Color Outside The Box – One company helps ensure you don’t notice the difference

Next time you’re in your car take a look around. Everything look OK? Nothing out of place or bothering you about the way the dashboard, the door panels, the visors, the steering column and all the other stuff that goes in there looks?

Good. You can probably thank Uniform Color Co. for that.

Sara Esser, business unit manager of Uniform Color Company.

Sara Esser is one of two business unit managers who oversee the various divisions of the 30-year-old company that’s based in Holland, Mich., but has facilities and relationships around the globe. She has a degree in chemical engineering in addition to an MBA and started with the company as a process engineer, progressing to managing a plant in Massachusetts before assuming her current responsibilities.

Uniform Color does not color uniforms. What they do is provide a wide variety of companies with a supply of colorants and polymers that are extruded into pellets that allow products to stay true to the designated original, or “match” color throughout the manufacturing process.

“We control critical color,” explains Esser.

“Think about brand image -“ the Target reds or the John Deere greens -“ the things that say something about a brand,” she continues, “we ensure that the parts being made by various molders are going to have harmony in color. That John Deere green [part] is going to be the same John Deere green regardless of where it’s made, if we supply the color concentrate.”

Esser then goes back to the vision of a car’s interior. “When you sit there you want to see color harmony -“ actually, you don’t want to see anything, because if there’s a lack of harmony you’ll notice,” she laughs. “In that vehicle interior there are many different polymer types. We ensure that all of those match in color harmony to whatever the OEM has specified -“ and we often help them come up with their specifications.”

There can also be many different suppliers of the door panels, center console components, dashboards, visors and other elements that combine to create the interior of an automobile or truck. Those suppliers are usually Uniform Color customers.

Color harmony in a vehicle interior.

There’s also a lot of fabric found in automotive interiors. “They’ll come in with a piece of fabric and ask us to produce a color for a plastic part that will match this fabric master. While the texture of fabric and plastic parts are obviously different,” Esser says, “we can produce a color that’s very close to the human eye.”

Asked if computers can’t make that kind of judgment call, Esser explains, “A computer will have great difficulty in determining a match between fabric and plastic. There are differences and the computer will just say there’s an error. The human eye will also pick up the differences but we’re minimizing the impact of those differences. The same will exist with metals, ceramics and vinyls. You don’t want to pick up on a difference between these materials and plastics. We pride ourselves on the ability to provide that critical color control.”

If the average human eye can then accept the subtle color and texture differences between disparate materials and plastics -“ and computers effectively short circuit -“ then is there a “master” human eye at Uniform Color that oversees the provision of “critical color control?”

“We administer a ‘hue test’ to our employees on a yearly basis,” says Esser. “It is really difficult because it determines who can detect small changes in hue. We have folks working in our facility who are just amazing in their ability to see very, very slight differences in color.”

Are people born with this ability? “A person can learn to see the differences,” she responds. “When I first started I had no color background at all. I had plastics but no color. Over time I learned to see a lot of differences but I’m still not up to speed with the folks who do our formulation.”

Uniform Color doesn’t rest on its ability just to match colors. “We’re a privately held company but we do a lot of reinvestment devoted to developing better, faster, more efficient ways to produce our product in addition to providing additional value to our customers,” Esser says.

An example of color harmony in an office furniture product.

She cites one example of an automotive supplier that had been maintaining separate inventories of pre-colored resin for each plastic part they produced. Esser’s team was able to help them develop the capability to use a single resin to which specific colored concentrate could be mixed during the injection molding process -“ saving more than $1 million a year as a result.

In addition to providing the color “pellets” that eventually find their way to the companies that then extrude, mold or stretch them into sheets, Esser says “We can put different additives into our color concentrate that can help a part perform better.”

“One good example of this is the dashboard of your car,” she continues. “It sits out in the sun, constantly. We put additives in our color concentrate that allow that color to stay stable and not fade over time. So, your $30,000 car is going to look the same 10 years from now as it does on day one. We can also add the capability to provide chemical resistance. We can give a part a different tactile element so, for instance, it could have a slippery feel if that’s important to the end user.”

The automotive sector provides a natural client base for Natural Color because of its location in Western Michigan, home to many supplier companies, but the region has been broadly diversified for much of its existence. Because of that there are other important sectors -“ such as office furniture -“ that also have a need for critical color matching -“ and more.

“We partner with some of the OEM office furniture folks,” says Esser, “to help launch new colors. We touch almost anything that’s colored plastic.”

“We work with health and beauty packaging,” she continues. “When you think about the color of the package of your shampoo or deodorant, that’s going to pop right into your head. On the industrial side we work with material handling companies. A lot of the time critical color control is less important because they’re looking for identification. Red can denote a certain size or a certain product that’s moving through their business -“ whether it’s the movement of paper or parts through an assembly line.”

There are even times when security can be an issue. “We can add things to a color that, in turn, would be added to the plastic part being made that would help identify it as yours,” Esser says. Think of intellectual property issues in Asian countries. “You would have to look under a microscope to see it, but it would be there [and not in the counterfeit product]. We can also help with additives that enhance laser marking so it’s more visible. We wouldn’t do the marking ourselves, just do the additives along with the color.”

“Our product goes into the end product in such small percentages -“ from about 1 percent up to 10 percent -“ but we capitalize on that small percentage as much as we can,” Esser explains.

Still, that small percentage can make a difference -“ say, on the battlefield. Asked if she can make a product less visible, Esser laughs and says, “only to the extent that color can help. We don’t sell directly to the military but we have customers who will come to us and ask us to create a color that will blend into the environment.”

Returning to another battlefield -“ the aisles of a retail store -“ Esser says that a lot of creativity is needed to stay competitive. “We suggest pearl effects and different types of lusters to our packaging clients in the health and beauty aids environment. But by and large our customers come to us with some sort of color specification they’re trying to meet and we help them get there.”

Because color is so basic to such a wide variety of products -“ and thus is involved at the very beginning of a product’s life cycle, Esser and her colleagues are often asked to see into the future and predict what colors will be popular in the marketplace. “We provide trending reports for the packaging industry. Put yourself in the health and beauty aisle of Target and you’ll see that companies are constantly redesigning their packaging to grab the eye of the customer walking down the aisle.”

Surprisingly, color trends often surface in the textile industry where, Esser says, “they work their ways into other markets. We look at those and we forecast color for the plastics industry some two to three years out. We create a trend presentation that we bring to the designers for the packaging company OEMs and say that ‘this is what we see coming. Here are some different colors, some different looks that you can achieve with different polymers.’ Often we’ll hear a designer say ‘hey, that gives me an idea-¦’ and that way we’ll help with the creative process.”

Take a look at the latest in tennis shoes and you’ll often see fluorescent soles with black uppers. “Two or three years ago we said, ‘fluorescents are coming back,'” Esser laughs.