Using standards to increase productivity and profitability

We come into contact with standards every day. Standards keep us safe, and help us communicate across languages and cultures. Imagine if you were driving in a different part of the world and you came across the traffic lights above. What would you do? Should you keep driving? Should you stop? The truth is nobody would know what to expect in this situation because the standard red, green, and/or yellow lights we have all come to know aren’t in play.

The same logic holds true in the graphic communications industry. Standards can help us achieve consistent and repeatable quality that can be measured against – and held up to – work around the world. By embracing standards into your workflow, you can increase your sales and profitability. Standards for the print industry can also make things safer, more reliable and much more predictable.

In this article I will discuss how embracing the use of international standards can help you win new business, stay competitive with overseas competition, and at the same time, improve your overall production methods and become even more competitive.

Back in May, I co-presented a session on standards at the Kodak North American Graphic Users Association meeting along with my colleague William Li, who just so happens to be the Chair of the Canadian delegation to the ISO TC 130 (more on that later). In that presentation we stressed that, as graphic communications experts, one of our core commitments is to deliver the product the client expects. This can be as simple as matching a colour proof, or it can be much more complex. This complexity grows when you are competing for big contracts, where you are one of many printers, and where you must match the printing of others. Standards go a long way to ensuring consistency, and print buyers know this. It is more and more common for adherence to standards to be a condition of work for many companies. For example, if a printer wants to print for catalogues for a big international retailer, they may have to be a G7 certified printer.  Similarly, many print buyers in Europe will not work with printers that are not Process Standard Offset (PSO) certified.  The reality is that if a printer is trying to expand its reach in the global marketplace, it is quite common for print buyers to want that printer to prove that they can print to standards. Why is this? Standards help set expectations, and by proving they can print to standards, the printer is proving that it can deliver the results the print buyer expects. More and more standards compliance is being written directly into print contracts.

We all know that profit margins on print are tight. We also know that it is very difficult to compete on price. This means that one of the most effective ways to increase profitability is to decrease costs. Standards can help with this too. When a printer starts using standards, the amount of time needed for preflighting and correction loops decreases. File submission becomes more simplified, and clients don’t get as easily confused by the multiple submission requirements they may have to deal with from different vendors. Cleaner files from clients means less headaches for the printer. Errors decrease, which means downtime decreases, there is less waste, and more uptime. With standards, a printer can get up to colour faster, reduce makeready times, and manage press runs more efficiently. The result: increased profitability.

So what are the standards, and where do they come from? In the graphic communications industry, most standards are created by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Within the ISO there are various Technical Committees that focus on different industries. The Technical Committee for graphic technology is TC 130.

The ISO TC 130 membership is comprised of delegates from 23 countries, with another 22 countries listed as observers. Membership to the ISO TC 130 is through national standard bodies. For example, the Canadian delegation to the ISO TC 130 is part of the Standards Council of Canada Mirror Committee (SMC) for the ISO TC 130.

This brings about another important reason as to why standards are a good thing: embracing standards takes advantage of global knowledge about best practices for efficient and good printing.  ISO standards are written by experts from all around the world, and they know their stuff.

The ISO TC 130 has a lot of standards that they have published (88 to be exact), and I am not going to go through them all. There are a few however, that I would like to point out, and which I feel are very useful for anyone wanting to get started with standards.

ISO 15930 – Graphic technology — Prepress digital data exchange using PDF

There is no doubt that PDF is the most widely recommended file format for file submission to printers, and for good reason. There are a lot of positive qualities about PDF. There are times, however, when PDFs don’t work. Transparency issues, fonts not embedded, colour management issues, multimedia elements within a print PDF… the list goes on. One of the reasons why there can be so much variability from one PDF to the next is because the PDF file format is meant to be flexible. It is the “jack of all trades” of file formats. Sure, it can be a high resolution print-ready file, but it can also be a low resolution multimedia screen file. PDF is an ISO standard – ISO 32000 to be exact –  and this standard is around 1000 pages long. There is a lot of stuff that PDF can be.

This is where ISO 15930 comes in. ISO 15930 is a standard that controls the formation of a PDF file for the sole purpose of print. It does this by restricting the parameters of PDF to only those that are conducive to print, in a PDF format known as PDF/X.

What this means is that if a client sends a printer a PDF/X that conforms to ISO 15930, there are a much greater chance that that PDF file will be correct for its intended purpose of printing on a printing press. All major preflight tools have the ability to check conformance to ISO 15930, making it easy to verify.

ISO 15930 is a multipart standard, with each part being a different iteration of PDF/X. Currently the two most popular versions of PDF/X being used are PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-4. Currently the ISO is working on a new standard for PDF/X-6, but that has not been released yet.

ISO 12647 – Graphic technology — Process control for the production of half-tone colour separations, proof and production prints

ISO 12647 is a standard printers should seriously consider embracing. ISO 12647 identifies standard ink sets, prescribed substrates, and even target dot gain curves for print. Like ISO 15930, ISO 12647 is a multi-part standard. Part 2, Offset lithographic processes, is especially important for offset lithographic printers, while other parts of the standard target other printing processes. ISO 12647 also happens to be the basis for the PSO certification in Europe.

The goal of ISO 12647 is to achieve consistent print targets using standardized printing procedures. If ISO 12647 had a mantra, it would be “measure to control”.

