CTP FIELD REPORTS -- Set to CompeteMarch 2003
Nova has a staff of 15 people producing a mix of four-color and spot-color general commercial printing, typically with run lengths of 10,000 to 20,000 impressions. Its equipment lineup includes two AM Multi duplicators, a two-color Heidelberg Quickmaster 46-2 and a Heidelberg Speedmaster 52-H. The Presstek CTP system, which was installed about six months ago, produces plates for all of the presses.
"There are very few of the type presses we have in the city, which puts us in a niche where we can be more competitive because of the automation on these machines," Burns says. "That's even more the case now, with the platesetter."
The current business environment actually provided greater incentive for the shop to invest in CTP. "Prices of jobs have come down so far that people are starting to almost give printing away. We can't stay competitive unless we automate," Burns asserts.
"Working from film, it would take us one hour to RIP the job, image the film, process the film, strip it up, expose the plate, process the plate and get it ready for the press. Now we go from file to plate in 20 minutes. The 40 minutes of time we are saving is well worth the cost of the machine. When you start to factor in the cost of the materials and labor savings, it got to the point where it was just cheaper to use a digital platesetter," the company exec says.
Nova also has realized gains in its pressroom, exceeding the savings promised by the CTP system manufacturer, Burns reports. "They said we would save 10 minutes on a makeready, but we've been saving 20 minutes per makeready just because of the better plate registration."
In addition, the shop's location meant there were city, state and federal incentives the company could take advantage of with the equipment installation. The equipment financing environment has been so favorable, the shop refinanced one of its presses a couple of months ago, he adds.
Space limitations also played in to the decision to go with a manual unit. The platesetter's ease of operation mitigates any labor concerns. "We haven't seen the need for a dedicated operator. Every person in the shop knows how to image a plate," Burns notes.
At the same time it installed the platesetter, Nova added a HP Designjet 10ps color printer with Best Software color management to do proofing. "Given our press formats, the output size was perfect for proofing," Burns says. "It works better for us than going to a Matchprint conventionally, and the cost is dramatically less."
Excell Color Graphics
Fort Wayne, IN
Platesetter: Fujifilm Saber Vx 9600
Plates: Fujifilm Brillia LPN V
Technology: 30mW violet
The timing of Excell's move to CTP-based production came as somewhat of a surprise even to its staff, reveals owner Jerry Blasing. He says the company had a more conservative digital adoption curve in mind when it started out by installing a digital color proofing system.
"We bought a Fujifilm FinalProof and started making proofs that really looked nice. Right away, everyone in the department started saying, 'If we had the digital platesetter, we could go right to plate after getting an OK on the proof.' Only a month after getting the digital proofer, we went ahead and ordered the platesetter," Blasing reports.
Excell installed a dual-laser, fully automatic version of the 30mW violet platesetter in September of 2002. It's the shop's first digital platesetter, but Blasing says he has always followed a philosophy of staying up with technology. "This company is only 12 years old. I opened it as a trade shop and added printing after seven years. Today we have about 35 employees," the owner notes. "We needed to go CTP from a competitive standpoint. There isn't any other shop in Fort Wayne that has a digital platesetter."
The printer had been exploring CTP options for a while, before deciding it was worth waiting for the photopolymer violet system to come out, Blasing says. "We'd been dealing with Fuji for years, so we decided to stick with them. We felt more confident buying a package (plates and platesetter) from one company."
Bill Purdy, prepress manager, says Excell invested in the dual-beam laser to boost the unit's imaging speed and quality, as well as for redundancy. "We wanted to make the platesetter a time saver, so we opted for full automation. The configuration is more expensive, but we figured the time and labor savings would justify the investment. It has turned out be a huge time saver," Purdy asserts. Since it is an enclosed, in-line system, the only activity that must be done in a yellow safelight environment is loading of plates into the cassette.
