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CTP's co-existing technologies

May 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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Violet and thermal vendors target midrange users

In the mid-1990s, CTP options were scarce and users were scarcer. Early adopters included book and financial printers that bought large-format platesetters for single- and limited-color work, followed by magazine and catalog printers. In 2001, PIA (Alexandria, VA) found that about one-half of U.S. commercial web printers had CTP capability, compared to one-tenth of sheetfed, four-up commercial printers.

Nonetheless, according to a 2002 State Street Consultants (Boston) report, larger printers are no longer the dominant buyers in the metal CTP market. Through 1999, more than 75 percent of all metal CTP units installed were reportedly in plants with more than 100 employees. In 2000, the proportion changed to one half, and in 2001, it dropped to little more than one third, equaling installation rates of printers with 50 to 99 employees.

In 2003, look for more of the same as CTP devices continue to move down-market. Today's printers have a wider range of CTP options. Thermal and polymer-based plates are popular for long-run applications — postbaking can extend their run lengths to more than one million impressions. Violet plates are generally rated at 275,000 impressions; polyester plates can be used for up to 25,000 impressions. (See “CTP 101,” April 2003, p. 40.) There's also the tantalizing prospect of processless plates, which have seemingly been “just two years away,” since 1995.

Thermal developments

Although violet vendors are apparently doing a brisk business, thermal technology continues to dominate the market. Violet technology represents about 16 percent of the 16,000 metal CTP installations worldwide, according to RIT's (Rochester, NY) Frank Romano.

“Thermal is still the market leader,” asserts Jack Weithoff, Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG) (Norwalk, CT) worldwide staff vice president, plates. The exec emphasizes that while KPG's thermal plates can be used for extremely long runs, “the technology continues to be adopted for shorter runs,” and notes that one of KPG's customers uses thermal plates for runs of 20,000 because of the plates' consistency, quality and ease of use.

While KPG's no-preheat, no-postbake thermal SWORD plate can handle run lengths of 400,000 impressions, the vendor has found that most printers' runs are under 100,000. On the processless side, KPG is working on a nonablative plate with open chemistry but hasn't announced further details.

“Most of our four- and eight-up devices are compatible or qualified to run both chemical-free as well as traditional thermal media,” notes Joe Luckett, Creo's (Billerica, MA) marketing manager, CTP devices. “Chemical-free is an ideal fit for a lot of small to midsize printers. A lot of their runs are typically under the 100,000 range. And they are removing the cost of the processor and the chemistry itself, which can be significant, not to mention the hassle of chemical storage and disposal. Ultimately, they're operating as a greener company.”

Tom Bevan, director of sales and marketing for PDI (Racine, WI), says the company is focusing on the next generation of its Eclipse Thermal, a no-bake polymer-over-aluminum plate. “We think we can bring its performance level from its current 500,000 impressions to 750,000,” he explains. The exec notes that Eclipse's small-footprint processor is speedy. “From the start of imaging to the plate being ready to go on press takes 10 minutes, vs. 30 minutes with a plate that has to be pre- and postbaked.”

PDI is continuing its no-process R&D, but isn't interested in producing a violet plate. “We think violet is on the really small end of the market,” says Bevan. “Over time, [other vendors] may make progress on the run-length front, but we don't run into that often with our customers.”

“There is a trend toward positive thermal plates, because there's no prebaking required,” says Robert Dainton, technical director, Citiplate (Roslyn Heights, NY), which offers silverless photopolymer plates for UV, thermal and violet CTP applications. “The drawback is you have to postbake because the image is soft.” The exec notes that one of its customers is investigating other thermal options, because its prebake oven costs $12,000 a year to operate. “The customer had considered using a silver plate, but that's not an option because it doesn't give them the required run length,” says Dainton. “So they're looking at photopolymer, which will, with just one postbake oven for extra-long run lengths.”

Daiton considers “processless” to be a misnomer. “There always has to be some treatment after exposure,” he says. “Either the plate is washed off to get rid of the debris or the debris is removed on press by either the fountain solution or ink. Regardless of what you call it, there's a second step after imaging.”

