Taking the Color Challenge
By Jordan K. Speer, Apparel
The color development and approval process has traditionally been a long and tedious one, requiring multiple iterations of lab dips and months for the procession of sample submittals to be sent back and forth. The goal of achieving consistent and accurate color encounters many hurdles, from ill-stored samples, to poor or improperly calibrated measurement equipment (or no equipment). Other barriers may include poorly educated mills and resistance from senior management to devote time and resources to improving color practices. As apparel manufacturers and retailers increasingly look to the front end of the apparel supply chain to find more time to squeeze, color departments are finally receiving the attention they deserve. Apparel recently spoke with three apparel companies - each at a different stage of development with respect to color management - to learn about the challenges they face and the strides they've made in this area. Here's what they had to say.
"Our goal is to bridge the gap between the mills and our customers."
"Our Dickie's navy has been our Dickie's navy for quite a while, and that's a basic fact of the workwear market," explains Amy Fox, quality assurance technical support manager. "Our navy, khaki and black today are the same as they were yesterday and what they will be tomorrow. It is what our customers expect," she expounds.
Achieving this consistency is critical at Dickie's Workwear - which is the flagship brand of Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co., an apparel manufacturer that sells workwear and uniforms to mass merchandisers such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Sears, as well as to industrial laundries, paint stores, farm supply stores and specialty stores.
As with many companies, one of Dickie's biggest color challenges comes from the lab dip approval process. In efforts to speed up and make its lab dip approvals more efficient, the company has developed long-term relationships with its vendors and mills, focusing on those that understand the basics of color theory, use up-to-date color technology such as spectrophotometers and are able to receive and transmit colormetric data.
That's important, because the company recently purchased Datacolor's ColorRite ImageMaster system for evaluating lab dips electronically. ImageMaster is a color measurement system that uses a color-calibrated monitor and scanned substrate images for true on-screen color evaluation, thus replacing the need for an actual light box, explains Fox.
Dickie's has converted most of its physical color standards to electronic color standards, and is transmitting the color standard information via .qtx files to and from its vendors. "We are now in the beginning stages of actually receiving that data in from our domestic mills, and once we work through that process and achieve a level of confidence, we plan to introduce it to our foreign mills," says Fox.
Fox says the company has found three major advantages to using electronic standards, including: the elimination of confusion over which standard to use; the fact that electronic standards don't change over time - as paper or fabric physical standards do when stored in a folder; and the reduction in lab dip process time and the elimination of shipping costs.
Because Dickie's is in the initial phase of the process, it's still following its e-mailed .qtx files with physical swatches, but Fox's goal is to eliminate the majority of this process. "At some point we hope to be able to just have the mill send us the colormetric data and be able to pull it up on ImageMaster and make the evaluation within 24 to 48 hours of receipt. A physical swatch would not be sent until after the lab dip had been approved."
Dickie's ultimate goal, however, is to "basically bridge the color gap between our mills and our customers," says Fox.
"We see a great deal of potential with ImageMaster not only for lab dips, but for production quality control as well," she explains. "Instead of physically receiving swatches, or shade bands, we want to be able to basically view that data on screen, and then transmit that to our customers who expect this data from us."
Currently, the company receives swatches from its vendors - its fabric mills use Gretag Macbeth's SLI-TaperTM Shade software to shade sequence fabric rolls, cutting physical swatches off of every dye lot, while its full package vendors send bulk production and shade band swatches - evaluates them visually and instrumentally, and then sends swatches to customers that require them. "With ImageMaster, instead of sending a swatch, we have the alternative of sending the data."
Getting its mills up to speed is part of the process. Dickie's works closely with them, offering training, distributing its fabric quality standard operating procedure manual and making sure that everyone is using the same measuring techniques and is working under the same laboratory environment conditions.
"We're one of the first apparel manufacturers that we believe is really bridging that gap with ImageMaster [in terms of using it] as a tool for evaluating production. We really feel that digital color communication is the future, and the elimination of swatches is just going to increase our efficiency, improve our quality and reduce our overall costs," says Fox.
As for that lab dip approval process, while Dickie's goal is 24 hours, right now it's at a 48- to 72-hour turnaround time on lab dips, and "that is because we are still receiving the physical lab dip, reading it into [Datacolor's] ColorTools, pulling it up on ImageMaster, making our evaluation on the screen and then following up in the light box," she says.
As for the entire color approval process, Fox states that passing standards electronically has already improved its former lengthy color approval cycle. The goal is one week to two weeks, which the company is close to achieving with its domestic vendors.
