Regardless of your industry, manufacturers face similar challenges—increasing costs of raw materials, labor and talent shortages, global competition, and other factors limiting profitability. More than ever, manufacturers must create products more quickly and efficiently while maintaining the highest quality standards.

Color management plays a critical role in quality management strategy and processes for the textile and apparel, paint and coatings, plastics and automotive industries, and beyond. The adoption of digital color measurement and communications can have a positive impact within the value chain, resulting in a significant reduction in time and costs associated with the product development cycle—potentially preventing reputation-damaging color errors, mismatched component colors and more.

For those looking to implement or manage a digital color communication and management system as part of their overall quality management process, here are some of the most important (and often overlooked) considerations to keep top of mind.

Picking the Right Standards

The first step to ensuring the right color is communicated from concept to consumer is color specification. This process starts with identifying a standard to use for color matching; your color inspiration source can be a physical sample or digitally created color. However, the only way to guarantee the standard’s color integrity—and decrease development time—is to communicate the digital representation of the identified standard.

Physical standards can often result in delays and miscommunications between designers and manufacturers. Additionally, physical samples need to be distributed across the supply chain, which jeopardizes the integrity of the target color. This process is time-intensive and leaves ample room for error.

You can overcome these disadvantages by developing a digital representation of your selected standard by measuring the physical color standard using a spectrophotometer. This digital representation—a set of numbers called spectral reflectance values that describe how an object interacts with light—allows you to accurately and precisely communicate color standards between suppliers and customers. Without the need to ship physical samples back and forth, the process can be as simple and efficient as sending an email.

A digital color management process allows samples to be quickly compared to target standards using quality control software as a filtering tool. This process eliminates unacceptable samples before they’re given final review. Depending on the volume of development work required, the time and cost savings realized by a manufacturer who employs electronic communication of standards and color submissions can be substantial.

Controlling for Environmental Interference

The key to a successful digital color communication process is the reliability of the digital data communicated during each step. Digital data can only be considered reliable when a different person can get the same results when a physical sample is remeasured at a different location on a different instrument. The only way to achieve this level of reliability and repeatability is through careful control procedures and processes.

An important part of this control is evaluating environmental conditions that may impact the performance of spectrophotometers (the equipment that measures color standards and samples) and cause measurement variations among instruments. Here’s what you should keep in mind:

Temperature: The temperature of the rooms where spectrophotometers are stored should be between 21 and 25°C. If room temperature is unstable, it could impact inter-instrument agreement; variations as small as four degrees can be detrimental. Sun exposure can also heat up instruments, even in a temperature-controlled room, so be sure to position equipment away from direct sunlight.

Humidity: Room humidity should also be controlled at a level between 20 and 85 percent, non-condensing. If not, it will impact color samples and distort measurements.

Contaminants: Air contaminants, such as chemical vapors from the manufacturing process or cigarette smoke from equipment operators, can dramatically impact the operational life of a spectrophotometer and gradually reduce its long-term accuracy.

Establishing a Repeatable Measurement Technique

Failure to establish a repeatable measurement technique introduces a significant potential for error into all aspects of your color development and communications process. You can overcome this with a repeatable measurement technique that includes specification of material layering, sample positioning, measurement quantity, instrument settings and system operator communication. Failing to fully test and confirm the quality of a measurement technique will be a source of error for the life of the program. Your measurement technique should take a closer look at the following factors:

Aperture Size: Spectrophotometers will typically include a range of aperture sizes to measure small and large samples. Prioritize the largest aperture size possible to minimize the influence of unlevel dyeing or other sample imperfections.

Opaque vs. Translucent Samples: Light can pass through samples and reflect off the sample holder, producing misleading reflectance data. You can account for this using different measurement techniques. For example, with opaque knitted and woven materials, fold samples to two or four layers. And for lightweight and translucent materials, back material using a white ceramic tile similar to the instrument’s calibration tile.

Sample Rotation and Repositioning: When measuring samples, measure once, remove the sample, refold or reposition it, and then conduct additional readings. This best practice will account for material variations, unlevel dyeing, etc. Take care to avoid sample areas that may have been contaminated by dirt, fingerprints, creases or dye blotches.

You’ll know you have established an optimal measurement technique when a sample can be measured, removed from the instrument and remeasured with a variation of less than 0.15 DE CMC (2:1).

Keeping these factors in mind will be key to achieving an effective digital color management process and can have a long-term impact upon your product quality, reputation, profitability and more. Q