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Computer-to-Plate — Digital Plate Developments

August 2007 BY Mark Smith
Technology Editor
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CHEMISTRY-FREE, processless or whatever they may be called, what matters is that digital plates with reduced processing requirements are gaining converts. Eliminating the cost and issues in dealing with chemistry, environmental concerns and space considerations are the top reasons cited by users for making the switch to reduced process plates.

Printers using the leading versions of this plate technology tell remarkably similar stories. Along with reporting the same benefits, they’ve all come to one conclusion about plate costs. Even though these products generally have a higher per-plate price, their total cost of usage is the same or less because of the savings on chemistry, labor and downtime for maintenance.

Also, while most are using a still relatively new product, none of these printers reported any issues with plate supply or product consistency.

At least with this small sampling, the only significant difference of opinion is on the merits of having a plate go directly from platesetter to press, with no step in between.

Printing Specialist Corp., in Glen Burnie, MD, had a case of the blues over the chemistry it had to use with its previous generation of thermal CTP technology. “The processor’s rollers had to be wiped down every day, and you had to put on rubber gloves to do it because the chemistry would burn your hands and turn them blue,” reports Gary Habicht, president and CEO. “The chemistry was very caustic.”

Safely Down the Drain?

Habicht wasn’t comfortable pouring the material down the drain, even though it was rated as safe and not requiring pretreatment. There was also the cost factor, since the company was spending about $1,500 a month to replace the chemistry and taking up to an hour or more of an operator’s time doing it.

There also was the cost factor, since the company was spending about $1,500 a month to replace the chemistry and taking up an hour or more of an operator’s time doing it.

Looking to boost its efficiency, the shop decided to install a new Heidelberg Suprasetter platesetter with multiple cassettes for automated operation. It also switched to running Saphira Chemfree plates, which are manufactured to Heidelberg’s specs as part of an optimized solution.

The plate requires only a gum rinse in a unit that just needs a jug swapped out about every month and a half, Habicht adds. “It doesn’t need to be hooked into any plumbing.” The operator also wipes the rollers down with hot water weekly.

He says having to gum the plates doesn’t affect the shop’s process and actually provides a benefit. “Putting the gum on means we don’t have to worry if the plates sit for two or three days. Since we are processing so many plates in a day (up to 80 plates), we’ll sometimes have a set sit for several days for one scheduling reason or another.”

Printing Specialist has 15 employees and used to have a person dedicated to platemaking for the 450 to 550 jobs it averages a month. The shop’s average run length is in the 3,000 to 5,000 impressions range, but it does runs of 50,000 to 60,000 on the high side. It specialize in high-end commercial work for agencies, designers and other printers, producing the jobs on two Heidelber Quickmasters, a five-color Heidelberg Speedmaster 52 and a two-color Halm Superjet envelope press.

For a time, the printer kept running its old CTP solution so it had the opportunity to output the same job on both plates to see if there was any performance difference. “There really wasn’t any difference on-press at all,” Habicht reveals. “We’re using the same fountain solution and press settings.”

Eliminating variability was a key motivating factor for Phoenix Marketing Services’ switch to chemistry-free plates. It is now using a similar, but not identical, CTP solution from Agfa Graphics—Azura thermal plates.

The marketing services firm, based in Claremont, CA, has been running CTP for about a decade, says Jamie Richards, prepress manager. It started out using a silver-based plate, then moved to Agfa’s P970 thermal plate, which it baked.

“We were looking for quality and stability,” Richards explains. “The plate’s run length capability for us was overkill.”

By 2005, management was looking to join the industry move away from plates that had to be baked. It wanted to keep up with the latest technology, and was concerned about possibly having to replace the shop’s aging oven as well as the ongoing cost of running the unit.

Also, Phoenix had been experiencing a problem with this previous generation technology from time to time. “It was a really good plate,” Richards says, “but we occasionally had an issue if too much weight had been put on a box during shipping. The physical pressure would activate the emulsion and cause a chemical reaction that left a residue after processing.”

When management started investigating its options, the decision was made to seek out a processless solution. “It (processless technology) sounded almost too good to be true,” notes Richards. “We let the press operators run the Agfa plate for a couple of weeks to get their feedback. They didn’t say one negative thing about the plates.” (Strictly speaking, the Agfa Azura plate is chemistry-free, not processless.)

