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Four-up CTP: cheaper, better, faster, more

Aug 1, 2002 12:00 AM

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In 2001, PIA (Alexandria, VA) reported that about one-half of U.S. commercial web printers have CTP capability, compared with one-tenth of sheetfed, four-up commercial printers. At Print 01, it was clear that vendors were determined to help small and midsize printers enter the all-digital age, a trend expected to continue this fall at Graph Expo.

While cost advantages of CTP over film may still be debatable, printers attest to having significantly reduced their job turnaround times, eliminated waste and more. But don’t take our word for it. american printer contacted several four-up users for an inside glimpse into their experiences going digital.

Driven by the market
Competition prompted Bramkamp Printing (Cincinnati) to go CTP. “We could not get our jobs to press for the same cost as the competition,” says Craig Masencamp, prepress manager at the $4 million, 22-employee printer. “By the middle of last year, we knew we had to do it.” Bramkamp specializes in business-stationery printing, foil printing and diecutting, but also does standard commercial sheetfed jobs. It operates mostly Heidelberg presses.

With an average press run of 20,000 impressions, the printer had its eye on visible-light CTP. Masencamp admits he had concerns about the chemical-disposal requirements of silver-halide violet plates, but after testing and research, chose Agfa’s (Ridgefield Park, NJ) Palladio system and Lithostar plates. Agfa introduced the Palladio four-up violet flatbed platesetter at Print 01.

Bramkamp also paid about $8,000 for a machine that would neutralize the processing chemicals, thus allowing the printer to dispose its CTP waste down the drain. After a late January purchase, equipment was installed in April.

Bramkamp opted for a multiple-cassette loader, an online processor and online stacker for its Palladio; Masencamp says the full automation features were key to his final platesetter decision. Even though Bramkamp has no prepress night shift, the exec says the platesetter can operate throughout the evening, and plates are stacked and ready to be mounted on press by morning.

The four-person prepress department previously operated Dolev 800 and 200 imagesetters with RIPs; it switched over to a full-blown Agfa Apogee system when it went digital. Digital contract proofing is done on a Sherpa 24; a Sherpa 2 was purchased for digital dyluxes. Masencamp says he bought the entire system from one vendor because “my biggest fear was having fingerpointing between manufacturers” should something go wrong.

Bramkamp outputs more than 30 plates per day. The time benefits with CTP were obvious: What used to take about two days to get to press now takes about an hour and a half, according to Masencamp. But “we really struggled with how to come up with a price structure,” he admits. “Our competition with CTP capability typically had about 80 percent of our cost. Our costs stayed the same, but we knocked pricing down to 80 percent.”

The price cut was rationalized through Bramkamp’s ability to eliminate film waste and two employees due to CTP efficiencies.

100 percent committed
Hart Graphics (Knoxville, TN) became a CTP shop in 1999, installing a Scitex (now Creo, Bedford, MA) Lotem 400V with Brisque workflow and DuPont digital proofer. The Lotem 400 is a modular thermal platesetter that outputs about 16 plates per hour. This spring, Creo announced the worldwide release of its Lotem 400 Quantum, which combines Lotem’s automation capabilities and the SQUAREspot thermal-imaging technology.

According to Hart Graphics vice president of operations Gordon Wright, the printer transitioned automatically to CTP: “On day one of CTP, we were 100 percent. Our first set of plates off the Lotem was an active job,” he says. All of this was reportedly accomplished through on-the-job and installation training, though none of the prepress employees had previous experience with digital workflows.

The exec maintains that printers going digital must commit to CTP 100 percent. “Otherwise, you increase your equipment investment, labor, consumable costs, HVAC and electrical, and floor space trying to keep both workflows going,” he says. “Don’t use film as a crutch.”

Hart Graphics is no stranger to rapid change and new technology. The $2 million, 17-employee company began humbly in 1986 as a prepress service bureau “with a Macintosh Classic and one laser printer,” according to Wright. In 1997, it bought a four-color Heidelberg Quickmaster DI; the company also invested in a five-color, straight Komori Lithrone 528 when it bought a platesetter.

