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Choices 2000: What's new in CTP

Oct 1, 2000 12:00 AM

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NEW AND EXISTING TECHNOLOGIES OFFER COMPUTER-TO-PLATE OPTIONS FOR ALL PRINTERS The many introductions into the computer-to-plate (CTP) arena at Drupa 2000 and Graph Expo are a boon for printers seeking platesetter options.

With these entries have come discussions over the merits of violet technology versus thermal, and the potential of processless plates in the future.

Agfa unveiled the 430-nm Galileo violet platesetter at Drupa and is currently the only provider of violet plates. According to Peter Kushnieruk, senior product manager for output systems, Agfa has already sold 400 violet units worldwide as of mid-September.

Agfa, as well as some other vendors, actually offers violet, thermal and other visible light technologies in their platesetters. CreoScitex, on the other hand, is almost adamantly thermal, as is Presstek. Other manufacturers appear to be staking out the middle ground, either planning violet offerings or taking a wait-and-see approach.

VIABLE CHOICES Because one of its purported advantages is its cost efficiencies resulting from mass consumer production, violet technology potentially opens new avenues for printers who previously could not afford to go CTP.

"Blue-violet technology brings the efficiencies of CTP to the smaller printer," says Ray Cassino, marketing director, prepress, for Heidelberg USA.

In the end, though, all platesetter technologies can be viable choices for printers.

U.S. printers currently appear to prefer thermal platesetters to visible light technology. "We tend to sell more of our visible light systems in Europe than in the U.S.," notes Mike Fox, business development manager for CTP, Screen (USA). Of the 400 violet Galileos sold by Agfa, Kushnieruk says about 10 percent are in the U.S.

Fox says early thermal CTP vendors did "an excellent job of selling thermal's attributes."

Thermal plates are suited for long runs, and early adopters of CTP systems were larger newspaper and periodical printers. And, thermal plates can also be handled in daylight.

According to Kushnieruk, however, platesetter adoption is moving to midsize printers to four-color, shorter-run jobs of 50,000 to 75,000 impressions. Violet plates also can be handled in yellow safelight environments, unlike other visible light systems that require darkroom conditions for their plates.

Violet plates also use the same chemicals required to process film. "If your interest is in keeping one foot on the platform and one foot on the train - that is, if you want to stay vested in existing technology and transition more slowly to computer-to-plate - violet technology makes sense," observes John O'Rourke, product manager for consumables, Presstek.

PRACTICAL POLYESTER Visible light systems other than violet are considered older technologies, but are still available. Barco Graphics, for example, acquired Gerber Systems in April 1998 and still sells Gerber's flagship Crescent 42 as either a 1,064-nm, internal-drum thermal platesetter or with a blue argon-ion laser diode.

Another category of platesetters, those that image to polyester, are on the market from vendors like Purup-Eskofot and Printware. Printware, in fact, recently came out with the PlateStream-SC platesetter, which images to silver-halide polyester plates.

Metal plates are still preferred by printers, however. John Zarwan, principal with State Street Consultants (Boston), says metal plates allow for longer runs (polyester is suited for around 25,000 impressions), and are perceived by operators to have higher quality than polyester.

Nevertheless, the graphic arts consultant notes there are a large number of polyester plates being used today, particularly at smaller printers that don't require demanding run lengths or multi-color, high-quality jobs. And printers who don't own platesetters may use their imagesetters to image polyester plates instead of film.

Why? Polyester is less expensive than metal plates, and has improved in quality since its first forays into the market.

But "at the end of the day, these systems all image on plates, and the plates look good on press," says Zarwan. "what the CTP decision comes down to is that printers want to be assured that they can output plates and deliver the job at the best possible cost and quality," explains Jim Crawford, product development manager, PS plates, Fuji.

Crawford advises printers to consider CTP devices as a tool for their operations. Which tool will get plates through production? What uses do you require in your CTP systems?

