By Howie Fenton
One of the keys to productivity today is creating fast, efficient, automated digital workflow. One piece of equipment that has become the focus of this productivity is the digital front end. If you have not heard the term digital front end or DFE, don’t be concerned, like the artist formerly known as Prince - it is the product formerly known as the RIP (raster image processor).
Changes in the CTP Landscape
Tired of the same articles and the same old news about computer to plate (CTP)? If your answer is yes then this article is for you because it contains the latest information about CTP including new research findings and trends. First, in contrast to many other articles if you have not purchased CTP you are not alone. The second point is that now that print sales are rebounding, CTP purchasing decisions are becoming mainstream again and a recent study finds its for a different size printer, the smaller printer. Third, the smaller printer has more options too: smaller metal devices or polyester plate options. And fourth a new study has found that plate costs for metal CTP may be underestimated, making processor less more attractive.
With its introduction in 1990, CTP established itself as a better production method. It started with simple applications such as check printing, business forms and labels. Then it was used for larger, but still generally one-color printing needs like books, directories and financial printing projects. In the past decade, however, the technology has been increasingly applied to full-color printing in all forms of commercial printing including magazines, catalogs and other high-end print communication materials.
However despite rapid adoption in the late 1990’s, adoption slowed dramatically as the economy slowed. In a recent tongue and cheek CTP article entitled “CTP Field Reports - Set to Compete”, Mark Smith the Technology Editor of Printing Impressions, wrote “Maybe the time has come to start an industry support group. ‘Hello. My name is Tom, and my print shop has yet to install a computer-to-plate system.’” Smith goes on to explain that there are a large number of companies still making plates conventionally.
A recent data suggests there is less need for a CTP support group. According to a study published by State Street Consultants CTP purchases are on the rebound. According to President John P. Windle, "In the overall metal CTP market, installed units (as of Q1 '03), are up approximately 20% (over Q1 '02), however this growth has been much faster in some segments than others. Installations in small and medium printers (under 50 employees) have increased by 66%, while those in large printers (over 50 employees) have increased by only 9%.
At the same time, the importance of the 2 and 4-up format sizes has increased sharply, and now represents almost 30% of all metal CTP units. The study, completed in April 2003, was very favorable for Presstek who was the #1 fastest-growing CTP vendor in the 2-up metal CTP category and increased in placements in the 4-up CTP segment at twice the pace of the overall North American market (16% vs 8%).
Good and Bad News
Most companies pursue CTP to increase productivity, quality or both. Both of these are achievable and realistic goals. After the implementation of CTP your productivity and quality should increase. In most companies I see increases in plate production from 15%-40% per shift. Quality too increases as measured either in a loss in dot gain (i.e. at the 50% dot reductions from 23% to 17%) or reduction in plate remakes (i.e. from 8% to 5%)
However if you have bottlenecks in your early workflow in sales, customer service, job planning or order entry areas, you may not see any increases in output until you overcome those bottlenecks. In addition, if you have quality control problems before or after platemaking such as in preflight, pressroom process control area or press maintenance - CTP will not result in better quality printing. That can be a huge shock, imagine 6 months after your $150,000 purchase you don’t make more plates or achieve better quality.
As many have discovered there are few purchasing decisions as complex and challenging as CTP. The good news is that it works, it is the future, and it will help the printing industry keep pace with the increases in productivity needed to remain competitive with other technologies such as digital printing and the loss of offset pages that are being printed on the office laser printer and copier. And for smaller printers there are less expensive CTP options. The bad news involves the difficult decision making process the costs associated with a complete solution for the larger devices (i.e. 8-up metal devices).
Although CTP using polyester plates had a bad reputation a few years ago today it is working quite well. And for certain quick copy applications with lower quality demands even laser type devices are used. Clearly the laser type devices are cheap and easy to use but they are not well suited for halftones, tints and graduations.
Although not a new study, a study by the Graphic Arts Marketing Information Service (GAMIS) called the "The Market Potential for Polyester Printing Plates: 2001-2005" concluded that polyester plates are suitable for a wide range of work, and run lengths of up to 25,000 impressions, depending on the condition of the press and the quality requirements for a specific job. William C. Lamparter, principal, PrintCom Consulting, conducted the research and found that polyester plates are suitable for most printed products, including those with halftones, screen tints and heavy coverage. The study notes that many printers, particularly those operating small-format offset equipment, are reportedly overlooking the opportunity to adopt CTP technology by using digital polyester printing plates.
Another factor making polyester CTP viable is the thriving and huge market for refurbished or used imagesetters. Many 2 and 4 up drum based imagesetters can print out polyester plate material very well. and today there are dedicated polyester plate output devices that can image polyester plates and even trim the material to the appropriate size.