Wright reports Hart Graphics’ biggest CTP problem was with the fountain solution on press. He notes that digital plates take water and roll up differently than conventional plates. The printer began with Western Lithotech’s (now a Lastra Group Co.) (St. Louis) LT-1 no-bake plate. It is currently using Western Litho’s LT-2 plate but is also evaluating Kodak Polychrome Graphics’ (Norwalk, CT) SWORD thermal plate, introduced at Print 01.

The exec advises other printers considering CTP to buy a workflow first, then a CTP device that fits their presses. For Hart Graphics, the Brisque workflow’s “RIP once, print many” capability was a big selling point: “File integrity is always a major concern, and we did not have that before. We used to eat many jobs because of having to reRIP files,” he says.

Imaging without pins
american printer readers may remember Scoville Press (Plymouth, MN) from a November 2000 story on CTP, “Best practices in computer-to-plate.” Back in the mid-1990s, Scoville was strictly a card-pack printer for publishing clients. Each card was a single page in a book, which meant the 40- to 116-card jobs Scoville printed could not be imposed until publishers were finished selling all the pages. To be able to turn jobs around quickly, management for the 170-employee, halfweb printer decided to transition to a digital workflow.

Scoville installed two Purup-Eskofot (now Esko-Graphics, Kennesaw, GA) ImageMaker B2s in 1999. The printer originally operated an eight-up Purup-Eskofot Magnum imagesetter. Prepress manager Rusty Grimes chose the vendor’s ImageMakers because a competing device didn’t fit Scoville’s largest plate of 23 x 29½ inches, the ImageMakers’ RIP allowed more manipulation of copydot scan files and the devices simply cost less.

Scoville’s main ImageMaker is thermal; the other, an argon-ion model, is kept as a backup to run both plates and film. Both devices are able to image plates and film. Plates are supplied by Agfa.

Scoville operates seven web presses that use about 120 plates per day; average run length on the heatset halfweb is 500,000 to one million. Grimes reports that Scoville was about 90 percent CTP within 90 days, “but it wasn’t without a lot of sweat and tears. Being a halfweb shop, we only have so much plate at the bend, and any kind of pin you put in weakens the plate. So we were running without pins or register on our CTP device.”

Grimes chose full automation on the platesetters: A plate tower holds 500 plates, which are automatically conveyed from the tower to the imaging portion of the thermal platesetter, then to the plate processor, oven and oven stacker. Currently, Scoville’s prepress department numbers 17 people, processing what Grimes estimates is at least the same dollar volume of work as that produced by a staff of 50 in a film workflow. “I hate to say it, but automation basically replaced people,” he relates. “Prior to CTP, our best platemaker could average 13 to 14 plates an hour. Now, I can spit out 22 plates per hour without any human intervention.”

Two of Scoville’s presses use plates that are too small to run on the current platesetters, so Grimes is considering purchasing Esko-Graphics’ newly introduced PlateDriver QPS 4, a four-up device with variable power levels, capable of imaging metal violet plates. Grimes says the PlateDriver will run Scoville’s smallest plate, which measures 121/16 x 73/8 inches and is just 3/16-inch too short to be imaged on the ImageMakers.

Remakes not necessary
“Our prepress department was getting killed.” That’s how Rolly Johnson, prepress manager for Tepel Brothers (Troy, MI), describes the company’s impetus for getting a platesetter. The 50-employee printer, which does mostly short-run, high-quality four- to six-color work, was working in an older workflow that supported a Dolev imagesetter using punched, imposed films and laminated films. “Even with seven of us, we were barely able to keep up with the demands put on us, let alone go after new work,” the exec explains.

Tepel Brothers closed a deal at Print 01 on a Dart Luxel T6000 CTP II thermal platesetter from Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. (Hanover Park, IL) with an auto loader, conveyor, processor and stacker. “It didn’t make sense to get into this kind of investment and then go halfway,” observes Johnson. The Dart, available in semi- and fully automatic models, can image 17 plates per hour at 2400 dpi.

The exec says Tepel Brothers chose thermal because it was proven technology. “A lot of other options seemed to be on the horizon,” he notes, “but it seemed nobody could actually point to one and say, ‘Look, there it is, running in production.’”