DIFFERENT SOLUTIONS So, what choices are out there? Platesetter vendors include: Agfa, Barco Graphics, CreoScitex, ECRM, Fuji Photo Film USA, Gretag Cymbolic Sciences, Heidelberg, Krause, Luscher, Presstek, Purup-Eskofot, Screen (USA) and Xante - just to name a few.

Agfa began in CTP with a 532-nm green-laser version of its Galileo platesetter. It has since developed 832-nm and 1,064-nm thermal platesetters, and, as mentioned, introduced a violet-laser version of the Galileo. The Galileo violet VXT can image 22 30.31 x 40.5-inch plates per hour. The product will be available in December or January of 2001.

Kushnieruk is vocal about the benefits of violet. "Printers may now be looking at different solutions that don't require the type of workflow and production methods needed to manufacture and develop thermal products," he explains.

"NOBODY WON" Barco Graphics offers a device that fits every format in the market, says Phil Crosby, a dealer support specialist and product manager.

At Drupa, Barco unveiled its Mondrian large-format, flat-bed, 830-nm thermal platesetter, the "big boy of the family," according to Crosby. The vendor also showed a violet-laser diode platesetter in the Crescent product family. The six-up, internal-drum Viking 6 is based on the Gerber C3030 platesetter of old, which used a red laser diode.

At Graph Expo, Barco introduced the Viking 8, a 32 x 42-inch violet system bearing a list price of $110,000.

"The thermal-violet debate reminds me of the very early days of CTP, when there was a battle between internal- and external-drum technologies. Guess what, folks: The war ended and nobody won."

According to Frank Van Pyrs, product manager for platesetters and output devices, Barco will focus on thermal technology for its bigger systems. On the smaller formats, "Violet is very interesting."

PUSHING THERMAL FURTHER Meanwhile, "we're not considering violet right now," declares Stan Najmr, director for advanced products at thermal platesetter manufacturer CreoScitex. "There are huge advantages for thermal technology and we would like to push it even further."

To that end, CreoScitex is adding a new product called Lotem 800 Quantum to its CTP line. Unveiled at Graph Expo and to be released Q1 of 2001, this product uses a 40-watt imaging head that combines Creo's SQUAREspot imaging technology and Scitex's turbo screening technology. "We can do stochastic screening with software on the Brisque - it's a nice performance booster," notes Najmr.

The initial model will be an eight-up format. According to Najmr, both Lotem and Trendsetter lines will now feature enhancements - including a digital halftone proofing capability option on Lotem 800 products.

The company has also introduced to its four-up market the Lotem 400VA, which can hold 200 plates in three cassettes. And, CreoScitex announced at Graph Expo new digital front ends (DFE) for its devices. The Trendsetters can now be driven by its PS/M RIP software for the Mac, as well as Brisque, formerly a proprietary Lotem DFE.

"REALLY GET ATTENTION" ECRM, for its part, expects to support technologies on both sides going forward. Historically a manufacturer of imagesetters, ECRM introduced two CTP products last year.

The WildCat is primarily a newspaper CTP device, and TigerCat is a four-up (24.3 x 32.5 inches) device geared for the commercial printing market. A red-laser model of the TigerCat costs $99,500; the green laser, $115,000.

In March, the firm acquired Optronics, which led to the introduction of the DesertCat 8 and 88 external-drum thermal CTP devices. The eight-up (35.4 x 44.5 inches) DesertCat 8 lists for $179,000; the DesertCat 88 platesetter, which can also do thermal contract proofing, $199,000.

At Graph Expo, ECRM demonstrated a violet-laser version of the TigerCat. The $109,500 model, announced at Drupa, is to begin shipping this month. "The initial thrust of platesetters in the U.S. is thermal, but to have a four-up device under $100,000 will really get attention from printers," president and CEO George Carlisle observed.

Though its devices are generally shipped with an embedded Harlequin RIP, the vendor will also be introducing an Adobe-based workflow, Turbo RIP, and an integrated workflow package, ECRM MaxWorkflow, based on Harlequin technology.

