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Today's color quality control
is better than ever.


by Ray Frugia

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In most manufacturing processes, color is the most visible test of quality. Not getting your customer's requested color right the first time puts you at risk for losing the job. With an increasing emphasis on stringent quality control procedures, color remains the first and best test of a product's quality. A color quality control system can be a powerful tool to ensure effective color productivity--and your customer's acceptance of the job after just the first run.

 There are many refinements made to today's color technology that can support even the most demanding quality control standards. The latest color quality control systems not only do more, but they do so faster and more easily, utilizing the latest advances in electronic production.

Technology that sees eye-to-eye with visual assessments

 In quality control processes, there are many factors to consider when attempting to match samples visually. The goal, of course, is to be on-target and on-color without the need for correction. Yet how often have hours of production time been spent trying to reproduce an exact shade? The causes often lie in the many real-world variables that make up colorant conditions. Is the sample flat or curved, glossy- or matte-finished, smooth or textured? Under what conditions has the sample been selected and viewed to match?

 All of these variables affect our perception of color and, therefore, its measurement and the ease with which we can achieve visual agreement with that measurement in the quality control process. Differences in gloss levels, for instance, can easily translate into costly rejections, particularly in darker colors. The opacity of the colorant and the surface onto which it is adhered (the substrate) can do the same. The light source also affects color sensation (metamerism). A sample will look quite different under daylight than it will under a manufacturing plant's fluorescent lighting.

 Now, through the latest in artificial intelligence, managers can include visual assessments in the quality control process. Some of the most advanced color quality control software actually learns and mimics how humans see color, basing a pass/fail system on a database of staff or customer judgments. This is accomplished through artificial intelligence that drives an easily implemented, operator-specific procedure.

 Each sample is visually examined by a human observer, with a corresponding pass/fail judgment. The data is then run through a "training" program that determines the acceptability or tolerance that will include all of the "pass" samples and exclude all of the "fail" samples. Once this is done, tolerances can be automatically stored in a defined "tolerance area" for that standard. Such a system can also allow for visual data conflicts, determining a range of uncertainty against which future samples can be flagged for visual inspection. After a visual determination has been made, the data set should be able to reflect the new information.

Color communication at a click

 Today's color quality control technology can include the ability to electronically send or receive colorimetric data--that is, the numerical values assigned to a color by a spectrophotometer or other color-measuring instrument. Additional data, such as custom pass/fail screens and customer-specific information, can also be communicated via the Internet.

 These communication functions are the foundation for speeding up the customer-approval process on colors. Therefore, they should be built into the software rather than offered as "optional" extras.

 The e-mail feature should work with e-mail systems that are compliant with a standard protocol such as Microsoft MAPI. The user should be able to send or receive standard, batch and desktop data with the click of a mouse. And receiving e-mail should be just as simple as sending it. To access the data, the system should supply a graphically driven method of retrieving and displaying receipt. Make sure the e-mail is easily imported into the color quality control system for further processing.

Integrating color control into the entire quality cycle

 Of course, quality control systems need to be seamlessly integrated with a choice of measuring instruments in order to be truly useful. Together, they should make it easy to create a color control system tailored to internal or customer specifications as well as to train operators quickly. From basic e-mailing of color data to complete color visualization, users also need to employ consistent quality procedures to obtain consistent measurements throughout their supplier network. Operators trained on systems with single-screen operations, for example, can be working well in less than an hour.

 In the larger view, today's technology makes it possible to integrate color quality control throughout the entire supply chain via the Internet. New technologies employ precise on-screen color calibration and color control systems to help users better communicate and visualize color electronically, accelerating the product-development cycle, reducing costs and improving overall quality.

How exactly does it work?

 Consider this typical supply chain scene in which "traditional" color matching and control is used: First, the designer struggles to talk to the lab about the color she wants. She uses physical samples and describes how her vision of the color is different from the sample (i.e., warmer, brighter, bluer). The lab tries to match her words, but fails. This negatively affects the quality control process all the way down the line:

  The designer is unhappy, having spent valuable time looking for physical samples and trying to describe how close the supplier has come to matching the design color.

  The lab is unhappy, having paid the cost of making the samples and express shipping them to the designer.

  The quality control manager is unhappy, having lost valuable time and money getting the goods into production.


