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May 2002

A consensus of opinion seems to have been reached about why to adopt a computer-to-plate workflow. At least in some quarters, though, the same cannot be said for the question of how to implement one. Or more precisely, which combination of plate and platesetter is the best solution.

New product introductions continue to fuel the thermal versus violet imaging debate. The recent IPEX international printing expo also brought a new player (Esko-Graphics, the newly named combination of Purup-Eskofot and Barco Graphics) to the arena of digitally imaging conventional ultraviolet plates. Processless technology continues be developed along ablative, phase-change and other tracks. Even the bake or not-to-bake question hasn't been resolved fully.

However, if the following small sample is representative, the issues have been resolved in the minds of CTP users. They report being satisfied with the plate/platesetter combinations they've opted to install and, for the most part, don't anticipate making a change any time soon.

For its U.S. web and sheetfed operations, Bowne Inc. has standardized on the thermal combination of Heidelberg Topsetter platesetters and Kodak Polychrome Graphics 830 plates, reports Dick Johnson, technology director at the organization's headquarters in Piscataway, NJ.

The majority of its web printing is compliance documents for stockholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Johnson says. The sheetfed presses print a mixture of compliance and commercial color printing. "When necessary, Bowne will load balance printing across all of our printing plants. By standardizing our platesetters and plates, we can print a product at multiple plants and have near-identical results," he points out.

No Changes Needed

Johnson says he doesn't foresee making a change in Bowne's CTP preferences unless there is a major breakthrough that produces a significant improvement in productivity or a reduction in operating costs. The organization purchases all of its CTP equipment and plans on at least a five-year or longer useful lifecycle, he adds. Overall, the company exec estimates more than 85 percent of the work is done direct-to-plate.

Ambrose Printing, in Nashville TN, is also a mixed sheetfed and web operation, but it only has one location. The printer specializes in religious and sports publications, as well as general commercial printing of magazines and newsletters. It first moved into CTP production in September of 2001 with the installation of a large-format Creo Trendsetter 4557 with autoloader.

"We installed that machine because we have a 55˝ KBA-Planeta sheetfed press," says Harold Eddy, treasurer and co-owner.

In February, Ambrose added a second platesetter. "We got the opportunity to be a beta test site for the new Creo Lotem Quantum with Spectrum proofing. It gives us digital proofing backup, as well as additional platemaking capacity," he says.

Both of the machines have thermal imagers, so the shop is running a combination of Kodak Polychrome Graphics 830A and Gold thermal plates. Ambrose currently uses the Gold plates just on its web line, but the plan is to convert over completely once it has used up an existing consignment inventory of 830 plates, according to Eddy.

"Gold plates run faster through the processor, since the emulsion can be removed quicker. Also, the 830s don't have to be post-baked, but should be. The Gold product isn't designed to be post-baked."

The shop's plate preference drove its adoption of CTP, Eddy reveals. "We really didn't consider visible light imaging options. We thought thermal made more sense for us," he says. "The process is more like what we were already doing (with its Approval XP4 digital proofer), so it was an easier transition. Also, since we had an existing relationship with Kodak Polychrome Graphics, we got a financial deal (rebate and seven-year lease) that enabled us to make the move."

Ambrose Printing already is running about 99 percent CTP production, the company exec reports. "We still get a few jobs with old pieces of film that we expose to plate," he explains.

The CTP story at Creel Printing, in Las Vegas, is very similar to the previous examples, with one big exception. This sheetfed and web printer installed a Fuji Saber Luxel P-9600 CTP visible light platesetter to expose FujiFilm Brillia LPN visible light plates. Production Manager Jim Moore says he inherited the system from his predecessor, so he wasn't the one who had to make the choice between visible light and thermal imaging. Moore is satisfied with the decision, though.

"The system is certainly performing at the level we need. In fact, we're looking at installing a second unit within six months, for redundancy and added capacity," he notes. "You do need a darkroom and safelighting, but we don't see that as a problem in our operation."

The printer installed the system, its first, in March 2001. It leased the platesetter for four years, and expects to do the same with the second unit, Moore says. He estimates the shop currently is using CTP to produce at least 80 percent of its work. "The only barrier to hitting 100 percent we're seeing is that some clients have friends in the film business and want to keep doing business with them," the production manager adds.

Also operating in the visible spectrum is Quebecor World in Dubuque, IA. The printer is no shrinking violet when it comes to adapting CTP, but it has standardized on the violet imaging combo of the Agfa Galileo VXT platesetter and Litho Star Ultra-V plates.

"The decision really came down to speed," says Richard C. Dunn, vice president and general manager. "We are getting about 28 plates an hour with the violet system."

Went Green, Then Violet

The printer originally got started in CTP production in the late 1999/early 2000 timeframe with a green laser system, and then made the move to violet with the installation of a new platesetter in August of 2001, Dunn says. "We have since upgraded our original platesetter with violet imaging technology." Quebecor buys the hardware and depreciates it over five years, he adds.

Speaking just for the Dubuque plant and not Quebecor World as a whole, Prepress Manager Joe Ryan says thermal really hasn't factored into the CTP buying decision.