Going forward, Dickie's is working on a four-pronged approach to tackling color management issues, which includes achieving consistent color through production, from dye lot to dye lot; reducing lab dip time, labor and cost; increasing speed to market; and increasing customer satisfaction.
As with any change, getting everyone on board can be a bit of a challenge. "Since we're in the early stages of implementing this program, we're beginning to understand how important the training and understanding of basic color concepts is," says Fox.
The company is learning that it is important to train not only its vendors but also its in-house departments, such as the merchandising department, responsible for product development, the purchasing department that purchases the fabric and trim raw materials and the sourcing department, liaison to its international full-package manufacturers. "We want to have a complete buy-in on this new technology, and that's something that we feel strongly about," she concludes.
"We need to educate our company."
"It was like caveman times," jokes Evelyn Bierlein, colorist, speaking about Meijer's color policies until just about a year ago.
That's when the company, a Midwest-based mass merchandiser selling everything from lawn mowers to groceries to clothing, established Bierlein's position and a color analyst position. That was a huge step, and one that Bierlein had been working toward for some time. "Previously, an administrative assistant would visually match color in a light box," says Bierlein.
In other less-than-modern practices, the company's fashion image manager determined the color palette for the season, but buyers could add their own colors or morph the "official" palette, says Bierlein. Essentially, the buyers were the colorists, and there was no organization to color development or the lab dip approval process. For example, she notes, when lab dips came back from overseas, approvals were handled by the administrative assistant or by individual buyers or sometimes not at all.
"There was no consistency. If we had . black being approved by 10 different people, we had at least a minimum of 10 different kinds of black, because everybody sees the color differently," she recalls.
Confusing matters further, the only people using a light box were Bierlein and the administrative assistant. "The buyers were approving color at their desks or by the window. Who knows what the vendors were doing," she quips.
Since management agreed to establish separate positions focusing on color, the company has made significant strides in its color management procedures.
"The biggest change so far is that we've actually centralized color," says Bierlein. This means that all color, lab dips, accessories - "anything that needs a color approval" - must go through Bierlein.
Another big change: The company bought its first spectrophotometer, from Datacolor, which has increased its color evaluation capabilities tremendously, Bierlein says. Meijer also purchased the Datacolor ImageMaster software, for conducting on-screen color approval, but the company isn't yet using the software.
"We have the potential, but not the opportunity yet. Some of the mills we work with can probably [accommodate the software], but there are a lot of factors involved. It's not that easy to have a mill just send you data, because a lot of factors. such as improper scanning or unconditioned samples . can affect color . and the data that you receive," says Bierlein.
Sharing color data electronically is a long-term goal for the department, but the company has a long way to go before it considers tackling that area. "Right now . the goal is to have a solid vendor base and work with vendors that we will use over and over and over again, which is not the case right now. Right now we kind of shop it around," she says.
The company is also working with color solutions provider Archroma toward the goal of using engineered standards, with plans to implement this method for the fall '04 season.
"The partnership with Archroma is excellent," says Bierlein. "It's a huge stepping stone for us, but it's only part of the equation. There's still a lot more that we need to do to make color advantageous to our company."
That includes shortening the color approval process time by working with the company's agents overseas. The company's current process "needs updating" says Bierlein. It involves multiple mailings of the lab dip, from mill, to vendor, to agent, to Meijer, with all the attendant delays and "lost in the mail" problems of snail mail. Upon receipt, Bierlein reviews the submitted sample, or "submit," and e-mails the mill with a response.
"This takes a really long time," she says. "On average, if nothing were to go wrong with the lab dip - it didn't get lost, it was sent out promptly from each area - it would probably take about 14 days for one lab dip. If it's not good, we do it again."
Bierlein notes that it usually requires up to four rounds to get it right, which equates to two months for the complete color approval process. "We couldn't do more than two seasons a year," she says - and Meijer has aspirations of moving to multiple seasons.
Bierlein says she would like to be able to use ImageMaster in conjunction with engineered standards to reduce the duration of the lap dip process and the number of rounds, respectively. She estimates that the company could initially reduce its lap dip process from 14 to six days, and the number of rounds from four to two.
As for her biggest challenge, it's getting people and the support to understand how much Meijer is losing (in dollars and product) by not having a more effective color management program.
Bierlein is lobbying Meijer to expand the color department, instead of supporting just two floating positions. That goes hand in hand with educating the entire company about the importance of color, and how it affects sales, products and the look of the entire apparel department.
"My top goal is to have complete support of color, and color process, and my vision of where I want color to be [at] Meijer. That's my No. 1 goal, and I hope to accomplish that very soon," she concludes.
"What you learn in development really helps the people in QC."
