By Howie Fenton
The hot topic at Drupa and Graph Expo was increasing productivity using technologies such as JDF, CTP, automatic plate loading, CIP3/4, etc. However, one could argue that there was more buzz, controversy and announcements about another technology designed to improve productivity, that being processor-less or what people are calling processless plates.
While a lot of “buzz” surrounds processless plates, if you are interested in this technology buyer beware! There are oversimplifications and exaggerations of the benefits and the availability of processless plates. In this article we will discuss the products, technologies and manufacturers announcements about processless plates.
The advantages of processless plates are not much different than those associated with computer to plate. Today no one argues that there are benefits of computer to plate such as fewer steps, faster make-ready, less waste and automated workflows speeds production. The goals of processless plates are the same.
The advantages of processless plates include: reduced costs, improved productivity, and reduced cycle time, with fewer steps in the platemaking process, the elimination of chemical developing and its variability; reduced energy consumption; and significantly reduced environmental impact.
Eliminating the need for a processor does away with the costs, maintenance hassles and process variables associated with this production step. It also saves space, simplifies the workflow and can have ecological benefits. Also, the elimination of the chemical processor unit reduces space consumption, a huge consideration for smaller printers and for European printing companies where space is often at a premium.
The first issue is how to discuss and catagorize these plates. Kodak Polychrome Graphics, for instance, which first showed a technology presentation of its "develop-on-press" Thermal Direct product at the Drupa show, claims to be the only manufacturer to develop a truly "non-process" plate. Says Jack Wiethoff, KPG's staff vice president for plates worldwide, "Right now there is no process-free plate on the market; they all require a processing machine." However, he adds, "Chemistry-free only eliminates a certain level of the production process, whereas non-process really eliminates equipment as well as the chemistry."
That next issue about reduced costs is controversial too, because the plate costs themselves are more expensive. But some people argue that the plate cost alone is not the total cost. A whitepaper available online, by John Zarwan called "CTP Plate Making: Understanding the Real Costs," found that processing and chemistry costs can make up almost 1/3 of the plate production costs, for computer to plate costs (www.johnzarwan.com). Therefore some argue that adding 30% to the costs of CTP plates would make the total costs with processless plates comparable.
Even manufacturers who are positioning themselves to offer processless plates are discussing possible downsides. According to Agfa’s David Furman, senior marketing manager, CTP Systems, "With processless technology, the big benefit is the elimination of chemistry. But, processless does have it's drawbacks," he says. “While run length is an obvious restriction, platesetter productivity is another drawback. "The sensitivity of processless technology is much lower than that of traditional CTP systems. Platesetter throughput will be reduced (compared to traditional 'wet' plates) by up to 45 percent," he says.
The direct cost for the plate material undoubtedly will be higher, but you need to factor in other costs like chemistry and processor maintenance to really get an understanding of the total cost of ownership for processless plates, says Furman.
A lot of information about processor less plates is exaggerated because the majority are actually not processor less but "chemistry-free”, because they require some type of post-imaging process, such as water rinse, wiping or gumming, before going on-press. In addition few are available at this time.
As a result of this feedback the manufacturers are becoming more specific. Presstek, calls its Anthem plates chemistry-free and its Applause plates process-free, Agfa recently started field-testing what it calls a chemistry-free plate. Creo showed what it calls a processless plate at Drupa, while Fujifilm also announced at the show that it is developing a processless plate.
Presstek – Thermal Ablation
Presstek pioneered the market with the introduction of chemistry-free PEARLdry plate for DI presses over a decade ago. Presstek’s PEARLdry and Anthem chemistry-free plates use thermal ablation as the imaging mechanism, as does Presstek’s true process-free Applause plate.
According to John O'Rourke, marketing director, Off-Press Imaging Systems, "The choice for thermal abalation is not based upon an affinity for the technology itself, but rather because we believe this approach offers the best opportunity for chemistry-free and process-free plate products," notes.
