Before leaving for Europe in the summer of 2003, Matthew Alexander made a couple of phone calls and let people know he was coming to find new technology for his printing company. He would be traveling through five or six countries and if there was anything exciting out there, he wanted to see it. One of his contacts in Germany went to work.
When Alexander showed up at Eckart, six men were waiting for him. Eckart practically controls the worldwide metallic ink market because it owns most of the viable patents for producing such pigment. For decades now, the company has been making a gold mine out of filling huge drums with metal particles, ink and steel balls and then shaking and sieving out materials for further refining. The six men began telling Alexander about a colour technology they had just licensed from British software developers, called MetalFX.
Algorithms in the MFX software automatically create a fifth colour channel that is applied to an image within Photoshop, QuarkXPress, Illustrator or just about any common graphic arts application. Because the 16-bit software has 256 gray steps, it can ultimately create 104-million metallic colours. A large combination of those colours can be reproduced through one run of a 5-colour press (as in the case of this issue’s cover). Four common CMYK process colours are put down on a no-opaque, silver ink base.
This software forever changes the stats quo of producing costly and time-heavy metallic jobs that traditionally need to be run through one tower per colour, and deal with varnishes and extra passes. Not only can MFX save thousands of dollars on a metallic job and prepare it quicker, the software’s colour capability completely frees up designer imagination.
“The day I saw it, I phoned my partner and said this is the most exciting thing I have ever seen in my entire printing career,” recalls Alexander, president of Toronto-based Colour Innovations. “It is so phenomenal: 104 million colours. How do you comprehend that?” Alexander brought MFX back to Toronto and the company immediately began applying decades of craft-based printing knowledge to establish a repeatable manufacturing process. All of Colour Innovations’ five owners are seasoned printing craftspeople: Pius Schneider, Dominic Agostino, Steve Kendrick, Carlo D’Onofrio and Alexander.
The partners understand what drives MFX – software. They began using prepress techniques to figure out how MFX would best reach the press. Once there, master pressman Kendrick applied his knowledge to work back to prepress, where finer frontend adjustments were made. The team continued to work back and forth between prepress and the press, extensively with the silver ink, curves and dot gain, until a firm metallic workflow was fully ironed out.
“You can’t just get a technology because you want it. We understand technology, we can apply the technology and we can manage it,” says Alexander. “We are looking at introducing two or three new technologies a year.”
Colour Innovations currently offers a handful of product lines that are completely unique to the surrounding Toronto marketplace – and likely stretching across Canada and down into many parts of the United States. Even though other companies are testing MFX, Alexander includes it in his unique product lineup because he confidently believes Colour Innovations leads the world in the development of this technology. “In my world, there are not a lot of other companies like us because we do research and development.” Each product line was internally developed to follow Alexander’s strategy of cultivating distinct projects. “There is no value perception for print in the design community,” he says, before confirming that he intends to change that.
After 13 years of straight-line growth, Colour Innovations, like most companies in the printing industry, received a rude economic wake up call in the year 2001. As many major sheetfed printers in Toronto started dropping prices with the idea of filling their presses, the rest of the printing community was sent into a tailspin, chasing after a business model they would never be able to catch. There were no increased revenues to be found by cutting prices. Most price-cutting companies still produced the same amount of work, because print was just being pulled out of a strangled advertising market – one will never be the same again because alternative mediums to print have indeed arrived.
In the early days of Toronto’s print pricing war, Colour Innovations was approached by an advertising agency that needed to produce a specialty product for an American Express campaign. Although he will not reveal details about the project, (the technique continues to be used as one of those unique product lines), Alexander says this particular campaign made the company’s partners see how they could effectively build a new corporate culture. The concept is simple enough: Value is the big winner in the new marketplace, not price. The challenge would be whether or not they could find clients who would understand why value is not what you pay, but rather what it is that you are paying for.
