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CTP: Polyester Becomes Fashionable

Mar 1, 1999 12:00 AM


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Polyester--now there's a word tainted with some unpleasant memories. Remember the Bee Gees with their Oreo-cookie-sized gold medallions, their improbable falsettos and yes, those shiny polyester shirts with the angel-wing collars? And, of course, there's the 1981 John Waters movie released in glorious "Odorama." (Polyester audiences were issued scratch-and-sniff cards . . .) Polyester definitely has negative connotations for some of us. Polyester imaging material also has been saddled with an image problem, but like John Travolta--another true polyester-era icon--it's gaining new respect in the 1990s.

Some printers were hesitant to use polyester plates because they heard the plates were hard to handle--they were concerned about print quality, stretch, register, run length, etc. New plates and film output options, however, are winning over skeptics as polyester becomes an affordable direct-to-plate choice.

"Polyester plates have a reputation for being difficult to handle," notes Dan Taxbol, sales and marketing manager, Purup-Eskofot, small offset division. "This has been proven wrong--polyester is different from metal--you have to get to know the material. If you want the plate to work, it will." Taxbol observes that a polyester plate can be stretched when the material is mounted on press. "This is part of the learning curve --however, the plates don't stretch during the press run." The exec also suggests keeping a close eye on fountain balance. "Because the plate is black, there's a tendency for press operators to put too much water on the plate, causing more paper stretch," explains Taxbol.

Richard Ferranti, Mitsubishi Imaging's director of marketing, notes that polyester "is a friendly plate" now available in thicker dimensions more closely approximating a metal plate, which should help some operators make the adjustment.

One industry guru refers to polyester direct-to-plate as "Poor Man's CTP," because it is possible to bypass a dedicated platesetter (approximately $43,000) in favor of converting an existing imagesetter or using a toner-based device (about $6,900). A recent survey of quick printers conducted by Q.P. Consulting (West Melbourne, FL) reported that of the 230 survey participants using CTP, 39 percent are using platesetters, 30 percent are using imagesetters and 31 percent are using toner-based devices. Respondents are using platesetters from A.B. Dick (DPM 2000); Exxtra (Rip-It Speedsetter, Maxxima 300); Purup-Eskofot (DPX420, Quickset SL Merlin) and PrePress Solutions (Panther 34/P). Converted imagesetters cited include models from Agfa, ECRM, PrePress Solutions, Linotronic (now Heidelberg Prepress) and Ultre, a division of Heidelberg. Participants reported using toner-based devices from Hewlett-Packard, Lasermaster and Xante with plates from Autotype Americas (Omega), Kimoto Tech (Kimotoplate), Nation-Wide Plastics (Pronto) and Agfa/Xante (Myriad) and others.

Another factor fueling polyester's growing popularity is the new generation of small format imagesetters. With a variety of vendors now courting the quick printer/small commercial market, shops that once couldn't afford an imagesetter are re-crunching the numbers. The used equipment market is enabling some printers to duplicate their service bureaus' capabilities--at a fraction of the cost. Also, some shops that have cut their digital teeth on entry-level imagesetters now have the additional volume of work to justify moving up to a dedicated platesetter. Still others are enticed by the flexibility of "dual setters" that enable automatic switching between film and plate output.

Digital Color Graphics (Southampton, PA) is among those seeking maximum efficiency with minimal equipment investment. When president John L. Rosenthal opened his doors two years ago, he had one 11 x 17-inch two-color press and a PantherPlate/34 polyester platesetter from PrePress Solutions. Why did he decide to go CTP from Day One?

"I've been in printing 25 years," responds Rosenthal, "and I didn't want to go backwards with film, stripping and platemaking departments."

Today, Rosenthal has four presses: a Multi, two Tokos and a four-color Ryobi 3304. "Because of CTP, we can do quick turnaround two- or four-color work. Our normal runs would be 5,000 sheets, four-over-four. We have run as few as 75 sheets four-color and as many as 20,000 sheets four-color. CTP is a tremendous competitive advantage," notes Rosenthal.

"We also do work for other printers--we did 250 four-over-four 81/2 x 11-inch pieces, for example, which that firm couldn't handle. We do compete, however with firms running Heidelberg QuickMaster DIs, but usually our prices are more competitive."

The suburban Philadelphia printer does a little bit of everything--sell sheets, promotional materials, catalogs, etc. "Large corporations are downsizing and they need shorter runs," theorizes Rosenthal. "Going to a 40-inch press to produce a run of 1,000 is expensive. That's where we come in--very few print shops in our area can do what we do."

As for the Mitsubishi Silver DigiPlates used at his shop, "we don't have any problems," says Rosenthal. "We've run 50,000 impressions on a 4 mil plate."