 Today, it's possible to manage color better. By using the most advanced computer technology, it's now possible to communicate color more accurately--and quite literally move from mind to market. The key to streamlining the color development time is to replace physical samples with digital samples that can be electronically transmitted between computers. More than just a color image is transferred. Numerical color data is also sent.

 Making digitized color samples work depends on the level of calibration. The monitors must be calibrated to a fine precision. This allows color to be reproduced on-screen with variations so slight they are virtually undetectable to the human eye.

 A complete color communication system would proceed as follows:

1. An instrument--e.g., a spectrophotometer--measures a color standard.

2. The color standard then appears as a digital image on the computer monitor, which has been calibrated for accuracy based on the CIE (or color measuring) scale.

3. Once the color standard is set, it's electronically sent to a supplier, where trial samples are produced. Note that in many instances, suppliers may choose to create virtual samples in order to narrow the gap between what their customers initially specify and what can be produced cost effectively.

4. The supplier then electronically sends back its digital sample of the best possible color match to the production house. If the match is not acceptable, more trials are requested and performed by the supplier until the trial sample is considered acceptable.

 Although true color matching is the most vital feature (as well as the primary goal) of a color quality control system, the new technology also takes into account other practical needs, such as security and ease of use.

Security standards you can set

 The latest functionality in color quality control provides for ease in maintaining security, as well. The best systems provide user-defined security levels. These allow authorized users of the system (e.g., a system administrator) to define different levels of user categories either as a class or on an individual basis. Examples of a "class" might be quality control technician, lab supervisor or production manager. Systems with this function permit administrators to define which screens, functions, reports and other operations a particular security level is entitled to view. Each security level is assigned a user name and password.

 There are several benefits to this approach. First, technician training is simplified. The learning curve is minimized, with all workers in your organization trained on a "need to know" basis rather than having to absorb (and forget) areas of the system they'll never use.

  A second benefit is the elimination of common operator errors. Functions that require a higher level of security simply aren't available to this user. But be careful to ensure that the system you choose doesn't lock out necessary functions along with advanced levels. Users should still have easy access to on-screen tools that help them maneuver around the screen and those parts of the system available to them.

Desktop design for easy use

 Even the most sophisticated color quality control systems should be easy to learn and operate in their entirety. And they should be useful to everyone throughout the quality department. With systems based on today's Windows-driven, graphic-oriented software, users should be able to create files, set up pass/fail criteria, share data and generate customized reports--with point-and-click ease from a desktop environment.

 Some vendors also are adding to the ease of use by including powerful search functions. Color quality control and formulation system users often generate enormous databases of color data as well as color formulations. The ability to search through these massive amounts of information for the closest color goes a long way toward satisfying the requirements of your in-house personnel or customers. Once users enter the samples to be used as the search criteria, for example, they should be able to measure this data in the system or retrieve it from a compatible database. The search function should be equally accessible, being initiated by clicking on a button or similar screen icon.

 Flexibility is also an important attribute. For example, some of the most advanced systems let users define and configure screens and report formats to ensure that the system meets their exact needs or the requirements of the department. It's even possible for today's color quality control users to submit professional presentations and analyses to management and customers in 2- or 3-D mode for highly accurate and visually communicative forms of color data.

 In today's competitive just-in-time environment, anything less than consistent, high-level quality risks both your position in the global marketplace and customer relationships altogether. Color, too, is subject to increasingly tight quality control standards. If anything, effective color control, beginning with accurate and repeatable color measurement and data analysis, is the best test of quality. At present, there are a variety of advances in computerized systems engineered with the idea of improving quality, productivity and profitability.


About the author

 Ray Frugia is business manager for several of Datacolor's industrial markets. Datacolor is the world's leading supplier of color management systems, software and instruments for a variety of industries. These range from paint and coatings, plastics, textiles, ink, printing, paper and food to automotive and others.

 Frugia is responsible for all product development, marketing and customer
relations for the paint, plastics and ink industries. Having been with the company since 1996, Frugia has served in a number of key capacities including product development manager for instruments and managing director for Datacolor Asia Pacific.

  Frugia can reached by telephone at (609) 895-6901, by fax at (609) 895-7472 or by e-mail at rfrugia@qualitydigest.com . For more information about Datacolor, visit www.datacolor.com .

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