PROMISE OF VIOLET Fuji Photo Film USA is a hardware and a media player in CTP. The company carries a line of PlateJet four- and eight-page platesetters, and a thermal Javelin Luxel T9000 CTP system. The Javelin makes 12 plates per hour and offers four resolution levels.

At Drupa, the firm debuted a CTP device called the Saber, capable of producing 27 eight-page plates per hour at 2400 dpi.

Though Fuji did show a violet photopolymer plate at Drupa, it remains in concept phase. Fuji does not currently have an offering on the equipment side.

Fuji's Crawford notes one of violet's limiting factors is the "relatively low-powered violet diodes available to the market. When higher-powered diodes become viable and available, we'll see if that will converge with our plate into a solution," he says.

Crawford sees violet as an interesting and emerging technology: "The promise of violet is causing people to think twice about their CTP opportunities," he says.

PALATABLE COSTS Gretag Cymbolic Sciences came out at Drupa with a heralded thermal T-wave technology that allows for an internal-drum system at 830 nm. The PlateJet Sapphire and PlateJet Emerald families are available in four- and eight-page models for small to midsize printers.

According to Jeff Edwards, product manager, CTP systems, the Sapphire model has proven more popular among printers with higher-volume needs; those who make up to 100 plates a day.

Edwards says the PlateJet Emerald, available for $130,000 with the T-Wave feature, is ideal for smaller printers producing fewer than 40 plates per day.

"The cost of service and ongoing cost of ownership is much more palatable," claims Edwards.

Gretag Cymbolic Sciences does carry 532-nm visible green light CTP systems, but "we've not made a violet system intentionally because at the moment, there is only one plate supplier," Edwards says. "Violet is reputing to become the cheap light source, but it's not cheap today. It has a possible interesting future but the jury is still out."

Before Graph Expo, Edwards said that Gretag Cymbolic Sciences will release a new platesetter in Q4 but declined to give details.

CTP FOR ALL APPLICATIONS Heidelberg's CTP strategy is to provide solutions for all applications, according to prepress marketing director Cassino. At Drupa, it released the Quicksetter 350 and Primesetter imagesetters that allow both film and polyester plate output, for lower-end markets.

Prior to Creo's merger with Scitex, Heidelberg and Creo had a joint venture under which they marketed the Trendsetter platesetter. Heidelberg has since acquired intellectual rights to Screen (USA) technology to have its own CTP solution. At Drupa, it unveiled its Topsetter 74 and 102 external drum platesetters, which Cassino says is a high-end thermal option for printers.

As for a very-large format platesetter, "the only thing I can say now is that we're looking at it very seriously," Cassino says. "Stay tuned - it doesn't make sense for us not to have one."

Heidelberg also considers violet to be a real option for printers. In mid-2001, the graphic arts giant will introduce its blue-violet platesetter technology, based on the Primesetter. The machines will be available in both four- and eight-up applications, in both semi- and fully automatic versions.

COMPARABLE COSTS Krause introduced an eight-up and very-large format violet-laser CTP system at Drupa. The device can image 30 eight-up plates an hour, and will be offered as a capability with all of the company's LaserStar (LS) CTP systems.

The LS 110, 140 and 170 C are all 180-degree internal-drum platesetters, with thermal and visible-light solutions.

OUT-OF-BOX APPROACH Luscher came to Drupa this year with a large-format machine, the Xpose! 180, and an innovative CTP design dubbed "The Pizza."

Using 32 thermal 1-watt diodes, the Pizza images a four- or six-up plate in about 4.5 minutes - by rotating the square plate on a turntable made of a lightweight aluminum disk.

"We take an out-of-the-box approach and meld the best of what's out on the market," says Dave Parker, director of sales and marketing. "In the case of the Pizza, Parker says Luscher wanted to simplify the mechanical design of a CTP system and use software to resolve the more complex issues of imaging the plate.

Parker says the flatbed circular platen design allows the thermal array to get very close to the plate, exposing it with maximum power. The Pizza will ship at the end of Q4 with a Harlequin RIP and file server. Price is $140,000.