The DigiPlate, which is offered in polyester and paper, reportedly can hold a 175-line screen with a three percent to 97 percent dot. The polyester is for 25,000-plus impressions; paper is for 10,000 impressions and below.

Agfa, the other key player in the polyester plate arena, offers its Setprint plates for black-and-white, spot and four-color, short-run printing at 150 lpi to 175 lpi screens, according to Dave Carey, product manager. A SelectPlate workflow kit helps users of Agfa's Avantra imagesetters ease into polyester. The kit includes test targets and an X-Rite densitometer to calibrate and monitor plate output.

When shopping for a platesetter, Rosenthal's capability requirements included 150 lpi to 175 lpi screens as well as an automated system. "When the film and the plate material are imaged, it goes into the processor and comes out in exact plate size. We didn't want to have to manually transfer the plates into a cassette and then into a processor."

Roy Acklin owns Printing Dynamics (Kansas City, MO). The $400,000, 3,200-sq.-ft. shop entered the digital era about a month ago with the installation of a PlateStream platesetter from Printware.

"We wanted quick turnaround times," explains Acklin. "We were having to send film out--it was taking a day to a day and a half to get it back."

Printing Dynamics, which specializes in newsletters, has a Heidelberg Quickmaster and three A.B. Dick presses: two 9800s and one 360. Prior to the PlateStream, the printer had no film output capabilities, but Acklin says the learning curve wasn't steep. "We'd dealt with film output issues, such as font problems, when sending out film before," relates the printer.

The PlateStream punches, images, processes, dries and cuts plates to length. It features dual cassettes, enabling the user to switch between film and polyester plate material. Acklin reports that about 80 percent of jobs are done via polyester plate. "We are running a fairly thick plate--8 mil--and it tends to hold the registration well. What was normally taking three days, we can now turnaround in 24 hours," submits Acklin. "The customers love the quality of the photos. We can do a 150-line screen without going to film and plate. It saves a lot of time because the plates come out and they are set to press specifications."

Like Printing Dynamics, Kevin Cushing's AlphaGraphics (Minneapolis) wanted to reduce its reliance on a service bureau. The all-Heidelberg shop has a QuickMaster, a Stahl folder and a Polar 66, so a Quicksetter from Ultre, a division of Heidelberg, was a natural choice. Jeff Altenberg, AlphaGraphics' operations manager, says runnability was a deciding factor. "It's not the cheapest [imagesetter], but we were looking for a history of durability. This shop will eventually handle prepress for other shops, so we can't afford service calls or breakdowns."

The Minneapolis printer does some four-color process work, but its mainstay is three- and two-color heavy coverage, trapping jobs for customers at marketing firms and ad agencies. "It's a great feeling for us to have a customer hand us a disk and be able to preflight the file, RIP the plates and slap them on the press. We're able to do jobs we couldn't before."

Better quality was what drew Ernie Kensey, owner of All Ready Printing (Binghamton, NY) to investigate CTP. "Everything we do here has phantom screens, chokes and traps," explains Kensey. "That is difficult to do with an Itek 430 camera."

Two years ago at a trade show in Philadelphia, Kensey saw A.B. Dick's DPM 2000, which can image reflective copy (via a built-in scanner) as well as digital files. A year ago, Kensey added a Heidelberg QuickMaster 46-2, "a wonderful combination" with the DPM 2000. "The quality is great and the plate machine does other things such as separate composite color files." The New York printer offers customers 150-line screens and 1200 dpi images. Kensey adds that neither he nor his employees miss the days of stripping in halftones, making masks and triple-burning plates.

All Ready also has two A.B. Dick 9810s and an Oce 3165, as well as a wide format HP 2000. A Canon 700/Fiery is used for proofs. "Almost all of our work is digital," notes Kensey. "We think this whole business will be digital eventually."

"We are a fully digital communications production house," echoes Alex Blackwell, vice president of Starnet Design and Litho Inc. (Allendale, NJ). "We have our own design studio, do our own prepress and we are a print shop--plus a lot more."

Ten years ago, Starnet was a type house with a Lino 200 for doing repro work. Today it has a Heidelberg Herkules imagesetter, a 3030 imagesetter, a 26-inch, five-color Komori, a two-color Komori, a 40-inch two-color Heidelberg and some duplicators. Also, six months ago, the company added an Indigo digital press.

Starnet management did not want to invest in metal CTP equipment. Researching its options, the company learned about Mitsubishi's QM III plate mounting system for mounting polyester plates on large presses (151/2 x 211/2 inches to 341/2 x 493/16 inches.) "We said 'we've got the imagesetter, we've got the press, when can we do something,'" recalls Blackwell. "It's worked extremely well--we've been using it since this past November. We do not have to plate the job, we do not have to run the film and MatchPrints. It's a tremendous timesaver."

