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DIGITAL PLATESETTERS -- Growing by Twos and Fours

January 2004

Technology Editor

The size of a shop's presses used to be seen as saying something about the sophistication of its operations. Today, half-size and smaller presses are just as likely as full-size machines to boast sophisticated computer controls, digital interfaces and other automation features.

While the trend toward shorter runs may play to the strengths of these presses, print buyers don't want to make any compromises in color, quality or service. Therefore, small- to mid-size printers have come under increased pressure to be technologically competitive throughout their shops. For a growing number, a critical step has been adopting computer-to-plate production with a metal platesetter supporting a two- or four-page format.

Marcus Printing, based in Holyoke, MA, has already made the move...twice. Owner Susan Goldsmith reports experiencing a variety of problems with the shop's first platesetter after having it slightly more than a year. She decided it was time to switch platesetters and manufacturers.

Find a Comfort Level

In 2002, the company installed an Agfa Palladio plate-setter, which is a four-up, flatbed machine using violet-laser imaging. Goldsmith says the deciding factors included a comfort level with the proven technology, the improved workflow that came with the system, and the ability to rely on one supplier for equipment, plates, chemicals and technical support. Also, she believed going with violet imaging would save the company money.

"We do a lot of makereadies in a day, so we needed an automated, reliable and fast CTP solution," Goldsmith adds. Marcus Printing produces a range of printed products in runs of 500 to 100,000 impressions, she notes.

The company falls squarely into the small- to mid-size printer category that Agfa sees as the target market for the Palladio. It is a fully automated system, including plate loading and slip sheet removal, with an in-line processor. A special media cassette keeps 50 plates online for unattended operation. The platesetter is designed to image Agfa Lithostar Ultra-V (silver-halide) plates at 1,200, 2,400 or 3,000 dpi using Agfa Balanced Screening. It handles plate sizes from 11x17.72˝ up to 25x29.68˝.

Agfa also offers the Galileo VS 4 (four-up) violet-laser platesetter. The internal-drum device is available in fully- and semi-automatic configurations. It images LithoStar Ultra plates in sizes from 14.5x17.72˝ to 26.61x29.33˝ and supports Agfa Balanced Screening and CristalRaster stochastic screening.

In his role as president of Pony X Press Printing Services in Reynoldsburg, OH, Gene Scott looks to develop capabilities and technologies that can set the company apart from the competition. For a time, that drive even led the mid-size shop (29 employees) to implement waterless printing. "We've always wanted to differentiate our company by printing higher line screens," Scott notes.

A problem popped up when the shop tried to go digital, though. "We couldn't get the digital waterless plates to hold the line screens we wanted, which is 300 lpi," the company exec explains.

The solution: abandon waterless printing. Since it already was familiar with Presstek Inc. from having used its waterless plates, Pony X Press checked out the manufacturer's digital plate offerings. That research led it to using Anthem plates imaged by a Creo Trendsetter 400 thermal platesetter. The shop later became a beta test site for the Presstek Applause plate.

Acquiring the platesetter (in July of 2000) also afforded the company an opportunity to explore Staccato stochastic screening, according to Scott. "We liked it well enough to switch to Staccato as our standard screening (except on its 12x18˝ Ryobi Itek press)," he says. "Staccato on the Anthem plates at 240 lpi looks as good as waterless printing at 300 lpi."

Along with Staccato screening, other options available with the external drum-based Trendsetter include automatic loading/unloading, Spectrum halftone proofing, a choice of imaging speeds and support of processless plates.

Creo also offers four-up configurations in its Lotem series of thermal platesetters. The Lotem 400 is positioned as a cost-effective entry-level system, while the Lotem 400 Quantum can be configured as a fully automatic system for high-volume plate production.

Albeit for different reasons, plate preferences also were a major factor in the platesetter buying decision at Tuttle Lithography in Madison, WI, reveals Norm Tuttle, owner and president. For one, the company didn't want to get into a situation of having to pre- or post-bake plates, he says.

"Also, we already were using Fuji conventional plates and, on-press, its digital plates ran basically the same with no adjustments in water or ink," Tuttle adds.

