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DIGITAL PLATES & PLATESETTERS -- Two Steps Forward

August 2002
BY MARK SMITH


Advancing the capabilities of computer-to-plate (CTP) systems requires plate and platesetter manufacturers to perform a tricky little digital two-step. The pair's timing has to be just right since each half of the CTP solution is useless without the other. While the platesetter may represent a much larger initial investment, the plate really does the leading because of its broader impact on the success of a CTP implementation.

As a whole, the printing industry hasn't been content to just dance with the ones (technologies) that brought it to the party. Thermal imaging barely had its coming out before people were looking ahead to processless plates—first ablative and now onto "debris-free" technologies. With violet imaging, the potential to change plate partners from silver halide to photopolymer has been promoted from the start to blunt some criticism of the technology.

Looking ahead to developments in the pipeline does have its place, so long as this doesn't blind potential adopters to the opportunities afforded by today's solutions. The current generation of no-bake thermal plates already has greatly simplified that CTP workflow, and the industry is well practiced in dealing with silver-based processes like the existing violet CTP systems.

The highly competitive nature of the market does demand that shops also plan for the future, however. Even if lease terms for prepress equipment often are as short as 36 months, that's still a long time to be a wallflower looking on as new technology partners start calling the tune. Of course, a new technology has to actually make it to market for that to occur eventually. That's just part of why trying to figure out what's reasonable to expect often comes down to making a best guess.

Great Expectations

Product development cycles are notoriously difficult to project even for those doing the work, and there can be varying levels of availability. In the case of plates, a product announcement may precede or coincide with beta testing, which typically is followed by a period of controlled sales before full commercialization. It's not uncommon for issues to arise as manufacturing is scaled up from pilot production to a full-speed, high-volume plate line, which can impact availability.

Past articles in Printing Impressions have covered commercially available plates and platesetters, so the focus of this one is on the latest information about the other announced CTP products or technologies.

As was noted earlier, the current generation of violet systems require use of a faster, silver halide-based emulsion because of the relatively low level of power delivered to the plate by 5mW laser diodes. Violet-sensitive photopolymer plates hold the promise of eliminating silver from the process, along with other benefits. However, the slower emulsion requires the use of a 30mW diode for the process to be practical.

The first plate and platesetter products in this latter category were announced more than one year ago, but the technology still is not commercially available in the United States. For their part, platesetter manufacturers say achieving that status is just a formality, and they are just waiting on compatible plates.

The Fujifilm Brillia LP-NV violet-sensitive, photopolymer plate will be commercially available in the fourth quarter of 2002, says Jim Crawford, group manager of output media for the Graphic Systems division of Fuji Photo Film U.S.A. in Itasca, IL. "Initially, LP-NV will primarily support our Saber violet platesetter model, but qualifications will also be performed for other vendors' violet platesetters."

For another manufacturer, the DiamondPlate LV-1 photopolymer violet-light plate will be available for continued beta testing through 2002, reports Kathy May, marketing manager for Western Lithotech, a Lastra Group company, in St. Louis. "Commercialization is expected in the first quarter of 2003."

The platesetter manufacturers promise they'll be ready to meet those dates.

Powering Up Violet

"Our Prosetter violet diode platesetter was engineered to be field upgraded to the 30mW laser when it makes sense. It will make sense to do so when the plate technology is available," says Mark Tonkovich, CTP product manager for Heidelberg USA in Kennesaw, GA.

"In the lab, we have successfully operated a 30mW version of our PlateDriver platesetter," notes Kjeld Moselund, manager of commercial printing in the product marketing department of Esko-Graphics in Gent, Belgium. "Esko-Graphics is ready to supply printers with platesetters capable of imaging photopolymer. However, at this point, there are no plates released in the marketplace." (The PlateDriver features the OptoLink optical system that is designed to allow for swapping between a range of laser sources in the field.)

As for the other half of Fuji's solution, the fully automatic Saber Luxel V-9600 and Luxel Vx-9600 CTP systems will be commercially available (in the U.S.) in September 2002, according to Peter Vanderlaan, product development manager, electronic imaging/hardware. The manual and semi-automatic versions of the Saber Luxel Vx-9600 CTP, along with the four-page Luxel Vx-6000, will be commercially available here in the fourth quarter, Vanderlaan adds.