One concern for imagesetters using polyester plates is the ability to refocus the laser for the thicker material because polyester plates are generally thicker then film. In addition, if you want to decrease the problems associated with plate stretch and short run lengths you should consider thicker polyester plate materials (.012") which will make the laser refocus issue more important.
Both will require different plate handling in the press room when compared to metal plates. In many cases the plates are easier to damage and different processors are required.
According to a posting in the computer to plate pressroom (CTPP) Listserv forum (a public question and answer forum) Dean Meyer, Product Manager - Output Systems for Heidelberg discussed the criteria for polyester CTP.
“First you need to look at run lengths in your shop? It works in short runs under 20,000 impressions. Second would be what is the maximum line screen? If it looks like you wouldn't need anything beyond 175 line screen then it would appear that you are a good candidate for CTP using polyester plates.
Many imagesetters designed for film can also do polyester plates, but even more interesting are the new, dedicated machines for polyester plates that will notch and trim to size. You will want to dedicate the recorder to polyester with an on line processor and maybe keep an off line film processor for the occasional piece of film you may need. (In the case of a long run or a higher line screen you can still make film and burn a metal plate). The reason for this is that doing polyester off line may lead to problems from excessive curl, scratching, and unneccessary waste between jobs.
It is not practical to switch back and forth between media unless you look at a combination processor (6 bath) which is really only available with the 4 and 8 up recorders. These processors let you run poly or film all in one on line processor.
Easily 50% of our 2 up imagesetters today are sold as polyester only solutions and we see more and more acceptance in the 4 and 8 up press sizesas well. This is now possible as the polyester plate material is a lot more stable than it used to be. Third generation polyester plates are currently available from Heidelberg, Agfa, Mitsubishi and AB Dick. This means an imagesetter that can image direct to plate, cut to size and notch for press all in one unit.
The other factor driving polyester into the 4 and 8 up press market is the fact that 12 mil plates are now commercially available. These plates are the same thickness as metal plates and require no repacking of the cylinders. Their printing characteristics are similar to metal in that they can run on press using the same ink and chemistry.
One word of caution, manual clamping presses such as the GTO can be a little more challenging for the pressman than a press with Autoplate like the Speedmaster. Both presses will print polyester fine, but manual clamping takes a little more practice to get the plate hung properly.
Finally, the part you'll really like. The benefit for you to consider polyester instead of metal will be a much lower capital equipment cost and a nice difference in consumable costs. If you are a shop with high plate usage, the consumable savings can pay for the equipment very quickly!
Polyester is not for everyone
Matt Wood, president, of Wood Printing in Decatur, ILdescribes his experience with Polyester as a "horrible experience. The concept didn't work for us. "The machine was constantly breaking down and the materials kept jamming. We also ran into some issues on-press with the polyester plates. A lot of times we would have to tighten down the plates again after running a few impressions.
"We've been much happier since getting back to running metal. The plates are more expensive, but we've gained time and labor savings," the company exec notes. "When we put these metal digital plates on the press, the register is almost dead on."
"At the time, we couldn't find an affordable system that would handle the whole range of plate sizes we use," Wood says. The company's past experience with ECRM led it to install their two-up platesetter. Wood Printing is enjoying labor savings despite having installed a manual system. "We do have an in-line processor, though," Wood notes. "At this point, I'm content to have a simple and reliable system, even if it is a little bit slower than a more automated system. Almost everyone in the plant can operate the machine." Going with a manual configuration helped keep the investment cost down, Wood adds.
He did find one drawback in going with a manual system. "We had to create a separate room for the platesetter because it operates under yellow safelight. Since the polyester system was self-contained, we didn't have that issue. I saw it as a step back, but it has worked out fine since we got the logistics ironed out."
The labor saving haven't impacted the shop's staffing level, but it did move people around a little, Wood says. "CTP put more of a load on prepress. It takes more time to prepare the files because we have to do impositions. We didn't use imposition software with the imagesetter.
"There was more to the transition on the computer side than I originally thought," he continues. "The learning curve was bigger, but what really struck me was all the software and other pieces you need to purchase. There's much more involved than just the platesetter--RIPs, workflow software, imposition software, etc.--and it's all fairly expensive."
With hindsight, one piece of advice Wood offers to new adopters is to consider making the transition in stages. "We brought in a digital proofing system at the same time as the polyester platemaker. I wouldn't do it that way again," the company exec says.
"We had been using Matchprint as our color standard, so we tried to match the proofer, polyester platemaker and our printing to that standard. That made for too many variables to deal with at one time. It would be easier to bring a proofing system in, get it calibrated and set up so you can trust the proofs, and then install the CTP system and calibrate it to the proof," Wood concludes.
