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Canon iPFx400 Series Printers: Simplifying Color Management in a Multi-Printer Environment

February 04, 2013

The essential goal of printer color management is to ensure that each printing device reproduces the range of color and tonal values precisely and predictably. But in large-scale print operations where multiple printers are employed, that’s often easier said than done.

With the introduction of the latest imagePROGRAF large-format 12-color printers, Canon has taken a comprehensive and fleet-wide approach toward printer color management. By combining standardized ink sets and print-head components, an innovative calibration technology, flexible custom media support and a centralized management toolset, they’ve created a simpler and more integrated workflow designed to maintain precise color reproduction in high-volume, multi-printer environments.

In the sections that follow, we’ll discuss the unique color management challenges faced by large-scale print operations, investigate the essential aspects of printer color management, and take a closer look inside Canon’s new imagePROGRAF color management features.

The Challenge of Color Management in Multi-Printer Environments

In small operations where only one or two large-format printers are in service, color management is usually focused on maintaining the performance of each device individually. Users typically formulate a workable calibration and configuration process that facilitates control of image color from a specific display to final output on a specific printer. Once established, that process becomes an informal but repeatable element in the workflow. Regular, individual recalibration of each device prevents color shifts over time, thereby maintaining color predictability and accuracy.

On the other hand, in a large operation with multiple large-format printers, such as print-for-pay, in-house corporate print departments, high-volume photo labs and design agencies, the situation is more complex. These organizations typically have much larger teams, submitting print jobs from multiple work stations to any one of several printers. They typically utilize printers with varying widths, sometimes even operating remotely in different locations. They also use a wide variety of custom media. And there is a business imperative to maintain (sometimes aggressive) production schedules. But most importantly, there is a strict requirement for objective color accuracy – as measured by conformance to industry-standard color values.

What happens in this situation is that the informal, single device focused color management process that works well in a small operation begins to impede production in a large operation. If all the printers in a fleet are not calibrated to produce identical results, bottlenecks begin to occur. For example an image that is color-accurate on one printer that can’t be printed anywhere else. Or a proof needs a last minute adjustment before heading off to production, but is forced to wait due to a backlog on the printer that produced the proof. As a result, some devices are backed up with jobs while others sit idle, multiple versions of an image are created to compensate for printer differences, and getting the desired results from custom media becomes an exercise in trial and error. If you’ve faced such situations, then you’ve probably experienced the consequences as well: frustration, wasted material and project delays.

Addressing the Need for Fleet-Wide Color Management

So how do you create a single image file and know that it will print correctly on your chosen media and on any printer in the fleet? The answer is to keep all printers calibrated to a standard baseline. That way, your profiles will work as expected and you can be assured the image will print accurately on whichever device you choose.

But here is the problem. Many of the calibration tools available for large-format printers are designed for single printer environments. These require the coordinated execution of several manual steps, resulting in a process that is time consuming and labor intensive. Consequently, calibration procedures often interfere with normal workflow and production. Further, most tools don’t restore a printer to its factory settings and they typically require additional components, such as a third-party RIP, for full implementation. Compensation data must be copied to each print workstation, creating more chances for incompatibility. All in all, it’s an approach that restricts fleet-wide calibration to select media and limits printing to specific applications or systems. That, in turn, limits flexibility and productivity because such a process does not scale well to a multi-printer environment.

In launching the imagePROGRAF iPFx400 series of large-format printers, Canon has introduced a calibration system that allows users to easily restore printers to the optimized state for each printer and media combination. And because compensation data is saved directly to each printer’s internal controller, there is no need for special software. So you will see the same results from any image sent to any compatible printer, even when using custom media.

Accuracy and Consistency: The DNA of Printer Color Management

What do we mean by accuracy and consistency?

Color accuracy refers to a device’s ability to ensure that an image’s color and tone values are reproduced exactly as expected. For example, a device that is not color accurate may output a dark blue that has an unwanted purple hue, oranges that are too red, and greens that are too blue. A color-accurate device will not make these mistakes.