The company was starting from scratch when it went digital in early 2003. It previously had no prepress capabilities to speak of, except the ability to make plates from film. Tuttle opted to take a big leap forward by installing a Fujifilm Dart Luxel T6000 thermal platesetter (a four-up device) and Fujifilm PictroProof color proofer, both driven by an Artwork Systems front end.

Even though the shop's move to CTP production started with the plate, Tuttle says he didn't want to get locked into one plate/platesetter combination. "It (the Dart) is not a proprietary machine. We're able to look at other plates as they come on the market," he notes.

Available from Enovation Graphic Systems, the Dart is an external drum platesetter that supports resolutions from 1,219 to 3,657 dpi. It is available in semi- and fully-automatic configurations. The company also is currently distributing the ECRM Mako 2 (two-up) and Mako (four-up) violet-laser platesetters.

At Drupa 2004, Fujifilm plans to introduce its own four-up violet platesetter in the Saber product family, reports Peter Vanderlaan, group manager, E.I. Output Products, Enovation Graphic Systems. The all-new Saber V-6 four-page device will be offered in manual, semi-automatic and fully-automatic configurations, Vanderlaan says.

Manchester, NH-based Keystone Press is an ECRM Mako 2 user. Owner George Stinson says he looked into buying a platesetter from the manufacturer because of the solid industry reputation it had established with its imagesetters.

Stinson was also sold on the benefits of the system. "The software package with in-RIP trapping provides us with the controls we need, and the price was very competitive," he explains. "We decided to use the Agfa (LithoStar Ultra) plates because we felt it was important to go with an industry leader as we entered the unknown world of using digital plates along side conventional plates."

The Mako 2 handles plate sizes from 10x10˝ up to 22x26.4˝, and offers seven output resolutions from 1,200 to 3,556 dpi. It can be configured with a 5mW violet laser for imaging silver-halide plates, or a 30mW laser to support photo-polymer plates. The Mako 4 has the same specifications, except it can handle plate sizes from 10x15˝ up to 25.4x36.5˝.

ECRM also offers the DesertCat 44 system for imaging thermal plates (830nm) and digital halftone proofing materials. It exposes plate sizes from 10x15˝ up to 25.4x32.7˝ at 2,400 or 2,540 dpi.

Envision Printing in Marietta, GA, was an early adopter of CTP-based production in a two-page format, but installation of a half-size press meant trading up to a four-page device. The six-year-old company has been on a fast growth path, with its sales rising more than 40 percent in each of the last two years. The shop currently employs 12 people.

Envision first installed a Heidelberg MO V four-color press, then added a six-color Speedmaster 74 perfector with coater. Next, in 2002, came a Heidelberg Prosetter 74 violet-laser platesetter to image Saphira silver-halide plates.

Back to Good Experiences

Owner Pat MacBride says he researched most of the CTP systems on the market before deciding to invest in violet technology. "I'm not one to gamble with that amount of money," he explains. "We'd had a good experience with other Heidelberg equipment and knew they would really support this new technology (violet CTP). Thermal is a good product and, for certain shops, may even be a better option, but our analysis indicated that the maintenance requirements and costs were greater."

MacBride doesn't consider dealing with a silver-based process to be a big issue. He says he's been hearing about higher wattage violet lasers for imaging photo-polymer plates since buying the system, but "it was always coming in six months."

Heidelberg recently did introduce a 30mW violet laser for the Prosetter family (which also includes the two-page Prosetter 2), and added a Single Cassette Loader option for automated operation.

The manufacturer also offers the Topsetter P 74 thermal platesetter for imaging plate sizes from 12.8x14.5˝ up to 25.9x32.7˝. The external drum machine is available in configurations from semi- to fully-automatic.

Size factored into the choice of platesetter at Charter Printing in Alexandria, VA, but in this case it was the dimensions of the unit itself. Ray Whalen, vice president of operations, says his company started out by researching all of the options and running test plates.

"Basically, they all work pretty well. That led us to consider the footprint of the device and supporting equipment, consumable requirements, ease of operation and the amount of servicing we could actually do internally, as well as the level of service we could expect from the manufacturer," he reports.

Since the Presstek Dimension 400 platesetter that Charter installed uses ablative technology, it requires a small footprint and doesn't need a temperature-controlled processor or chemistry, Whalen points out. Imaged plates only require a plain water rinse.

"This was a good choice all the way around—for our employees and for the environment, as well as the cost to produce a plate," he says.

