development activity in spot colors today. The good news is that experts expect that scenario to change in the months and years ahead.

    Inkjet spot colors: a long-term discussion
    The spot color issue is hardly new. It has been discussed since commercial large format graphic printing emerged in the 1990s. This demand for spot color appears to be a function of the graphic producers’ desire to emulate what has historically been done by screenprinters, according to Maria Bragg, marketing development manager of 3M Commercial Graphics.

    “Since its inception, digital printing has advertised quick turnaround. One of the difficulties with spot color is the requirement to operationally fit into the quick turnaround paradigm,” Bragg says. “Simply, the spot colors need to be formulated and tested, particularly if image durability is a consideration, which requires time.”

    Another mitigating circumstance is today’s inkjet printers and RIPs are built to do process color work. Integrating spot color into this environment could reduce printer and operational productivity. Those are ugly words in a busy sign shop. However, many believe the demand for spot colors will push developers to overcome these challenges.

    The state of spot colors today
    Using spot colors with inkjet technologies is possible today. It hasn’t been widely accepted so far because of the time and money investment. Since the color gamut of six-color, 720 dpi machines is so wide, you can replicate the color 95 percent of the time to create IBM blue, Coca-Cola red or some other special color.

    But what about the other 5 percent of the time? What if you are looking for a strange shade of brown? That can be difficult to achieve through six-color ink jet technology. Or what if you need neons and golds and whites in the banner? Again, difficult with traditional inkjet technology. That’s where spot colors come into play, according to Pat Ryan, general manager of Seiko-I Infotech Americas Business Unit.

    “There will be a continuing debate on whether these inkjet printers should have spot color capabilities. The difficulty for printer manufacturers is this: if you can just develop six inks and that solves 95 percent of the issues and provides 95 percent of the profits, then why spend more money on development?” Ryan asks.

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    The complexities of adding spot color
    Indeed, adding spot colors to the mix requires a huge investment without the significant returns most printer manufactures seek. In reality, Ryan says, any ink jet printer on the market today could be loaded with spot colors and used ­ with the right RIP ­ to produce certain types of signs. It’s the RIP, he reminds, that ultimately controls what’s being jetted by which head.

    Instead of cyan, then, you could theoretically substitute straight yellow. Each time the RIP said “fire the cyan head” it would print spot color yellow out of that head. The point is that software can address many of the spot color issues sign makers face today ­ if they know how to manipulate it.

    “The problem is, it’s complex and difficult and the spot color need is usually job specific. So if you need a nice orange to do a highlight on 40 signs and after that you are going to print Coca-Cola red, you have the expense of cleaning out an entire ink line system and an expensive ink jet head and loading new ink into it,” Ryan says. “That’s just impractical.”

    Machines are available…
    Raster CEO Rak Kumar agrees with Ryan’s reasoning. “Spot colors for inkjet technologies are available today,” he says. “It’s not very practical to change inks every day but if you have Coke as a client it is practical to have Coke red as a spot color in your shop.”

    The same holds true for any major client, Fortune 500 company or not. If your client is coming to you early and often for print jobs that require spot color, it may well be worth it to change the inks. Only you can calculate the return on the investment required.

    There are some machines that allow you to dedicate one head to spot color, but you have to pay a 20 percent premium for them. The money you spend sits idle most of the time ­ until you have a spot color job. Even though you won’t have to stop production to clean the line if you get a spot color job, you still have to clean the spot color head between spot color jobs.

    “No one has developed a system to pump the ink out of the storage system. You can’t flush it instantly without waste. That’s a big problem,” Ryan says. “A screen printer can just change the screen, wash it out, and put a new one up there. A printing press can actually change ink colors a bit faster. But ink jet is the hardest one to change. So spot color is little bit more difficult from that perspective.”

    An emerging market
    Michael Flippin, President of Web Consulting, Inc., a global consultancy for the digital printing industry in Boston, believes spot color is going to be very important in the inkjet market in the future.

    “In most sign shops there is still an awful lot of vinyl cutting going on and even though we talk a lot about inkjet, vinyl cutting is still growing in the U.S.,” Flipping says. “With vinyl you obviously know what color you are going to get. If you are ordering canary yellow or ruby red, then you know that color is going to be that color. With inkjet you obviously have a lot more of an issue with being able to hit exact colors.”

    For that reason, he says, spot color is going to become more important, especially as inkjet technology becomes more appreciated on the regional advertising level where advertisers will demand special colors. Color matching will become key and spot color will offer a solution.

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