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Paying for CTP

May 1, 2002 12:00 AM


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Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point,” claims that trends are created through the slow spread of user-to-user interactions and casual observations rather than marketing campaigns. This may explain why print shops that resisted CTP marketing hype in the late 1990s are now embracing the digital world.

Most CTP vendors offer elaborate spreadsheets for calculating ROI. Unfortunately, most are built on input from cost centers few printers track: the hourly cost of prepress-department labor and company overhead, expressed in dollars per sq. ft. Perhaps it's the fear of determining these financial numbers that causes many printers to take the CTP plunge without the benefit of any ROI calculation. In preparation for my moderator role at the Print 01 CTP seminars, I surveyed 73 CTP users on their platesetter purchase. Thirty-seven percent said they purchased their system without asking for an ROI study from even a single vendor.

TRACKING COSTS

Whether you work with a vendor to predict your payoff or prefer to calculate an ROI for yourself, you'll want to weigh the system costs against the potential benefits. What you'll pay to adopt an all-digital workflow includes much more than the cost of the platesetter itself. Beyond the box, consider the need for additional investment in materials handling (automated plate loading and processing); the cost of the maintenance contract; the higher cost of CTP plates; and additional infrastructure costs, such as digital proofing, file storage/archiving, networking, and training your employees to operate all this new hardware and software.

Total system throughput is another key factor. At first glance, that figure would seem to equate to the number of plates per hour the device can expose. But a closer analysis reveals that some users produce more plates per day by running their system unattended for several hours each night — a feat that can easily be accomplished if your platesetter is automated. But this capability is not available from every manufacturer, and is typically an optional feature. Adding a materials-handling option to a 40-inch platesetter provides the ability to automatically load, expose, process and stack plates, but can increase the price of the platesetter about $60,000.

Given the complexity of a complete CTP system, any number of problems could arise that would turn your productivity workhorse into a very expensive doorstop. While 73 percent of survey respondents rated their platesetter reliability as being “good,” not a single participant rated it as “excellent.”

To maximize system uptime, most manufacturers offer yearly contracts for varying levels of service support. While discussion of platesetter pricing is a typical part of the investigation process, many interested buyers wait until they've decided on a particular device before they think to ask about support costs.

Remember to account for plate costs, too. When platesetters were first introduced, the plates commanded a premium price yet offered uneven performance. Today, years of user feedback and continuing research have resulted in a more consistent and affordable process. Nevertheless, plates that are exposed by a laser beam continue to cost more than those exposed by UV light.

For some printers, however, the price increase makes little difference. “We saw our plate costs increase about 15 percent when we went thermal CTP, but not paying for film and the associated chemicals has more than offset the additional costs of the plates,” says Greg Johannsen, vice president, operations, at Precision Litho, a Consolidated Graphics affiliate in Vista, CA.

PREDICTING THE BENEFITS

Anyone who tries to justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on CTP simply with the money saved on film purchases will be sorely disappointed. While eliminating rolls of imagesetter film from your monthly purchase report is a laudable goal, you'll need to look much closer to see a true picture of the possible benefits offered by today's CTP systems.

In addition to film elimination, judge your potential for production cost savings from the perspective of prepress labor reduction (elimination of overtime and/or staffing positions); increased efficiency of your prepress workflow; and the ability to share data between your prepress system and other computerized devices, such as your press console.

Although no one likes to see coworkers being given the pink slip, today's ultra-competitive marketplace allows only the most efficient companies to survive. Every printer should be investigating the impact that CTP can have on prepress-department staffing levels. Precision Litho's Johannsen tells a typical tale: “Of our five strippers, two moved into the electronic prepress department, two retired and one had to be let go.” My survey results reinforce this experience: Sixty-two percent of respondents said they were able to reduce the size of their prepress department.

Some of the efficiencies can come in Computer-Integrated Manufacturing (CIM). CIM enables certain digital devices to accept input from the estimating and order-entry processes, and then add new knowledge about the job to the collected pool of data before passing it along to the next device in the manufacturing process. While few printers have pushed this “smart factory” concept to its fullest potential, some CTP systems can use Job Definition Format (JDF) data to predetermine prepress workflows. Many CTP RIPs can also now deliver Print Production Format (PPF) files to the pressroom, for use in presetting ink fountains or programming paper cutters.

Even for operations whose press consoles don't accept PPF data, all forms of CTP introduce additional levels of pressroom efficiency. The superior registration of the digital process, when compared to hand-stripped film, results in shorter makeready times, both for the initial press run as well as for plate remakes.