Other manufacturers contend that thermal-ablation plates fall short of the grand “processor less” vision for two reasons:
Presstek has been working to minimize the process requirements in both areas, O'Rourke says. Its latest "process-free" offering, Applause, actually represents the fourth generation of the technology, he points out.
Presstek's Applause became commercially available in the fourth quarter of 2003. Applause addressed what were widely viewed as shortcomings in the older Anthem product, including the need for a powerful debris removal system in the platesetter and a water cleaning step after imaging.
"Most CTP plate products have a coating weight of approximately 1 micron thickness," O'Rourke notes. "Our Anthem plate utilizes an ablative layer that is 25 microns thick. Applause reduces this by an order of magnitude to .025 micron in thickness. This improved coating system eliminates the need for any post-exposure treatment (i.e., water wash or wiping). It also reduces the impact on the platesetter”, he says.
"What we have learned so far is that each imaging platform is unique," O'Rourke explains. "While Applause may require use of a vacuum collection system, we can see an opportunity to simplify the air management system on our own Dimension platesetters, and we expect filter life will be extremely long—perhaps even achieving lifetime filters. “
The company has introduced upgraded models in its platesetter line, called Dimensional Excel, that are capable of imaging the plates at a 300 lpi resolution with a 16-micron spot size to support stochastic screening options.
The company reports good success with the product in the field to date. Currently Applause is available for use with Presstek's Dimension Series platesetters and is being tested with other thermal devices. It is a thermal ablative process and requires no post-imaging processing or debris removal; simply image and mount the plate on press. Presstek has recently reported a milestone 500th Dimension installation.
“The fact that other vendors are pursuing this technology certainly validates the benefits of process-free. It should be noted that although only a few vendors have commercially available products today, Presstek has 500 Dimension installations, each of which use our chemistry-free or process-free plate products” says O’Rourke.
In addition, Presstek had previously teamed up with A.B.Dick to offer the Freedom thermal plate material. It is said to use a chemistry-free, "sub-ablative" process that requires no debris removal system in the platesetter. The image area is revealed by a special water wash unit and supports up to 25,000 impressions.
At drupa, Presstek also announced the integration of its new ProFire Excel imaging in the Dimension Series platesetters which will enable enhanced image quality of up to a 300 line screen with standard, stochastic or hybrid screening. Applause is rated for up to 100,000 impressions.
Just prior to drupa, A.B. Dick, in collaboration with Presstek, introduced the Vector 52TX with chemistry-free Freedom plates. While this is not true processless, it is worth mentioning. A.B. Dick reported having sold several units in the first few days of the show.
With a small footprint and a self-contained water wash, the Vector 52TX outputs metal plates dry and ready to mount. The entry level Vector 52TX price (below $60,000) and small footprint will bring metal CTP within reach of smaller shops. Just after Graph Expo, on November 3rd, Presstek announced that had acquired AB Dick.
For over a year there have been rumors that Fuji has been working on processless plate, and this was confirmed as a technology demonstration at drupa. In developing its market entry, Steve Bennett, Enovation's Vice President of Product Marketing and Communications indicates Fuji was addressing three key issues the market has expressed relative to processless:
The Fuji plate employs a barrier layer which holds the ablation debris for disposal after mounting on the press. It is not exacly clear what happens next. Some people say the debris is absorbed by the ink train on the press, meaning that there is actually a final processing step on the press. Other people say that the ink pulls the debris off and onto the first few sheets.
Bennett claims the former that particles are so small that they don't affect the print quality and are passed through the system in five or six sheets during the make ready process. However, it is not clear what other ramifications there might be to this final on-press processing step.
Fuji chose to implement this methodology rather than risking excessive debris in the platesetter or allowing debris to be absorbed into fountain solution, which is recirculated. The Fuji plate on display at drupa was daylight safe and had a strong latent image. One of the common concerns to date with some processless technology has been the lack of a visible latent image on the plate for ease of checking plate accuracy, ensuring the right plate is mounted on the right cylinder, etc. Bennett indicated that a processless plate with a weak latent image has been in the market in Japan for some time, but the company decided not to introduce it into other markets.