Color consistency refers to a device’s ability to produce and reproduce the same colors over time, without a shift or change in tone, hue or density. It’s important to look at color consistency from two perspectives:

  • Consistency from one print to the next produced on the same printer.
  • Consistency from one print to the next produced on different printers.

In the first case, an image printed on a device that produces consistent colors will always look the same any time that image is printed on that device, on the same media and in the same mode. For example, a retail chain that prints 3,000 signs for its holiday store displays wants them all to look identical, especially the corporate logo colors. Think of consistency defined here as accuracy maintained over time on a particular printer.

In the second case, images will not only look the same from print to print, but will look the same regardless of which printer is used. It’s a capability that’s particularly important in proofing or production situations where different printers may be involved in the workflow. That retail chain, for instance, might print half of its signs on the East Coast and half on the West. Still, all of the signs need to be identical regardless of where they came from. Here, consistency is defined as accuracy maintained over both time and devices.

Next we’ll see how Canon’s imagePROGRAF technologies work together to achieve accuracy and consistency across multiple iPFx400 series printers.

Laying the Foundation of Fleet-Wide Color Management

One important step that Canon has taken is to launch a line of printers, all built around the same core components. By standardizing performance of the printers across a whole fleet, Canon has created a foundation on which color management can be more easily achieved. The iPFX400 series includes the following large-format printer models.

  • imagePROGRAF iPF6400: A 24-inch wide printer for low-volume applications.
  • imagePROGRAF iPF6450: A 24-inch wide printer that includes a built-in hard drive and offers an optional spectrophotometer.
  • imagePROGRAF iPF8400: A 44-inch wide printer with a built-in hard drive useful for high-volume applications such as those found in photo labs, in-house printing departments or print-for-pay providers.
  • imagePROGRAF iPF9400: A 60-inch wide printer with a built-in hard drive ideal for rendering large-format photographs, fine-art giclée reproductions and signage.

All of the models were engineered around the following common set of components.

  • 12-color LUCIA EX inks, including four monochrome colors, that offer a 20% wider color gamut from the previous LUCIA ink set, allowing for approximately 90% coverage of Pantone© colors. In addition, the LUCIA EX inks provide improved scratch resistance, deeper dark tones, better gloss uniformity, and reduced bronzing. These characteristics ensure that the images you print will retain their color vibrancy and accuracy over time.
  • Dual PF-05 high-density print heads, each with 2,560 nozzles per color. Each nozzle applies ink in 4 picoliter droplets for high-resolution output up to 2400x1200 dpi. It’s a level of fine-grained color control that yields extremely detailed shadow areas, smooth tonal ranges and precise color reproduction.
  • An onboard multi-sensor, which measures color density and restores the printer to the correct density settings. It provides calibration and color matching for precise accuracy to an average color difference of less than 2.0 ∆E2000.
  • Tone controls for black and white output. Available through the print driver’s dialog screens, these new controls partition the entire printable monochrome range into five distinct spaces. It’s an approach that offers nuanced control, an overall expanded tonal range and smoother transitions between blacks and whites.
Summary

The color management process utilizes color measurement data collected by a spectrophotometer and specialized software to control image quality in applications where objective color accuracy is required.

Proofing, fine art reproduction, commercial photography and corporate branding applications can all benefit from this type of advanced color management. In addition color management solutions can also be used to support custom media and fine-tune media profiles.

There are several factors to consider when choosing a color management solution and spectrophotometer. Among them are the precison and standards compliance of the spectrophotometer, automated versus manual profiling operation, profile sharing among printers, support for a wide range of media types, integration with existing RIP workflow, and support for fleet-wide accuracy and consistency.

Simplifying Printer Calibration

Each iPFx400 series printer comes with an onboard multi-sensor that detects color density. Among the redesigned device’s improvements are a three-color LED light source, a high-sensitivity photodiode and a condenser lens based on the same industry-leading optical technology found in Canon digital cameras. The new design allows for more light to be received and significantly raises both the signal level and signal-to-noise ratio compared to the prior generation of sensors.