From the beginning, Blasing says he has marketed the company as a high-end color shop. He maintained that business philosophy with the expansion into sheetfed printing services, primarily supported by a 40˝, five-color press with coater and two 28˝ presses. The general commercial printer produces everything from letterhead to pocket folders, with a niche in high-end boat catalogs.
Quality in platemaking meant going with a system that produces a hard dot even without baking. "Plus, the plates come out clean and in perfect register, ready to go on-press. Our press operators love the digitally imaged plates," he reports.
The payoff in prepress has come in terms of cost savings and workflow speed. "We eliminated a proofing person by going to digital proofing and eliminated a full-time platemaker with the platesetter. Our Mac operators handle the complete CTP system; we have five or six operators all trained to run the platesetter. They were ready to roll with two days of training," Blasing says.
"We've also cut out using film for 95 percent of our work in just four months, and the digital plates have only been running us about five percent more than our analog plates," continues the company exec. "We haven't been able to go 100 percent CTP because we still have clients ordering reprints."
Any printer financially able to make the move to CTP should take the plunge, Blasing believes. "I've been in the printing business for 35 years, and this is the most amazing piece of equipment I've purchased yet. It's not all that big of an investment, either. The price of the platesetter was almost the same as the first drum scanner I bought 12 years ago," he points out.
Blasing opted to buy the machine outright. "I operate my business a little differently than the typical printer. I don't believe in leasing equipment. I put a lot of money back into the business, and we've always maintained good cash flow. That's how we're able to stay up with the technology," he explains.
The company owner also insists on buying the right technology. "Most printers want to go with a cheaper digital proofer. We could have bought an ink-jet system for about one-third the price, but it wouldn't show the dot structure. My top clients won't sign off on a continuous-tone color proof," he says. "We can match our digital proof closer on-press than we could with film and an analog proof."
Platesetter: Creo Trendsetter VLF
Plates: Spectratech Spectra 830-n
Size definitely mattered when American Press went shopping for a CTP system some four years ago, according to Barry Long, digital systems coordinator. The web printer was motivated to go CTP after installing a state-of-the-art MAN Roland Lithoman web press that prints 72, four-color pages in one pass, Long reveals. The press requires a roughly 60˝ wide plate.
The company is still using its original platesetter, but did upgrade to the Creo Prinergy workflow along the way. "We'd love to have a second unit, and are looking at putting in another VLF (very-large format) machine this year," Long says.
"For now, we continue to be able to meet our production demands with the one unit. It would be nice to have a second one as a backup, but since this machine has been so reliable we haven't been able to justify the investment without the need for greater plate capacity. We typically process as many as 100,000 pages a year through our CTP system, or more than 55,000 plates per year," he notes.
Simply finding a front end capable of RIPing and feeding enough pages to the platesetter was an issue when American Press looked to install a VLF system, Long recalls. "We understood you had to have both pieces. We narrowed our choices down to about four companies that we felt had a platesetter worth considering, then looked at the workflow those companies offered," he says. "We felt fortunate to find a front end and platesetter from the same company, but we did evaluate the components individually."
The printer already was looking toward implementing a PDF-based workflow. "We fully expected PDF to become the standard, but there wasn't a solid, viable PDF workflow yet. We installed our original front end with the understanding we would upgrade to the PDF workflow when it became available," Long says.
Half of the printer's work is magazines, some with fairly long run lengths, and the other half is catalogs, some with very high page counts, the prepress exec says. In addition to the MAN Roland, the shop currently runs two other web presses—a 50˝ Heidelberg and 16-page Mitsubishi. It replaced two half-size web presses over the course of the four years, Long notes. "At one point, though, we were feeding four presses with four different plate sizes from the same platesetter."
Run lengths factor into the company's choice of plates. "We use Spectratech thermal plates because they are a little more durable than some of the newer no-bake plates, which can have issues with scratching," Long asserts.
The decision to adopt CTP in a VLF format came down to a fairly straightforward mathematical ROI calculation, but it also provided some added benefits. Tight registration is challenging to maintain with conventional prepress on a large format, he explains.