The printer has been running the platesetter and Anthem plates for more than two years, and is now looking to expand its capabilities by installing a Dimension 800 eight-page model. "Due to the solid performance history of the 400, we are looking at a refurbished model. We are confident that the 800 will perform as well as our current machine. It uses the same technology," Whalen notes.

Presstek also offers the Dimension 200, which handles plates sizes from 9.448x9.448˝ up to 20x21˝. The Dimension 400's maximum plate size is 26.771x30.708˝. Both offer a 2,540-dpi imaging resolution and are engineered to image Presstek's chemistry-free, thermal-ablative plates in a daylight-safe operation.

At Graph Expo 2003, Presstek and A.B.Dick announced an OEM partnership to introduce a new CTP system—the Vector 52 two-page (20x21˝) metal platesetter and Freedom chemistry-free, thermal plates.

The platesetter features a 2,540-dpi resolution and semi-automatic plate loading. The plates are designed for run lengths of less than 25,000 impressions and reportedly use a chemistry-free, "sub-ablative" process that requires no debris removal system in the platesetter. The image is revealed by a special water wash unit.

Like some of the other companies already profiled, Dallas-based MetroWeb settled on a plate first in making the move to digital production, says Roderick Bentham, preproduction operations manager. "We were looking for a plate that we also could still expose conventionally from film, so we wouldn't need to have two different processors when we added the platesetter," he explains.

Going for the Gold

The printer ended up switching to the Thermal Gold plate from Kodak Polychrome Graphics about two years ago but, for internal reasons, didn't install a platesetter until March of 2003. "We run UV inks on all of our presses, which is very hard on plates, so we were looking for a sturdy product," Bentham says. "That is a big part of what drove us to thermal technology."

MetroWeb ultimately decided to install a PlateRite 4300 thermal platesetter from Screen (USA). Since the 65-employee shop doesn't staff its prepress department 24/7, automation was a primary factor, Bentham reports.

"We opted for the configuration with a multi-format, multi-cassette MA-L autoloader," he says. "It will hold three different plate sizes and automatically load the appropriate format for the job. All four of our presses are Didde VIP variable webs (to support direct mail and statement printing), so we regularly run four different plate sizes. If we preload the sizes they are going to be running, our night shift and weekend supervisors are able to make their own plates."

Bentham liked the idea of being able to get a platesetter and front end (Trueflow) from a single manufacturer. And while it wasn't a factor in the buying decision, he says the company has also implemented Screen's Spekta hybrid screening.

Beating External Drums

Screen (USA) positions the PlateRite 4300 as a CTP solution for shops with two- and four-page presses, but actually calls it a six-page (26x32.7˝) machine. The Plate-Rite 4100 is an entry-level solution available with a SA-L 4100 single-cassette autoloader. Both are external drum machines with an auto-balance feature to support different plate sizes and an automatic in-line punch system.

There are a couple of other metal platesetting systems with distinctive features that half-size shops may also want to consider when making the move to CTP-based production.

Esko-Graphics offers the Plate-Driver 4, which features the option to field upgrade among a choice of lasers and to an eight-up (31.5x42.3˝) format. The internal drum machine's imaging system can be configured with violet (30mW), thermal (1,064nm), FD-Yag or argon-ion lasers. It supports a maximum plate size of 26.8x31˝ and a range of resolutions up to 3,200 dpi.

The company also offers the PlateDriver HS, a higher speed violet imaging system for exposing photopolymer or silver-halide plates, and the PlateDriver QPS 4, a cost-effective version for imaging silver-halide violet plates.

Bridging the analog and digital worlds, basysPrint offers a family of flatbed digital platesetters that can image conventional offset printing plates and proofing materials with sensitivities in the 360nm to 450nm range. The UV-Setter 57 and the UV-Setter 57-f handle materials up to 27x37˝ and operate in daylight conditions with a choice of semi- or fully-automatic plate loading. Imaging at up to 1,500 dpi is achieved by directing UV light onto a Digital Micro-mirror Device (DMD), which for the faster "f-generation" model contains nearly 1.3 million tiny mirrors.

Since the focus here is on metal CTP systems, that obviously precludes considering the other option available in the half-size and smaller market—imaging polyester plates. That deserves to be the subject of its own article.


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