Installed over the winter holidays, the Fuji Dart was operating by January 1, when the printer ran its first live CTP job. Johnson reports that in a week, 95 percent of new work was going out CTP—within two weeks, the company was at 98 percent.

Tepel Brothers now splits three prepress employees over two shifts. Johnson says that turnaround times are slashed, registration issues are a thing of the past, “and unless somebody drops a plate, remakes aren’t necessary.”

Versatile workflow
Frontier Printing (Ft. Collins, CO) operated a process camera before it went digital, but the “lion’s share” of its prepress work went through a service bureau, according to prepress manager Paul Morris. “If possible, we’d preflight files and send them to the service bureau, and a day or two later, we would get a film and Matchprint back,” he explains.

Frontier is a 14-employee commercial sheetfed printer that does everything from four-color brochures to single-color business cards. Its largest-format press is a 29-inch, four-color Heidelberg Speedmaster 74; it also operates a two-color Heidelberg Quickmaster, a two-color Hamada press and a Heidelberg Windmill letterpress.

More than a year ago, Frontier made the decision to go CTP. It auditioned some of the bigger vendors, eventually investing about $250,000 in a full Heidelberg system, including a violet Prosetter 74 device operated through Heidelberg’s MetaDimension system and the Delta workflow. Morris explains that Frontier’s 7,200-sq.-ft. facility was simply too small to accommodate the long baking lines that are often part of thermal systems. Frontier uses Agfa Lithostar plates.

Morris says the Heidelberg system was the most versatile of the devices he evaluated, able to handle a variety of file formats. “When I send a PostScript or PDF from the original native application, the Delta workflow processes that into a Delta list, which is then RIPed,” he explains. “It contains the location of every element on the page, breaks it down into color separations, and you can then impose and run the file into a proofer or send it to the plating device—without experiencing any problems, such as reflow.”

Possessing a digital prepress background, Morris was hired specifically to help implement a digital workflow at Frontier. “I wasn’t trying to do production while I was getting the system installed—our other prepress employee took care of that,” he says, an approach he recommends to others.

Currently, each prepress employee follows his or her job all the way through, including trapping on the Delta, imposing on a Signa station and making a color proof on a Hewlett-Packard Designjet 5000. Plates are imaged by whichever employee is available. The Prosetter’s semi-automatic functions help out on this score—Morris says he can put a plate in the device, then work on another job on his workstation; the device signals when another plate needs to be loaded. “It facilitates multitasking,” he says.

Most of Printing Images’ (Pottstown, PA) jobs come from credit unions throughout the country. Member- service brochures, newsletters and other marketing materials up to four colors are copywritten, designed, then printed, finished and mailed from this one-stop production house. The printer operates two two-color Ryobi 3302 presses and a two-color Heidelberg MO 1925.

Printing Images does a lot of base stock work, where a few hundred thousand generic inserts are printed, then later imprinted in runs of about 10,000 with copy specific to a particular credit union. Without an imagesetter on site, prepress manager Tom Eczko says stripping in the individual runs was costly and laborious.

The printer chose a Presstek (Hudson, NH) Dimension 400 platesetter running the Anthem chemistry-free plates. “It’s been years since I dealt with even imagesetters, so when Presstek explained that there’s no chemistry involved, my eyes kind of lit up,” says Eczko. The Dimension runs with a Harlequin RIP purchased from Presstek. Printing Images also uses Trapwise for trapping, ColorCentral and Preps for imposition.

Although Printing Images employs about 30 people, only nine of them are in production. Employees therefore tend to wear a lot of hats—Eczko is the sole prepress employee, and the Heidelberg press operator acts as the backup prepress person.

The front end was installed about two years ago; the platesetter was installed in October. The platesetter’s distributor provided training. A Presstek rep then helped Printing Images’ three press operators calibrate the RIP with the dot gain, and advised staff on the water and fountain-solution levels.