While it continues to explore a range of new technologies, Agfa remains focused on silver-halide technology in both its plate and platesetter violet-sensitive product lines, reports Susan Wittner, marketing director at Agfa Graphic Systems in Ridgefield Park, NJ.

A key reason is because the technology is currently available and operating successfully in the marketplace. "We will, in fact, be introducing an update to our silver violet plate called Lithostar Ultra, but no timetable has been announced," points out Wittner.

Even though it expanded into the business more than two years ago, it's understandable if Heidelberg isn't the first name people think of when it comes to consumables. The company's focus is on bundled sales, typically with financial incentives for tying a long-term consumables contract into an equipment acquisition, explains Rick Boggess, director of consumables for Heidelberg USA in Kennesaw, GA. Many Heidelberg-branded consumables are designed and developed to match its equipment specifications, he says, but in other cases it resells a manufacturer's existing product.

Silver Holds its Value

The latter is the case with the Saphira silver halide, violet-sensitive plate the company introduced recently, but it also offers—on an exclusive basis—a non-ablative thermal material for on-press imaging by the Speedmaster 74DI press, Boggess points out.

"We are committed to aggressively expanding our consumables portfolio to include products such as processless, non-ablative thermal; photopolymer violet; and other plate technologies. Full commercialization of the processless plate should come in the fourth quarter of this calendar year, with the photopolymer violet product to follow in the first quarter of 2003," he projects.

According to Heidelberg's Tonkovich, it's not at all clear that photopolymer plates will be a replacement for silver halide once the technology hits the market. Silver-halide emulsions support higher resolutions than photopolymer, he points out, which can be important for applications such as stochastic screening. Photopolymer stands up better to aggressive printing applications, such as UV inks, and can be post-treated for added durability, the product manager adds.

Mitsubishi Imaging in Rye, NY, with its Silver Digiplate Alpha System, is the other manufacturer currently offering a silver-halide, violet-sensitive plate.

Losing a Step or Two

Swinging over to processless plate technology also means changing partners to thermal imaging and chiefly 830nm systems, at least so far.

A cleaning step with water prevents Hudson, NH-based Presstek from calling its currently available Anthem ablative plate a fully processless product. However, it has announced a processless material—called Applause—that is not expected to enter beta testing until the first quarter of 2003, according to John O'Rourke, marketing director of digital media. The product consists of a ceramic layer vacuum deposited onto a polyester base which, in turn, can be laminated onto aluminum for added strength.

During imaging, the thermal laser is said to completely ablate the ceramic material in the image area, so no washing is required. Plates are prepped for printing by the makeready cycle of a conventional (water-dampened) offset press.

O'Rourke reports the manufacturer also is working on a new entry in the Anthem product family that the industry can expect to hear more about in the Graph Expo & Converting Expo 2002 time frame.

Earlier this year, the current Anthem plate was qualified for use on the Creo Trendsetter Quantum thermal platesetter product line. The plate previously had been certified only for use on Presstek's own Dimension product family.

Creo Inc., in Burnaby, Canada, continues to assert that it is committed to the development of thermal imaging technology exclusively. Image quality is one of the benefits touted by the manufacturer, and reportedly is enhanced by its SQUAREspot thermal imaging heads. According to Creo, the technology is an enabler of FM (frequency modulated) screening with very small dots. It has announced support of 10-micron spots with its Staccato FM screening software. Benefits of the technology are said to include improved color stability on-press, reduced need for use of spot colors, and elimination of halftone rosettes and resulting screening moiré.

The consensus of opinion among other plate manufacturers seems to be that non-ablative technologies hold more promise for processless solutions. Agfa actually brought an ablative plate, called Mistral, to the point of controlled sales before deciding "not to expand" its development of the technology, Wittner says. "We have been developing a variety of processless plates and have found that a non-ablative, processless CTP technology is the best solution for the marketplace," she explains. "At IPEX (the international printing exhibition held in April), we announced plans to develop a processless plate that leverages our success with the Thermolite on-press imaging technology."

