Keys to Reliable Digital Color Communication

The challenge that we all face regardless of our business is how to get the right product to the customer at the right time when they are ready to purchase.  This is especially true in the apparel business, as consumer preference changes quickly and failure to have products that fit the current trend can mean more than just a short-term loss of business.  The adoption of digital color communication has facilitated a significant reduction in color development cycle time, but it has also introduced challenges of its own.  Failure to control the process by which the digital color data is created will lead to the exchange of incorrect information, misunderstanding about product quality, and delays in the development cycle.  To ensure confidence in the quality of the digital color data that is being exchanged, the sources of variation in the measurement process must be identified and controlled.

 

 

Basics of Digital Color Communication

 

Multiple processes are required for successful color development from the time that a designer selects a color until the time that it ends up on a showroom floor, and in order to have products for a particular season, the development process must start months in advance.  The challenge is how to ensure that the right color is communicated from concept to consumer.

 

The first step in the color specification process is the identification of a standard to use for color matching.  The original source for inspiration may be a swatch of fabric or a color created on a monitor, and this target must be communicated accurately to the mills providing the final product.  Experience bears out, however, that physical standards are often a source of misunderstanding between designers and manufacturers and can lead to delays if care is not taken in their selection.  While finding a good standard solves many of the problems associated with getting a good shade match, they do nothing to improve upon the color development process as a whole.  Physical standards must still be distributed and the target color maintained throughout the development process in order to achieve the desired color in the market.  The only way to guarantee the color integrity of the standard and to also decrease development time is to communicate the digital representation of the selected standard.  What does a digital standard look like?  It is simply a set of numbers called spectral reflectance values that describe how the object interacts with light.  Whether we are beginning the color process with a physical standard or a CAD design, the color can be defined numerically in this way.  Numerous computer programs have been developed that interpret these numbers and provide basic descriptions of color and color difference.

 

Once the physical color standards have been selected, they can be measured on a spectrophotometer and instantly e-mailed to suppliers who can then begin their development process.  Suppliers will typically use dye formulation software to quickly produce dye recipes that have been optimized to control issues such as metamerism, repeatability, and coordination with other components.  This is followed by the communication of samples to the retail customer in either physical form or in digital form.  The advantage of a digital process is that samples can be quickly compared to target standards using quality control software as a filtering tool to eliminate unacceptable samples before they are given final review.  This is critical as the volume of samples typically received in any given period is substantial.  Those samples that pass the numeric filtering process can then be evaluated visually using calibrated monitor technology.  The samples are evaluated individually against a standard or previewed in various light sources to determine if metamerism is a problem.  Prior to final approval the samples may be evaluated with other components to assess color coordination and consistency.  Depending on the volume of development work required, the savings in time and expense realized by a retailer who employs electronic communication of standards and color submissions can be substantial.  It must be noted, however, that not all materials and colors are suitable for digital color communication and will continue to be processed using existing manual methods.  Care must be taken at the beginning of the process to identify these types of materials to avoid any misinterpretation of the success of the digital color program.

 

Ensuring Digital Color Reliability

 

The key to the success of the digital color communication process is the reliability of the digital data being communicated during each step of the development cycle.  Digital data can be deemed reliable when a different person can get the same results when the physical sample is remeasured at a different location on a different instrument.  This is possible by careful control of the instrument, the measurement technique, the environment in which the samples are measured, and the methods employed by the person evaluating the data.  Problems in any of these areas can introduce errors that manifest themselves as the wrong color at the end of the development process.

 

Ken Butts