Finally, according to Bennett, the Fuji plate will use a new technology called intelligent polymer, which is fast exposing, enabling production at full speed on virtually any thermal platesetter. It is an aluminum plate with uniformed grain technology.
The Fuji plate will bear watching, both in terms of the timing of commercial availability and the performance in the field. As of Graph Expo, the company had no update available relative to the field availability of its processless plate.
Kodak Polychrome Graphics - non-ablative
Kodak Polychrome Graphics says its KPG Thermal Direct no-process plate supports up to 75,000 impressions, will work with thermal laser platesetters currently on the market and releases no debris during imaging. It will image 1%-98% percent dots at 200 lpi and is suitable for use with 20-micron FM screening. The plate is compatible with a wide range of inks and fountain solutions, including alcohol and the most popular alcohol substitutes.
KPG's Thermal Direct is a non-ablative thermal plate that can safely reside in white light for up to an hour, and up to four hours in safe light. KPG's plate does have a visible latent image, but it is less visible than some of the others I saw. The plate can hold a 20 micron spot, supports FM screening and is rated for runs of up to 75,000, although the company indicates that customers are achieving good quality with runs of 100,000. KPG has made no commitments relative to when the plate will be commercially available; it is in beta at the current time. KPG demonstrated ThermalDirect on Screen platesetters which will be marketed under the KPG brand name DirectSet.
KPG – non ablative
Kodak Polychrome Graphics also is working on a couple of options in developing a non-ablative, non-process plate, says Jack Wiethoff, staff vice president, plate business. KPG has been working on switchable polymer, or phase-change, technology and "development-on-press" plates.
"We're optimistic about those [develop-on-press plates]," he adds.
Wiethoff prefers to talk in terms of the "goal" for product development—that is, to have a thermally imaged product that can be put through a standard thermal platesetter capable of using the "wet processing" thermal plates the company sells today: "The goal is to have a product that is compatible with the broad base of installed platesetters and to use a standard fountain solution on press," he explains
Switchable polymer technology falls short on that last count, since it requires use of special inks and fountain solutions, Wie thoff says. "Also, the visibility of the image after exposure is limited and the length of run is specified at 75K but customer trials keep surprising us," he adds. Even given those limitations, "both avenues look interesting," he says.Originally KPG hoped to have this plate available in 2004. Since there was no announcement at Graph Expo, it seems more likely a 2005 product.
Wiethoff sees the length of run supported as a critical issue for all non-process plates. “Initially, these plates will be limited in terms of application because of their run length capabilities. Most of our customers tests have been well within the 75K impression target but we have also had runs that exceeded 200K impressions." he says.
That means the technology, at least initially, will be best suited for the small- to medium-sized shop producing short runs, the plate manufacturing representatives all agree. However, run lengths under 100,000 impressions represent the majority of printing sales, they add.
Agfa's non-ablative chemistry-free solution
Announced in February 2004, Agfa’s :Azura is not a true processless plate. The :Azura plate uses a non-ablative process and does require a conditioning, or gumming step.
According to Agfa's Steve Musselman, Sr. Manager, Worldwide Business Development, "This gumming step brushes away the unexposed areas, which in their absence, leaves a high contrast image. However, it does eliminate the need for chemical development and the associated variables."
According to David Furman, "ThermoFuse is the generic name for the core technology behind Agfa’s Thermolite and Azura plates, and it is the core technology behind future processless developments as well. ThermoFuse takes advantage of the high power laser technology now available. Heat from an infrared laser melts, or “fuses,” ultra fine thermoplastic (latex) particles together, and bonds them to Azura's aluminium plate substrate. That is how the printing image is made. The purely physical process of melting small thermoplastic particles together creates a durable printing image on a grained aluminium plate. There is no need for a chemical process to develop the plate image, like 'conventional' CTP processing. Consequently, there are no variables whatsoever such as developer temperature, PH, processor dwell time and conductivity that can influence the finished image. The printable image is final and ready after imaging."