"When we purchased our first platesetter in 1999, we didn't feel thermal imaging was necessary for us. While it may bring higher quality, our high volume dictated that imaging speed was the critical success factor," Ryan explains.

The plant's primary niche is 8.5x11˝ educational products in one- , two- and four-color, Dunn says by way of explanation. It also produces some consumer publications.

According to Ryan, the requirements of the violet-light-sensitive operating environment haven't raised any issues for the printer. "We've been able to maintain very consistent output with the violet plate," he says. "That was one thing we were somewhat concerned about going in, but we've really been satisfied in that regard."

Since Quebecor World Dubuque still has a film warehouse, Dunn says it is doing about 55 to 60 percent of its work CTP. "We're doing virtually 100 percent CTP with jobs that come in as electronic files, though," he adds.

Another company that has seen the light in adopting CTP is Fanfare Media Works, in Valencia, CA. The operation's experience is a little different, though, since it is a captive printing department for a company that publishes advertisement-oriented supermarket publications and produces register tape advertising for U.S. and U.K. markets.

Just this past January, the company switched to running an eight-up Purup-Eskofot (now Esko-Graphics) PlateDriver visible light (YAG) platesetter, reports Tom Sawyer, vice president of production. It continues to use the same Western Litho DiamondPlate LY-8 plates it had been imaging on a different machine, he adds.

Thermal Not Needed

"We came to the conclusion a long time ago that thermal didn't fit our application," Sawyer says. "Since the longest run we are going to be producing is about 100,000 impressions, we don't need the extra expense and slowness of thermal. I wanted to go with a system that offers output speed and less expensive plates, so it would be more cost-effective for our operation."

One of the key reasons he was sold on the new device is the way it handles the plate prior to imaging, Sawyer reveals. "The transport length from the plate tray to the imager is very short," he explains. "Also, the slip sheet removal system on this particular machine is very positive, which is important because that's one of the problems that can stop a platesetter. This system grabs the plate and physically blows the sheet off the plate and catches it in a trap at the bottom of the unit. We haven't had any problems with jamming because of that feature."

Mahaffey's Quality Printing is set apart from the other CTP users in a number of regards, but it reports a similarly positive CTP experience. The sheetfed-only, Jackson, MS-based shop is using a four-up Presstek Dimension 400 thermal platesetter to image Anthem processless plates, reports Jeff Wall, production manager.

The printer has changed some of the specific products it uses, but it has always employed thermal CTP technology, Wall points out. "When we went to DRUPA 95 to buy a system, the prevailing choices were all visible light, but they were targeted to the eight-page printer and were out of our price range," he says. "We weren't shopping for thermal persé, but Presstek had a four-page unit (Pearlsetter 74) in our price range. That happened to be a thermal machine."

Mahaffey's installed the Dimension in July of 2001, but keeps its original platesetter as a backup, Wall reports. The shop became a very early adopter of Presstek's Anthem plate largely out of necessity.

"We ran into severe supply issues with plates from another manufacturer," the production manager explains. "The manufacturer ran us out of plates and/or chemistry a number of times, including for a six-week period at one point. Presstek helped fill in the gaps, first with its PearlGold plate and then the Anthem."

The benefits from running processless with thermal is a big advantage of the technology, Wall asserts. He says the shop's total plate costs dropped almost 30 percent with the switch to processless, due to a lower raw plate cost combined with eliminating the need for a chemical processor.

The printer has been running nearly 100 percent CTP for some time. It buys all of its equipment and budgets for a platesetter to be a primary production unit for about four years, he adds. "I don't see us making a change in our CTP operation for now, but I stay open minded about new developments," the production manager says.

Installation of an eight-color Speedmaster 74 perfector press has been the biggest change of late in the shop's overall operation. "We're not just a short-run printer any more. We do a lot longer runs on that machine than we did before. It's not uncommon for us to do 250,000 press sheets," he says. "The Anthem is rated at 100,000 impressions, but we routinely break that number."

Same End Result

Despite the differences in the systems they've chosen to install, these users generally agree on the benefits of adopting CTP.

Johnson reports Bowne has seen advantages on two fronts from adopting CTP. "In the prepress area, it has simplified the process and reduced the time from composing to the pressroom," he explains. "In the pressroom, makeready time—even on the web presses—has been reduced and so has paper waste."

Quebecor World's Ryan has a similar take on the technology's benefits. "Our thought pattern going into CTP was that it would just provide cost savings in the pressroom, not in prepress," he says. "But we've found we're also enjoying savings in prepress because of the workflow improvements and shorter cycle time."

Other users zeroed in on the pressroom benefits.

The speed of turnaround with CTP cannot be overstated, Mahaffey's Wall says. "Faster makeready, better registration, the things people have been saying for years are all true," he reports.

"Our press operators love how much clearer and crisper images are with the digital plate," Ambrose Printing's Eddy says.

"Press pull-ups are quicker, registration is better and the plates are cleaner, so you have fewer holes in the plate on-press," adds Creel Printing's Moore.

While the choices in CTP can appear daunting, the positive experiences of these users should offer some hope to new buyers. By working through the options, process adopters are putting together systems that work using all of the alternative technologies and products.


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