Similarly, Fuji Photo Film has formally announced one processless plate material, Brillia LD-NS, but it is designed for on-press imaging applications, Crawford points out. It is undergoing beta testing at this time, he adds. Beyond that, "processless plate technologies should continue to evolve, albeit slowly," the group manager believes.

Works in Progress

Norwalk, CT-based Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG) brought a wall display of processless technologies to IPEX and is planning a similar presentation for Graph Expo, reports Bruce Davidson, business manager for U.S. and Canada, plates and film. "We continue to work on that technology, but are being quite conservative in bringing it to market," Davidson reveals. "We want to get to a plate that is not ablative, so it doesn't require any special kind of debris collection on the platesetter. Since it will be a product for on-press and off-line imaging applications, we obviously also want a technology that doesn't cause any issues when the plate is developed on-press."

Davidson says it is critical that the product be robust and consistent, which means a rigorous commercialization process is required. "I'm very optimistic that we will be able to begin beta testing in the fall, and I would expect to see this product commercialized in 2003."

On a different front, Kodak Polychrome Graphics recently made a move into thermal platesetter sales through an agreement with ECRM Imaging Systems. KPG's United States and Canada region operations will be a primary sales and marketing channel for ECRM's line of DesertCat four- and eight-page, thermal CTP systems.

Although not processless, one of the more distinctive new thermal plate introductions would have to be the Prisma Steel bimetal product from Printing Developments Inc. (PDI) in Racine, WI. The bimetal plate, with a copper surface and stainless-steel base, is designed to withstand harsh printing conditions and is targeted to metal decorators, in particular. The no-bake plate is said to be currently undergoing certification to run on Creo and other platesetters.

Processless technology of a different sort has been talked about by basysPrint in Fairburn, GA. The company says its UV-Setter line of computer-to-conventional-plate (CTcP) platesetters can be used to expose the DirectPrint high-speed UV, on-press developing conventional plate from Kodak Polychrome Graphics.

While the plate is commercially available, KPG's Davidson classifies the combination as being in the evaluation phase and he points out that limited quantities of the DirectPrint plate have been sold for any applications in the U.S. He adds that run lengths are dependent on the exposure energy applied to the material.

The latest upgrade from basysPrint may help to answer that concern, since its new ">>f generation" of imaging technology uses a stronger (850-watt) UV lamp. The "f" stand for fast, since imaging speed reportedly has been nearly doubled in part because of the lamp. These models also feature an imaging unit with an increased number of individual mirrors (nearly 1.3 million) on a Digital Micromirror Device (DMD) that directs the light to the plate. The technology is available across the manufacturer's platesetter line.

Different takes on digital exposure of conventional plates are starting to crop up, too. Having previously said it planned to introduce its own platesetter, plate manufacturer Citiplate Inc., of Roslyn Heights, NY, instead announced an agreement with Escher-Grad Technologies to co-market a version of the latter's Cobalt eight-up, internal-drum platesetter capable of imaging the high-speed, UV-sensitive Citiplate Aqua LHP plate. Citiplate reportedly is exploring similar arrangements with other equipment manufacturers. Montreal-based Escher Grad also has announced a 30mW violet laser diode version of its platesetter.

Esko-Graphics is another potential player in the market, having demonstrated its Dicon flatbed system by invitation only at IPEX. The "engineering prototype" uses a single imaging head to expose conventional UV-sensitive plates. No timetable has been announced for the product's development.

Ink-jet imaging of plates is a distinctive twist on the process that for years has been talked about, and not much more. Nashua, NH-based Pisces Inc. is looking to change that situation, at least in the small commercial printer and in-plant segments. Its JetPlate system, built on the Epson 3000 print engine, can image conventional UV-sensitive aluminum plates in sizes to 18x25˝. A separate plate processor is required.

Given that many of the new product announcements mentioned here were made at the IPEX trade show, it's probably safe to assume manufacturers are targeting the Graph Expo & Converting Expo 02 exhibition when they cite "fourth quarter" and "by the end of the year" projections. Slated to run October 6-9 at McCormick Place South in Chicago, the event should provide an excellent opportunity to make a first-hand assessment of the current state of developments in CTP technology.
 

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