Quality 101: Color Moves Into the Digital Realm

March 18, 2006
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As technology improves, manufacturers are managing the color process through digital sampling.

With digital sampling, the manufacturer can manipulate the color on a computer screen until it matches expectations, avoiding costly trial-and-error methods. Source: Datacolor


Ensuring consistent, accurate color from design to production has always been complex-and remains so today. The key to advancing efficient color production has involved technology that advances color communication. Consider the potentially significant business problems caused by color development in a typical, traditional manufacturing application.

Designers often are caught between market demands for products with more dynamic and individualized colors and a production budget that will not allow for unlimited prototyping. Once a color target has been identified, the frustration does not end. Component manufacturers spend valuable time looking for physical samples, trying to describe how close the colorant supplier has come to matching the design color. Colorant suppliers bear the cost of making proofs and express-shipping them to the component manufacturer. OEMs have to wait extended days or weeks during this "trial-and-error" process, often rejecting the first shipment as off-color.

Off-color products or defects in color can be found before production with digital sampling. Source: Datacolor

The latest advances in color technology set the stage for an efficient, enterprise-wide color management process through digital sampling. With digital sampling, designers can apply color on a product in a virtual environment, accommodating elements such as material surface and texture that highly influence color outcome. Viewing design concepts in context also allows for visual evaluation of materials and colors under various light sources-for example shop light vs. daylight-before these variables create costly surprises. Previously, an off-color product might have been found only after the end-product, such as a car dashboard, was produced.

With such technology, the component manufacturer has a useful tool to use with a spectrophotometer to achieve an accurate color target more cost-

effectively and quickly than ever before. The manufacturer may apply the unique digital fingerprint of a specified color, delivered by the spectrophotometer as reflectance values, to scanned images of the final product. These then appear as a digital image on a computer monitor that has been calibrated to yield accurate color reproduction regardless of the facility's location. Any discrepancy between the measured target's color as delivered by the spectrophotometer and its appearance on the product as shown on the computer monitor, can be addressed and immediately corrected.

The component manufacturer can manipulate the color on screen until it matches expectation, avoiding time-consuming and costly trial-and-error methods.

Once the color standard is finalized, it is electronically sent to the colorant supplier, where virtual trial samples are produced, based on the available colorants that meet the final product's specifications. The component manufacturer receives these virtual prototypes back electronically for visual evaluation. The process is iterative, with adjustments made until the customer considers the trial sample acceptable.

With digital color sampling, tolerances also can be evaluated and set realistically. Technicians are able to see how far a particular spectrophotometer reading-such as 1 dE CMC unit-is from a particular color standard. Color standards can be archived digitally, eliminating problems associated with fading, transfer or handling. And the digital color data is ready for input to color matching or quality control software, as well as automatically available to the printer, or other end-user, once the colors have been approved. These standards then are digitally available for other uses such as QA and ISO tracking.

In essence, the color of the virtual prototypes created with the latest digital sampling tools serve as color standards for production, eliminating the need to rely exclusively on costly physical methods of communicating a color concept.

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