Production: What are the Pros and Cons of Ink Optimization and Control Systems?

By: Jerry Simpkins
Setting ink keys by hand requires the operator to move from fountain to fountain/unit to unit in order to manually adjust keys. This takes time and effort that is better spent focusing on other aspects of the run.

If you’re like many of us in operations, you review what you’re spending on ink monthly, quarterly or every time you sign off on an invoice from your supplier. Then when budget time rolls around, you meet with your ink supplier, review monthly usage, check the price per pound, and put budgetary estimates together for spending.

At some point throughout the year, you’ll also entertain proposals from various ink vendors in an effort to garner the most favorable price and frequently are able to reduce costs through negotiations with different vendors.

While these are all certainly good practices and pretty much what we’ve done year after year, technology now offers alternatives to the same old same old that many properties have used in the past, allowing us to save big on future ink usage and put that money back into the operation.

As I was considering my approach for this article, I researched several vendor offerings and looked deeply into exactly how ink optimization software and ink preset systems work. I also went online to research patents for these systems to better understand the vendors approach and how they can claim their systems operate and save the purchaser ink and money.

After an hour or so of catching up on the subject and my eyes glazing over from information overload, I determined that the detailed color-conversion algorithms and vector graphics explanations necessary to achieve ink optimizing solutions and secure a patent were not only a little more than I clearly understood but also were of little benefit to the overall outcome of this article.

Like you, I’m interested in the end result as well as a basic concept of how the system works. I don’t really need to know how the soups made, just that it tastes good. As confident as I am that I can walk the technology walk with the best of them, I felt the best service I could provide at this point was determining the pros and cons of ink optimization and preset systems, and leaving the specific technical details to the vendors.


Manual ink keys allow operators to set ink density throughout the run, but without presets start-ups can generate high waste and densities can vary throughout the run.

The Pros and Cons of Ink Optimization

There are many benefits touted by vendors offering ink optimization software solutions. Many systems are currently in place throughout our industry and it appears this is a testament to their functionality and usefulness.

Ink optimization concepts have been around for quite some time in printing. Many of us have heard of them but don’t employ systems because we’re either confused by them, are skeptical of their claims, or believe we can’t afford the initial cost to purchase software.

There are a lot of claims being thrown around in vendor marketing. I see most of them settling in on an average ink savings of 20 percent. The vendors I reviewed touted ink savings between 10 and 30 percent; some making statements that up to 30 percent savings are common and even one claiming possible savings up to 47 percent.

Of course how much ink you’ll save is dependent on how much color you run (both in graphics and photos), the depth and saturation of the particular content you run, and how much black is present in the original graphic or photo. Note that ink optimization software works for both photos, text and graphics/line work.

Let’s take a look at the basics of how this process works.

The basic concept of ink optimization is replacement of cyan, magenta and yellow ink with less expensive black ink. This is accomplished through gray component replacement (GCR), simply meaning that the software (or user) applies a percentage of GCR, usually set by the vendor but variable depending on user selection and nature/make-up of the content. The software establishes a color profile to apply color-conversion algorithms to the process blend and convert them, incorporating GCR to achieve the same visual result as you would achieve by “conventional” CMYK processes;  i.e. your photo is going to look every bit as sharp, smooth, clean and bright as it would with conventional CMYK printing. When the software does its job, pictures will not appear weak, faded or ink starved/pale looking.

There are two primary approaches ink optimization software can utilize: static or dynamic ink saving applications.

Static applies a consistent and usually predetermined input to output (CMYK) regardless of the image content—an across the board approach that can create issues removing the same percentage of GCR to all areas of the content.

Dynamic application offers a more sophisticated approach to GCR. With the software determining both input and output information to employ a conversion that alters the GCR based on the output color space grey axis, allowing the user more flexibility and intervention than the more simplistic static settings.

Some of the benefits of ink optimization include:

  • A “drier” printing process. Applying less ink and water to the sheet allows you to run dryer decreasing fan-out/web growth
  • Reduced set-off/rub-off and ink transfer
  • Shorter ink drying time
  • Improved stability to gray balance
  • Cleaner runs
  • Less ink back-trapping
  • Less web breaks (dryer sheet)
  • Paper savings tied to faster start-ups
  • Reduction of total ink coverage to acceptable levels (240-260 TAC)
  • And of course, cost savings

Some of the challenges of ink optimization include:

  • Cost of the initial software
  • Banding, graininess and contouring (uncommon but potential results of GCR)
  • Excessive dot gain in shadows/darkening highlights (improper software performance/settings)

For me, the two biggest advantages in this field are cost savings and usefulness.

Your ROI depends on so many variables that it’s tough to say what your savings will be and if ink optimization software is right for you. While I can honestly say I’m convinced that optimization software has a positive return and can reduce your cost of ink by replacing the more expensive CMY inks with cheaper black ink (and using less of it), I’m by no means certain how long it would take your shop to find a positive ROI. With vendor statements I’ve found ranging from 10 to 47 percent, with savings being directly tied to the content/density, etc. it’s a moving target. While most vendors seem to be understandably noncommittal (and I respect that), I have heard some statements that are grossly overstated and do not realistically represent what can be typically achieved. Without knowing the specifics of the shop, I’d steer clear of anyone who makes these types of promises and writes a purchase agreement that gives you some period of “testing” to ensure that it works for you and can reflect any positive returns the vendor claims from the start.