"When you are stripping film to big Mylar sheets, the thermal expansion from just a few degrees in temperature change makes a big difference in how far out of register the edges of the film will be. One of the reasons we chose the Creo platesetter was because it offers automatic thermal expansion compensation," the prepress exec notes.
"We've also used another option, called Web Growth Compenstion, that to my knowledge is only available through Creo. On a web press, the paper picks up moisture as it goes through each unit and starts to expand. On the larger press sizes, the web can expand by as much as two or three rows of printing dots. As a result, all of the colors will be out of register. We can calculate the rate of expansion for a given paper and web width, and the platesetter will automatically compensate for that expansion when imaging the plates," Long points out.
Registration and repeatability of color were the big issues in American Press' decision-making process, but the printer also has since been sold on the system's Staccato FM screening. In addition, its front-end capabilities have enabled the plant to implement CIP4-based closed-loop color with its presses, he notes.
Long says his experience with CTP adoption has been a positive one. "Four years ago, I was on call 24 hours a day and frequently was on the phone with the plant in the middle of the night. Now I get to go home at 5 o'clock and generally don't talk with anybody from the company until the next day."
Platesetters: Agfa Xcalibur 45
Plates: Agfa Thermostar P970 and FujiFilm Brillia LH
Talk about making a commitment to CTP. Kirkwood Printing's installation of two Xcalibur 45 platesetters in September represents its third generation of the technology, points out Stan Monfette, prepress director. The shop had previously used another brand of thermal hardware.
"We like the quality of thermal," Monfette says. "We've had good luck with thermal plates, both in prepress and the pressroom. They are very stable; it's almost like you can set them and forget them."
The shop continues to use the Fuji plates it already was running, but it has added the Agfa plates it got as part of the package, the prepress director says. "We like the durability of the Fuji product. We bake all our plates because the dots are very soft if you don't bake them," he reports.
The printer follows that practice even though its average run length is only 5,000 impressions, Monfette says. Kirkwood produces a mix of commercial work, ranging from pocket folders to fairly large catalogs. The sheetfed shop has three (eight-, seven- and four-color) 28˝ presses and a six-color, 40˝ model, all being fed plates by the two platesetters.
Kirkwood's last platesetter still had a lot of life left in it, but several issue made it ripe for replacement, the prepress director says. "For one, it was a fully automatic device that had trouble keeping the plates perfectly straight," he explains. "We installed a new press about a year ago that has plate autoloaders on it. Its tolerance for plates being imaged crookedly is extremely small. We'd get plates that were 1⁄16˝ out and that was too much."
Static was the culprit, Monfette says, despite the printer's best efforts to rid the plates of any charge. "It made two plates stick together; or even just sliding one plate across the slip sheet would cause it to pull like a magnet. The end result was crooked plates. I understand the technology has since been improved," he says.
The quality of the platesetter's screening proved to be another concern, the prepress director reports. "We're located fairly close to Agfa geographically, so we had ended up helping the company test its screening. We thought its ABS (Agfa Balanced Screening) screening was excellent, which convinced us to go look at the platesetter. The screening offers more levels of gray at output, is a little smoother and provides a nice rosette," he says. The printer is now working on implementing the manufacturer's Sublima hybrid screening, Monfette adds.
Kirkwood opted to stick with the manual feed configuration for its new platesetters. "People can get hung up on automation and a lot of little features that don't need to be there," Monfette says. "Simplicity is a positive these days with all the work being on such a tight turnaround. You have to look at what can take the machine down. We left off the online punches for that reason. If you have to wait 24 hours for a service call on a relatively simple thing like that, it's a real killer. We installed two units for redundancy."
As for important features the platesetters do have, the prepress director points to the ability to apply a different linearization curve to each page of an eight-page form. "What has surprised me the most is how accurate the machine is," he adds.
