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Jun 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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Imagesetting technology isn't new; it isn't revolutionary. It is as standard in the world of printing as presses and binding equipment. Yet imagesetters are making news in one segment of the printing demographic--small-format markets. In recent years, imagesetter technology has become affordable to quick and small commercial printers for the first time.

Several prepress manufacturers have developed small-format imagesetters that are priced in a range approachable for small printers. Even better news for quick printers is the fact that these imagesetters can output plates and film that match the quality produced by service bureaus. This means small-format printers can save time and money while maintaining--and sometimes even increasing--the level of quality their clients expect.

In an increasingly digital marketplace, an imagesetter installation gives quick printers a leg-up on competition. It is a move highly recommended by those printers who have already made it.

Once you feel it's time to buy an imagesetter, find a way to make it happen. "Digital technology isn't going to go away," says Terry Doland, co-owner of Express Printing and Graphics, Inc. (Mountain View, CA). "Go ahead and take the step. With the variety of vendors and the growing used market, you don't have to go overboard. You can get started with as little as $20,000."

Doland bought an entry-level imagesetter from Ultre, a division of Heidelberg, approximately two years ago. Already his shop's imagesetting load has grown to the point at which a second machine has been added. A Purup-Eskofot DPX computer-to-plate system was installed in late 1997 to output plates for 14 x 20-inch Ryobi presses.

The reasons for purchasing range from the desire to get first-generation quality by going direct-to-plate to the need for more efficient production. Perhaps the most common and most compelling reason is the cost of outsourcing. At ColorTech Printing Co., a $1 million short-run commercial printer in Salt Lake City, UT, outsourcing costs were as high as $10,000 to $15,000 each month. ColorTech used a low-end imagesetter for seven years but it couldn't meet the demands of the shop's four-color workload.

"When we bought a four-color press (a Heidelberg GTO), we needed an imagesetter that would handle four-color work," remembers ColorTech owner Claude Curley. "After spending all that money on outsourcing, buying a new imagesetter seemed to be a natural choice."

Curley has chosen an 18-inch PantherPro/46 from Prepress Solutions. The machine outputs both film and polyester plates for ColorTech's GTO, as well as a two-color Heidelberg Quickmaster and A.B. Dick presses. The PantherPro/46 provides 200 lpi screens (up to 250 lpi for shorter runs) for ColorTech's quality-minded clientele, which includes the internationally known Sundance Film Festival.

Curley admits that having the older, entry-level imagesetter made the transition to the top-of-the-line Panther model easier. "We recommend starting a little at a time or the transition will be too great," he advises. "There are more training concerns with a more sophisticated imagesetter, so having our older model was a tremendous help."

Another shop that started out gradually is Bayprint, the $1 million St. Petersburg, FL, quick print shop owned by 1997-98 National Assn. of Quick Printer's (NAQP) president Al Karnavicius. Bayprint has a large business card client that needs hundreds of jobs run each week for its 10,000 employees. Originally, the finely detailed work was outsourced, but when imagesetter prices first began to fall five to six years ago, Bayprint bought a low-end capstan unit that output resin-coated paper at the rate of four minutes per plate.

"We had a very specific situation, and it was easy to measure where the dollars were going," Karnavicius states. "When those dollars spent reached a certain point, we knew it was time to buy."

Eventually, Bayprint's platemaking load of 600 plates per month rendered the RC-paper method inefficient. The addition of a new ExxtraSetter Maxima 300 internal drum imagesetter brought image processing time down from four minutes to 25 seconds, and its prepress capabilities brought better speed and higher repeatability to Bayprint's four-color process work.

"The true value is in increased efficiency," Karnavicius explains. "An imagesetter allows us to do more, faster."

Digital prepress increasingly is a driving factor in the business decisions of quick printers. Peninsula Printers, a Carmel, CA-based quick print shop owned by Dick Feaster, wanted to go digital to save time and materials while increasing quality. In January of 1997, the company installed an Agfa AccuSet 1000 with a Viper RIP. The 12 x 18-inch imagesetter allows the shop to output four-color separations without the delays associated with outsourcing.

According to Feaster, it is crucial to have a staff that is ready for the move. "I would strongly advise that printers make sure they have a strong in-house prepress person who is sharp enough to learn imagesetting," he says. "It's not brain surgery, but you really need an experienced person who can learn to RIP the files."

Debbie Boesch's Sir Speedy franchise in Waterbury, CT, was ready for digital years ago but had to wait for imagesetter manufacturers to target her market. "If this technology had been available three years ago, we would have been ready," she says of her year-old, 14-inch Heidelberg Quicksetter. "There had really been a gigantic hole in our industry. Until now, there haven't been imagesetters available in a price range for quick printers."

Boesch's Quicksetter allows her to eliminate negatives and metal plates completely--a logical move for her shop in which 75 percent of the work is digitally designed in-house.