One of the big advantages of any software is that it does the work for us. When press tests are taken to establish profiles and software is set up properly very little, if any, human intervention is necessary to save ink. There should be proper training on the front-end, but beyond that there is very little else we need to do beyond prepress.

While this is a simplistic approach to things I believe that ink optimization software should do what it’s designed to do: improve the quality of your printed product and save ink/money without a lot of handholding on your end.

With more and more color in our publications, the opportunity to save through technology is greater than ever. Ink preset systems and ink optimization offer dramatic cost savings and provide a solid ROI to most operations.

Ink Digital Preset Software and Control Systems

The opportunity to reduce ink usage and cost doesn’t stop with ink optimization software. Several shops I’ve worked with utilize some form of digital presets from prepress to press. I’ve seen the benefits of this software firsthand and realized the cost savings and quality improvements in every shop we’ve used it in.

Similar to optimization software, there are several vendors offering workable solutions. I’ve used ink presets in one form or other for at least 20 years and the software was available in some form well before that. I remember the days of running negatives back through a scanner that uploaded values to an ink control system on press.

Today these systems have come a long way and are much more sophisticated than my horse and buggy days. Current systems use CIP3/CIP4 or tiffs produced through prepress software that subsequently are uploaded into the ink control system, which remotely controls application/coverage of ink through the ink keys on press.

Essentially, the system acts as a bridge between your prepress and press areas, measuring input area/density and sending instructions to your ink keys to match the particular requirements to achieve the initial intended results.

Simply speaking, these presets prepare the ink fountains, setting keys at a level/degree of ink density and flow relative to the predetermined density of the images from your front-end system to prepare for the start-up at the most optimum level. Throughout the run, the system allows manual intervention by press operators to adjust to more specific and desirable measures.

These systems are a little more than something just to get you going.

The system I’m currently familiar with is made by Perretta. The Perretta system has intelligent learning allowing us save-able sheets shortly after startup. The self-correcting feature makes automatic corrections to compensate for variations between the preset file and color approval using the previous six-jobs for analysis, so it adjusts as the press conditions change.

Some of the benefits of remote ink control systems include:

  • Reduced make ready time
  • Paper savings/waste reductions on start-up and throughout the run
  • Ink savings, both on start-up and stabilized throughout the run
  • Less manual intervention allowing additional focus on other areas of the pressrun
  • Reduction of manual intervention/labor savings
  • Overall faster start-ups saving time and maintaining consistency throughout the run
  • Ability to view and adjust (if needed) each preset at the console
  • Ability to adjust for on-the-fly work flow changes

Some of the challenges of remote ink control systems include:

  • Cost of the initial software and fountain/ink key control hardware and installation

Again, the two biggest advantages are cost savings and usefulness.

While I’m obviously a fan of remote ink control systems, they are not cheap and the ROI, much like my example for optimization software, depends on several variables. In this case, the variables are how many fountains you use per run, length of the run, paper stock and the “wild card,” which is your press crew.

If you have a heavy-handed ink setter on the crew, it can affect your ROI in a negative fashion. It can also add to offsetting, plugging, scumming and rub-off that are a result of overriding system sets. If you can train your press crews to rely on the basic settings of a remote system, this can be a plus over constant manual adjustments that in many cases may do more harm than good.

With all that said, there’s an advantage as well to experienced color operators having the flexibility/ability to adjust ink keys from the console to dial-in ink density. More times than not press operators have to fine-tune ink densities throughout the run in order to achieve optimum results.

Presets help tremendously on start-up but are no replacement for an experienced press operator with a good eye for color. Throughout the run the system is capable of maintaining basic values communicated at the start of the run preloaded from the front-end system, but as water curves change affecting ink and water balance manual intervention is required.

Another plus is safety. This benefit is often not used as a selling point for vendors but perhaps it should be. Instead of press operators running around to set ink keys, slipping and running into things, going up and down ladders and spending an absorbent amount of time and energy focusing on ink setting, controls are at their fingertips and ink can be adjusted at any fountain in mere seconds. It’s a huge advantage and wonderful safety benefit to everyone.

These totes of cyan, magenta and yellow ink represent a significant part of our printing budget. New technology such as ink optimizing software and preset control systems allow us to reduce our consumption of color ink and maintain consistent and predictable quality throughout the run.

Putting It All Together

There have been huge advances in inking systems over the past few years. Most of these advances provide new opportunities to improve quality and productivity while simultaneously reducing costs. Implementing some of these systems can be expensive to purchase and install, but can be even more expensive to ignore.

If you haven’t explored the new world of ink savings, you owe it to yourself and the organization to contact a few vendors and get information on both ink optimization software and digital ink control systems. It’s well worth the investment.

Jerry Simpkins is vice president of the West Texas Printing Center, LLC in Lubbock, Texas. Contact him on or at

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Published: February 19, 2018

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