Phoenix is somewhat of an atypical reduced process plate user, since the technology currently tends to favored by smaller shops. It has three 40? sheetfed presses with six or more colors and has seen its average press run jump to 40,000 or 50,000 impressions in recent months.

The shop has always been environmentally sensitive, but Richards says that benefit was secondary to making its prepress processes overwhelmingly better than they were before. The same two Creo Spectrum Trendsetters are used to expose the new plates, but the imaging time has about doubled, he notes. “But, now we just image a plate and put it through a rinse. We get a press-ready plate in about half the time as before. We’re saving both time and the cost of chemistry.”

Richards doesn’t see having to clean and gum the plates as much of a consideration. He prefers that option to the prospect using a plate that goes directly on press because of his concern about the potential for press contamination and working with a latent image that makes it hard to read the plate color and direction for punching.

The Stelter Co., in Des Moines, IA, qualifies as an earlier adopter of chemistry-free plates—but not CTP—since it made the jump from film directly to Presstek’s version of the technology about four years ago. Time and cost savings from eliminating film were the main reasons for making the move to CTP, but the savings and environmental benefits from eliminating chemistry made Presstek’s solution stand out, according to Russ Swanson, customer service/production manager.

Water-Wash Cleaning

The shop started with the Anthem plate, then beta tested Applause and now uses Anthem Pro, which requires just a water wash/cleaning step, reports Jared Heller, prepress specialist. “These plates provide good contrast for checking against our comp proofs.”

Stelter’s pressroom houses three Heidelberg GTO presses and a Halm Jet press, among other equipment. It’s average run length is about 7,000 impressions, with 200,000 impressions or so being the top end.

“We definitely have exceeded 100,000 impressions with these plates,” reports Jared Heller, prepress specialist. “We are producing almost 20,000 plates a year, and did more than that last year. These plates provide good contrast for checking against our comp proofs.”

Swanson explains that the shop makes plates ahead of when they’ll be needed to print a job and takes time to proof them so the press operator can be confident the job is ready to run. For that reason, he doesn’t see a compelling need at Stelter for the current “processless” technology.

“Putting a plate that hasn’t been fully proofed and verified onto a piece of production equipment is kind of rolling the dice. That (press) is where you make or spend your money,” says the production manager. “We like to present our press operators with a print-ready plate. It only takes a little time (less than a minute) to run a plate through the scrubber and wash system.”

While it’s happy with the plate quality and performance, Stelter’s pressroom has found digital plates to be a little less forgiving than the conventional plates it used to run, Swanson adds. “Our operating window is slightly tighter because of how the plates carry water. We’ve taken some precautions such as making sure we are consistent with the ink sets we use, fountain solutions, etc.”

There is some difference of opinion about whether the current generation of “processless” plate technology truly merits that designation. Naysayers contend that these products simply move the processing step to on-press, and don’t really eliminate it.

Alonzo Printing, in Hayward, CA, has been running the Kodak Thermal Direct variation of this technology since May. “We already had been running a plate that only needed a rinse and gum, but I was looking for a plate that didn’t require any type of chemistry or plate processing,” says owner Jim Duffy. “We treated it (the rinse water) as hazardous waste because the pH was too high to put it down the drain.”

The shop switched to using a new Kodak Magnus 800 platesetter at the same time, even though its Trendsetter was still operating fine. Duffy adds that the intent behind adding the new CTP combo was to eliminate a production position. “We’re trying to reduce or eliminate labor. That’s the only way to survive.”

Now, the night operator can load up the machine with plates and go on to other jobs, notes the company exec. He also no longer has to spend 16 hours or so a month cleaning the processor.

After several months of use, Alonzo did have an issue recently with a set of plates taking longer to clean up than the stated 20 sheets. This was the first instance of a problem, and it went away when the shop switched to a new box of plates. Exposure to excessive heat during shipping was the suspected cause.

The company president says he hasn’t heard any complaints from the pressroom related to having the plates cleaned out on-press. Operators haven’t needed to do any additional press maintenance.

