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Imagesetters and beyond: CTP options for quick printers

Jan 1, 2001 12:00 AM


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Small-format solutions boost print quality and job turnaround

Much has been written about new CTP options for midsize and larger commercial printers. But what if you're a smaller printer and can't justify investing in a thermal, violet or UV platesetter? What if a digital press doesn't figure into your plans?

Not to worry - there's a CTP solution for you, too. Options for quick printers include converted imagesetters, dual or hybrid setters capable of outputting both film and polyester plates, platesetters that make polyester and paper plates, and desktop, toner-based devices.

While polyester CTP has a long history - polyester plates were introduced in the mid-1980s - this metal-plate alternative has seen several new product introductions, and not just on the platesetter side.

"One of the small-format press surprises at Drupa was the increasing popularity of polyester printing plates," notes Bill Lamparter, PrintCom Consulting (Charlotte, NC). "Many of the new imagesetters can handle both film and polyester plates. New or improved small-format presses are equipped with lockups specifically designed to handle both metal and poly plates. The potential use of poly plates for four-color work surfaced more frequently at this Drupa than ever before." (See "Conventional presses enter the digital age," September 2000, p. 44.)

NEW PRODUCTS Hamada, for example, offers its B452 (20.47 x 14.38 inch) four-color landscape press coupled with Purup-Eskofot's DPX platesetter. The combination is said to yield 175-line, press-ready plates and facilitate short-run work, since eight-minute makereadies are said to be possible.

At Drupa, Purup-Eskofot announced it has increased the spinner speed on its DPX polyester platesetter to 30,000 rpm - it can now output 22 plates per hour at sizes of up to 16.1 x 21.6 inches. The DPX can output portrait and landscape plates with the ability to switch easily between the two.

Purup also offers the two-up DotMate 5080, which combines its technology with that of its acquisition, Scanview. The DotMate can output 45 plates an hour at 900 dpi; plates can be up to 14 x 20 inches.

Under its "Quick-Print Solutions" banner, Heidelberg presented Quicksetter imagesetters that can crank out plates for its Printmaster QM 46 and Printmaster GTO presses. The Quicksetter 350 is for plates up to 14 inches wide, the 400 has a 16-inch imaging width and the 460 offers four-up imaging on polyester plates up to 18 inches wide. A variety of built-in plate-punch options are offered.

Xante's Drupa news included another option for the QM 46 as well as Ryobi 3300 users. Its Platemaker3, a processless, laser-plate solution, can now print plates up to 13 x 35.5 inches. Output is 1200 x 1200 dpi, upgradeable to 2400 x 2400 dpi.

There were plenty of polyester options at Graph Expo, too. Printware won "Must See 'em" accolades for its PlateStream-SC, which produces plates up to 13.3 x 22 inches for two-up portrait presses. Plates can be produced at resolutions of 2400 dpi and 175 line screens, and at speeds of 40 per hour. Printware also offers the high-speed PlateStream 34 and the wide-format PlateStream 46 for two-up landscape presses and four-up work.

RIPit's Graph Expo highlights included the SpeedSetter 400, a landscape-format imagesetter that offers plate sizes up to 15.75 x 20.25 inches. Maximum resolution is 4000 dpi; it can image plates at up to 175 lpi and film at up to 225 lpi.

Monotype Systems showed the Ultara 34/P, which images polyester or film run on two-up presses with plate sizes up to 13.3 x 32 inches. It supports 10 standard resolutions up to 3048 dpi.

POOR MAN'S CTP Why is polyester becoming fashionable? For some, it's an inexpensive and flexible way to digitize their shops. Polyester plates (Agfa's Setprint and Mitsubishi's Silver DigiPlate) are cheaper than the metal variety, can be used for runs up to 20,000 and can be run in many imagesetters.

Many quick printers report that their CTP investment is yielding a significant increase in productivity as well as quality. "There is little doubt many quick printers, to survive and prosper, have felt pressured to accept and produce jobs that have much higher quality expectations than in the past," reports John C. Stewart of QP Consulting (West Melbourne, FL). "The ability to produce higher-resolution halftones, print graduated screens and handle trapping are just a few of the issues smaller printers are dealing with today. Quick printers have found some of the answers by moving to CTP."