ONE IMAGING HEAD Presstek's O'Rourke says the company will not consider investing in violet technology platesetters. "What violet lasers do is extend the life of visible media, which is silver-halide and high-speed photopolymer. They have issues: They aren't state of the art and they go back many years," he declares.

Presstek instead offers its Dimension series of CTP systems, based on its ProFire modular thermal imaging technology. "We're in the business of putting laser imaging heads into machines - some are printing presses, some are offpress CTP imagers," explains O'Rourke. "We manufacture one basic head that is scalable in size, and it's essentially plug and play." ProFire's three aspects include plugging in the electrical power, delivering digital data to the imaging head and delivering coolant to stablize its temperature.

Presstek is also exploring the possibilities of chemical-free plates, with a Drupa introduction of its Anthem plate (see sidebar, p. 38.).

MODULAR SYSTEMS Purup-Eskofot offers various visible light and thermal systems. It offers the ImageMaker B1/B2 for the commercial market, an internal-drum imager available in plate- and film-imaging models. Available in a four- or eight-up format, the ImageMaker is also available with a wide range of lasers: ArIon, HeNe, double YAG, blue violet and thermal. Its 1,064-nm thermal system does not require prebaking of plates.

The ImageMaker units are fully upgradeable, having been designed "to offer flexibility and modularity," according to managing director Knud Erik Rodbro. "This modular system helps eliminate the problem of being stuck with old technology or with only one plate supplier."

Purup-Eskofot plans on releasing its version of the violet laser in Q1 of 2001.

"Violet platesetters have the advantage of a lower-cost laser and a smaller beam size for faster imaging," Rodbro explains. The delay in the release of a violet solution, he says, has been due to the limited availability of a more powerful laser on the market.

The company also offers a new DPX polyester platemaker.

NICE FUTURE IN THERMAL Screen (USA) offers two platesetter models, the PT-R 4000, a four-up thermal, 830-nm external drum unit, and the 8000, an eight-up model. Both feature online punching. The company also offers a four-page red laser unit, the FlatRite 1050.

While Fox of Screen does not confirm whether a violet platesetter is in the making, "we're always looking at new technology, and violet lasers were developed in Japan." The latter statement is a reference to Screen's parent company, Dainippon Screen Manufacturing Co. Ltd. of Japan.

But, "we don't feel violet technology is mature enough to be commercially viable," Fox says. "We see a nice future in thermal, because thermal can be taken to newer technologies."

DESKTOP CTP Xante's PlateMaker 3 images to Agfa's Myriad 2 polyester plates, according to Arthur Verwey, vice president, worldwide marketing.

Why polyester plates? "They're cheaper than metal plates," notes Verwey. He also points out the largest cross-section of Xante's customers is typically quick-print and smaller print shops, which have a demand for small runs. "Polyester plates work fine for that."

Marketed as a desktop CTP system, typical output size on the PlateMaker is 13.4 x 35 inches. It images 40 plates per hour at 1200 dpi. Xante has also introduced a wider-format version this spring that Verwey says has been approved by Heidelberg for use on its Printmaster QM 46 and by Ryobi for its press.

Currently, the firm is working on partnership possibilities to furnish the PlateMaker to franchisees of up to five U.S. franchise holders and quick-print chains.

"Our appeal is that we keep CTP simple - quick-print shops didn't buy computers because they wanted to; they bought them because they need to."

Verwey adds the PlateMaker's chemical-free system makes for a fast and easy process for clients.

THE DRY DREAM Vendors agree that the industry is slowly moving toward this ideal of eliminating chemicals in the platemaking process. And that is where the true potential of thermal plates lies. "It's the biggest reason why thermal got a big buzz" when first introduced at Drupa 95, says Barco's Crosby.

"It's the dry dream," says Kushnieruk of Agfa. "The future for CTP is going to be ablative, no-process technologies."

And O'Rourke wrote in a Presstek white paper on the benefits of thermal: "Thermal ablation imaging is the most viable path to chemical-free and true process-free plate systems."

That future is still a ways away, however. Crosby notes processless plates are limited in number.