Alonzo had been using the plates on two older 25” sheetfed presses that it has just replaced with one MAN Roland 500 press. They also are run on two Color King web presses. Duffy says the shop’s average run is around 10,000 impressions, even on the webs, and it very seldom has a job that’s over 100,000 impressions.

Since the unexposed plates are light-sensitive, even though they are thermal, the printer’s platemaking area had to be outfitted with yellow shields on its fluorescent lighting and a film put on its windows to keep UV light out. Exposed plates can be exposed to light, but Duffy sees no reason to take the chance. Exposed plates are stacked with slip sheets between them and put back in an empty product box.

Any price premium there may be for the plates is offset by the big savings in time and energy, Duffy says, particularly eliminating the hassle of hazardous waste disposal. He adds that the company has been a very green printer for about two decades and has recently launched a new Website at www.environmentalprinter.com.

The last company in this small sample is a bit of a special case in that it’s a startup company—sort of. Integrity Printing, also in Des Moines, was launched in November of 2006, but the five co-owners and much of its equipment came from a local company that had filed for bankruptcy.

At the former company, the shop’s Fujifilm Dart T-6000 E thermal platesetter had been imaging plates that required a processor. According to Dave Hollingsworth, prepress supervisor and one of the co-owners, there had been some discussion about switching to the Fujifilm Brillia HD plate, but the existing solution was working fine.

Integrity was set up in a new facility, where space was a consideration and plumbing work would have been required to accommodate a processor. That’s on top of the cost of the processor itself and chemistry.

Hollingsworth refers to the product as a chemistry-free plate since it is washed out on-press. Using its press in that manner wasn’t a concern. The process seems rather clean and hasn’t caused any problems on-press, he adds.

Following Procedures

From time to time, an operator has come into the prep department and said one of the plates in a set didn’t wash out completely, according to the prepress supervisor. He suspects the cause is operators rushing and taking shortcuts in the pressroom, and says it’s important to have makeready procedures in place and to consistently follow them.

Integrity hasn’t made any changes in the pressroom from when it was running the other plate. In fact, Fujifilm had the shop calibrate its new setup based on the older plate. Hollingsworth says typical densitometers can’t read a Brillia HD plate, but he’s heard there are new models capable of reading this type of material.

“We haven’t had any issues that led us to see if we could buy one,” he explains. “The plates are supposed to expose exactly the same (as the previous version), and we’ve found that appears to be correct.”

At least with the product Integrity uses, Hollingsworth says it’s not true that you can’t see any image on the plate until it is cleaned out. “You can see a latent image and tell what you’ve developed. You can see what is the head and tail of the plate.”

The printer didn’t need to make any changes to the lighting conditions in its platemaking and press areas, but it has continued its practice of stacking exposed plates upside down with slip sheets between them. To conserve space, it puts sets of plates into the drawers of a vertical flat file in the pressroom.

As a closing thought, Hollowingsworth notes that he would always check the processor first when there was an issue with a plate from the old CTP setup. “The chemistry always had gone flat. We don’t have those kind of issues now because there is no chemistry.” PI



Vendor Views:

Printing Impressions asked the major plate vendors to provide perspectives on what’s next for reduced process plate technology in general, and for any specific product update information they were in a position to share:

Michael Davis, CTP Marketing Manager at Agfa Graphics North America

The next steps for the thermal chemistry-free plates are to see improved throughput capability, as well as longer run length thresholds.

With violet technology, Agfa Graphics will be showing a processless violet light plate at Graph Expo, which we demonstrated live at Nexpo earlier this year. We will then make the new plate available towards the middle of 2008, around the Drupa show. This plate’s initial target market will be the newspaper market with short- and medium-run lengths. Later, it will be launched into the commercial printing market.

Agfa’s new thermal, no-bake plate, Energy Elite, will be in controlled sales later this year. It will be suitable for long runs—up to 500,000 unbaked and one million baked. Energy Elite is a high resolution, high-quality grained aluminum plate that fits all standard thermal platesetters.

Jim Crawford, group manager, consumables at Fujifilm Graphic Systems U.S.A.

