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Digital Imaging Versus Computer-to-Plate

July 2007
Business requirements and customer demand dictate purchasing decisions

For printers who need to protect the future of their businesses, direct digital output is the only option. That much is clear, but what is less clear is whether to choose computer-to-plate (CTP) technology or to invest in a Direct Imaging (DI) press, where the platesetter is built into an A3+ or B3 format press. The decision is not just a question of whether to buy a press with the platesetter built in, versus having a standalone CTP device. Now, more than ever, it is the applications that dictate investment preferences.

Business requirements drive decision-making

Talk to any of the numerous manufacturers of CTP systems and the view is that a digital platesetter is absolutely the only way to go, primarily because there are no format constraints. For Presstek and Screen, the only two manufacturers of both CTP and DI devices, the picture is less clear-cut because it depends on the business requirements. Although CTP tends to outstrip DI, both companies seeing steady sales in DI as well as CTP. According to Digital Dots research, there are slightly more than 5200 DI presses and nearly 20,000 digital platesetters in production worldwide. Most commercial printers preferring to go with DI have done so to meet very specific business applications, such as support for longer run lengths than a variable data digital press would be used for. For the most part such printers invest in DI to provide additional capacity, complementing a variable data digital press, and for medium run lengths up to 10,000 copies. On the other hand, printers invest in CTP to streamline their workflows, save time and cut consumables costs and do not make the decision based on run lengths.

According to Tim Taylor, marketing director at Screen, “the one market that shows a preference for DI is the digital printer who has started with an Indigo [variable data digital press] or similar. He therefore does not have a CTP device and has found that his digital press is just not competitive on longer runs despite any reports to the contrary!” Regarding CTP, Taylor says that it “has continued to grow, we sold more machines last year than any other year and that applies to Europe. The rest of the world [we have] around 36% market share [and] the split would be very roughly 25% Europe, 25% US and 50% Asia, including Japan, China, India. We still have not seen the predicted drop in sales.”

DI excels for short to mid-run markets

Presstek also sells both CTP and DI technologies and is confident about the continued demand for DI technology. “DI is offering many opportunities for business expansions for digital print service bureaus, prepress studios, small and medium size printers,” states Stan Najmr, DI Director for Presstek Europe. “Digital print services are moving into offset but they have no desire to implement conventional offset. The profitability range of 350-10000 copies of A3+ format represents a strong proposition to European printers.”

For many customers, the deciding factor is often the type of work they are producing, particularly if much of that work is short run colour. “The short run market up to 1500 copies is best served by the digital type devices because of their ease of use. The mid-run market fits well into the DI market because of the lower cost per page than digital devices and faster make-readies with less waste than conventional presses,” explains Najmr. “The long-run market is best suited for a conventional press and CTP because the longer runs can compensate economically for the increased make-ready time, waste from registration pulls, and ink [and] water balance issues associated with the conventional process.”

CTP market expanding globally

The growing requirement for four colour print, combined with falling run lengths, increases the attractiveness of a Direct Imaging press, particularly in the US and European markets. However, many printers still prefer the flexibility of a CTP system, whether it’s violet or thermal imaging, and the fact that platemaking can be done simultaneously with the press running. This could be a compelling argument for certain markets, particularly for commercial print, but format flexibility also offers considerable appeal. According to Fujifilm, the overall market for CTP will be worth some 2.4 billion Euros by 2008. Projections for the DI market are not publicly available, but are believed to be substantially less than this.

Heidelberg used to be active in both CTP and DI, but a few years ago, after fifteen years in the DI business, the company abandoned DI press technology. It pursued a CTP strategy instead and recently shipped its 1,000th latest generation Suprasetter thermal platesetter to a Brazilian customer specializing in packaging products. Heidelberg now has over 5800 CTP units installed worldwide, compared to its 2000 DI presses still in production.

Bernhard Schreier, Chief Executive Officer of Heidelberg, notes that he is “especially pleased with the keen demand for the new entry-level models. Small and midsize printshops in particular are eager to invest because they value the enhanced quality of CTP technology”. Heidelberg has also opted to develop its new Anicolor inking unit technology working alongside flexible CTP solutions instead of offering customers Direct Imaging presses. The new Speedmaster SM 52 with the Anicolor zone-less short inking unit delivers dramatic reductions in make-ready time, coming up to colour in less than ten sheets. Jürg Konrad, commercial director at Fotorotar in Switzerland, has found that with Anicolor technology “we are able to start selling from the 20th sheet onward.”

Agfa is one of the biggest names in CTP and the dominant supplier of this technology in the newspaper market, with many thousands of devices installed. The company reports continuous growth in their CTP installed based. According to Tony King, Marketing Manager Visible Light Plates, “CTP adoption continues to grow rapidly, with the growth emphasis on thermal and violet technology. We see an increasingly strong trend towards simple ‘chemistry free’ technologies which offer wide latitude and even simpler performance [and] maintenance.” Agfa has never been involved with Direct Imaging presses however, King says that “on-press [imaging] doesn’t have the same mainstream appeal that CTP does, perhaps the view remains that printers continue to prefer to use their press just for printing with the plate imaging being done off-line in a dedicated platesetter.”

Lüscher, developer of the XPose thermal and XPose UV conventional imaging systems, is another company that is exclusively focused on CTP technology. It is one of the few companies willing to share detailed information about its installed base. In Europe, Lüscher has installed 700 platesetters, 65 units in Asia 65, 117 in North and South America, with another 50 installations elsewhere. Their total installations are over 900 machines, giving Lüscher approximately a 5% share of the estimated 20,000 CTP units installed worldwide. This is not far behind ECRM, who have slightly more units installed, but have been in the business longer than Lüscher.

Bottom line is answering customer needs

The choice to go with DI or CTP depends entirely on a printer’s customer requirements, and the arguments are compelling for both technologies. There may be preferences from one market to another, but those preferences are dictated above all by the business demands.

Biography of Laurel Brunner
Laurel Brunner started her career in 1978 as an accountant for a printing company. Since then she has worked exclusively in the prepress and publishing industries. She is managing director the international consulting group, Digital Dots (www.digitaldots.org), publishers of Spindrift an independent, subscriber supported journal for the graphic arts, printing and publishing industries.

Laurel Brunner provides private consulting and editorial services to a wide cross section of publishers and industry associations. Her work regularly appears in newspapers and magazines around the world, and she has been a frequent speaker at industry conferences in Europe, the United States and Asia.
 

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