Color technology, the use of sophisticated instruments, computers and software for measuring, matching, and evaluating color, has come a long way since its commercial introduction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, instruments and computers are now so accurate and user friendly that almost anyone can operate them. But do the operators really understand the meaning behind the numbers and the spectral curves generated by the computers, or the hundreds of variables that can affect the perception and production of color?

This interview with Charles H. Mertz, business manager of the Light & Color Applications Center™, a newly created independent operation of Minolta Corp.’s Instrument Systems Division, seeks an answer to this question. Prior to joining Minolta Corp. and bringing to his new position 40 years of experience in color technology, Mertz served as general manager and principal in Raitech Inc., a company that develops laboratory testing equipment for the textile industry, and as vice president and director of customer support for Datacolor International and its predecessor company, Applied Color Systems Inc. He began his career with Ford Motor Co.’s Paint and Vinyl Operations in Mt. Clemens, MI, where he rose to the position of senior development engineer.

Since you launched your career at Ford Motor Co., why don’t we start with Henry Ford’s famous words, “You can have any color you want as long as it’s black.” How has the use and application of color in industry changed over the years?

Color in everyone’s life has come a long way since those days. It is a crucial part of the whole selection process, no matter what product you’re buying. Producing, applying and controlling color has become essential to a range of industries.

Back in the early 1960s while I was with Ford Motor Co.’s Paint and Vinyl Operations, visual color matching was the primary method used for both quality control and color formulation. We realized that to stay competitive we would need to embark on a new era in color control.

How did you take the first step in instrumental color control?

We purchased a spectrophotometer to start learning the basics of looking at numbers and spectral curves to determine color differences and select the appropriate colorants to match a standard shade. We then purchased our first analog computers to help us speed up our calculation processes.

One of those computers was the Colorant Mixture Computer (COMIC). It gave us the opportunity to determine the best colorants to match a standard. It would then compute corrections to production batches to meet the required color tolerances. The time to obtain the data could be anywhere from five to 20 minutes, depending on the knowledge of the computer operator. But this was great compared to the time it normally took to accomplish the same task by visual methods.

You mentioned the need to stay competitive. What kind of competitive pressures were you responding to?

There was tremendous pressure to try to reduce the overall cost associated with the time required to formulate new colors and also correct batches in production. The task of formulating new matches to standards that were of dissimilar chemical or physical make-ups was a very challenging experience. It would often take dozens of sample submissions before approval would be given. The best pigments or dyes to match the desired effects under various lighting conditions was and is one of the biggest concerns of any formulator.

How has the technology of color evolved since the early days of instrumental color control, and what has brought about these changes?

There have been tremendous changes in both the color instrumentation and computing aspects of the color-control world. The first instrumentation we purchased at the Ford plant was a GE recording spectrophotometer that weighed close to 700 lbs. Once you found a place for it, you did not want the unit moved.

Over the next five to six years, we added other types of analog devices to convert spectral reflectance data to numbers that could be used for developing color acceptance tolerances and for determining how much colorant would be needed to bring a production batch of material on shade.

We then purchased our first “digital” computer, the COMIC-II, which was some eight feet by five feet by three feet in size, and featured over 400 printed circuit boards. This was a giant step forward to increase the speed of obtaining the answers we needed to improve our color matching and approval process.

Over time, instruments have become smaller and computers have not only become smaller in size, but more powerful in their operation. This speed and power has given the software developers the tools they’ve needed to make the total color control experience much more user friendly. Today, we have spectrophotometers that can fit in your hand with enough computing power built in to handle what once required a roomful of large and heavy equipment.

Is there a downside to the fact that it’s now so easy to generate color matches/corrections that almost anyone can do it?

The downside has been losing many of the knowledgeable people who really understand the “science” of instrumental color control. The instruments and computers that are used to solve the various challenges of today’s color problems are merely tools. Put these tools in the hands of an experienced colorist who understands the plant’s processes and you have a powerful team. These same tools placed in the hands of someone who does not understand the science of color and the processes of their plant’s operation can lead to frustration and unfulfilled expectations. In many cases, that person is simply looking at numbers without really understanding what it took to generate the data. Because of that, he or she cannot properly diagnose what is happening in the overall process.

Is the need for education, training and support as great now as in the past? What has industry been doing to meet that need?

The need for education, training and support has never been more important than it is today. Skilled color technologists are switching jobs at a much faster rate today than ever before. At the same time, the use of the technology is expanding. Not only do we find people in production operations using computerized color control, but the technology is touching almost all aspects of every industry. Designers, colorant suppliers, plant QC — receiving and outgoing — and end users are all involved to a much greater degree today than in the past. The competition between the various suppliers of color-control equipment has been very intense, driving prices to their lowest points ever. Although this is an apparent “windfall” for customers, the price pressure on suppliers has resulted in a lack of technical application support.

One point I would like to make is that computerized color control is not an exact science. It requires the understanding and knowledge of experienced people to develop the primary data bases that are the heart of all the calculations made, whether it be in formulation or in correctly developing acceptance tolerances.

How should training/education be delivered in today’s environment?

Today’s fast-paced workplace has made it necessary to take a fresh look at the most efficient and effective ways to train and educate the client. I have found over the years that training on-site at the customer’s location can reach the greatest number of people and allow programs to be tailored to the client’s needs. On-site training and education also helps maximize the student’s retention of information.

For Minolta’s part, we have established a modular course design to take people from the fundamentals of color theory through QC approvals, formulation and matching concepts, visual color assessment, and colorant and appearance characteristics. These modules are presented over a period of time determined from the beginning not to “overload” the student with more information than can be handled. Training is handled much the same way. The customer’s needs are determined, and on-site training is conducted to reach the required people and allow full participation. In this way, students understand the concepts and practical workings of the material presented. The future will continue to bring more ways of getting information and knowledge to people. Web-based training and video conferencing are just a few that we are investigating.

What is the future of color technology and why is it important to maintain a well-educated, well-trained workforce in this field?

We really do not know what the future holds for color technology, education and training. But if we can learn from the past we must assume that ongoing education and training will be a necessity. Globalization, integrated hardware and software, on-demand manufacturing, and new material technologies are just some of the challenges the industry faces. Communication is the one link that we have with each other to conduct knowledgeable discussions about our color challenges. It is important to have as many people conversing on the same “wavelength” as possible, so we all understand and communicate using this wonderful language of color technology. We must remember that it is the ability of the people interpreting the information delivered by technology that really counts. Without an educated workforce, all we have are numbers that nobody understands.

For more information on color control, contact Minolta Corp., Light & Color Applications Center, phone 888/473.2656, Ext. 3276; fax 201/236.4245; e-mail