Product Development User Story

PocketSpec Technologies Inc. : ColorQA Color Comparison Device

Denver, CO-based PocketSpec Technologies is a start up organization with its first product shipping since July 2002. Entrepreneur and inventor extraordinaire Gregg Wagner worked independently over a three-year time frame and then a subsequent two years with PocketSpec Technologies, to design and perfect an affordable, hand held battery operated photonic measurement device called ColorQA. It's an instrument designed to measure color in red, green, and blue percentage format. The ColorQA serves as a handy device to quickly measure and display the results for color matching purposes. The unit has a LCD to display the acquired data. The results show "go, no-go" instructions for users in terms of whether the color they are testing will be acceptable within a reasonable difference.

The primary purpose of the ColorQA is to provide an analytical technique to color matching while eliminating the effects of ambient lighting conditions. Having a color characterization instrument yield more accurate results as compared to subjective visual comparison for color discrimination. The secondary purpose of the ColorQA is to help manufacturers reduce operating costs and improving customer satisfaction.

Today, most manufacturers in the injection molding, industrial plating, and paint industries perform color matching using manual methodologies. A production floor operator typically holds a finished part against a standard color chart to visually determine if the part color matches the customer's specification color. This subjective methodology leads to errors because the ambient light conditions, positions of the inspection light source, and differences in surface textures between the color sample and the component will vary the result. Another method of color matching and formulization of color is with the use of a spectrophotometer. This method is very accurate, however, quite an expensive alternative. For manufacturers that practice quality assurance, the ColorQA is a quick and accurate means of determining color quality, especially for volume production.

PocketSpec Technologies principal investor and president of the company, Jeff Krupka, says, "Color QA is a great tool for manufactures that need an inexpensive, handy method of determining product quality in terms of matching color. Its application beyond the injection molding, plating, and painting markets include graphics and silk screening, interior design and home improvement sectors, as well as industrial design and rapid prototyping."

How it works
The ColorQA makes contact with an object being measured. While performing the measurement, the probe strobes a white light emitting diodes (LED), while a tri-color photo diode detector measures the reflectivity of the object in the red, green, and blue color spectra. The measurement is processed in the programmed micro-controller. Each color signal is digitized to at least 16 bits and stored -- after all three signals are collected and the ratios of the colors are calculated. The calculated results are displayed on the LCD in a red, green, and blue (RGB) 0-255-scale format. When a sample measurement is compared to a target measurement, the difference between measurements is displayed too.

The device consists of a plastic enclosure that contains a probe tip assembly, an electro-optic sensing device, and a printed circuit board assembly.

Ease of use
Ionics Instruments Business Group (Boulder, CO) makes chemical analyzers for ultra pure water monitoring. There, Brian Clay, mechanical engineer in Ionics' research and development department, says he has been using the Color QA for more than one month. "We design sheet metal parts for our custom fabricated cabinets, brackets, and other hardware that house our instruments. The components are manufactured by outside sources that, in turn, outsource for painting. The painting vendors are supposed to match the paint or powder coating to a sample chip or a Pantone color. We are using the ColorQA to determine if the parts match the color that we originally specified. The device works very well for this purpose. It is especially helpful when the quality control (QC) person has a question. The readings provide objective measurements. The device is extremely easy to use. I didn't even need the manual to figure out how to operate it. When I handed it over to the QC person, I was able to easily explain to him in two minutes how to use the Color QA."

Before using the Color QA, Clay and his team checked part color using purely subjective methodology. They weren't checking color at all unless it was obvious that there was something drastically wrong. "If a part looked odd, we simply compared it to old parts," says Clay. "Only if it was unanimously agreed that the part color was wrong would we complain to the vendor. Usually we had no recourse because the vendor would say, 'It matches the sample chip as far as we can tell.'"

So far, Clay and his team have used the Color QA to check surfaces that are powder coated. "These surfaces have textures and the Color QA is really good at measuring the colors even though there is an orange peel type texture on it. We have not used it for powders or granules, however, we probably will soon."

Clay believes that the use of the ColorQA will help speed up production and save time. "I let other engineers here know that we have it in case they need to specify colors in their drawings and designs. Now we have a means of associating a number with a color," adds Clay.

He recommends that other industries such as the sheet metal, plating, powder coating, and silkscreen organizations try out the ColorQA as well. He says Broomfield Industrial Painting that performs a lot of work for Ionics should have the ColorQA to double check the color throughout the whole process of an Ionics' product before the final part is shipped back to Ionics. "Lots of elements can affect the color," says Clay. "For instance, powder coats get baked and if there is contaminated oils in the air while the part is being baked, it can affect the color a lot. Or, if the part bakes too long or if the powder coat was too old -- these conditions can adversely affect the color. I don't know if they have any tool to determine if the color is accurate."

Tim Watson, Quality Manager at Falcon Plastics (Lexington, TN), says the company purchased a ColorQA unit to check the color of its plastic molded parts. "Prior to using the ColorQA, we checked color visually. The ColorQA was very easy to learn and use. Within five minutes of taking the device out of the package, we were using it in production. It's easy to show other people how to use it. So far, the ColorQA has been very accurate. We have a couple customers that are considering buy them. It's a great product especially for the price. The hand-held, portable design lets us take it anywhere. In fact, we took it to a customer recently to set color standards for their parts. They were very impressed. We will probably purchase a couple more units," Watson adds.