The exec says new switchable or phase-change polymer developments could result in future plate innovations. “It opens up the potential to have processless plates that aren't thermal or silver or imaged by ablation. It's possible to have a no-process violet plate. We [already] have processless plates that we're running with UV CTP and conventional production methods.”

Chemistry-free/processless plates

In 2002, Presstek's (Hudson, NH) wet-offset, chemical-free Anthem plate was qualified for use on Creo's four- and eight-page Trendsetter Quantum platesetters. The Anthem plate offers dot reproduction of better than two percent to 98 percent at 200 lpi for run lengths up to 100,000 impressions.

In addition to the established Anthem chemical-free plate, Presstek has demonstrated Applause, a wet-offset plate said to be 100-percent process-free — no cleaning, baking or gumming required.

“Our [current] plates are imaged and then either wiped off, as with a direct-imaging (DI) press, or rinsed off with tap water, in the case of Anthem CTP plates,” explains Marc Johnson, Presstek's product-line manager for off-press products. “Because a final clean-up step is required, we don't call [Anthem] processless. The plate cleaner specified for use with Anthem plates is a rinse-only unit (no gum) and is significantly smaller and less expensive than traditional plate processors. We ablate, or blast away, the non-image area. On Anthem, this leaves an ink-receptive layer on the plate. With Applause, ablation reveals the ink-receptive layer.”

Dimension purchasers range from $500,000 to $30 million operations. According to Johnson, the throughput of the four-up Dimension with Anthem or Applause plates is 13 plates per hour at a 2540-dpi resolution, and 20 plates per hour at 1270 dpi. “That throughput is widely acceptable for commercial printers, especially the mainstream shops that we target, but it wouldn't be competitive for newspaper sites that are looking for systems capable of 100 plates per hour,” says Johnson.

Agfa (Ridgefield Park, NJ) led the violet charge at Drupa 2000 with its Galileo. At Ipex 2002, it introduced the Thermolite Plus plate, designed for on-press imaging with a 100,000-impression run length. The DI plate for the Heidelberg Speedmaster 74 DI requires no chemical processing, is non-ablative, and needs no vacuum extraction or filtering. According to David Furman, Agfa senior marketing manager of CTP systems, the firm is currently working on processless technologies for off-press offerings based on similar working principles.

On the platesetter side, Furman says Agfa is selling “a lot more violet” than thermal devices. Debuting at Print 01, Agfa's Palladio is a fully automated, four-up flatbed, violet platesetter that handles Agfa's Lithostar Ultra-V plates and features automated plate loading via a 50-plate media cassette, and automated slipsheet removal. In 2002, Agfa introduced the Xcalibur 45, an eight-up thermal platesetter that outputs 20 40-inch plates per hour at 2400 dpi, in either manual or automatic operation.

Nondisclosure agreements with plate vendors restricted Screen (USA) (Rolling Meadows, IL) from offering specifics, but according to Mike Fox, business development manager for CTP, the company is working with the major plate manufacturers to stay abreast of processless developments. “In terms of visible vs. thermal, all the processless technology we see out there is 830-nm thermal external drum,” declares Fox.

In addition to small and midsize printers adopting CTP, the exec says upgrades are drawing interest. “A lot of the early adopters that have had their units for five to seven years are now looking to upgrade speed and resolution and in some cases, automation.”

In 2002, Screen introduced the external-drum PlateRite 4100 830-nm thermal platesetter. It produces plates for two- and four-page presses at up to 10 plates per hour. The PlateRite 4100 supports a maximum plate size of 32.7 × 26 inches and a minimum plate size of 12.8 × 14.5 inches.

The price is right

“Small to midsize printers are the largest segment currently adopting our platesetter products,” says Peter Vanderlaan, group manager, electronic imaging output products, Enovation Graphic Systems, Inc. (Hanover Park, IL). “Past platesetter technologies were too costly for the small to midsize printers to adopt CTP [until this year]. With products such as the Fujifilm Violet Saber, we offer this segment a CTP device that provides speed, quality and a price-point that fits their ROI needs.”

