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Digital Patesetters--Shopping the Output Odyssey

August 1998
BY MARIE RANOIA ALONSO


As the platesetter market matures, more fully automated and semiautomated devices, perhaps more than the market can sustain, are redefining the role of platemaking to meet the demands of the CTP environment.

Thermal imaging technology, functionality to support Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) and PostScript 3 availability now join reliability and throughput as inherent traits of many of today's new platesetter launches.

To prepare for new platesetter launches on the horizon later this year, Printing Impressions offers a portfolio of devices and checks in with the technology providers poised to take them to market.

Whether plug-and-play platesetting solutions, thermal devices or eight-up platesetters are the answer to your output odyssey, one thing is more than likely certain: You want automation, you want a solid promise of ROI and you want a device customized to your specific production needs.

So, where to start? Trade shows and industry conferences are the logical places to review wares, and more than likely your current prepress provider is all too anxious to install its latest platesetter in your plant.

Beware the "vapor-setter," though, as you shop the soon-to-be- saturated platesetting market, advises Dan Baker, president and CEO of Printware, makers of the PlateStream platesetter line, which images paper- or polyester-backed silver halide plates.

"Logically, there will be some consolidation and weeding out of platesetting products that have a very small or no installed base," Baker cautions. "Customers are looking for solutions that have credibility in the marketplace, that have been proven in real-world applications and are actually producing beyond the launch."

Think the platesetter market is at its peak—with systems from Agfa, BARCO, Creo, Cymbolic, ECRM, Fujifilm, Heidelberg Prepress, Krause, Optronics, PrePRESS Solutions, Presstek, Printware, Purup-Eskofot, Screen, Scitex, XANTÉ and others?

Think again.

As the industry approaches the IPEX exhibition in Birmingham, England, next month and Graph Expo in Chicago this October, a rush of new platesetters will add a few fresh tunes to the digital output hit parade.

  • Listen for new launches in the midsized platesetter market—with high-end, fully automated, eight-up devices taking their place at the top of the spectrum.

  • Look out for more thermal platesetting announcements (keep an ear out for launches from Scitex and Screen, as well as from the now Gerber-bolstered BARCO Graphics).

  • Watch the players! Pay close attention to new OEM agreements.


Most recently Agfa's agreement to market Krause America's LaserStar 140 and LaserStar 170 platesetters has captured some attention. This move brings a great deal of PDF power to the Krause line—as Agfa's Apogee workflow is perhaps the best friend to date of Adobe's Portable Document Format. Also, take notice of the marketing efforts of Fujifilm, as it brings technologies from Cymbolic Sciences and Screen to the market. Plus the ongoing technological initiatives of the Heidelberg/Creo alliance should prove for interesting moves in digital platemaking.

Recently, Creo qualified Fujifilm's Brillia LH-NI thermal plate, which brings the number of plates now qualified for use on Creo and Heidelberg/Creo thermal platesetters to five.

Fujifilm is also currently selling Cymbolic Sciences' (CSI) PlateJet4 and PlateJet8 series of platesetters. The manual CSI devices are said to provide a reasonable price point, unlike many fully automated devices. The PlateJet series can run both aluminum plates or graphic arts film without modification or retrofitting the equipment—offering a smooth transition from computer-to-film to computer-to-plate workflows.

"It makes the jump from one technology to the other far less treacherous," asserts Allen Dunn, senior product development manager for electronic imaging at Fujifilm. "CSI and Fujifilm have done a great deal of work optimizing the quality of our Fuji plate with the PlateJet imagers."

At the fall shows, Agfa will profile its eight-up Galileo and Antares 1600, the latter being a member of Agfa's newly launched Antares family. In its U.S. launch, the manual version of the 1064nm thermal Galileo will take a prominent position in the Agfa booth, alongside the fully automated version of the green-laser Galileo. The eight-up Antares 1600 is designed for commercial printers that need an eight-up format to match current press parameters. It can image 12 full-size plates per hour at 2,000 dpi with a semiautomatic loading system.

"The key factor, with the platesetter market now maturing, is the delivery on the promise of automation—and the freedom of choice in implementing that automation," explains Steve Musselman, marketing manager for CTP and imagesetting systems at Agfa. "The two greatest demands are for full automation and simplicity; these will be the deciding factors that will, in all probability, cause some of the current devices on the market to be weeded out of the marketplace by DRUPA 2000."