Fujifilm Graphic Systems U.S.A. continues to build on market introduction of the Brillia HD processless thermal plate for commercial printers. The Brillia HD processless plate is usually referred to as “true processless” technology—i.e., expose the plate and proceed directly to press without any intermediate steps. Once on press, the plate cleans up during the normal start up cycle. Fujifilm is committed to build on this “true processless” technology because it ultimately delivers the smallest ecological footprint for end users.

At the IPEX and Graph Expo exhibits of 2006, Fujifilm demonstrated a technology concept for “reduced process” as it applies to violet plate technology. The target is to deliver a plate system that meets or improves upon the performance specifications of the existing Brillia violet product, while also reducing and redefining the constituency of the overall effluent, simplifies and reduces process steps, and allows for compatibility with existing platesetters. Fujifilm is currently mapping the technology concept against the requirements of the worldwide commercial and newspaper market segments to make sure business and environmental needs will be successfully met.

Mike Rundle, worldwide program manager at Eastman Kodak Co.

Violet is a newcomer to the no process/simple process plate market. However, with respect to the elimination of processing, there are inherent limitations in what it is possible to accomplish with violet technology.

For example, because of the extreme sensitivity of violet plates to most wavelengths of visible light, one cannot make a develop-on-press violet plate…unless one is willing to install a press in a safelight environment. This limits the technology choices available to the designer of a no-process violet plate.

After imaging, the emulsion or coating in the un-imaged areas of a plate remains every bit as sensitive as it was prior to imaging. Some sort of post-imaging treatment, in a dedicated, light-tight device, will be required. In turn, this dictates the use of some sort of wet solution.

So, for a no-process violet plate, one will need an off-line cleaning unit (i.e. a processor) and a wet cleaning solution (i.e. a developer).

A key question the plate designer must address with simple process violet is whether or not it is possible to maintain compatibility with the existing installed base of violet CTP devices, and if so, how? Compatibility with the existing installed base of 60mW violet CTP devices is achievable, but it comes at the cost of complexity in the processor or cleaning unit. A CTP device that images with the next generation of 150mW violet lasers would potentially allow one to eliminate the preheat section from the processor, thus further simplifying processing complexity.

The thermal category divides into three technology groups: simple process (also called chemistry free by some manufacturers), develop-on-press, and ablation…which is sometimes characterized as “true” non process. High power thermal lasers and the corresponding low visible light sensitivity of thermal plates means that daylight regimes for un-imaged coating removal, such as develop-on-press, can be considered by the plate designer. The high power of thermal lasers also makes it possible for the plate designer to consider ablation technology, which is the process of coating removal by the thermal laser itself, during imaging.

Potential improvements in next-generation thermal no-process and simple-process plates are imaging speed, image durability and chemical resistance. Faster plates would likely widen market appeal of thermal no-process technologies, which could then require improvements of other capabilities, such as run length, or compatibility with energy-curable inks.

In the case of develop-on-press thermal plates, improvements in latent image visibility could be desirable, though not at the expense of press ink color contamination.

John O’Rourke, director of CTP products at Presstek, Inc.

We think there is a market for both technologies and don’t see that changing. So much of the market is buying on price, or needs to do long run lengths.

A PRIMIR study asked printers to rank the importance of processless CTP. The desire for reduce-process plates declines as the shop size gets bigger. Smaller shops, under 20 employees, have the greatest interest in processless.

The true process-free, the touchless, plate is the nirvana for buyers. It goes to press ready to print, without any piece of intermediate equipment or moving the processing step somewhere else. That product isn’t available today from any manufacturer. They (current process-free technologies) still process, but are doing it on the printing press.

Presstek wants to expand the range of reduced-process plates. The Aurora plate is still being held in controlled sales mode, but we expect that to change before the end of the year.

Don Rogers, product manager for consumables at Heidelberg USA

Heidelberg is not a plate manufacturer. We partner with vendors to come up with solutions that are best for Heidelberg products—Prosetter (violet) and Suprasetter (thermal). We do not sell product as is from our vendors. We work on the solution to optimize it for our needs.

With Saphira Thermal Chemfree, you are going to see improved speed in that product, maybe in the drupa timeframe, because of improvement in sensitivity.

We’re hoping for a chemistry-free violet solution to become available. Based on what we’re hearing, we see that happening in the Drupa timeframe, but we can’t guarantee it because Heidelberg is not a plate manufacturer.
 

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