I got home with my carefully selected series 15 CMF packets the other day. I adored the little papoose, arguably the cutest element ever created but my kitten-like wonder became a disgruntled inky face-palm of despair as I noticed that the hands and arms were visibly different shades of the same bright yellow.
It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. In fact, complaining about shading variance in LEGO elements is old news and it’s a widely known issue. But as I read comments and opinions about why it happens and what LEGO are or aren’t (usually the latter) doing about it, it got me thinking about it in a way I hadn’t before. I’m no expert in the print industry but I know a little, and one thing that I do know is how ridiculously difficult and awkward the entire process of getting consistent colours from different mixes is. It’s so difficult that printers have a tolerance referred to as ‘delta error’ and they use specialised equipment to measure exactly how far away from the intended shade the final print is. This information is fed back to the start of the process where adjustments are made to accommodate variances in the material being printed on etc. In simple terms, they have to predict the future because the human eye is annoyingly good at ‘spotting the difference’.
One opinion that seems to he widely held is that LEGO took to colouring the pellets used to make bricks by themselves as it would be cheaper and less risky not having to rely on a third party to meet increasing global demand… and that they’re not doing a very good job of it. The only problem I’ve got with that last perception is that if LEGO just weren’t mixing their inks very well, we’d get a wide variety of Bright Yellows, a whole mini spectrum full as the different batches produced any number of slightly different shades within a window based on the ‘recipe’. But that’s not what I see in the bricks. What I see is two yellows, one slightly paler and cool, the other slightly warmer. It’s the same for white, one with a creamy tone, the other slightly blue-ish (no, you can’t start calling it ‘blight’). Any other variances to me must be insignificant and un-noticable, which is what you’d expect.
So I don’t think LEGO can be failing at mixing their inks consistently because we consistently get two. Of course, what exactly is going on with LEGO’s colour mixing is buried deep within the manufacturing process so from here on in, I’m just guessing too, but if you want my guess, here it is.
Like most major manufacturers, LEGO probably mix their colours to Pantone specifications. If you don’t know, Pantone is like an international colour system that unifies the way certain colours are mixed. Getting Pantone accreditation if you’re a supplier also gives your customers confidence that when you say ‘it comes in purple’, that means it comes in the same purple every time (within inevitable tolerances). But it’s not that simple, when printing, for example, the absorbency and shade of the paper used also has an effect on the final visible colour, hence the complicated process mentioned earlier. This means that even if you get colours mixed exactly right every time, it still won’t always look the same. To me, this reduces the possibilities down to two: either LEGO has bright yellow being mixed in different factories and although they’re consistent with themselves, they’re noticeably different from each other, or the ink is the same but if LEGO gets its ABS pellets from different suppliers, the batch used from ‘supplier A’ to make ‘hands’ has different enough properties to the batch used from ‘supplier B’ to make ‘arms’ to make the final colours be different shades.
Whether I make any sense or none at all, in the end, the question comes down to what LEGO can, or should do about it. I’ll be honest with you, if I was them, I’d probably do nothing. If the difference (annoying though it is) doesn’t adversely affect product sales, solving it is a lot of resources and money that can be spent elsewhere, like on reinforcing the brand against imposters. But when I went to take the photo above, I did notice something else. The yellows only looked different under artificial light; in daylight, they looked identical. So there’s another twist in the tale. This could be to do with metamerism, when colours are tested and matched visually in one environment, but then look different in another. I pulled the mismatched yellow wing plates I got with 31023 (Yellow Racers) and found that while the difference was more severe, they too looked much closer under natural light.
So maybe LEGO are doing something about it after all, and while not yet perfect, perhaps they’ve at least closed the gap somewhat. Perhaps it’s the mix and they need to get their factories in order, perhaps it’s the suppliers and they just can’t reformulate every colour for each supplier… Maybe they’ve already tried and I’m looking at the result. Either way, the more I think about it, the more I think I can live with it, but if LEGO would at least make hands and arms destined for the same figures from the same silo and the same batch, maybe I could keep my kitten-like wonder just a little longer.