While film typically has a three-percent dot gain, there is no dot gain with CTP, resulting in sharper copy. Beyond the quality issue, as run lengths decline and the demand for faster job turnaround increases, many printers simply don't have the time to be stripping in halftones, making masks and burning plates.

DECREASING RELIANCE ON METAL Stewart recently completed "The 2000 Quick Print Industry Computer-to-Plate Report," which provides user feedback on more than a dozen platesetters, imagesetters and dry-toner printers, from 310 CTP users. Average annual sales of those surveyed are about $1.05 million; the median sales are $800,000.

"Approximately two-thirds of all respondents indicated the move to CTP had a dramatic impact on decreasing their reliance on traditional metal plates to produce some of their work," says Stewart.

The consultant, who is himself a quick printer, further reports that quite a few CTP adapters still rely, at least in part, on both photo-direct plate-making systems as well as conventional metal plates to produce some of their work.

When asked why quick printers would elect to hold on to their old, space-hogging cameras (not to mention dealing with the chemistry and attendant environmental issues), Stewart theorizes that old habits are hard to break. "The quick-print industry grew up with camera-ready, hard-copy output. We tend to get a fair amount of hard copy reflective camera art," he says.

The consultant says that customer education is key in helping some holdouts let go of their old equipment. "You've got to educate your customer that you need an electronic file, not a laser print," suggests Stewart.

More than 300 users rate devices from A.B. Dick, Agfa, RIPit, Xante, Hewlett-Packard, Purup-Eskofot, Panther (Monotype), Heidelberg, ECRM, Linotronic, Mitsubishi, Exxtra and others. Reviews include ratings of the devices themselves as well as a rating for overall dealer support.

The report can be ordered from John Stewart's website, www.quickconsultant.com, or at PrintImage International's website, www.printimage.org. Cost is $125 for association members, and $195 for non-members.

The proposition of metal CTP for quick printers and the small commercial print sector has been around for some time. Scitex's Doplate, launched in 1994, was aimed specifically at the two-up GTO press market, as were Presstek's PEARLsetter, HighWater's Platinum and Purup-Eskofot's platesetters. Adoption by this target market, however, did not materialize and is only now starting to show any moderate activity.

That's because the cost of the platesetter, even at $60,000, represented a substantial investment for the mom-and-pop shop printer. More importantly, these types of operations did not have the digital workflow in place to capitalize on the benefits offered by CTP adoption. Over the past eight years, investment in two-up metal platesetters in North America has only totaled approximately 100 machines, while the larger formats of four-up and eight-up have totaled 2,500 or so.

POLYESTER PLATE CTP Investment in small-format polyester CTP tells a different story. The two major protagonists of polyester plates - Mitsubishi Paper Mills (MPM) and Agfa - have adopted different approaches in promoting their products. MPM has largely gone the platesetter route, aided by the likes of A.B. Dick and Printware in the U.S., while Agfa has promoted the exposure of their plate via an imagesetter. As far as instant printer market sector adoption is concerned, however, both these approaches come up against the digital workflow adoption barrier encountered by metal CTP.

While polyester CTP adoption in North America has gathered momentum over the past five years - the U.S. represents some 60 percent of worldwide digital polyester plate usage - investment has been within large monochrome publisher/print houses, rather than quick-print shops.

Numbers of installed polyester CTP platesetters are proprietary, but we estimate there to be fewer than 1,000 currently installed in North America - excluding imagesetter-to-polyester plate applications. So far, adoption of CTP by the quick-print sector has been limited.

WIDER CHOICE Is this situation likely to change? Certainly, quick printers are getting more digital originals from customers, and open digital workflow solutions are more affordable and easier to implement, thereby simplifying the changeover to digital workflow. We note a 20 percent annual growth in digital adoption among the quick-print sector at the cost of analog media.

CTP, however, is only one solution for the smaller printer, who now has a wide choice of electronic and direct-imaging (DI) presses to meet customers' demands. Many of these alternative solutions carry a high investment price tag that may deter the small independent shop.