These Agfa processless technologies provide the customer with non-ablative alternatives to processless solutions currently on the market. Agfa's ThermoFuse-based solutions also differ from the concept of switchable polymer technology", points out Furman. "Our technology is a true lithographic coating," Furman explains.
"The image area remains on a grained and anodized aluminum substrate, which acts as the hydrophilic medium." With the switchable polymer technology shown in some competitive processless concepts, the polymer coating is exposed to differentiate between image and non-image areas and isn't removed from either, he notes. While the substrate may be aluminum, the polymer controls ink/water balance and that can lead to problems such as shorter run lengths and a narrower operating latitude on press, he asserts.
The working principle of Agfa's processless technology is similar to its existing :Thermolite Plus product, for on-press imaging/DI applications, Furman says. The material will be compatible with 830nm thermal lasers and require no add-ons, such as debris removal systems, he adds. Initially, it will be targeted for runs of 100,000 impressions and fewer.
:Azura is released for sale on Agfa's :Acento and :Xcalibur 45, and has been mutually certified to work on a growing list of competitive thermal devices. with post-exposure requirements and product availability still to be determined, he reports. As :Azura can sustain run lengths of up to 100,000, Agfa is targeting smaller printers, especially first-time CTP adopters, for whom space is also an issue and slower throughput (due to plate sensitivity) is not.
:Azura is now commercially available with plate pricing per square foot basis at a slight premium to Agfa's :Thermostar P970 and Violet :Lithostar and :N91V products. :Azura will support a 2% to 98% dot at 200 lpi, with a 21 micron spot size.
Lastra / Western / Mitsubishi
Agfa’s bought Lastra before GraphExpo, and now makes Agfa the largest plate manufacturer world-wide – both in analog and digital plates. Lastra is dealing with an added complication as it looks to develop processless technology, notes Josh Goodin, corporate research and development director.
"Lastra bought the plate businesses of Western Litho and Mitsubishi Chemical, so over the past year we've been concentrating on integrating the technology we acquired," he explains.
One approach Lastra is pursuing is a switchable polymer product (requiring no post-exposure step) and the other is an on-press wash-off technology, he says. Both are designed to be imaged by thermal IR lasers.
An Agfa spokesperson said that decisions regarding processless technology from Lastra, which was acquired earlier this year by Agfa, are still being evaluated at this time.
Creo - Processless
Creo showed a "technology only demonstration" at Drupa of its new Clarus PL product. This was a "true processless" aluminum plate because it requires no gumming, processing or post-imaging treatment. Upon its commercialization, the switchable-polymer product is expected to handle runs of up to 50,000 impressions, support Creo's Staccato 20 FM screening and be compatible with 830nm thermal platesetters.
Creo indicates that the plate is being manufactured by a partner in North America rather than in one of its own recently acquired plants. The company declined to name the partner.
Creo –Waterless plates for direct imaging
Creo launched a new waterless polyester plate at Drupa 2004. The Clarus WL waterless polyester plate is suitable for run lengths of up to 30,000 impressions and is a drop-in compatible solution for direct imaging presses. Creo claims that the Clarus WL plate has the highest sensitivity of any digital imaging thermal waterless plate available in the market today, reducing overall energy consumption.
The Clarus WL plate is already in use by customers in Europe and North America and will be commercially available on December 01, 2004.
Creo - Issues
As we go to press with this article, there was more bad news from Creo. In October, Creo shareholders Goodwood Inc. of Toronto and ally Burton Capital Management LLC of Greenwich, Conn., announced plans for a proxy battle to unseat Creo's board and management, saying they have lost confidence in them. Creo's long-moribund share price has jumped more than 50 per cent since the announcement.
On Wednesday, November 17, 2004 reported a $1.3-million or 2-cent-a-share fourth-quarter loss that analysts were expecting as a result of previously disclosed charges. During the announcment Creo chief executive Amos Michelson skirted discussion of a looming shareholders' revolt and instead touted higher reviews and a declining loss trend in its fourth-quarter and fiscal 2004 financial report
Looking forward, Creo said it expects first-quarter earnings of break even to 4 cents per share, including items, on sales of between $165 million to $170 million. Analysts expect first-quarter earnings of 7 cents per share on sales of $168 million.