But what of clients who don't have digitally created files? At The Printing Center in Apple Valley, MN, owner Karen Edgeton needed a machine that could bring the benefits of in-house imagesetting to both her technologically progressive clients, as well as those who brought in camera-ready art. The A.B. Dick DPM 2000 solved her dilemma, providing 1,200 dpi output for her fleet of 12 x 18-inch presses.

"It's a transition piece of equipment," says Edgeton. "A lot of quick printers have a camera that they have been using for years. If that's ready to be replaced, it doesn't make sense to replace it with another camera. However, most quick printers don't have 100 percent of their work coming in as digital files, so they still need some way to make plates from originals. The DPM is one piece of equipment that will take care of both of those needs."

After the imagesetter is installed, most quick printers only see their prepress bureau on a casual basis. For example, Bayprint occasionally sends out high-res scans, and Sir Speedy requests metal plates for jobs that were previously run that way in order to meet customer expectations. Even though service bureaus become less significant, it is important to remember that a good prepress bureau can be a quick printer's best friend--both before and after an imagesetter purchase.

A service bureau should set a standard for what you expect from quality imagesetting. Additionally, it is the perfect training ground for your staff. Working with a service bureau will help prepare them before the installation and can help them with troubleshooting afterword.

"We send some of our troublesome work to a high-end prepress house when the film looks wrong," states Curley. "We are happy to know that what we had done was perfect because it comes back from the prepress house looking exactly the same."

Dino Hoke, head of digital prepress at Beltsville, MD-based Beljean Printing, recommends working closely with a prepress house as a matter of course.

Begin by using an outside service bureau, and choose a reputable one that you don't have to fight with, he advises. Beljean has made imagesetting a crucial part of its business strategy for the 21st century, eventually purchasing a Mako 3600 from ECRM.

"First we drew up a business plan for the first time in many years," Hoke explains. "Then we reopened our typesetting department a year and a half ago. We didn't need an imagesetter then, but we built an imagesetting load very quickly and decided to purchase in November of 1997."

The Mako 3600 is a new model from ECRM that boasts expandability among its features. Beljean opted for a 14-inch-wide model, but can upgrade to an 18-inch configuration in time. With plans to include further capabilities in the future, expandability was an important factor in Beljean's purchase.

As the small-format printing industry evolves with digital technology, bringing imagesetting in house will only become a more popular choice. All indications are that quick and small commercial printers are ready to reap the time, cost and quality benefits of the new generation of small-format imagesetters.

"We have seen more and more quick printers buying imagesetters," The Printing Center's Edgeton notes. "When we first bought ours, we got calls from all over the country asking if they should purchase an imagesetter. Now we still get calls, but they're not asking, do we need an imagesetter? They're asking which one to buy."

Small-format printers with imagesetting capabilities recommend that those in the market for an imagesetter take the following steps before committing to a purchase.

Crunch the numbers. "Compare the cost of monthly outsourcing for film and plates to the cost of an imagesetter lease/purchase agreement and supplies. If you do any significant prepress outsourcing, chances are you can justify the purchase. If you're sending a lot of jobs to a service bureau, you may want to consider an imagesetter," desktop consultant John Giles of The Giles Group recommends. "Sometimes you can even buy the same equipment as your service bureau cheaper on the used market."

Know your people. "It's important to have skilled employees," states Colortech's Claude Curley. "On a scale from one to 10, there are a lot of fives out there, but for high-end four-color imagesetting, you will need a nine or a 10. Those can be hard to find. Not only will these people need the initiative and aptitude to learn imagesetting software and processes, they also should have the people skills necessary for cross-training other staffers."

Establish guidelines. In addition to training your staff, you'll need to train customers to give you the right materials to work with. "You need to make sure that you set your own rules regarding how you will accept customer disks," Karen Edgeton from The Printing Center declares. "The rules can be whatever you want, but you have to train customer service staff to make sure they don't accept just any disk."

Don't forget your low-tech customers. Evaluate the number of clients that still bring in camera-ready jobs and prepare to accommodate them with a camera or scanning capabilities. "An imagesetter is not a cure-all," Giles asserts. "I recently ran into some quick printers who thought that they would be able to feed their new imagesetter full-time. They later found out that a great percentage of their work came in on paper."

Check compatibility: now and for the future. Don't find yourself in the position of the quick printer who bought an imagesetter capable of outputting 4mm plate material and then bought a Heidelberg Quickmaster with auto-mount -- for 8mm plates. On the other hand, Sir Speedy's Debbie Boesch bought her imagesetter fully expecting to be able to use its digital plates on a four-color press in the future.

Choose your vendor carefully. "It's important to buy from somebody who will learn about your business and build your RIP to match your needs," Bayprint's Al Karnavicius emphasizes. "Also, you need to know if you pick up the phone and call customer support, you're not going to get the runaround."