Among the user benefits of the multi-sensor are:

  • Minimal interruption to production due to speedy drying and measurement times (approximately 10 minutes total calibration time per printer).
  • Savings on ink due to the spectral characteristics of the LUCIA EX formulation and the multi-sensor’s ability to detect very small calibration patches. Lower ink usage also allows for calibration on lightweight papers.
  • Improved flexibility in managing a wide range of media, including third-party papers.
  • Less management complexity because calibration data is automatically stored on each printer’s controller allowing compensation to be tied to the media selection at the printer level rather than on individual workstations.

The bottom line is that the multi-sensor allows you to perform a linearization operation to the same baseline across a fleet of printers. And you can do it quickly, repeatedly (right out of the box and on a regular schedule), without interrupting production and without additional hardware and software.

Integrating Custom Media into the Workflow

Many digital printing operations offer services that call for the creation of custom media calibrations. There are two cases where this typically occurs:

  • The use of third-party media for which no corresponding Canon calibration exists.
  • Applications that require exact color accuracy, such as the creation of prepress proofs intended for client approval prior to print production runs.

To meet these requirements, the 24-inch wide iPF6450 printer supports an optional onboard spectrophotometer unit (SU-21), developed in conjunction with X-Rite. The calibration operations are accessed through Canon’s Media Configuration Tool application, which uses the spectrophotometer to measure the spectral reflectance of inks on the user-defined media. The tool then creates the calibration target data, which can be shared with all other iPFx400 12-color printers connected to your in-house network, regardless of whether they are local or remote.

In keeping with iPFx400 series’ emphasis on efficiency – and to reduce time and the possibility of error – all of the calibration steps are automated, including patch printing, drying, color measurement and calibration target generation. And once you have shared a custom media to other printers and performed the multi-sensor calibration to ensure accuracy between devices, you will see the same accurate and consistent color reproduction regardless of which printer you use. You can expect an average measurable color difference across printers of ∆E2000 <2.0, just as you do with a single printer.

When it comes to creating proofs, most prepress departments have well-defined workflows that incorporate existing third-party RIP software. Canon has taken the approach that the creation of an ICC profile from a RIP should be done using the tools you prefer. Consequently, Canon makes available to RIP vendors the spectrophotometer measurement data, which can then be used to generate the corresponding ICC profiles. Many of the leading RIP vendors already support the iPF6450’s spectrophotometer, including GMG ColorProof, CGS ORIS Color Tuner, EFI Colorproof XF, and Onyx ProductionHouse. Additionally, other color management RIP partners will develop support for the Canon SU21 spectrophotometer for automated color management control.

Automating and Centralizing Color Management

Keeping multiple printers properly configured and in good working order is essential to maintaining fleet-wide color accuracy and consistency. The Color Calibration Management Console (CCMC) software application lets you control and monitor a fleet of iPFx400 series printers from one computer system.

Here are some of the things you can do using the CCMC:

  • Control user access to management applications and printer consoles.
  • Group printers according to loaded media type and identify printer calibrations that are out of date for that media.
  • Share media profiles created using the Media Configuration Tool and iPF6450 spectrophotometer with all networked iPFx400 12-color printers.
  • Receive notification when recalibration is required on any networked iPFX400-series printer.

Another management application, the Accounting Manager (Windows OS only), captures, calculates and displays information related to printing costs. Variables such as printing volume, paper and ink costs, number of sheets used, and amount of paper and ink consumed can be managed on a per-user or per-month basis. Additionally, the collected data can be exported to a CSV file for use in popular spreadsheet software.

Summary

The job of color management presents special challenges in large, multi-printer environments, whether commercial, retail or in-house. Built on a common foundation of LUCIA EX inks and PF-05 print heads, the iPFx400 series with multi-sensor calibration and an optional spectrophotometer unit (iPF6450 only) offers the ability to:

  • Quickly calibrate all iPFx400 series printers to the optimized setting for their media
  • Easily create and share calibrations for custom media
  • Support automated color control using preferred RIP software tools

And with the Color Calibration Management Console, administrators can monitor and control all iPFx400 series printers from one location.

By taking a holistic approach, Canon has simplified the process of color management with a creative solution focused on maintaining objective color accuracy and consistency across a shared fleet of large-format printers.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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