The prospect of a low-cost machine, as promised by the Pisces (Nashua, NH) inkjet platesetter, for example, may be sufficient to sway future investment in favor of metal CTP as an alternative to the Indigo or DocuColor type of investment, but this technology has still to be proven in the field (see www.jetplate.com).

As an already proven technology, polyester CTP remains an attractive proposition for the average instant printer when going digital. Low-cost entry ($35,000), together with relatively inexpensive plates and office environment processing all combine to make polyester CTP one of the brighter prospects for the small independent print shop taking the digital route.

Vantage Strategic Marketing (VSM) recently published "Developing Market Opportunities for `Direct-to' Technologies 1999-2004," the latest in a series of reports tracking CTP, computer-to-film, digital proofing, DI and electronic press developments over the past seven years. For more information, e-mail Barry Happe at: bhappe@compuserve.com.

Using various equipment configurations, the following printers have chosen to move with the times. More jobs are being prepared digitally or can be converted to digital files by scanning. There's an opportunity to speed up production times but also to bypass many of the time-consuming, error-prone steps. Here's the inside scoop from some CTP veterans.

Craig Dellinger, New Haven Print and Copy (Fort Wayne, IN), is among those regularly running color process work from polyester plates. The Indiana printer went CTP about three years ago when it installed the Purup-Eskofot DPX 420 platesetter. Presses include the Ryobi 522HX, 3302, 3200 with T-51 head and 3200.

Dellinger credits the DPX with having the biggest impact on productivity of any equipment added in the last 20 years. He says film and metal plates were eliminated almost immediately.

Joe Dominick of Dominick's Printing (Ontario, OR) also is a three-year CTP veteran. The printer's Xante II Platemaker replaced an electrostatic unit, facilitating longer run lengths along with higher-quality output. Dominick also likes the increased press speed at which he can run the new plates.

"Ease of use" was the motivating factor behind Graphic Impressions' (Lake Placid, FL) CTP decision. John Donohue didn't want to learn film, stripping and darkroom techniques to produce envelopes, flyers, carbonless forms, etc.

"Polyester plates are more accurate and more predictable than film," maintains Bernd Meiners, owner of Meiners Druck (Bremen, Germany). Look beyond the cost of the platesetter - education, software and good people are essential, too. "Be sure to have software to edit Postscript and PDF files," he adds.

PLATE PUNCHING "Buy a unit that punches and positions the plate," advises Greg LeRoy of Reprint!Inc.! (Houston). The difference in cost may be significant, he says, but the expense outweighs the time required for manually punching and cutting plates. The Texas printer now features an Agfa Accuset 1000 with Star 600 RIP and Vasatech Processor for Mitsubishi four-mil plate material.

At Sir Speedy Printing (Wappingers Falls, NY), CTP has enabled Dave Monto and his crew to complete some jobs in half the time they would normally take. These jobs used to be done on an old press using photo-direct plates. Now, a converted Optronics imagesetter (refurbished and purchased for CTP only), with a Harlequin RIP makes plates for a Heidelberg 46-2. "Just do it," responds Monto when asked if he had any advice for would-be CTP adapters. "You will wonder why you waited so long."

Robert Wayne Pooler, Cactus Press (Yuma, AZ), says he just wanted to lower costs on imprint and simple single-color jobs without lowering quality. Like LeRoy, Pooler strongly recommends buying a machine that will punch material for registration purposes. Cactus Press uses an Agfa 1400 imagesetter with built-in hardware RIP, 600-, 1200-, 1800-, 2400- and 3000-dpi capabilities with screen percentages ranging from 100 to 200 lpi.

"Forget about hybrid systems (those that make film and plates)," declares Cyd Lang, Print Express (Florianopolis-SC, Brazil). "Once you are CTP, you don't need film!" Lang uses his Purup-Eskofot DPX for quality jobs and four-color printing. After a year's use, he, too, says the plates are superior to aluminum plates made from film.

A QMS 2060 toner-based laser printer is used for shorter runs and other jobs. In addition to eliminating stripping, plate burns and related work, going CTP has also eliminated the mistakes associated with conventional platemaking.