Engineering challenges
Wagner served as chief engineer alongside an electronics engineer and a software engineer in the development of the ColorQA. He says the biggest challenge was the electronics engineering. "ColorQA is a small device that contains very sophisticated electronics. However, electronic component technology has evolved so that we were able to miniaturize internal components such as a white LED illumination source and a tri-color photo diode that breaks the color down to a red, green, and blue zone. Everything is surface mount components. We were able to configure the internal components to fit in the small enclosure, and operate off a six-volt battery. Thanks to technology, we shrunk the size of the ColorQA from what would have been the size of a brick to the equivalent of a utility knife with self-contained display." Indeed, the Color QA is lightweight, ergonomic and comes in groovy colors.

Another engineering challenge, according to Wagner, was setting the gain levels for the sensor. "Some signals ware more intense than others. So we had to create a second gain stage, which was like an auto-gain control. For our first attempt, we developed the product with a single stage gain setting. We found that we had to hand select resistors for each device. That was too difficult in terms of production. So we went back and redesigned the electronics to add a programmable second gain stage," adds Wagner.

In addition, since the sensor is in close proximity to the target area, Wagner thought that the optics design would be fairly simple. "I didn't think we needed any lenses or collecting optics to pick up the signal. The opposite was true because in the end, I added a collecting optic to the sensor head. So we had some optical design challenges as well," Wagner explains.

He says the ColorQA packaging was straightforward. Wagner and his team reviewed approximately 50 different shapes and decided that the current shape was the most ergonomic and universal design.

Prior to selling his idea to PocketSpec, Wagner peddled his initial prototype to several local injection molders. Wagner says, "I needed to know if there was a need for the device in the field and determine if further time invested in the design was reasonable."

He says he originally designed the ColorQA for plastic injection mold and rapid prototyping applications. At one presentation, an injection molder asked Wagner to measure several parts they were producing by checking the part to the target color supplied by their customer. In addition, while he was there, one of the molder's processors was currently setting up an injection mold machine that required mixing a red color. Wagner measured the part and measured the target piece and reported that more red color needed to be added. The processor did so, ran a couple parts through the injection machine, and returned for another on-the-spot measurement. "They were a perfect match," Wagner adds. "Right then and there, the molder wanted to buy my prototype. This type of motivation gave me the incentive to move forward with perfecting the design."

Software for design
Wagner designed the ColorQA using Mechanical Desktop software from Autodesk, ZEMAX by Focus Software for the optical design, and Altium's P-CAD software for the electronic design. "Initially," explains Wagner, "we worked in 2D sketches of device shapes and several Styrofoam models to determine if all the components would fit in the package. Once we knew everything would fit within the shape, I took measurements from the Styrofoam model that was sculpted in the shape of the device. Then, I started modeling using Mechanical Desktop. Instead of it being straight 3D modeling, I used the surface-cut features to cut a part in a section and perform some surface modeling. For a simple looking device, the modeling became pretty sophisticated. We wouldn't have been nearly as successful in the design of the product had we not used 3D mechanical software. 3D CAD is tried and true and generally accepted in the engineering community. I think everyone knows the advantages of using it at least everyone I come in contact with now," Wagner reports.

Once Wagner and his team were committed to their design and felt confident about it, Wagner sent his 3D model to another designer who uses Pro/ENGINEER. "He checked my model using his system to review my work. He found a few mistakes that required correction. The main reason why I asked another designer was because the injection molder for this job was a Pro/ENGINEER shop. The review designer converted my 3D file to a format conducive to manufacturing tooling. That worked out very well," Wagner says.

Indeed. Wagner and his team obtained first pass tooling in just five weeks compared to the typical 10-15 weeks. The tool manufacture told Wagner that if they expected tooling in five weeks, it was imperative that the 3D model be absolutely accurate. And, it was.

Wagner attributes the success to precise 3D models, peer design reviews, converting the 3D model to the format that the tooling manufacturer works with, and being able to complete tools in a five-week period to obtain usable parts.

He says, "All the upfront work is worth the effort. It saves a lot of extra time and money on the back end." As a result the necessary tooling adjustments were very minimal. Wagner and his team's methodologies allowed them to send prototype product to potential customers right away.

Rubbermaid quality manager Douglas Anderson says that the manufacturing giant has a ColorQA unit for evaluation. "We plan to use the unit as a tool on the production floor so that if there are color questions, ColorQA can help make decisions whether the color of the product is within acceptable range. Today, we are checking color in manufacturing using a visual color standard. The ColorQA will help in situations where the colors are close but technicians are unsure whether the color matches the standards. I believe that the ColorQA will be an effective tool. I plan to try it out at our Centerville, IA plant where we make sheds. There, mating parts such as side-by-side, right and left hand doors have to match perfectly in color."

Biggest success
As an inventor, Wagner says the biggest success on the development of the ColorQA project was meeting Krupka who believed in him and his product. "My subsequent relationship with PocketSpec helped launch my idea and take the product to market. How many creative people have that opportunity? On top of that, the company is publicly trading on the stock market. I know if ColorQA stops selling tomorrow that I gave it my best shot," Wagner notes.

"This is a win-win relationship," adds Krupka. "Gregg's talent, creativity, and expertise complement PocketSpec's business model. We believe the Color QA is an exciting new product that will help manufacturers become more productive. We are also enthused about other new PocketSpec products that are targeted for additional markets."

ColorQA began shipping in July 2002. The product sells for $350.00/unit. For more information about PocketSpec Technologies Inc. and the ColorQA, visit

Author: Laura Carrabine

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