It is frustrating to watch designers and agencies spend thousands of dollars on a photo shoot, on the lighting and colour correction, three days of shooting, and then have them walk away from a printer who wanted to increase pricing by a few percentage points. All of that photography ultimately would be judged on the quality of the final printed piece, but it doesn’t matter, designers usually have more perceived value for the photography than for the printing.
The design generation is one of computerized spirits who are more interested in researching software and web applications than print. What would make them act otherwise? Remember this is a community whose demographic is flooded by people under the age of 35, who presumably know little about techniques like film-based workflow. Few certainly would think there is anything different or special to research about the printing industry.
When he began to shift Colour Innovations’ business culture, Alexander spoke with dozens of creative types and quickly realized that, in fact, they are willing to pay for value. But that value must be directly tied to innovative products, much in the way that designers are accustomed to changes in the software world, for example. Alexander believes the design community drives print. Reaching them means developing the value of print under their teams. “The world has changed from engineered products to design products, “ he says.
Drawing on an analogy from the automobile manufacturing industry, Alexander suggests that from the 1950s to the 1990s every car commercial pushed a message of this automobile engineered by Ford that automobile engineered by Honda. Today, consumers assume there is a certain standard of engineering in cars because their manufacturers cross-pollinate parts to avoid wasting enormous research and development dollars in redesigning every single piece of a car. “You buy a car today based on what you like about its design. I love that colour, I love that shape. It’s a visual perception, and that is where printing is right now. Printing has always been visual but somewhere along the line it stopped bringing vale.”
Digitized technologies continue to pick away at the influence that the printing press held over the outcome of the printed pieces for decades. Make that centuries. As more press accuracy is controlled in the prepress department through monthly innovations in things like page imposition software and computer-to-plate hardware, the influence of engineering slips farther out of the pressroom. “Print is not bought on engineering, it is bought on product development,” says Alexander.
The printers who continue to miss this point, struggle to sell directly to clients and are forced to compete with hundreds of others pushing the limits of lowest pricing. Some of these companies even think things will eventually return to normal. Colour Innovations, on the other hand, began concentrating on developing ink applications for specialty projects.
“A client will come to us and say they have a product that is not originally printed lithographic, but rather with a different process,” says Alexander. “They ask if we can do it with lithographic technology?” Colour Innovations will then research the idea and ultimately create a file to test an ink. The ink is usually sent to a lab for measured results in variables like opacity or water balance. Fixes are determined, and research and development continues. “There are two products that we actually created and we are the only company to do this in Toronto. It’s not patented because we don’t think there is enough value, but it does make us a specialist in that area.”
Colour Innovations rarely turns away the opportunity to work with interesting technology. When a completely new project is taken on, they work diligently to determine if there is enough value in the technology to make money. By doing this, they show the client how they can solve the most challenging communication problems and that builds loyalty, even if the application will only be used once a year. If that same client wants to develop a new program around another non-traditional printing project, they target Colour Innovations as the company to go to.
“Even if we don’t make a lot of money, we have gained that client for life,” says Alexander. This part of the research and development game, in the pursuit of finding that one technology that will become commercially successful – ideally, a technology that is completely disruptive to its marketplace. “There are a lot of new products out there that we can deal with, while a lot of other printers can’t manage them because there is so much R&D that needs to be done. No printer is going to spend $80,000 to get an $80,000 return. We are if it leads to a viable new product or technique.”
When Colour Innovations was implementing its FM screening process, it spent upward of $50,000 just to run tests. The company’s true stochastic process has the ability to improve the smoothness of an image by up to 30 per cent. To achieve this, Alexander points out that you need to know what type of inks you are using, have strong plate control and incredible water control in proper chilling units, which are only found on about five per cent of all presses in Canada.