The shop installed a new Apogee Series3 workflow as part of the package. "The front end is more important to making CTP-based production work," Monfette asserts. "Your productivity really depends on how long it takes to prep a job. It used to take us an hour to get four plates prepped; now it doesn't even take 15 minutes. We've automated the process."
Kirkwood had previously worked in a linework and CT file format environment, the prepress director explains. "People who are in the linework/CT world have learned how to manipulate the data very well out of necessity. Linework and CT work against you today. We had to QC, QC and QC again jobs for things like trapping because the system handled linework and CT elements differently," he says.
"The difference with the Apogee system is Agfa has made the workflow very straightforward," Monfette continues. "What they have developed works very well. I believe PDF has moved PostScript ahead of the linework/CT format. We now turn everything into PDFs internally. The workflow has cut our prepress labor cost by about a third on a typical job, and it's also saving us time."
Platesetter: Heidelberg Prosetter 74
Plates: Mitsubishi Silver DigiPlate
Technology: 5mW violet
In a sense, Pinnacle Press is about to mark its first birthday. The printer was reborn as a digital shop last March.
"It took us the entire month, but in that time we were able to install a brand new five-color Heidelberg Speedmaster 52 press (with makeready automation), MetaDimension front end, Prosetter 52 platesetter and HP 5000 ink-jet proofer," reports Mike Kettlewell, president.
Management had planned to overhaul the shop's prepress and pressroom operations, but it didn't start out looking to do both at the same time. "We were able to make the right deal at the right time," he explains. "Rather than tackling one area the first month and the other a second, we decided to just bite the bullet and get it all done. We didn't find the challenge overwhelming."
Kettlewell says he definitely was looking to install a turnkey package from one company. "I've had some bad experiences with piecemeal systems in the past, not just in prepress, but also in the pressroom and bindery. When making a major change like this, you only have the possibility of the result being as good as the company you're working with," he stresses. "Our company is enjoying immense growth because of what Heidelberg helped us achieve."
Pinnacle currently has 15 employees producing general commercial work chiefly for larger corporations, ad agencies and print brokers. In addition to its new SM52 press, the shop's pressroom houses two Heidelberg Printmasters and a 26˝, two-color Shinohara press. Kettlewell says he opted for the four-page platesetter to accommodate plates for the 26˝ press and to give the shop room to grow.
"Our next press will be a Speedmaster 74," the company president notes. "Also, there was a minimal price difference with stepping up to the 74 model."
On the other hand, the printer only looked at violet technology because the original investment was so much less. "It was a wonderful initial step into CTP for us. We didn't find the silver-based plates to be an issue. We previously had in-house imagesetting capabilities, so our prepress staff was used to working in a darkroom and safelight environment," he adds.
"We didn't see photopolymer violet as being worth waiting for," the printing exec continues. "Our research showed that the silver technology was more than adequate. We get very high quality results compared to running film and burning plates. When the plates come off the platesetter, they are so close in registration we don't even have to move the dials on our new press."
The printer decided a semi-automatic machine was the best configuration for a company its size. "The level of expertise it takes for someone to run this machine is very low. Any one of about 10 people in our shop can burn plates," Kettlewell points out. "We didn't think it was worth the added investment to go with a fully automatic device."
Even though the shop had been outputting film, it really didn't have an electronic workflow in place. "Having a completely automated workflow is a very welcomed asset. Implementing a new PDF-based workflow required a bit of a learning curve, but we were able to do all the training in-house. We're now able to push 30 to 40 percent more jobs through the department with the same number of people."
Pinnacle was able to eliminate a conventional stripper, but the change meant learning electronic imposition. "We designated one person to take the lead in each of two or three workflow areas, with backup from the other department members. We now run our digital prepress department with three to four people who have been cross-trained."
There are other benefits to adopting CTP that may not be so easy to quantify. "These days one is constantly reading negative things about the business, so our industry needs a boost. Our company saw this investment as a potential shot in the arm. It has proven to be the best sales tool we've ever come up with, as well as boosted employee morale and excitement," he claims.
