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DIGITAL PLATE TECHNOLOGY -- Platemaking Loses a Step

August 2004
BY MARK SMITH

Technology Editor

At the risk of having this sound like yet another Drupa story, the quadrennial international exhibition traditionally has served as a status check for industry innovations. Developments in printing technology often are marked in "Drupa time"—such as the Digital Printing Drupa, CTP Drupa and, for this year's show, the JDF Drupa. The concentration of international vendors and worldwide attention given the event put pressure on exhibitors to show that they are keeping pace with each other.

While not as broad-based of a trend, 2004 also heralded the Processless Plate Drupa. This technology has been talked about for years, some might say prematurely. Even though it wasn't always the doing of plate manufacturers, that build up made it time for vendors to "put up or shut up" about this expected Holy Grail of process efficiency.

In the end, what Drupa 2004 showed is that processless plates are here—sort of. It should be noted that Presstek Inc. would rightfully argue that it eliminated the need for plate processing—in the conventional sense—years ago. What the industry was still awaiting, though, was mainstreaming of the technology in the form of product offerings from multiple vendors and compatibility with a broader array of platesetters.

A number of the plates that have been introduced are positioned as "chemistry-free" rather than being truly processless. They require some type of post-imaging process—such as water rinse, wiping or gumming—before going on-press.

Another caveat to the story is that several technologies are still yet to be commercialized. At Drupa, there were claims and counter claims made about which plates were commercial products, working solutions (in beta testing) or simply technology demonstrations (alpha or even pre-alpha).

See the Savings

Vendors generally make the same case for processless technology. Eliminating the need for a processor does away with the costs, maintenance hassles and process variables associated with this production step. It also saves space, simplifies the workflow and can have ecological benefits.

All of the plate manufacturers seem to see small- to mid-size printers as the primary target market, at least for the current generation of plates. The obvious reason is, while a few of the near-processless products claim to support run lengths of up to 100,000 impressions, most of the plates are rated for far fewer impressions.

In addition, users can expect to pay a premium for these products compared to other digital plates due to the newness of the technology and limited production. Smaller shops are considered more likely to be willing to make this tradeoff for the simpler operation and space savings. They are less likely, on a percentage basis, to already have a CTP solution in place that would have to be replaced in part or as a whole, thereby adding to the cost of adoption.
 

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