Color Management by the Numbers

As a supplier of lifestyle apparel brands for retailers, Pacific Alliance USA Inc. keeps a sharp watch on color consistency. Pacific Alliance designs and supplies brands such as Daisy Fuentes for Kohl's, Metro 7 for Wal-Mart and Gloria Vanderbilt for several retailers, each brand including a selection of daytime, evening and career apparel that shoppers can mix and match to create multiple outfits. Not only do all the red sweaters on the rack have to match one another, they also have to look right with the red-and-black print shirt.

"Shoppers have to have a comfort level that if they pick out separates, they will relate back to each other," explains Sheila Stoothoff, the company's director of quality assurance.

Color consistency also draws shoppers to the brand. "Our ultimate goal is to ensure that there's color consistency on the sales floor," Stoothoff says. "The color is what catches the eye of the customer in the store, so we want to make sure there's a nice, cohesive line on the sales floor."

Monitoring color for consistency
But guaranteeing consistency is no simple task for a company that buys fabric from multiple mills and manufactures apparel in multiple factories around the world. In order to achieve color consistency, Pacific Alliance adheres to a strict protocol.

Each season, the company's design team sets color standards in collaboration with the merchandising team. The sales staff discusses the proposed standards with the retailers' buyers and reaches agreement on a final color line that is right for the product.

Once the color standards for a particular style have been finalized, the design team sends swatches to the quality assurance department, which analyzes the swatches with a spectrophotometer and creates QTX files - electronic representations of the color - that it can send to mills and suppliers.

The mills create lab dips, mixing the dyes and using their own spectrophotometers to determine whether their swatches match Pacific Alliance's QTX file. When they produce a color within the allowable tolerance levels, the mills send physical swatches and spectrophotometer readings to Pacific Alliance.

The quality assurance department examines the lab-dip swatches with its spectrophotometer and with light boxes, which simulate several different indoor and outdoor lighting conditions. The light box evaluation ensures that the products will look their best in the retailer's store and that an outfit that matches in the store or at home will continue to match when the wearer goes outdoors. Based on all of these tests, quality assurance decides whether the mill can go ahead and dye the fabric.

The process doesn't end there. After approving the lab dip, the quality assurance department requests cuttings from every dye lot, which it reviews and compares to the approved lab dip, the original standard and any other approved samples. Continuing the process throughout the life of the style results in consistency of color on the sales floor.

The quest for a centralized system
Until a few years ago, Pacific Alliance managed this process with spreadsheets created in-house. "Quality assurance had its own spreadsheets, production had a different set, and the factory probably had another set," Stoothoff says. "There was a lot of duplication of workload. It was a lot of information to manage manually, so there was a lot more possibility for error. And there were always back-and-forth questions about who had approved what. It wasn't the easiest way to work!"

Understanding that a centralized system could help minimize delays and errors, the company began searching for a solution that would allow all participants to view and enter information. In 2005 it selected TradeStone's Merchandise Lifecycle Management (MLM) suite, a flexible system that enables manufacturers to improve work-in-progress visibility by tracking and monitoring a variety of processes. TradeStone's software is web-enabled and can be accessed via web browser by anyone with security access, anywhere in the world - all that's needed is an Internet connection.

With TradeStone's assistance, Pacific Alliance customized the system to meet its needs, and now uses it throughout much of the company. After the sales department creates a new style in the system, the production and quality assurance departments enter all the steps they need to perform and the deadlines for those steps. For the color management process, the TradeStone system generates calendars showing dates for approval of lab dips, shade bands, trim colors and other events. While most of the steps are standard across styles, the company has the flexibility to add or delete events for a particular style. Test criteria can be established, and submissions can be monitored.

Managers can easily set up alerts to let them know if, for example, the samples received don't match what was expected. And when a sample is rejected, the system automatically schedules a resubmit and marks it as pending, so no one has to manually notify the mill.

Mills and factories can view and enter information about the styles they are assigned. "They definitely find it helpful," says Stoothoff. "They get real-time information and don't have to wait till the end of the day."

The "snapshot" management report, work-in-progress reports, and ad hoc queries make it easy for managers to see what's outstanding or what deadlines are in danger of being missed. "If we're getting close to the deadline date and there's no package [from the mill], we can follow up with them," Stoothoff says. "It lets us manage by exception."

One of the biggest changes, according to Stoothoff, is the reduction in the number of e-mails that participants send one another. Everyone who needs access to information gets that information in real time; the process can't come to a halt because a message is languishing in the inbox of a participant who is on vacation.

The TradeStone software helps the company maintain color consistency because it reduces errors and makes it easy to identify and review all the styles that use a particular color. "You want to make sure you pull up the t-shirt information when you're reviewing the sweater dip," Stoothoff explains.

But Pacific Alliance had always maintained high standards of consistency. The biggest difference today is that it's much easier to perform all of the steps within the allotted time frame.

"The lead times are getting shorter and shorter," Stoothoff says. "Customers want products faster. We need to make sure we don't lose production space at the factory. TradeStone is a huge help in making sure that critical dates aren't missed. Everyone has access to critical dates, and we can make sure everything is kept on schedule."

Masha Zager is a New York City-based free-lance writer who specializes in business and technology.

systems at a glance

Color Standards: Color Solutions and Pantone
Color Tracking and Management: TradeStone Software
Dye Formulations: Dystar
Spectrophotometers: Datacolor 
Lightboxes: Gretag Macbeth (X-Rite)

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