“The first couple of weeks, I was on the phone a lot,” reports Eczko, “but within the first month, I was comfortable.” What used to take a full day to output is now done by late morning, after which Eczko can help out elsewhere in the plant. Printing Images opted not to have any automation on the Dimension: “We looked at the price tag, but with us producing 400 plates a month, the automation didn’t justify the price,” says Eczko.

Nevertheless, the prepress manager is still able to work on four different jobs simultaneously, doing trapping on one, imposing a second, RIPing a third and plating a fourth. All proofing is done in the design department, mostly via fax, as Eczko says credit unions are not particularly color-critical.

“About nine months ago, we pulled a report on what we used to spend per month for film, chemistry, Mylar, etc., vs. the payment we’re making on the CTP system,” says Eczko. “I’m not going to say it’s evening out, but it’s close. I was surprised that we used that much in consumables.”

No automation required
Keith Paulsen, prepress supervisor at Brooklyn Printing (Brooklyn Park, MN), says one of the key reasons he chose Screen USA’s (Rolling Meadows, IL) PlateRite 4000II thermal platesetter was because it wasn’t fully automated. “If you get a fully automated device, you can’t feed the plate manually —and it’s just a matter of time before the automation breaks down,” he observes. “In a year, we’ll probably get automation, but we still have the ability to feed this device manually.”

Brooklyn Printing is an offset-sheetfed printer that does mostly brochures and marketing materials up to four colors. It operates two four-color, 20 x 28-inch Komori Lithrone presses and two smaller-format Ryobi presses. It went to CTP in August 2001. Previously, Brooklyn Printing operated in a workflow that imaged to a Dolev. It still uses the imagesetter to output film for other print providers, but Paulsen reports the device has not output film for Brooklyn Printing jobs in six months. With CTP, Brooklyn Printing also switched to the Screen Trueflow workflow. Plates are from Western Lithotech.

“Switching over from a PostScript to a PDF workflow has really sped things up because we’re proofing a lot more jobs via PDF,” Paulsen says. About 30 percent of jobs are proofed and signed off via PDF; the balance is done through two Epson 7000s.

Average job turnaround time is about 24 hours, down from two to three days. Specifically in prepress, jobs are sent on to the pressroom in about an hour, vs. half a day or more in a film workflow. Paulsen credits the speediness to Trueflow. Brooklyn Printing produces about 700 to 1,000 plates in a month. Press operators reportedly found the plates to be softer than their analog counterparts, but after adjusting clamp settings, the plates haven’t posed a problem on press.

Despite the tighter turnaround times, Brooklyn Printing has never hired extra prepress employees. “Actually, an employee quit and we never replaced him,” reports Paulsen. “We no longer have a night shift on prepress, although we still have one on press. So we’re outputting twice the amount of work with fewer prepress personnel.”

Recently installed Timbuktu remote-access software allows Paulsen to access the Trueflow workflow from his home in case of night-shift emergencies. “It just keeps getting better and better,” the exec says. “It’s amazing. Ten years ago, I was cutting and pasting on a light table.”

CTP news at Graph Expo
Agfa | “We will talk much about automation and its importance for today’s printer,” says Frances Cicogna, senior marketing manager, CTP systems for Agfa (Ridgefield Park, NJ). Graph Expo will mark the U.S. debuts of automation on Agfa’s VLF platesetter and the eight-up thermal Xcalibur 45. Cicogna says there will also be some upgrade releases on prepress software.

BasysPrint | At Ipex, basysPrint (Atlanta) launched its computer-to-conventional-plate (CTcP) UV-Setter 710-f and -f2 devices, which are faster than the vendor’s previous platesetter models. At Graph Expo, the company will be unveiling the f-generation of its entire CTcP product line, including the UV-Setter 57-f for the four-up market (maximum plate size is 27 x 37 inches) and the UV-Setter 1116-f for larger-format printers, according to Jeff Hopkins, president of basysPrint USA. Hopkins says basysPrint will be taking orders on the new line at the show. The vendor already has plans to install a UV-Setter 57-f and a UV-Setter 1116-f at two separate printers either during or just prior to Graph Expo.

