In this interview, X-Rite Pantone Color Expert Felix Schmollgruber discusses current trends in the measurement, management and communication of color and appearance data in the plastics industry and suggests what to watch for in the future.
Editor: Felix, plastics professionals have been dealing with color issues for many years. Can you tell us what has recently changed the dynamics?
Schmollgruber: The key trend we are seeing is the desire on the part of various manufacturers – from consumer electronics and household appliances to automotive and packaging – to use more advanced plastic surfaces, including special effects finishes. Designers who are specifying plastics surfaces are excited about the things they can do these days, including translucent, pearlescent, metallic and sparkling effects as well as textures. This presents challenges when it comes to the ability to accurately measure and monitor both color and appearance.
Editor: Can you give us a couple of examples what you are talking about?
Schmollgruber: One example would be something like a microwave door. In the past, it was simply a specific color and flat surface texture; whereas now there is a growing desire to add textures and other special effects to enhance the product appearance. In addition, plastics are replacing glass in many applications. Front-loading washers, for example, where the door used to be glass can now be constructed in plastic, reducing both weight and cost while providing the ability to add more special effects to the finishes. This is also a growing requirement in the highly competitive consumer electronics market.
Editor: Why does this trend create challenges for the plastics supply chain?
Schmollgruber: Already at various stages in the supply chain, there are challenges with ensuring accurate color, from production of pigments through compounding, masterbatching and final manufacturing and assembly. In many cases, manufacturers are dealing with a global supply chain, with parts manufactured in various locations around the globe. Everything has to match when it reaches the point of final assembly, and manufacturers are also looking for as little batch-to-batch variance as possible. By adding special effects finishes to the mix, you add a completely different layer of complexity. Instead of just worrying about color and gloss, you now also have to worry about appearance – textures, reflective surfaces and more. The paint & coatings industry has been dealing with this longer. But keep in mind that paint is a very thin layer, while plastics are thicker, presenting additional challenges especially when you are dealing with special effects finishes like metallics that change color or appearance based on the angle of view, and where alignment of the special effects flakes and other materials is critical to the final appearance of the product. With the thickness of plastic, you can easily lose the special effects appearance or the desired pigment effects. Keep in mind also that technology allows quite complex injection molding for specialty finishes as well.
Editor: What are some of the things happening in the industry to help stakeholders better communicate and manage both color and appearance?
Schmollgruber: There is a growing level of activity in the area of characterization of appearance. Very recently, I received a communication from the Southern German Plastics Center (Süddeutsches Kunststoff-Zentrum (SKZ)), a research association that is well-known in the central European plastics community. Their Color Management Committee has been working with the German association for the automotive industry, Verband der Automobilindustrie (VDA) on a research project to define scales and parameters for process and quality control for appearance of plastics. At the same time, X-Rite has recently introduced its http://www.xrite.com/categories/Appearance. It is a simple-to-operate solution, that enables the creation of virtual renderings with the exact same optical characteristics as the real material so that what you see on screen or in our Virtual Light Booth is what you see in the final product. Color and appearance data are captured via scans and compressed into a manageable file size using X-Rite’s vendor-neutral Appearance eXchange Format (AxF) file format that can then be ingested into most major Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), Computer-Aided Design (CAD), and state-of-the art rendering applications. Your readers are probably already using the Color eXchange Format (CxF) to communicate color, another vendor-neutral file format that was developed by X-Rite and subsequently adopted as an ISO standard. CxF is a subset of AxF; in other words, with AxF we have extended the ability to accurately describe and communicate color characteristics to include appearance characteristics as well. Initiatives like these will help to quickly address the challenges manufacturers and others in the plastics supply chain face today in terms of their ability to consistently deliver high-quality, differentiated products to the market with minimal waste and the shortest possible time to market. We will be collaborating with the SKZ/VDA project as well as continuing our own research and development activities.
Editor: What do you see as the end result of these efforts?
Schmollgruber: The ultimate goal is to be able to use digital materials and solutions to qualify real products against specified digital materials without the need for shipping so many physical samples around the globe. In addition to TAC, we’ll continue to develop our instruments and software solutions to make the digital specification and process/quality control for plastics and other industries a reality.
Editor: Since your launch of TAC, what kind of response have you seen in the market?
Schmollgruber: First of all, TAC was developed in response to an articulated need, mostly coming from the automotive industry. But we have also seen interest from other industries, including plastics and textiles. One interesting side note regarding physical standards used to monitor color performance in plastics: Plastics age quickly and are sensitive to temperature. One major plastics masterbatcher we have spoken to recently told us that they actually keep their master reference panels in a bag in the freezer to make them last longer. They and others are thrilled that we are at a point where you can virtually throw away the physical samples and work from digital samples. Data is affected by temperature or exposure to light! In order to make that easier, we are making Pantone Digital Libraries available for the plastics and other industries. These are digital libraries that include specifications for the full spectrum of Pantone colors and also enable the ability to include custom colors. In this way, everyone is working from the same digital standard, and you don’t have to worry about the degradation of physical standards.
Editor: What are some of the problems that occur when measurements are taken without good inter-instrument agreement?
Schmollgruber: People are specifically interested in instruments with good inter-instrument agreement to eliminate the variation you can get when using different measurement instruments in different parts of the process. One example I saw recently was a “golden sample” that was provided by a U.S. manufacturer and a production sample from a European supplier. The manufacturer used a benchtop spectrophotometer for measurements and the supplier used a handheld. They got very different results, but according to the supplier’s instruments, the production sample was in spec, while the manufacturer got completely different results. This can lead to disagreements about color accuracy, especially when tolerances are tight, often causing delays and costly rework. This is where color management can break down. Had they both been using a Ci7860, they would both have been working off a platform with very tight inter-instrument agreement and the supplier would have gotten result that would have allowed a correction before the production sample was sent back. It starts with a good master specification on the part of the manufacturer, and then highly accurate production and quality control on the part of the supplier. Especially when you combine this type of very tight tolerances on the part of the color measurement instrument with the accurate virtualization for both color and appearance delivered by a solution like TAC, you can see that stakeholders in the supply chain could quickly gain enough confidence in the digital process that they could virtually eliminate the time and expense of sending samples around the globe. They can easily compare both color and appearance using virtual samples.