Konica Minolta has introduced a processless system for on- and off-line imaging applications. The off-line version uses a flexible, thermal plate material (TF-200) supplied in rolls for imaging by the SR-830 platesetter. A thermal sensitive, hydrophobic layer is exposed in a non-ablative process, with unexposed areas then removed on-press by the action of fountain solution and ink. The finished plate is said to be capable of 1-99 percent dot reproduction and supports stochastic screening. The platesetter outputs plate sizes from 12.8x15.6" up to 26x32.7".
Citiplate - Cross-linking Systems
Citiplate is in a unique position because it is concentrating more heavily on being a custom plate manufacturer, says Robert Dainton, technical director. The technologies Citiplate is pursuing are all photopolymer-based, according to Dainton. This includes non-ablative thermal (830 nm, IR), ultraviolet and violet (30-40 mW) plates.
"They are cross-linking systems," Dainton notes. "In our scenario, the non-image portions are softened by the fountain solution, but removed with the ink and deposited on the paper. That keeps the fountain clean and stable."
Dainton contends that cross-linking offers advantages in durability compared to physical coalescence of the polymer coating. In the latter case, the action of the press or blanket wash can wipe the image off the plate, he says.
Phase-change technology, however, produces a limited hydrophilic contrast on the plate. "Also, no polymer can remain hydrophilic after a certain time on the press. It reverts back, so you run into a run length problem," he says.
Depending on the requirements of the plate, integrated dampening systems on presses can be a challenge for all plates "processed" on press, Dainton admits. A separate dampening system enables the fountain roller to be dropped first, wetting the plate, before the ink roller is dropped and the unexposed polymer is removed. If a press is running an integrated system, the ink and fountain solution are applied at the same time.
Citiplate is looking to support run lengths in the 50,000 to 70,000 impressions range. It has reportedly done production runs of all these plates for review by potential vendors and/or limited field beta testing.
PDI Printing Developments
One company looking to buck that trend is PDI Printing Developments. In its quest to develop a processless plate, the company discovered a polymer surface technology that enables fast (typically two minutes or less), one-step processing, points out Tom Bevan, director of sales and marketing. This first lead to the introduction of its Eclipse plate (500,000 impressions with no baking).
Both plates use a polymer developed with a solvent, which accounts for the added strength compared to aqueous formulations, Bevan explains. No chemistry replenishment is required in the processor, since the solvent has a very low vapor pressure (minimizing evaporation) and doesn't oxidize, he adds.
These products are still not processless systems, Bevan readily admits. He says the company continues to work toward a thermal, non-ablative plate that would be washed up (or "developed") on press by the action of the fountain solution.
"We wouldn't necessarily take solvent-based technology to a processless plate because fountain solutions are water-based," he points out.
One of the hot trends in our industry is to focus on increasing productivity, lowering manufacturing costs and reducing turnaround times. Technologies such as JDF hold the promise of fully automated systems that include estimating, order entry, production and billing. However this promise is years, if not decades away.
More realistically, the technologies that are available today could be categorized as “islands of automation”. These include the automation of individual steps such as CTP, automatic plate loading, in-RIP trapping, presetting ink keys, closed loop color, server “Daemons”, Photoshop actions, etc.
Processless plates more evolutionary then the revolutionary changes proposed by workflow solutions such as JDF. However, processless plates have been available for years (DI technology) and based on research and technology announcements will be made more available in the near future.
Based on the announcements, demonstrations and product availability for processless at drupa and Graph Expo in 2004, processless plates will be widely available on the market long before next drupa, and from a variety of manufacturers. The announcements reflect a variety of approaches, run lengths, quality levels and sensitivity. The good news is that processless plates appear poised to have a significant positive impact on the productivity, cost effectiveness and environmental impact of the offset platemaking process. This can only be good news for the industry.
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.
FENTON ON PREPRESS INDEX
Back to IN3.ORG