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Aug 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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Imagine it's 1995 and you're facing the following scenario. In your pressroom sit a pair of 40-inch, six-color perfecting Heidelbergs. You've got plenty of work to keep them busy, but there's a bottleneck in your plate department. Despite everyone's best efforts, your step-and repeat-machine can only turn out 20 to 25 plates a shift. What's the solution?

"We started off thinking we'd add another step-and-repeat machine," recalls Len Jasmin, vice president of Typecraft (Pasadena, CA). "At the last minute, we decided we'd look into this new thing called computer-to-plate (CTP)."

In July of 1996, Typecraft became one of the first commercial printers to install a Creo 3344 Trendsetter platesetter. Today, the $7 million sheet-fed shop has doubled its output, cranking out 40 to 50 plates per shift. Typecraft's CTP setup also includes Kodak thermal plates, an Asante 100 baseT network connected to the Creo Trendserver DEC Alpha workstation, which has a 90 GB RAID for on-line and near-line storage. (The same Allegro RIP drives the proofing and platemaking devices.) Digital proofs and bluelines are created using an HP DesignJet 755CM, Epson Stylus Pro 5000 and Iris Realist.

Of course, implementing an all-digital workflow isn't as easy as plugging in some new equipment--you've got to deal with internal and external issues. How will employees long-accustomed to the analog world make the digital transition? Who's going to train them? Who's going to ensure work is still moving through the plant during the transition period? How will you communicate your new capabilities to clients? Will they accept a digital proof?

To understand Typecraft's success with CTP, it's important to know that the 50-year-old printer is an unusual mix of tradition, technology and craftsmanship. Jasmin and his partner, Harry Montgomery, emphasize a progressive attitude. For example, although the printer has had a recycling program in place for more than 20 years, it continues to explore new ideas. To encourage customers to use environmentally friendly material, Typecraft makes a point of using recycled paper for its letterhead, client newsletter and other communication pieces.

A recent issue of the The Craftsman newsletter, for example, was printed on "tree-free" paper made from bamboo. Not only could readers feel the texture and see the printability of the paper, they also learned some interesting paper facts. According to The Craftsman, "bamboo isn't a tree--it's a highly resilient tropical grass . . . that can grow to full maturity in only four years, compared to the almost 20 years it takes for the average tree to reach maturity."

Employees are another key factor in Typecraft's successful blend of old-time craftsmanship with cutting-edge technology. The all-digital workflow is driven by employees with an average of 15 years experience. Seven former film-assemblers are now Mac operators, imposing and trapping electronically via ScenicSoft's Preps software.

"Happily, every one of our 40 employees was able to stay with us," notes Tim Silverlake, head of prepress. "Our craftspeople all saw CTP as an opportunity, not a threat. So nobody needed to be coaxed, since they all knew that people with conventional stripping skills were going to be in for tough times before long."

Prepress employees were eager to master electronic imposition--so eager, in fact, that the entire department eventually bought themselves Macs for home use.

"We didn't help them do it," submits Jasmin. "It was their own decision--they paid for it out of their own pockets. We were very encouraged by that--they showed a real spirit to learn the system."

Jasmin stresses, however, that implementing CTP wasn't a walk in the park. People learn at different speeds--what's easy for one person may be difficult for another. Also, Typecraft did not have the luxury of slowly developing a digital workflow. "Operating the platesetter is no problem at all," explains Jasmin. "But keep in mind we moved to the Creo workflow from a two-up Misomex step-and-repeat machine. We had to be prepared to output an eight-page form--we had to do a lot of work to get ready for that. Going to eight-pages without a lot of spoilage was a real challenge."

Jasmin says Creo helped ensure that the transition from film to digital ouput went smoothly. "They sent an expert out here who gave us a lot of advice on putting everything together . . . it took a lot of effort and money, but it works beautifully."

Specific benefits of the filmless workflow include the elimination of pinched type, dot gain and other process variables. Also, productivity has soared.

"Where previously we had to have as many as three strippers constantly working on our vacuum frames, now the plate department can be just one person running the TrendSetter," Jasmin points out. In the pressroom, film and chemical costs have been greatly reduced and, because the thermal plates register and come up to color quickly, makereadies are faster.

Customer response has been favorable, too. Typecraft serves a range of markets, including the artistically demanding (the Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), the high-tech (Intel and Sun Microsystems) and the down-to-earth (Levi Strauss and American Stores). Jasmin says CTP is well-suited for catalog work, not only because of quality, but also because the new server system, running multiple processors, can process and impose eight-up jobs with impressive speed. (The exec claims the prep department now "looks like a laboratory and runs like a Ferrari.")

When Typecraft was exclusively film-based, it took four days for the printer to turn around a proof for a four-color, 200-page catalog. Today, once a client hands over the job, "with a properly prepared file, we can have a proof out the next day," reports Jasmin.

Although some customers were initially reluctant to accept a digital proof, this has been the exception rather than the rule. "We've had 99 percent success in converting people," says Jasmin. Agency clients have been slower than others to accept digital proofs, probably because more people are involved--the Typecraft client has to go back and "sell" a digital proof to its client. Showing customers a digital and analog proof side-by-side has helped. Typecraft also conducts small group seminars for designers and print buyers to show off its streamlined production system and build awareness of the benefits of CTP.

"There was a bit of an education process at first," Jasmin concedes. "Most customers were used to a blueline and a Matchprint. Along with those, we always show them an HP inkjet (wide-format) proof and an Iris before asking, 'Why spend the additional money for the more expensive analog proofs?' It usually takes only one job to convince them to move to digital proofing."

It's never easy trying something new, but you'll hear no regrets from Typecraft management. "We almost passed this up," reflects Jasmin, "but once we understood the benefits, there was no problem making the decision. Being on the leading, bleeding edge is a lot of fun."