Costs and Controversy of Processor Less Plates
Presstek believes that the smaller sized printers are interested in the benefits associated with processor-less plates exposed by thermal light lasers. According to Lance Burns, a managing partner at Nova Offset, We save between 10 and 15 percent of the cost of the plate by eliminating chemicals and the work involved in maintaining them. The system is a lot more cost-effective than conventional platemaking, even considering the higher cost of the plate," Burns says. The fact that the Anthem thermal plates don't require pre- or post-baking adds to the cost and floor space savings, he notes.
This idea that chemistry and processoring are expensive and can be an opportunity to save money with processorless plates, is controversial. This controversy has been more or less ignored in the industry until recently when John Zarwin published a white paper called “CTP Plate Making: Understanding the Real Costs” (www.johnzarwin.com). Zarwin formerly from State Street Consulting, is now the principal of J Zarwan Partners. In conducting this research, Zarwan spoke with 63 printers of various sizes who employ products from all of the major manufacturers and process types, including both thermal (both bake and no-bake) and violet CTP.
While other studies focus on CTP hardware and workflows what sets this report apart is that it focuses on plate costs by including the costs of chemistry and processing. The study is quoted by and commissioned by Presstek, the manufacturers of CTP equipment and processor plates.
Most printers underestimate the total cost of chemical processing and maintenance. For an accurate cost-analysis of the CTP plate making process, printers must consider not just the price per plate but also the costs and resources associated with chemistry, development, maintenance, labor, floor space and waste disposal.
The white paper also discusses chemistry-free CTP solutions which offer the printer both the ability to migrate to CTP solutions without the cost burdens of conventional chemistry-based CTP and a more environmentally-friendly printing operation.
According to Zarwin, "The paper provides hard data that supports Presstek's position that chemistry-free platemaking results in a more productive and profitable workflow. It reinforces our position that Presstek leads the industry in offering cost-effective, chemistry-free, environmentally-friendly offset solutions for today's printing market."
As the demand for print increases we have to figure out how to increase productivity and enhance quality. There is no doubt that CTP is faster in making plates and reducing make ready times and waste. In addition, when combined with stochastic screening, many printers and customers say the print quality is higher. The productivity boost can be accomplished with a polyester plates too. The initial equipment costs of polyester plates is significantly less but you should test it in the pressroom. Due to some bad experiences in the past or new issues that have to be resolved, many printers have decided not to pursue polyester plates.
The debate continues today about internal vs external drum technology and thermal vs visible light lasers, but the truth is that all these technologies are working well. There are more controversies today surrounding the production costs of metal plates that require processoring and those that are “processorless”. In this authors opinion that is a good thing. Anything that prompts us to more closely analyze our production costs – can only be good. This is most clear in the NAPL studies of profit leaders and the common denominator that they know have accurate data about their costs.
Several years ago while working at GATF Hal Hinderliter and I created a 12-Step implementation Plan. More recently, while teaching the CTP workshop at RIT this was updated.
1. Begin the research phase with CTP products, technologies and plates (CTPP listserves (PrintPlanet.com, graphic arts shows, manufacturers)
2. Consider and Perform a Risk Assessment i.e. What part of product lifecycle are you in? What generation of technologuy and you considering? When will next generation by available?
3. Perform a Workflow analysis. Identify and fix bottlenecks that CTP won’t fix (bottlenecks in estimating, order entry, CSR, preflight, etc)
4. Implement QC, process control & CMS. Get instruments, print targets, measure results and start controlling the process and building ICC profiles for proofers
5. Get preflight tools, create fast preflight procedures for both application & PDF files
6. Master all steps in PostScript and / or PDF workflow (i.e. color correction, trapping, imposition, file repair)
7. Get 1 or 2 digital proofers (contract, larger format inkjet plotter) test imposition and trapping, build and test ICC profiles, create transition strategy to digital proofs
8. Review network, file server, print queue, OPI, telecommunication & archiving equipment/strategies and procedures
9. Review and change infrastructure: physical plant changes, HVAC, electrical, disposal
10. Perform final price and contract negotiations (add performance criteria if applicable)
11. Buy platesetter, install, test targets and establish process control tolerances and procedures
12. Analyze the effectiveness of your digital workflow. Identify the work-around solutions created as short term fixes and create longer term solutions
Howard M. Fenton is best known for his training, writing, and consulting as the senior consultant of digital technology for NAPL (National Association for Printing Leadership). Prior to that he worked for six years as a senior consultant for Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF) and spent 3 years as the Editor of a prepress magazine called Pre (1991 to 1993). For more information you can email HowieAtPre@aol.com or go to www.howiefenton.com.
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