For now, Graph Expo will serve as the U.S. launching pad for a variety of platesetter contenders, namely a new launch from Scitex America.

At Graph Expo, Scitex will formally introduce its entire Lotem family. The Lotem 800V thermal platesetter will lead the fold, which includes both four-up and VLF devices sporting new software tricks like editable front-and-back preview for signatures and plate store applications for convenient file management.

"Users seek reliability, ease of use and cost-effective designs. They want semiautomatic loading systems, from entry-level platesetters designed for four-up sheetfed applications to more sophisticated eight-up formats," reports Stan Najmr, product line manager at Scitex America.

The Lotem 800V is a thermal platesetting device with a multi-beam, continuously variable resolution, thermal imaging head that can accommodate plate sizes up to 44.5x35.4˝. Likewise, look for thermal platesetter product launches from Screen (USA) and continued thermal enhancements to the Gerber platesetter line from BARCO Graphics.

Screen's Phil Kane, vice president of sales, reports the manufacturer of the fully automated PI-R1080 PlateRite digital device will launch a semiautomatic, external drum, thermal platesetter this fall, designed specifically for the eight-up commercial market.

The front end of this new thermal device will sport TaigaSPACE functionality, but still allow for open interfacing with RIPs from Adobe, Harlequin, Rampage, Xitron and others.

"The market is exploding, with a number of open devices targeted at the midsized platesetter market, some with a thermal technology focus," Kane explains. "Our new thermal system will be a replacement for the eight-page imagesetter, allowing Screen to cover a greater gamut of the platesetter market."

Obviously, Scitex, Screen and the new owner of Gerber's Crescent technology, BARCO Graphics, are banking on the momentum of thermal devices to continue. (This is thanks, in large part, to the Creo/Kodak marketing machine that pushed thermal CTP into the commercial prepress marketplace virtually three years ago.)

At that time, the selection of thermal platemakers was sparse, to say the least. Most of the attention went to Vancouver-based Creo Products, as it set the stage for the rise of the thermal platesetter.

Presstek, for one, launched an expandable, press-matched thermal CTP platesetter, PEARLsetter, which is available in two models. The PEARLsetter52 is an oversized, two-page version and the PEARLsetter74 is capable of imaging four-up plates.

Sandy Fuhs, marketing manager at Presstek—reporting more than 3,000 thermal imagers in the market—explains why the thermal innovator is, so far, opting not to offer an eight-up format.

"We don't want to simply offer a 'me too' product. We haven't gone after the eight-page market; instead, we'd like to concentrate on supplying thermal CTP plates to all of these manufacturers' customers," Fuhs reports. "The cleanest way to do this is not to compete head-to-head in the same markets. Therefore, Presstek has diversified its thermal platesetting capabilities into smaller, more focused applications."

BARCO Graphics, itself the manufacturer of the eight-up Litho-SetterIII and LithoSetterV flatbed devices, is approaching the thermal market with the four-up Crescent32 and eight-up Crescent42 internal-drum platesetters, offered originally from Gerber Systems. Both Crescent models can be equipped with an optional Escort autoloader and can be upgraded for thermal plate imaging using 1064nm IR-sensitive plates.

IPEX marks the first show for the combined BARCO and Gerber CTP technologies, all under the BARCO banner. The company will have two booths at IPEX, with LithoSetter and Crescent technologies virtually commanding an entire booth, reports Johann Rommelaere, marketing manager for the printing systems division at BARCO Graphics. "We continue to have both lines, with LithoSetters positioned as the platesetter for fully unattended operation and the Gerber devices offering a semiautomated alternative," Rommelaere explains.

And what of Creo?

Now strongly teaming with Heidelberg Prepress, Creo offers a field of thermal platesetting models: the Trendsetter 3244, Trendsetter 3230, Platesetter 3244, Trendsetter AL and Trendsetter Spectrum. Also from Creo are the VLF Trendsetter for very large-format applications and the ThermoFlex for the packaging market.

The Heidelberg/Creo platesetter family is based on a common core technology: external-drum architecture with interchangeable imaging heads, and thermal and visible light. Heidelberg/Creo output devices can image plates from 13x15.5˝ to 58x80˝ to accommodate virtually any press size. All Trendsetter products feature fully automated plate loading and automatic compensation, without operator intervention, for a full range of plate sizes. Increased automation is found in the Trendsetter AL, which automatically loads, images and unloads up to 25 plates.