Vanderlaan says that while the 30-mW Violet Saber series is generating an “outstanding response,” its thermal sales with the Javelin and Dart platesetters remain strong. “Both the thermal and violet products offer unique advantages,” notes Vanderlaan. “Violet offers high productivity and quality at an attractive price point. Thermal offers fine resolutions of up to 300 lpi and long run lengths.”

“Violet remains a productive off-press imaging and processing alternative for customers with many forms per day going to their press equipment,” adds Enovation Graphic Systems' Jim Crawford, group manager, output media. “Violet also can be post-baked for longer-run applications, if required.”

Crawford predicts that “no-process will most likely be a short-run technology for some time. The products have to fit in the users' current environments with little or no performance compromises. Users won't forego processors if there are too many tradeoffs.”

In addition to its Brillia violet photopolymer plate and negative-working photopolymer plate, Fuji is developing the LD-NS dry, thermal, processless plate for Komori's (Rolling Meadows, IL) S40 D and Heidelberg's (Kennesaw, GA) Speedmaster 74 DI.

Violet vastly more popular

“Violet is vastly more popular than anything else for Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA),” reports Ray Cassino, marketing director, prepress. “We've got some [unique] machines in the two-up format — there's not as much competition as far as providing Speedmaster quality in that format. And, the four-up market has really blossomed.”

The internal-drum Prosetter 52, 74 and 102 are available in two-, four- and eight-up formats, respectively. All are outfitted with 30-mW laser diodes to image silver-halide plates. Heidelberg also offers the thermal Topsetter P74, which supports plate sizes for the QM46, GTO46 and Speedmaster CD 74.

On the processless side, Cassino says more plate manufacturers are getting closer to achieving a viable product. “But we're still waiting for someone to give us a processless plate with a long run length. Without chemical processing, it's hard to get plates with a sufficient sensitivity,” he explains.

Cassino doubts the industry will accept a processless plate incapable of longer runs. “For most printers, a run length of 100,000 impressions would be fine,” he observes. “But you won't convince the whole market to go processless until you hit well over 500,000.”

The exec also expects new processless solutions to be nonablative. “That's probably the industry preference. With an ablative plate, you have to ensure you remove 100 percent of the debris — 99.9 percent isn't good enough. There's also an environmental issue with the fumes and an optics issue with the debris flying around.”

While many CTP discussions focus on plate technologies, proofing options are equally important to Heidelberg's customers. “We've found a lot of people choose the proofer first,” says Cassino. “We sort of push them that way, though, because you can't talk about a platesetter until they're comfortable with the proofer.”

Heidelberg packages Hewlett-Packard's (HP) (Palo Alto, CA) DesignJet printers and its own PrintOpen color-management software with many prepress workflow solutions. “We've been very successful with it,” says the exec. “Color management and ICC profiles bring inkjet printers closer to the press sheet than can be achieved with traditional photomechanical dot proofs.” (See “The new proof,” February 2003, p. 28.)

Esko-Graphics' (Kennesaw, GA) CTP philosophy is built on flexibility. “We offer a complete line of platesetters,” explains Dave Mitchell, director of sales. “We have total flexibility both in automation and choice of lasers and plates (violet polymer, violet silver, YAG, argon, HeNe, thermal) with ‘FreeBeam Technology.’ PlateDriver users can choose the plate type and vendor that suit their specific pricing and production needs.”

In 2002, Esko-Graphics introduced a four-up version of its PlateDriver, the QPS 4. Because the QPS 4 violet-laser system has variable power levels (the diode can image from two mW to 30 mW), printers can use any violet-sensitive CTP plate — either silver halide or photopolymer.

“Violet technology is no longer relegated to short-run jobs,” asserts Mitchell. “New polymer violet plates introduced within the past six months have impressive run lengths. Unbaked, they are good for as many as 250,000 impressions. Baked plates can produce as many as one million impressions.”

While noting that “total elimination of chemistry is everyone's desire,” the exec says it is difficult to predict when more processless options will arrive. “The expansion of future processless plates will depend on many factors, including how they compare to current CTP plates' performance and pricing,” says Mitchell. Like Cassino, Mitchell cites achieving longer run lengths and nonablation as processless goals.