All Service Graphics
Platesetter: Esko-Graphics PlateDriver
Plates: Agfa Lithostar Ultra LAP-V
Technology: 5mW violet
Owner Don Gust approached the CTP buying decision for his company a little differently. In an age when digital prepress equipment can be seen as obsolete in three years, he planned on a five- to 15-year time frame.
"I really like the way Esko-Graphics builds its machines," Gust says. "They're solidly built, with a heavy-duty cast-iron frame, drum and wiring harnesses. The design is modular, with the ability to switch out laser technologies, for example. Because of that, I'm looking to pay off this platesetter in five years and then still have a viable machine for maybe another 15 years."
"Longevity was very important to me as a small owner," Gust continues. "In a digital environment where platforms and associated software sometimes become obsolete within a year, keeping up with technology has become a significant cash-flow issue."
Gust viewed not having CTP as cost to the company in the form of a lost business opportunity. "No other shop in our market has an eight-up CTP solution in place yet. I could see the benefits just by crunching the numbers—the debt service I had for a previous machine, the labor expense I was incurring for stripping and platemaking, consumables expense for film, etc. I didn't want to wait any longer."
The printer didn't go looking for a violet system, and in fact had a 1,064nm thermal, semi-automatic system for a short period of time. It encountered problems with one brand of thermal plates toning on-press and another supplier announced it was going to stop selling 1,064nm plates in the U.S., Gust reports. "We were left without a workable solution."
Esko-Graphics replaced that platesetter with a new PlateDriver in October of 2002. "We're looking at possibly switching to a 30mW violet laser and photopolymer plate in the future, but the 5mW was the only available option at the time," Gust notes. "We've always had darkrooms and cameras, so the safelight environment necessitated by the silver-halide emulsion on the plates wasn't an issue for us."
All Service Graphics is a sheetfed printer with 24 employees. It produces a range of work, from annual reports down to technical manuals, Gust says. The shop's new platesetter supports its full pressroom lineup, from a two-color Heidelberg Quickmaster duplicator up to a six-color, 40˝ Speedmaster.
The printer had previously been outputting imposed film flats on an eight-up imagesetter, so it was familiar with the requirements of a digital workflow, the owner says. "We were looking to compress the time line on jobs even further," he notes. "Being able to go from approval to plate in 20 minutes is astounding."
Having a fully automated system eliminates the need to have an operator dedicated to "watching plates go through a machine," Gust says. "We're able to load plates for all five presses into the unit and never think about it until the loader is empty."
All Service hasn't had any problems with the reliability of the automation features, but it did encounter some scratching on the back of plates, the company owner reports. "While the scratching itself wasn't on the front of the plate, we were concerned about the savings potential creating problems in the image area. The manufacturer was able to address the scratching."
Considering the shop had been working in a direct-to-film environment, Gust was surprised by the extent of the learning curve it had to master in going CTP. "We chose the Nexus workflow from Artwork Systems. Learning to use the tools to the fullest extent takes time, even for a seasoned prepress manager. We really didn't buy the workflow and platesetter as a package, but they work together. Once everything was ironed out, I was very glad we made the move to CTP. We can get up to register on-press in 50 sheets, compared to 300 or 400 sheets."
Gust advises potential buyers to be prepared for the learning curve, and to keep a separate workflow in place until the entire system is working in a cohesive way. "New adopters will be surprised at how fast they go 100 percent digital, though. We've reached that point already," he notes.
Platesetter: ECRM Mako 2 CTP
Plates: Agfa Lithostar Ultra LAP-V
Technology: 5mW violet
Matt Wood, president, describes his company's first foray into CTP production as a "horrible experience." The shop tried using a computer-to-poly system. "The concept didn't work for us," Wood reports. "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."