Heidelberg and Creo officials currently see thermal CTP innovations as the most competitive area in the platesetting market. Obviously, this is no great revelation—as Creo aggressively introduced thermal CTP technology at DRUPA 1995.

Still, Creo Vice President Dave Brown emphasizes that there is more to platesetting systems than just their thermal characteristics.

"Every printer is different, so one of the most competitive components of the platesetter marketplace is the ability to create a system to suit almost every workflow process, data volume and automation level," he explains. "Customers want maximum flexibility in configuring their CTP environments."

For the flexibility factor, Creo and Heidelberg Prepress have teamed to make Trendsetters and Platesetters upgradeable, with options such as the Trendsetter AL with auto load. The two technology providers are also friendly about one another's digital workflow solutions: DeltaTechnology from Heidelberg Prepress and iMPAct from Creo. Both solutions are being used in PDF workflows.

Creo and Heidelberg are also working together on the next generation of digital workflow tools to hit the platesetter market. "With the continually increasing performance of computers and servers, fully digital workflows are now a reality," states Axel Zoeller, marketing director for Heidelberg Prepress.

The Heidelberg executive notes how RIPs are handling data at speeds that were not even considered five years ago. In addition, the combination of hardware and software platforms available today is reducing the need for proprietary systems, which were designed a decade ago to cope with limited computer power and storage.

Now, the other alternatives...

ECRM's Advance Image Recorder, the AIR75, has a multi-beam, internal-drum design that optimizes imaging and overall plate handling performance. AIR75's blue argon-ion laser can expose most of the industry's currently available digital metal plates. Also equipped with auto loading, AIR75 exposes photopolymer or silver emulsion plates at a range of resolutions from 1,016 dpi to 2,540 dpi with 0.001˝ repeatability.

The Panther FasTRAK metal platesetting system from PrePRESS Solutions is designed for rigorous production of aluminum printing plates from sizes as small as 12x15˝ up to 24.6x36˝. Currently the unit is registering dozens of installations worldwide, in commercial printing plants and newspapers.

At Optronics, platesetting attention remains focused on Aurora technology and the ALS external-drum digital platesetter, which features argon ion or optical YAG laser. They are capable of imaging plates as large as 35.4x44.5˝ at resolutions from 1,000 dpi to 4,000 dpi. ALS provides automatic loading and unloading. All feature Optronics' Color Production System (CPS), an integrated set of software and hardware to maximize plate output.

Turning to Krause America, marketing attention is going to the eight-up LaserStar LS110, an internal-drum device that exposes printing plates and film.

Krause's Tim Kohl, technical sales support manager for North America, reports that the makers of the LaserStar LS140 fully automated system are also firmly committed to PDF functionality (hence the firm's linking with Agfa for marketing of Krause's platesetting technologies) and thermal technology. For instance, all LaserStar LS110 units are thermal upgradeable in the field.

Krause has introduced its second generation 1064 thermal exposure head, which will premiere at Graph Expo, for the LaserStar. The new head will expose plates substantially faster than the current 1064 thermal heads. Krause has increased the imaging power of the laser to improve exposure time. Krause plans to have several of the new 1064 thermal LaserStar platesetters installed by year-end.

"The benchmarks for the next generation of digital platesetters is being set: PDF functionality and thermal integrity," Kohl reports.

At Xanté, attention rests on the PlateMaker 3, which prints plates, plain paper or film at 1,200x1,200 dpi standard or 2,400x2,400 dpi optional. PlateMaker 3 features a true Adobe PostScript 3 page-description language and is driven by a NEC VR 4300 133MHz processor. Standard configuration includes a 10 ppm engine speed and 64MB RAM.

As if all the above views and activities on the digital platesetter front weren't enough to support the contention that the market is headed for continued growth, there is yet another new, aggressive platesetting player on the court.

The basysPrint CTcP (computer-to-conventional plate) digital-UV platesetter can image any brand of conventional offset plate, film or UV-sensitive proofing materials. However, when a Citiplate dual photopolymer-coated AQUA LHP plate is imaged, digital imaging and exposure times are up to 80 percent faster than with standard, single-emulsion conventional plates.

Expect the next wave of platesetters poised to hit the prepress market to carry automation to even higher levels, especially for the commercial printer looking to ride the CTP wave—whether thermal or non-thermal, four-up or eight-up. The store is open, but don't count on cutting many coupons.
 

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