Ultimately, regardless of a company's size, the plate choice begins in the pressroom. Printers must review printability, run-length and format requirements. On the prepress side, workflow considerations must also be evaluated, issues that will be discussed in our June issue.

Fujifilm Graphic Systems Div. to be integrated with Enovation

Enovation Graphic Systems, Inc. (Valhalla, NY), the distributor arm of Fujifilm Co. (Elmsford, NY), has announced the integration of Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc.'s Graphic Systems Div. (Hanover Park, IL) into Enovation's current organization.

Stephen Bennett, director of product marketing for Fuji's Graphic Systems Div., says Enovation's integration of this division's product development, marketing, sales, training, service and technical-support resources is “a natural business progression.” Bennett notes that initially, about 20 percent of the division's business came from Enovation. “Today, it's about 80 percent of our business,” he says.

Enovation was created in 2001, when Fujifilm acquired PrimeSource Corp. (Pennsauken, NJ), Heartland Imaging (Kansas City, KS) and Graphic Systems, Inc. (Minneapolis).

“This is another development toward the broader and inexorable reorganization of the entire graphic-arts channel,” writes Robert FitzPatrick, columnist and co-publisher of “The Eagle,” an online journal dedicated to distribution/channel issues, in his analysis of the situation. “The integration is one more step in Fuji's longer-term strategy of lowering distribution costs… By integrating the Graphic Systems Div. and Enovation, Fuji is eliminating many redundant operational costs.”

This past March, PrimeNet Marketing Services (Clearwater, FL) replaced its four-up capstan imagesetter with a Presstek (Hudson, NH) Dimension 400 platesetter running Anthem plates. For its 12-employee, in-plant print shop, the direct-mail marketing company wanted a small-footprint device that didn't require safelight handling. Environmental considerations also were paramount.

“Our local municipality has put large [pollution] preventive measures in place,” explains Joe Mannino, PrimeNet production manager. A year ago, PrimeNet was fined and ordered to install a flume-monitoring device to measure its wastewater's silver content. The company also had to pay for an independent analysis of its wastewater. All told, PrimeNet spent at least $12,000 on compliance measures.

Mannino reports, however, that the chemistry-free Dimension/Anthem combination has alleviated the company's silver-disposal issue. “The environmental impact of the Anthem is irrelevant,” he claims. “A simple water wash removes inert carbon from the plate. We call it the car wash. It's a squeegee-roller system that uses plain tap water.”

The Anthem plate reportedly offers dot reproduction of better than two percent to 98 percent at 200 lpi for run lengths of up to 100,000 impressions. Run lengths at PrimeNet are an average of 7,500 sheets. “We're a short-run shop,” says Mannino. “A lot of what we do is four-color shells. We print them in large quantities and imprint the sale information.”

Most of this work is done on PrimeNet's Heidelberg MO and Speedmaster 72. The in-plant printer also has a Didde web press for printing forms, as well as two Halm envelope presses. A seven-color Epson 7600 inkjet device is used for proofing.

Mannino says xpedx (Lenexa, KS), which supplied the all-digital workflow, played a key role in the installation's success. “It was the only graphic-arts vendor to consider our entire situation, rather than push us toward a certain brand.”

Currently, Presstek's Anthem is the only chemistry-free plate that is commercially available for the Dimension platesetter. “That caused me momentary concern,” concedes Mannino. “But the fact that one vendor is responsible for the plate and machine [convinced] me. Unlike an imagesetter, where you can have three different film, chemical and imagesetter manufacturers and a lot of finger-pointing if things go wrong, we are calling [only one] company.”

Mannino says the all-digital workflow is more efficient than originally anticipated. “Press operators don't have to worry about registration as much or fight dot gain from film. We've been able to reduce makeready by 50 percent and increase our capacity by 10,000 impressions.”

The production manager notes that print quality also has dramatically improved. “We used to theorize that our presses' dot gain was obscene,” he relates. “We weren't really measuring it and we had ‘yucky’ print quality, to quote one of our designers. Well, now our art department doesn't have to compromise — what they're giving us is what they're getting, not a dot less. It's given us a marketing edge that we previously didn't have.”