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COMPUTER-TO-PLATE -- CTP Editions

May 2001
BY MARK SMITH


Deadline rule the realm in the publication market segment. Even the legendary power wielded by advertisers at some point must give way to the march of the calendar, if the next edition is to get out. At the same time, gaining an extra day to sell or a little more time to get late ads in can make a world of difference in profitability.

The pressure to make every moment count has provided strong motivation for publication printers to implement computer-to-plate workflows. However, having that weekly or monthly publication date on the cover decreases the margin for error. It's also been suggested that the market segment's early and rapid adoption of CTP had more to do with competitive pressure than ROI.

Since the leading publication printers typically have past the halfway point in converting to CTP production, it seemed like a good time to see how some are standing up to the test.

The Banta Publications Group (BPG) installed its first digital platesetter in 1997. Today, about 60 percent of the work at its Kansas City plant is CTP based, and the usage rate for its Long Prairie, MN, operation is closer to 50 percent, reports Patrick J. Aho, prepress superintendent. He believes the introduction of thermal plate technology and effective copy-dot scanning were key enabling technologies for the use of CTP by publication printers.

Even as the percentage of its titles produced via CTP continues to grow, Aho says Banta has found there are several issues that may hold a publisher back.

  • Cost, particularly for copy-dot scanning of ads supplied as film;

  • Experience level of the publisher's personnel in preparing print-ready files, whether they be native Quark, PostScript or PDF;

  • Comfort level with using a digital proofing solution instead of Matchprints or another film-based solution; and

  • Concerns about handling digital ads.


A big part of the cost issue for publishers is figuring out who pays for what, which also ties into who does what, Aho points out. If the publisher is used to working with a third-party prepress operation that supplied stripped-up flats, what happens to that relationship—and the corresponding charges—when files are being supplied to the printer? Also, publishers typically can't pass along the cost of copy-dot scanning ad films, but they may not have the expertise or infrastructure to handle digital ads—should advertisers be willing and able to provide them.

To an extent, the costs associated with implementing an all-digital workflow can be offset by gains in production efficiency, the prepress superintendent points out. "Banta definitely sells the improvements in pricing and cycle time," he says, "but the advantages vary depending on the file format provided and level of proofing required."

When it comes to digital ads, Aho says BPG does get TIFF/IT files, but has yet to see any PDF-X files. "If the industry could get every advertiser to deliver even one of the two formats it would be a major improvement, since many publishers are still getting poorly created digital ads," he adds. "Most of our customers do preflight their own digital ads, and store the files themselves in order to save money."

The problems publishers can encounter in managing an all-digital workflow often are exacerbated by turnover in production staffs, the prepress superintendent says. "We frequently find that we spend a lot of time training a production manager only to have the person leave for greener pastures. This can upset the entire production process if the new person doesn't know how to place ads, preflight files, create reliable Quark documents and so on."

At its current state of development, the technology side of the equation is much less trying than the workflow issues, Aho says. He believes the biggest selling point of the thermal imaging process is the quality of the printing dot it produces.

The one technical issue that still presents its share of challenges is keeping up with the network and storage capacities required to support the CTP workflow, the prepress expert notes. "We've had to make significant changes in our storage and network systems almost every 12 months. I think we'll be moving toward SAN (server area network systems) technology, with redundant everything to support a prepress environment that will become 100 percent CTP," Aho says.

Some Hesitations
Brown Printing has had a similar experience with implementing CTP production in its publication printing operations, reports Scott Borhauer, central imaging manager. The process is used for about 60 percent of the work done at Brown, he says, with the remaining customers hesitating to make the change for a variety of reasons.

"One of the most compelling reasons is that the advancement to CTP production is cost neutral (in its entirety)," Borhauer explains. The other big factor is simply a hesitancy to change, he continues. "We are providing detailed education to help break down the barriers and offer a comfortable transition to CTP."

This training is backed up with financial incentives to further motivate customers to make the change, the imaging manager says. "Brown Printing has pricing tiers that reflect the use of CTP and the file types provided, thus enabling customers to control their costs," he explains.

Brown also markets the time savings that can be realized with CTP production, Borhauer says. "With remote proofing and automation becoming more prevalent in the industry, we are able to pull more days out of an already fast production environment."

At the same time, Borhauer believes the flip side to this trend is the biggest potential problem area remaining with the technology. "As we become more reliant on automation, we are removing many safety-nets in the process. People can forget how to do the simplest of tasks when they're not practiced on a daily basis. Unfortunately, to remain competitive in today's marketplace printers have to reduce their high level of labor costs, and automation supports this goal," he explains.