Paula Scarpellini, director of design and product development technology for the dress shirt division, hit the ground running when she started at Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH) about two years ago, evaluating and piloting color management software.
The company was taking its first steps toward implementing a modern color management solution. It wanted an open rather than a proprietary solution so that it could integrate with whichever solutions its vendors used, and chose SheLyn's software (now part of GretagMacbeth), along with Datacolor's spectrophotometers. The company also uses GretagMacbeth's NetProfiler, an inter-instrument correlation software. "It makes our SF600PlusCT [spectrophotometer] read as well as it can, and like my suppliers' [equipment]," says Scarpellini.
Finding out what worked and didn't work was a particularly arduous process for Scarpellini's group because of some of the inherent difficulties of dress shirts. "[For example,] we do a lot of whites, [which] do not show up well on a monitor for virtual lab dips. Pastels can also be a problem," she explains.
An even trickier challenge came from yarn dyes - plaids, checks, stripes and so forth - whose patterns are created using CAD software. The problem with evaluating these fabrics electronically is that it is a "nightmare" to recolor those CAD files in an on-screen program, says Scarpellini.
"If you want to pop a plaid up on your screen, and you want to do . virtual lab dips - it's not a lab dip at that point, it's a yarn skein," she explains. "If you want to approve colors in a plaid, you have to map each one of those stripes to be replaced by an accurate color."
In short, the technology is really not ready to accommodate that type of color scheme, and PVH decided after its research that it would focus on its solids. Additionally, it shelved the on-screen evaluations for a later date.
Since then, the company has been focusing on piece-dye solids, and improving communication with its mills. "The major challenge is just making sure everybody has the equipment they say they have, and that their software and hardware is updated enough to do what you want to do with them, and that they know how to use it. And that can take a year," she says.
In addition to ensuring that each vendor has appropriate software and hardware - PVH is focusing first on about 25 vendors - the company has also worked to ensure that measurement methods and communication are standardized. Along these lines, it has completed a procedure manual.
While Scarpellini notes that the company has shortened its color approval process somewhat, she says that there are "enough things that you have to work out before you get faster. Faster can't be your only measure [of success.] . Sometimes the successes are so small. They're just when you both know you're looking at it the same way."
Indeed, many challenges arise from how measurements are made, says Scarpellini. Problems can even come down to the variation in spectral readings output from the two different types of spectrophotometers - 0/45 and spherical - which reflect light differently.
Preferably, explains Scarpellini, you'd want people on one project to be using the same type of spectrophotometer, but this ignores the underlying technical reasons for using the two different types of instruments, and the effect that blurring this distinction could have on development.
0/45s are acknowledged as the best tools for color quality control (QC), where long-term consistency and quality of goods and color is evaluated.
Spherical spectrophotometers, on the other hand, are particularly good for development, because they can measure any original sample - threads, for example, or a fabric other than the one to be used for the final garment - and basically ignore the substrate while reading the absolute color. "Some mills may choose one or the other - based on legitimate reasons -for their own purposes, but it may make collaboration difficult," says Scarpellini.
The challenge can be further compounded for white dress shirts, which have optic brighteners that give off fluorescence. In this case, spectrophotometers must be calibrated for UV, and the way that is done for a 0/45 versus a spherical instrument is completely different, explains Scarpellini.
"Not many [suppliers] are really attacking [this problem] head-on. A lot of people are avoiding it because it's really difficult," says Scarpellini.
For Scarpellini, one of the greatest and least talked-about benefits of improving color development is the positive effect it has on QC issues. "Sometimes companies keep [development and QC] very separate, but what you learn in development really helps the people in QC," she says, pointing to benefits such as a more specific definition of a standard, which helps QC "take a better look at what they're getting."
Another interesting side effect has come from the company's use of shade taper software - PVH uses GretagMacbeth's SLI-TaperT - which takes measurements of fabric rolls, looks at them for all of their properties and sequences them in the order they should be cut, explains Scarpellini. The rolls can be evaluated in terms of how close they come to standard, as well as how different they are from each other - information that is enormously helpful to QC.
PVH has made huge strides in the past year, stresses Scarpellini, who concludes: "In most cases, people have [the software and hardware] that they should have now. It's just a matter of getting procedures down. . Once you get all [of that] standardized, you can take the next step."
What will that be? PVH has started sharing information electronically via e-mail - spectral readings, but not visual swatches. It has also looked into implementing Internet color communications, such as those solutions offered by eWarna, or implementing on-screen visual approval software. Scarpellini expects to move forward on this in the next year or two. And once it gets its solids "under control," says Scarpellini, PVH will tackle its yarn dyes.
Jordan K. Speer is senior editor of Apparel. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.