“We were able to let go of our second shift in the pressroom, despite impressions going up 17 percent,” observes Jocelyn Boehm, production director at Marcoa Publishing, Inc., which runs Heritage Press (San Diego). “A lot of that has to do with reducing the time the press spends waiting for corrected plates. In the past, if we had to make a correction to a job that was on press, we would go back to the plate frame and burn all four plates again. That took forever. Now, we go back to the computer system and make the text change, and then we only need to re-make one plate due to the perfect registration — and we're back on press in 15 minutes.”

ROI STUMBLING BLOCKS

Problems that could potentially plague your CTP installation include the inability to completely eliminate film from your process, or the difficulty of incorporating customer film into the digital workflow. Some printers have made this substantial investment, only to uncover incompatibilities between the selected system and various chemicals inherent in their production methods.

Five years ago, the prevailing sentiment was that printers should gradually wean themselves off film. Since many of the early platesetters used an argon-ion laser beam that could also expose large sheets of film, it was not unusual to find platesetters functioning as large-format imagesetters for weeks or even months during the transition to CTP. Today, the trend is increasingly for printers to go “cold turkey” on film — literally pushing the plate frames out the door to make room for the platesetter. The average response to the survey question, “What percentage of new orders are plated via CTP?” was 82 percent (up from 70 percent from a similar survey conducted in 1999).

“You really have to jump in headfirst,” says Johannsen of Precision Litho, “because it's the only way you're going to save any money. A dual workflow costs a lot of money, because you're trying to keep two infrastructures running at the same time.”

Printers can accommodate analog jobs by using a copydot scanner. This term is commonly used for any scanner that can convert halftone-screened film negatives into digital images (even though some scanners used for this purpose actually blur the original halftone dots to rescreen the image). Heritage Press relies on a Heidelberg Topaz flatbed scanner to achieve its CTP goals. “We have advertisers who supply us with film from all across the country; we can take that film and scan it to create a digital file. That allowed us to go from a film-based workflow to 100 percent digital overnight,” explains Boehm.

Even if you can switch to CTP immediately, carefully evaluate your pressroom chemicals first. Although we sometimes think of lasers as they appear in comic books — powerful beams of energy, capable of cutting through thick sheets of steel — the lasers used for imaging lithographic plates are actually very low in power. As a result, plate surfaces must be extremely sensitive to the laser's energy, be it visible light or thermal. The materials making up these high-speed emulsions also tend to be sensitive to chemical agents, meaning that the aggressive makeup of common pressroom chemistries can cause plate blindness or background toning. In particular, UV inks and blanket washes should be tested and their impact evaluated before you make your final plate choice.

HOW LONG TO ROI?

Despite all the discussion that has swirled around this topic, it's unlikely that most CTP users can identify the day they will have paid off their platesetter. Your savings on materials and labor must be balanced against that big investment for the platesetter and digital-proofing equipment; such a tradeoff would imply that a rapid ROI only comes from making a large number of plates on every shift, every day.

But that's not necessarily so. Gil Marcotte, president of Synergy Printing (Carlsbad, CA), uses the Pisces (Nashua, NH) JetPlate system, a platesetter built from a modified Epson 3000 inkjet engine, for short-run four-color process work on a Ryobi 524 press. Due to the relatively low cost of the Pisces system (from $9,000 to $14,000, depending on the configuration), Synergy Printing's ROI calculation doesn't require the complete elimination of photomechanical platemaking.

“The objective here was to compete against direct-imaging presses or shops using polyester plates,” explains Marcotte. “What I'm hoping to do is produce one more job per day. If we can do an extra 20 jobs per month, the system will pay for itself in six to eight months.”

For those systems requiring a more substantial cash outlay, of course, reaching the break-even point takes a little longer. Survey participants predicted an average ROI period of 28.7 months, while the consensus among participants in my Print 01 CTP vendor panel was 20 months. But anecdotal evidence of shorter ROI periods are easy to find: By eliminating outside film purchases from service bureaus, Boehm says Heritage Press made its money back in nine months.

CTP BONUS

Even the most detailed ROI analysis is likely to underestimate the speed with which CTP systems can pay for themselves, as long as the resultant installation provides high-quality results. The cachet of a new platesetter may allow your sales force to obtain a meeting with new prospects or to bid on work that might have been previously considered beyond your capabilities. In fact, 74 percent of survey respondents said their CTP system has helped attract new customers.

And the benefits don't stop once you've captured the account: Eighty-six percent of respondents agreed that CTP helps retain existing customers.