Ink Optimization Software: More Than Just Saving Ink
By Ron Ellis

Ink optimization software has been with us for some time, but most printing plants do not use it. Many have not heard of it and are unaware of how the software works and what it does. Ink optimization software uses Gray Component Replacement (GCR) to change the separation of the image. The software will take color from the file, and increase the black channel. The software can be set to take more or less color out depending on the user needs. The most obvious benefit is reduced ink usage, but there are many other benefits as well.

    The function performed by GCR – the removal of color and replacement of black makes most people expect to see a color change in the resulting separations. What results however is a nearly identical separation. This first benefit of ink optimization is the use of less ink to achieve an identical separation. It is common for ink reduction to result in a 10%-30% reduction in ink use and ink costs. While this appeals to the printing plant owners and finance officers, ink reduction is not the main benefit. These potential cost savings often are what get the product in the door.

    GCR is often used for purposes other than saving ink. Scanner operators often apply GCR to an image to make the image more neutral. This is also the case with ink optimization software except instead of just applying GCR to images, the software applies GCR to all elements, vectors and images. Beyond ink savings, the added benefit of applying GCR is stability. Not only does the GCR make the image appear more neutral but the removal of color and insertion of black makes the printed result more stable. This can be seen on press when running a job with GCR by adjusting an ink key. On the page without GCR the ink key adjustment is quick and obvious. On the page with GCR the adjustment has less of an effect, and in case of high GCR almost no effect. This results in faster makeready, and improved consistency across a pressrun.

    GCR software also typically adjusts the total ink limit (TAC). In the past when images and jobs where were touched in prepress this would be done by prepress operators. Today many files entering printing plants have unknown origins, and the GCR software can globally apply the desired TAC to the entire document. Take the example of a web printer - if a customer created a document in Adobe Creative Suite with a TAC of 400%, the software would automatically adjust the file and all elements down to this plants desired TAC of 260. This means putting less ink on the page, which makes printing and control much easier for the press operators.

    An additional function of systems applying GCR is the ability of the software to perform gamut mapping. Many of the GCR systems are using device links (two icc profiles used to make a direct color conversion) and because of this they can convert files from one colorspace to another. It means they can be used to make the press print to a standard print condition such as GRACoL or SWOP, as well as take advantage of ink savings. While many printers still use press curves and a GCR system, with gamut mapping press curves are not always necessary. There are many parts of the print space (such as the ¾ tones) where it is physically impossible to perfectly match the print specifications. An even more powerful example of gamut mapping is the ability to move from one colorspace to another. For example if you are in a print process where you need to use a non-traditional rotation, such as moving the Y to another position, the GCR software can be used to map color so that the color of traps and other elements appears correct. In these situations it would be physically impossible to match GRACoL or SWOP but the color mapping will correct the values in the file so the press output will appear correct. (It can also be used to match your press to a customer’s custom proof condition.)

    So to summarize the benefits of applying GCR on a job are typically improved reproduction, better neutrals, consistent TAC, less ink usage as well as faster makeready and improved stability across the pressrun. There is also the opportunity to perform transformations from one colorspace to another. Sounds great? Like anything else there are things to watch out for.

    Danger areas for GCR range from the simple and predictable to more complex behaviors. The most simple is that if you have less ink on the page then you will have less control. On a web press without closed loop color control less ink is helpful, as you have limited control over the color. On a sheetfed press, where you may be precisely adjusting the color during the press ok you may actually need the color on the sheet. Other complaints include occasional quality issues (rare but depending on the system and conditions possible).  Other things to watch are if you are doing custom GCR based on press conditions (rather than a more generic GCR) you need to watch and adjust as your press conditions change.

Ink Optimization Systems

    There are a number of systems that perform ink optimization and GCR. We will briefly discuss a few of the most common ones in this article: Alwan CMYK Optimizer ECO, CGS Ink Saver, GMG Ink Optimizer, and FineEye.

    Alwan CMYK Optimizer ECO is based on the Alwan ColorHub. It is a Macintosh hot-folder driven product that uses Alwan’s dynamic device link technology to adjust color separation and ink consumption. Highlights of the product include it’s simple and intuitive interface with full user controls. Each image and page is analyzed and adjusted  to the defined output color space, GCR, and TAC. The product is simple to configure and operate and uses ICC profiles and can also directly import IDEALink Curve data, as well as provide late binding plate curve edits. Elie Khoury of Alwan says, “CMYK Optimizer's technology ability to analyze, identify and correct PDF documents coming from multiple sources with different color content makes it superior to other color management technologies that simply apply the same color transformation to all input documents, regardless of their content.” Alwan is used by companies such as Sandy Alexander, Hennigan, and Quad Graphics.

    CGS Ink Saver is based on the core color management technology behind the successful CGS ORIS ColorTuner product. CGS Ink Saver runs on the Windows platform. The product has a friendly interface with controls that show the separation planes for profile smoothness and GCR, as well as sliders that can be used to adjust the settings. Bruce Brown of CGS says, “CGS is different in several ways. We have the highest ink reduction, which results in many press room benefits including faster dry time, reduced offsetting, improved grey balance control, reduced press water consumption, faster press make ready, reduced paper waste, improved print stability and list goes on and on....beyond our competitors. I know that is a big statement but that is why CGS offers a performance guarantee. We show it, prove it, and guarantee it.” Not just a hotfolder based program, ORIS Ink Saver includes rules based automation tools for integrating to systems such as Prinergy and others and is able to directly ftp and route files. CGS Ink Saver users include IntegraColor, Nahan Printing, Inc., John Roberts Company and Creel Printing.    

GMG Ink Optimizer is based on the GMG ColorServer product. GMG Ink Optimizer runs on the Windows platform. The product uses custom device link profiles and GMG’s custom algorithms to perform the ink savings and GCR. It can be configured out of the box with predefined GMG settings as well as custom settings. Marc Welch of GMG says, “GMG device link profiles have superior quality and smoothness over all other vendors.” GMG Ink Optimizer uses GMG’s profile editor and iterative technology to produce the device links used by the software. The product includes multi-core support for up to 16 CPU’s for processing power.  Users of GMG Ink Optimizer include Gannett, PBM (CGX) and Dartmouth Printing (Sheridan Group).

    FineEye is the newest product in the mix. FineEye runs on the Macintosh platform and uses FineEye’s ICE technology.  ICE is based on Media Maps which take into account the specific paper and ink combinations. Mike DiCosola says , “ICE is the only system capable of using this unique patent-pending approach to creating CMYK color for output. The result is a separation that improves the entire print process, optimizing quality and reducing manufacturing costs.” Because the approach is different than traditional GCR FineEye states they can expand the gamut while at the same time saving more ink than traditional GCR based systems. Customers using FineEye include Foremost Graphics, Berlin Industries, Segerdahl Graphics, DPC and others.


 Ron Ellis is a Boston-based consultant specializing in color management, worflow integration, and press calibration. He has provided installation and training services to dealers, manufacturers, and content creators since 1986. An IDEAlliance G7 Expert and chair of the GRACoL Committee, Ron has performed over 100 G7 calibrations. In addition to calibrating pressrooms for customers such as Pantone, Ron also specializes in creating internal working spaces for brands and agencies that allow them to work more efficiently with vendors, saving both time and money. Ron is published frequently in industry magazines, and has produced training materials for numerous printing industry vendors and publishers. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at www.ronellisconsulting.com.

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