"If thermal ever fulfills its initial promise it made five years ago and can give you a plate you can work outdoors with, that removes processing and uses no chemistry, it will probably surpass the other technologies," Crosby predicts.

Not to be forgotten in this pursuit, however, are other CTP solutions, including ultraviolet (UV) platesetters. BasysPrint, for example, introduced the UV-Setter 57 UV platesetter at Drupa that can expose 14 to 17 high-speed offset printing plates (24 x 34 inches) an hour. Purup-Eskofot also demonstrated its Dicon system at the international show. Currently in prototype form, the Dicon is designed to image conventional UV litho plates using CTP technology.

Processless may be the future - but until then, many CTP choices exist.

Computer-to-plate (CTP) technologies don't mean a thing unless you have plates to image onto.

The following are some of the latest plates on the market, for both visible light and thermal CTP devices:

Agfa Mistral. The Mistral is Agfa's processless, thermal-ablative plate, designed for use on the Talant thermal-ablative system. Plates can run 400,000 impressions without baking.

Citiplate Aqua plates. Citiplate offers silverless ultraviolet (UV) plates. The Aqua line of plates are suitable for run lengths of 20,000 to two million impressions, depending on the product.

According to Agfa's Peter Kushnieruk, senior product manager for output systems, Citiplate has also talked about releasing a violet plate.

Fuji Brillia. Fuji's Brillia LP-NS is a high-speed photopolymer, which product manager Jim Crawford says is stable and images quickly on a platesetter. The LH-PI thermal plate requires no pre- or post-baking; while the LH-NI is a pre- and postbake thermal plate capable of more than one million impressions after processing.

While Fuji does have a violet diode plate in concept, the product is not yet generally available. Crawford says this plate will require a higher-powered violet diode to image properly.

Kodak Polychrome Graphics thermal no-process plate. This thermal plate uses ablative imaging, which requires debris removal, but doesn't need any post-imaging processing. The plate works with the CreoScitex Trendsetters.

According to Dave Bartram, worldwide CTP marketing manager, Kodak Polychrome has no plans at present to market a violet plate. "Violet is, in my view, one step forward and two steps back for visible light," he says, though he believes violet may eventually replace all other visible light devices. For now, however, "we're taking a wait-and-see approach."

Presstek Anthem. "The industry hasn't fulfilled the promise of processless plates," says product manager John O'Rourke. "We demonstrated it at Print 97 when we showed PEARLgold for the first time. The plate didn't require any post-imaging treatment. But it didn't meet our requirements for manufacturability - the product is currently in a holding pattern."

Presstek's Anthem is a chemical-free, water-wash plate. After being imaged, the anodized aluminum-based plate requires only a water wash-out in a plate cleaning device. It offers run lengths of up to 100,000.

Printing Developments Inc. (PDI) Eclipse Thermal CTP plate. The Prisma bi-metal polymer-coated copper-and-aluminum plate is PDI's flagship product, but at Graph Expo, the company introduced the Eclipse Thermal CTP plate. The thermal polymer plate, sensitive to a 830-nm thermal laser, consists of a polymer surface on an aluminum substrate.

"It will not perform to the same degree as the Prisma," notes Dwight Zilinskas, director of international sales and marketing, "but we see it as superior to any other polymer plate out there." The new product can run 500,000 impressions or more. Costwise, he says the Eclipse Thermal "should work out to be a little less expensive" than the bimetal plates.

The Eclipse Thermal requires no pre- or postbaking and processes in less than two minutes. Zilinskas notes that plates running through an entire processing line, in contrast, take about seven to 12 minutes, and the Prisma processes in about five minutes.

Zilinskas expects to release the plate in Q1 or Q2 of next year.

And will PDI manufacture violet plates? "Not at this stage," says the exec. " Violet lasers only have 5 milowatts of power, and you have to use a silver-coated plate. The industry is trying to get away from silver."

This processor from Printing Developments, Inc. (PDI) is for its new Eclipse Thermal polymer-coated CTP plate, which processes in less than two minutes.