Brown Printing continues to see the majority of ads come in as film that must be copy-dot scanned, Borhauer reports. "Film is still a security blanket for advertising agencies," he says.

The imaging manager expects to see a natural decrease in film use and an increase in digital ad submissions as all the parties gain a greater comfortable level with the CTP process. The position taken at Brown Printing is to remain neutral on the question of digital ad file formats, at least for now, and to let the market decide, Borhauer says.

"Our preference would be to receive a locked-down file format, such as DCS, CT/LW or TIFF/IT-P1. That data may still need to be converted in our current process, but the ad's appearance is essentially locked down by the customer. Since PDF-X is only normalized information, essentially cleaned up PostScript, the file still must go through a RIPing process. Changes can occur at that point, and we have to accept the responsibility. It's a question of liability—who takes ownership of the digital ad, and what is that worth?"

Borhauer expects PDF use within the creative community to grow, thereby reducing the volume of copy-dot scanning that must be done. Ultimately, he's hopeful technology will make all formats equal in production so the issue of file formats will become transparent to the user. For now, though, Brown Printing is handling the issue of responsibility by putting all digital ad files through an internal quality-control process, as well as generating final proofs that customers must sign off on, the imaging manager notes.

Like Banta, Brown Printing is using thermal imaging technology. Borhauer likes the accuracy of the Kodak Polychrome Graphics thermal plate, in particular. As for the process as a whole, he says it provides better registration and produces a cleaner printed product, in addition to the cost and time savings noted earlier.

The experiences Perry Judd's Inc. has had with implementing CTP production vary significantly depending on the plant, reports Ed Bacsik, vice president/division manager at Perry Judd's Madison, WI, prepress facility. Bacsik's division provides prepress services to three of the organization's four printing plants. He says the nature of the customer bases they serve is the biggest factor in the different CTP adoption rates at the facilities.

"Our Waterloo, WI, plant is running 90+ percent of its work computer-to-plate," the division manager says. "Its customers primarily are very large, sophisticated publishers of national titles, such as Time, Business Week and Computer World. These were some of the first publishers pushing to go CTP.

"Our Strasburg, VA, facility, which has its own prepress operation, is running about 75 percent CTP work. It prints some national titles, but does a lot more regional and medium-sized publications," he continues.

"We have yet to implement computer-to-plate in our Spencer, IA, plant, which primarily serves smaller publishers. We are starting to see customers in that market wanting to make the transition, as well, so we plan to add CTP capabilities in the next 12 months."

(The fourth plant, in Baraboo, WI, primarily does catalog printing. It also is doing more than 90 percent of its work CTP.)

According to Bacsik, the company's philosophy from the very beginning has been to let customer needs dictate its pace in adopting CTP capabilities. "We try to read the market and time our moves so we are not ahead of the curve or behind it," he explains.

Giving clients options, rather than telling them the "best" way to do something, is an extension of this philosophy, the imaging manager notes. Similar to the other printers, Perry Judd's has developed a four-tier pricing structure—based on the materials/file types submitted—for CTP work, instead of trying to establish a preferred workflow.

"We truly don't have a preference," Bacsik says. "We explain the options, including the pros and cons of each file format. Even a vector file will work well if it is made correctly."

Over the course of the last three years, Bacsik says the percentage of ads submitted to Perry Judd's as film for copy-dot scanning has dropped from about 80 percent down to around 10 percent. The majority of incoming files are still in native application formats, but the central prepress facility also regularly receives TIFF/IT and standard PDF files, he notes. Bacsik has yet to see a PDF-X file come in.

Perry Judd's helps its publisher clients set up internal systems for preflighting submitted ads, if they want to do the work internally, or it will handle preflighting of the files for a fee. The same goes for archiving/pick up of digital ads.

"It really comes down to a question of how publishers perceive themselves and their roles," Bacsik says. "Some of our customers see themselves as publishers in a strict sense, and consider the processing of digital ad files to be a different business—whether you call it prepress or something else. Other publishers say, 'This isn't any harder than what we are already doing for editorial, so let's take it on.'

"This vision can change depending on the personnel doing the work. If a publisher hires somebody who is technically very competent and ambitious, it may take on more responsibilities. We've also had customers lose those types of people and ask us to pick up the slack."

On the whole, Bacsik reports Perry Judd's has had a positive experience in adopting thermal CTP production. "Computer-to-plate production saves time and money, and you end up with a better product in terms of print quality. It's a true win-win for the printer and publisher," the prepress exec concludes.

Instead of being on the bleeding edge as skeptics predicted, publication printers actually seem to have exceeded expectations as early adopters of computer-to-plate production. CTP apparently has proven to be the right addition in getting that next edition out the door.
 

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