Expanding Your Ink Horizons
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Expanding Your Ink Horizons

Printers today can accommodate up to 16-color inksets. But would that really benefit your shop? Find out the advantages and disadvantages of expanding your ink horizons.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Ink color gamuts for professional printers have expanded over the years. Discover today’s options and why you may choose to stick with a four-color inkset.

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  • The times have changed ­ and they are still changing.

    The wide-format printing market has seen new printers, new papers and new inks ­ and the industry promises much more to come.

    Indeed, printer manufacturers and ink developers have been experimenting with ways to expand their ink horizons for decades. Some breakthroughs were welcomed. Others may have been a little ahead of the curve. But a commitment to working with new technologies promises to spur ongoing development of various ink aspects, including the color gamut.

    Let’s rewind for a moment and reflect on where we’ve come from. Back in the late 1980s, water-based inks came in a four-color set. In the 1990s, printer manufacturers began experimenting with six-, eight-, ten- and even twelve-color inksets, along with solvent and eco-solvent inks.

    Through this process of experimentation, ink manufacturers learned that expanding the color gamut from four to six colors offered a profitable bang for their research and development (R&D) bucks. Beyond the six-color set, though, the advantages were not as clear for the average sign maker. So where do we go from here?

    The Morphing Color Gamut
    CMYK printers are still selling by the truckload. Many sign shops are not ready to toy with inksets beyond the standard cyan, magenta, yellow and black that act as the basis for the many other colors used in signs of all kinds.

    Expanding the color gamuts to six-color sets or beyond doesn’t automatically offer vastly different colors. The output depends, of course, on what types of inks you add in those extra slots, according to Maria Bragg, marketing development manager of 3M Commercial Graphics.

    “If you are adding light inks, like light cyan and light magenta, you are only increasing color gamut in some pastel colors,” Bragg says. “Light inks are more about improving apparent resolution than color gamut.”

    If you are adding additional color inks like orange and green then you are truly expanding the color gamut. Adding orange and green inks gives you the ability to print more vivid, highly saturated colors and more pastels.

    “A six-color inkset allows you to create smooth pastels. If you are printing a skyline the ink and printer allow you to make smooth transitions between orange red and blue so it won’t look so digitized,” Mauceli says.

    This is known as Hi-Fidelity color. For example, with CMYK alone you can match around 50 percent of the Pantone colors. Adding orange and green will bring that that number closer to 90 percent. The more colors you add, the more you can do with the printer in terms of image quality, color gamut and finishing.

    Today’s Industry Standard
    While some printers today offer the ability to run more or less than six colors, the majority of the industry has settled on a standard six-color inkset printing at 720 dpi. That offers 726 colors, plenty for high quality graphic output.

    That probably won’t change much until the industry can develop complex color management systems, according to Pat Ryan, general manager of Seiko-I Infotech Americas Business Unit.

    “Today, printing at 1440 dpi takes at least twice as long as printing 720 dpi,” Ryan predicts. “Going forward I think we are going to see inks that are much more capable of going down the roll. We’ll see printer manufacturers invest in producing new machines that are much faster at a lower cost.”

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    Xerox is pushing to inksets up to 16 colors. Xerox digital imaging spokesperson Sandra Mauceli says many of the printers capable of running inksets with eight and 12 colors are actually using double and triple sets of CMYK because it allows them to print much faster. “If I have three heads that are running cyan, I can cover three times as much ground as a single head,” Mauceli says.

    Complex Hurdles Stymie Expansion
    Advancements in the sign shop, as Ryan noted, demand more complex color management RIPs that can calibrate and handle the additional inks. However, as he also noted, those capabilities come with increased consumable costs. Those higher costs are stymieing the color gamut expansion beyond six colors, CMYK, plus light cyan and light magenta.

    Here’s the rub. In order to print the right colors in the right place at the right time, color profiles have to be changed to accommodate more color variants. Changing the characteristics of an ink impacts how the image is going to look. If you don’t have the right color profile, then the image won’t appear as it does on the computer screen.

    So it’s back to the R&D drawing board for printers and RIP vendors. Each color added has to be translated from an actual color into a mathematical number for the printer. The more colors, the more data the printer and the RIP have to process in order to accommodate the command.

    “I doubt the color gamut will expand beyond CMYK, plus light cyan and light magenta for a while,” Macueli says. “There’s no point in doing light yellow because it’s too light and the printer won’t pick up the differences between shades. Moreover, in the typical sign shop speed seems to be more important than the higher-end colors. They need equipment that prints faster for higher volume.”

    A Word About Spot Colors
    Back the cost equation…Michael Flippin, president of Web Consulting, Inc., a global consultancy for the digital printing industry in Boston, calculates it this way: If you add 10 percent more color then you are adding 40 percent more cost. The trade off of migrating from CMYK to a six- or eight-color inkset may not immediately pay off for most sign shops.

    “There may be certain applications where spot color and color management allowing for spot color is much more important than adding more colors to the inkjet system,” Flippin explains. “Inkjets may not be able to hit certain areas of the color gamut the way traditional inks would. If you had a spot color, or some other way of hitting that deep red or that metallic color you need, you may be better off than adding broader inksets.”

    That’s for now. Where there is a will ­ and money to be made ­ there is a way. Printing pros expect the color gamut to continue expanding in the future. It’s just a matter of time before technology catches up with the vision of ink developers to offer a rainbow of vivid colors that print at lightning speed at the touch of a button.

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