The 18-employee shop has a two-color, 40˝ Heidelberg Speedmaster press to service a greater range of its customers' commercial printing needs, but the machine is kind of an odd-man-out in the pressroom. The rest of its Heidelberg press lineup includes two (four- and two-color) GTOs and two (two-color) Quickmasters. After weighing all his options, Wood decided the best solution for his operation was to run a dual workflow. The shop continues to produce film on its ECRM Mako 3600 imagesetter to make plates for the 40˝ press, he points out.
"At the time, we couldn't find an affordable system that would handle the whole range of plate sizes we use," Wood says. (Editor's note: ECRM only recently announced plans to introduce a four-up version of its Mako platesetter.) The company's past experience with ECRM led it to install the two-up platesetter in October of 2002, he adds. "Even in a down economy, you have to be as competitive as you can be. Given the number of four-color plates we use, the labor savings seemed to make it the right move for us. We try be as cost-effective in production as possible."
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.
Platesetter: Screen PlateRite 4300
Plates: Kodak Polychrome Graphics Sword
Better plate technology is what led this printer to kick off the new year by replacing its original CTP system, reveals Shawn McClafferty, president. The shop had been using a visible-light plate and manual platesetter. "We were approached by KPG representatives who opened our eyes to the capabilities of the new plate and thermal technology."
A key selling point of the product was the capability to use the same processor and chemistry for the shop's conventional and digital plates.
"Only needing to have one processor is a big advantage," agrees Tony Fecondo, plant manager. "That gives us cost savings and process consistency. We still have film capabilities as a backup, and we do some film outsourcing business."
The company put the digital plate through some tests and was impressed with the results, Fecondo recalls. KPG then worked in concert with a dealer to put together a platesetter and plate package for the shop, he adds.
Screen (USA) has positioned the platesetter as a six-page machine, but Fecondo says he sees it as a four-up machine that perfectly fits the plant's 29˝ press format. The bulk of the shop's work is run on a lineup of half-size Heidelberg presses, including a seven-color Speedmaster 72, six-color Speedmaster 74 and a two-color Quickmaster.
Starting with a very basic, manual system had made for an easier initial transition to CTP, the plant manager says. "As a three-shift plant, though, we appreciate having a fully automated system now," he adds. "The decision was a no brainer. Not only can we plate 24/7 basically without an operator, it's also a faster system." Thermal technology further improved the shop's platemaking operations by getting them out of a safelight environment, Fecondo says.
The system is very user-friendly, McClafferty points out. "Our press operators now have the ability to do their own plate remakes, since the display walks them through the process. They can walk into the plate department, press three buttons and have a plate 6.5 minutes later," he says.
Fecondo admits the shop has encountered some problems with static, but he says that issue has been easy to address. "We haven't seen any scratching, or at least not any more than with a manual platesetter," he adds.
As an owner, McClafferty says he was most concerned about how well the actual switchover would go. "We had to basically go conventional again while we were doing the install," he notes.
The old system had to be taken out first, Fecondo explains. "We plated up a day or so worth of work in advance. Then on that Monday morning, we took the old system out and by the afternoon we had the new system installed. By the start of the second shift on Tuesday we had a live job come off the system," the plant manager says. "The testing we previously did with the plate was a big help. It showed we didn't have to make any chemistry changes in the pressroom."
McClafferty also attributes the smooth transition to the homework and planning the shop did upfront. He recommends other new adopters bring digital plates in for testing before tackling the platemaking equipment decision.
Fecondo says another reason the switch went off without a hitch was that the shop's existing Rampage front end was capable of driving the new platesetter. However, the package did include a new Matchprint 5542 ink-jet proofer. "It's a tremendous proofer and definitely contract quality. We now can generate proofs in seven minutes, compared to 35 minutes."
As a final thought, McClafferty notes that he has made investments like this in a down economy before. "There is a risk involved, but sometimes it's better to make investments at such times. Manufacturers definitely are more aggressive about making deals during downtimes."