Creo | Expect to see some processless plating technology on Creo’s (Bedford, MA) eight- and four-up devices, says CTP marketing manager Joe Luckett. These devices will initially be qualified with Presstek’s (Hudson, NJ) chemisty-free Anthem plate. (Creo and Presstek have announced that the Anthem can be bundled with new sales of Creo’s Trendsetter Quantum systems in the U.S., Europe and Canada.) Creo will also have a new V-speed for its VLF device.

Esko-Graphics | No details are yet available on what Esko-Graphics (Kennesaw, GA) plans to show at Graph Expo. At Ipex, it showed some models of its PlateDriver platesetter.

Fujifilm | Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. (Hanover Park, IL) will introduce a four-up version of the violet Saber, the Luxel Vx-6000 CTP. The device uses Fujifilm’s multilaser imaging technology alongside a 30-mW, 405-nm violetlaser diode in a one- or two-laser configuration, according to Peter Vanderlaan, product development manager for electronic imaging hardware. Manual and semi-automatic versions will be available in Q4. The device will reportedly work best with Fuji’s Brillia LP-NV violet photopolymer plate.

Heidelberg | Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) plans to show some of its Ipex introductions at Graph Expo. A single- cassette loader will be available for the violet Prosetter 52, 74 and 102; the units can hold 100 12-mil plates and slip sheets, or up to 150 six-mil plates with slip sheets. Heidelberg’s larger- format thermal Topsetter P74 will be available before the show.

Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG) | Contrary to recent rumors, KPG (Norwalk, CT) has no plans to enter the violet-plate business, according to Bruce Davidson, business manager for film and plates for the U.S. and Canada Region. At Graph Expo, the company will be showing its Thermal Gold preheat product (which replaces the thermal 830 product) and no-preheat or postbake SWORD plates. KPG will also be talking about no-process plates, though Davidson says the vendor will not be selling those until next year. This will also be the company’s first Graph Expo that will include products from Imation’s color technologies group, which KPG acquired.

Lastra America and Western Lithotech, A Lastra Group Co. | Just prior to Ipex this year, Lastra (Brookfield, CT) acquired Western Lithotech (St. Louis), and Western Lithotech became a Lastra Group Co. At Graph Expo, Western Litho will show its violet photopolymer plate, the DiamondPlate LV-1; DiamondPlate LT-2, a positive-working, no- preheat or postbake thermal plate; and its new-generation visible-light plates, DiamondPlate LA and LY.

Mitsubishi Imaging | Mitsubishi Imaging (Rye, NY) will be showcasing its Silver DigiPlate CTP polyester and Alpha Violet CTP metal plates and platesetting systems. It will also present workflow solutions for scanning, proofing and color management, according to director of marketing Jeff Troll.

Presstek | According to John O’Rourke, marketing director, digital media, Presstek plans to preview its new process-free plate, Applause, which was first introduced at Ipex. The wet-offset printing plate is reportedly compatible with conventional dampening and hybrid direct-imaging (DI) presses, such as the Sakurai 574 EPII DI and Heidelberg Speedmaster 74 DI. “At Graph Expo, also look for details on the latest addition to the Anthem family of chemical-free plates,” O’Rourke says.
Presstek recently entered into an agreement with MAN Roland (Westmont, IL) to market Presstek’s Dimension 400 CTP system and Anthem plates with MAN Roland’s six-up press lines, the Roland 300 and 500. A Dimension is now installed and in operation at MAN Roland’s Graphic/Training Center.

Printing Developments, Inc. (PDI) | PDI (Racine, WI) will continue to focus on its no-bake Eclipse Thermal CTP plate. Director of corporate and international sales Dwight Zilinskas says while there are currently no four-up users of the Eclipse Thermal, the product was designed to move downmarket.
“It’s going to be a continual transition,” he reports. “Four-up is not a major marketing strategy for us right now, but we are getting pulled into it as we become more well-known in the midsize market.” Zilinskas says PDI is working on new technologies, but is reluctant to announce products that won’t hit the market for another couple of years.

Screen (USA) | Screen (Rolling Meadows, IL) declines to say what it will be showing at Graph Expo, but at Ipex, it introduced the PlateRite 4300 four-up thermal device and PlateRite Ultima for larger-format printers.