Now here is where things get interesting. Let’s say you took this article I have written to heart. You start requesting nothing but PDF/X-4 files from your clients, and you change your printing to adhere to the tolerances of ISO 12647. That should be enough to start seeing real change right? The answer is a resounding “maybe”.

While ISO 12647 does a good job at outlining the procedures and processes for print, one area that can still be an issue is the effect of grey. It is a widely-known fact that the human eye is much more sensitive to changes in neutral colours than it is for vibrant colours, and it is also a fact that neutrals, and near-neutrals formulate a large proportion of what we see in print. This is very important, because slight shifts in neutral colours can have significant consequences on the final printed result. One thing that can alter the neutral balance on print is the white point of the substrate. A number 5 coated web roll is not going to have the same white point as a number 1 coated sheet. So, what happens if a printer has to print the same ad twice: Once for a magazine on a yellowish number 5 coated, and once on a whiter number 1 sheet? How do you compensate? Luckily for us the answer, once again, is embrace standards.

ISO/PAS 15339 – Graphic technology – Printing from digital data across multiple technologies, identifies seven Characterized Reference Printing Conditions (CRPC) as follows:

CRPC1: Small gamut printing (newsprint)

CRPC2: Moderate gamut printing on improved newsprint type paper

CRPC3: Utility printing on matte uncoated-type paper

CRPC4: General printing on super-calendared paper

CRPC5: Typical publication printing

CRPC6: Large gamut (typically commercial) printing

CRPC7: Extra-large gamut printing processes

In a situation where a printer is printing using different printing processes, or is printing part of a multi-part job, the goal would be to maintain good grey balance across the different processes. Luckily for us, standards have us covered here too!

In the US, there is a national body called the Committee for Graphic Arts Technologies Standards (CGATS). CGATS is accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). CGATS has published a technical report entitled TR 015: Graphic technology — Methodology for Establishing Printing Aims Based on a Shared Near-neutral Gray-scale. The concept is simple in principle: If the gray balance can be controlled across multiple print conditions, the appearance of the print will look similar. As the report rightly states, “the expectation of the print buyer is that the image should look the same regardless of what type of printing press or paper is being used. The reality of the printer is that this expectation is difficult to meet” (pg. vi). So how does this report try to address this issue? The report articulates that, “the shared near-neutral gray-scale method is a set of definitions and equations that allow one to set aim points for printing. These definitions and equations are shared across printing platforms and substrates so that disparate printing methods can achieve some amount of similarity of the near-neutral tone scale.”

Luckily for us there is a proven method that can be used to profile presses and proofers to achieve a more common grayscale appearance, and that methodology is G7. G7 is “both a definition of grayscale appearance, and a calibration method for adjusting any CMYK imaging device to simulate the G7 grayscale definition” ( G7 is very closely aligned with the principles of CGATS TR 015. A graphic communications company can have a G7 expert certify them as G7 compliant. If you are a printer, it is worth considering becoming a G7 certified shop. Not only can this help you bid for contracts where proof of standards adherence is important, but it can save you time and money by reducing makeready times, and enabling you to get to colour faster. Aligning yourself with the G7 methodology will make printing more predictable and repeatable, and it will be easier to match proofs that are made to adhere to GRACoL or SWOP specifications. In my opinion, it is worth the investment.

If you are still hesitant about embracing standards, you are not alone. There can sometimes be a reluctance about becoming standardized, because by the very nature of its purpose, becoming standardized can be seen as printing just like all the other standardized printers. It can be difficult to understand how you can differentiate yourself when you are “just like everybody else”. In reality however, this is far from the truth. In many cases it will mean that you will become a better printer, and be able to compete more for those bigger jobs that might have not been possible to compete for previously.

If all of this is new to you, it can be daunting to start thinking about standards. There is a lot of “geek speak” in standards.  At first, concepts like white point and colorimetry using LAB values can seem out of place in a press room where ink density is the way we control colour on press. It is not always easy to change decades of company philosophy to conform to standards. You can be a good printer without using any of this. The reality is, however, that more and more print buyers are writing standards into print contracts, and no matter how good a printer is, they will not be able to compete for that work without conforming to those standards.

There are several ways that a printer can embrace standards. It can be as simple as getting certified. A G7 certification is a two to three day commitment to get started, with recertification required at regular intervals. Some printers bring G7 experts in to do the certification, while others have made the commitment to have an employee become a G7 expert to do it. Another option would be to have a G7 expert do the initial certification, and then have an employee trained as a G7 professional. G7 professionals can recertify their own systems, but they can’t do initial certifications.

If a printer is so inclined, it is possible to become even more involved with standards by becoming part of the standards development process. For example, printers can ask to become ISO experts and join various working groups within the TC 130 to have a voice in developing standards. In Canada, this would mean becoming a member of the Standards Council of Canada Mirror Committee (SMC) for the TC 130. Canada is a participating country, which means that we have the right to vote on every standard put forward by the TC 130. I really believe that it is worth the time and energy to become part of this process. The more involvement there is in standards development, the better the standards will be.

I would like to finish up by reiterating that standards are becoming more and more important for printers every day. From a global perspective, printers in Europe and Asia have been long-time adopters of standardized printing, and this has allowed them to be successful in securing large international print clients. North American printers need to be able to compete with these printers on a global scale, and standards can help with success. Of course, standards themselves aren’t the only factor: printers still need to deliver quality products efficiently and on time in a way that meets all client expectations. Standards, however, can really help get us get to where we need to be.