An average sheetfed press may begin operating at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and rise to 80 or 90 degrees during the course of the day. Of course, this is why more water is added to cool the press and why inks are emulsified into fuzzy or dull reincarnations of their early morning selves. “We use 25 per cent less water because we have control with our chilling units. We have 24-hour temperature control and only a two per cent variance on heat,” explains Alexander. While there are inherent challenges working under tight printing tolerances, he believes much of the difficulty in stochasitic printing can be alleviated if a company commits the process to the vast majority of its jobs. Colour Innovations now prints more than 80 per cent of its work as FM, because the process falls in line with their strategy of adding value to print.
Production challenges are regularly overcome, but return on investment is an enormous concern surrounding an R&D – driven strategy. It is vital for Colour Innovations to run with a technology it believes in and push it as far out into the marketplace as possible. The company teamed with paper company M-real Canada Ltd. And design firm Context Creative Inc. to develop an ingenious marketing platform for the new technologies it brings to market.
Earlier this year, Issue Number One of a poster-sized magazine, called Fiber, arrived at hundreds of design firms across the country. On the cover a sexually suggestive tree as photographed by world-renowned photographer Yuri-Dojic. Inside, more woodland eroticism, as well as an interview with Dojic about his vision for Amorous Nature, which sits opposite of copy that explains the FM screening process.
The purpose of Fiber is to illustrate how design can be combined with paper and printing technologies to create new value in the printed medium. The Amorous Nature edition focuses on Colour Innovations’ stochastic printing on offset paper, which has often been a challenging combination for designers because of the levels of dot gain.
Designers often accept this dot gain risk because they simply want to move their work onto an uncoated offset stock, so that it will be different from the majority of advertising pieces in the marketplace. As Fiber point out, strict tolerances that are properly built in prepress using colour curves can control the dot gain – and allow designers to be more creative with offset stock. This is one of Colour Innovations’ strengths. The company will use successive Fiber issues (under editorial secrecy) over the next few months to introduce more technology to the creative community – and ultimately the printing community.
“When the Fiber piece about MetalFX went out, it developed a lot of interest. MFX is bringing technology to the design community and that will drive more value-added printing for the entire industry. Now designers will talk to their printers,” says Alexander. About a dozen live MFX jobs were moving through Colour Innovations at press time.
While Alexander has listened closely to the design community for what they want from print, he believes Colour Innovations’ distinct advantage in the marketplace has been fostered by actually driving the client with technology that is new to them. He suggests that the design community is quite hungry for new printing technology. This was clear the first time he showed MFX to a designer, and within a matter of minutes a dozen others were standing around the desk to get a look at the software kit, which Alexander provides for free to firms that sign partnering contracts. “Basically what Fiber has done is force printers to do more R&D and more testing beyond your average print jobs. We have affected the print market in Toronto.”
Bringing technology to clients without being asked to do so is a rarity in the printing industry, but clearly Colour Innovations will take advantage of that, never losing focus of their strategy.
There is pure value to be found in using MFX to accurately portray products like cosmetics, jewelry, credit cards and cars. Alexander strongly believes that metallic print is a hot market. The company so far has spent close to $50,000 on researching the potential applications of MFX.
Ideas for the metallic software are everywhere. Just by walking into the appliance department of a large department store like a Future Shop, Best Buy or Wal-Mart, Alexander suggests the current need for MFX will immediately jump out at you. “You can buy an $180 microwave that looks like a $1,000 microwave, because it is all brushed chrome.” Metal sells.
When Colour Innovations’ MFX work was shown to a cosmetics giant, that company was enticed to start a major initiative for their products. Eckart had Colour Innovations produce advertisements that will run through 19 large-circulation publications in the United States. Alexander suggests corporations with significant high-end accounts have nine to 18 months before most of their competitors are using the technology to make their customers’ products look better.
If such groundswell does is fact happen, it will certainly be pushed into the minds of many printers, particularly those who might face losing one of their major accounts. “I know one printing company in particular that is actually testing [MFX], because right now we are doing a test for on of their biggest clients,” says Alexander. “We are forcing clients to question their printers because all of a sudden we are presenting a lot of interesting options.”