Registration hasn't been an issue, reports the exec. "We had new Ternes clamps put on that have been zeroed out for both metal and polyester, so registration has been no problem. Those clamps are phenomenal."

To date, Starnet has run placemats, posters, product sheets and brochures via its CTP system. "We can produce shorter print runs economically," submits Blackwell. "It's a much smaller step than buying a DI or something like that. It's the perfect solution for a smaller to medium-sized printer such as ourselves."

Three years ago, Frank Kissner, owner of Pleasantville Printing (Bel Air, MD) found himself at a crossroads. His $500,000 shop needed a replacement for its camera and Megaplate processor. He tried going direct to plate via laser printer, but was disappointed--"the plates stank," is his candid assessment. A vendor convinced Kissner to go direct to DigiPlate via a used Agfa 950 imagesettter.

At first, joining the digital revolution proved to be rather unpleasant at Pleasantville. Kissner and his crew struggled to get the chemistry right. They had problems with scumming on plates. But the printer persevered and ultimately prevailed in providing customers with 150-line halftones and four-color process work via polyester plates run through the imagesetter. "We do it all," says the owner. "Business cards, four-color brochures, everything. We just did a four-color process job that was two-sided with four photos--two on each side. We typeset, scanned, proofed and printed the job in one day and delivered it the next. We're the only ones in this area who can provide turnaround like that."

Before implementing CTP, Pleasantville had eight employees--it now has five. "Our productivity has soared and our materials cost has dropped," testifies Kissner. As for quality, "We're not National Geographic," is the printer's pragmatic response. "It works for us." (See "Should You Buy An Imagesetter," american printer, June 1998.)

Dick St. George at A Printery in Cape Cod, MA, also wanted to increase productivity at the shop he owns with his wife, Cathy, but balked at getting an imagesetter. The $500,000, five-employee shop has an A.B. Dick 9985, a two-color press and an Itek 960. Typical jobs include business cards and four-color brochures. St. George didn't feel he had the volume to justify an imagesetter--he turned instead to a toner-based solution from Xante: the Platemaker 3 desktop platemaking system and the FilmStar 2 processor. The Cape Cod printer likes the environmentally friendly processing--a reagent increases the density of the toner, eliminating need for a darkroom and chemicals. Four-color work is sent out to a service bureau.

St. George, a beta site for the Platemaker 2, says the difference between the earlier platemaker and the current model is a "night and day" improvement. Drying, which had been a problem with the earlier unit, is much quicker--"five minutes," according to St. George. A Printery makes approximately 150 plates a month using its platemaker. The Platemaker 3 is said to offer 2400 x 2400 dpi, and line screens of 175 lpi. Xante's platemaker uses Myriad 2 polyester plates manufactured by Agfa.

Increasingly, polyester CTP is proving to be a viable competitive strategy for the in-betweeners--shops bigger than the typical quick printing shop but a little bit smaller than the average small commercial plant. These users are doing spot and four-color work with polyester and are well-positioned to win short-run color jobs. Making the digital transition requires skilled employees--especially for high-end color work--but the benefits are real. "Digital technology isn't going to go away," says one small print shop owner. "Go ahead and take the step."

@{SBT1:John C. Stewart of QP Consulting Inc. (West Melbourne, FL) Stewart recently completed The 1999 Quick Print Industry Computer-to-Plate Report

which provides user feedback on more than a dozen platesetters, imagesetters and dry-tone printers. "While many vendors and CTP users often expect cost savings as a result of implementing CTP, few of our survey respondents cited this as a real world advantage," cautions the consultant/quick printer. "If you are looking at adopting or moving toward CTP, be very clear about your reasons. Don't be swayed or pressured by those who imply you must go digital if you want to survive."

When contemplating a CTP purchase, counsels Stewart, look beyond your annual sales. Instead, ask yourself if the company can handle additional debt. "In most cases, your company shouldn't be considering any new acquisition if your current (current assets over current liabilities) is below 2:1, or if the 'current position' of a new acquisition would put this ratio below 2:1."

Buyers should also consider the impact on cash flow. Stewart's survey found that CTP expenditures ranged from $43,000 for a dedicated platesetter, to $6,900 for a toner-based system. From a cost analysis approach, says the consultant, these investments typically are depreciated over either a five- or seven-year period. "The annual cost would range between $1,000 to $7,500. Can your company afford this additional debt?" asks Stewart.

Other questions include the following.

*What is the proportion of total annual sales that will be impacted by the acquisition of a CTP device? *Will productivity be increased or improved sufficiently to decrease payroll costs? *Will expected increases in quality translate to increased sales or justification for charging higher prices? *Will adding CTP reduce or eliminate other more expensive processes (e.g., metal plates, brokering)? To what degree? For more information on The 1999 Quick Print Industry Computer-to-Plate Report

, call (407) 727-2166 or see www.quickconsultant.com.