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From Clean Slate to Direct-to-plate

August 1998
Selling printing has always been a challenge, but never more so than today. Not only is there significant competition in every market segment, but arcane issues such as gamut limitations and color reproduction can make the press sheet seem like a compromise compared to the proof.

Name: McCord Printing
Location: Dallas
Employees: 90
Annual Sales: $13 million
Key Markets: Advertising agencies, corporate work.
One commercial printer has found a solution to this problem: going direct-to-plate. McCord Printing installed an Agfa Galileo computer-to-plate (CTP) system.

"We no longer have to sell 'down' from the proof or tell the customer that's as close as we can get to the proof," explains Mickey Ashlock, vice president and co-owner. "Now, we can sell 'up' from the proof."

And McCord is now able to produce jobs more quickly—an important consideration even in the high-end commercial sheetfed arena as clients try to reduce cycle times. "Our approach in promoting this to our customers is that it enables us to turn their jobs faster and with higher quality," says co-owner Jim Singer.

While the two partners had thoroughly researched CTP, it was only when they performed a press test that they realized how much digital platesetting improves the printed product. "It's one thing to talk about eliminating film, but when you see the results on-press, it's incredible," attests Ashlock. "We can push our ink densities about 20 percent and still hold the dot!"

While researching CTP systems, McCord compared the Galileo with systems from Creo Products, Cymbolic Sciences and Scitex. And though all four systems generate outstanding quality plates and press sheets, it concluded that the Galileo's automation features could produce plates more efficiently.

With a five-color, 40˝ Heidelberg Speedmaster 102, a six-color, 29˝ Speedmaster 74 and a GTO gobbling up between 400 and 500 plates a week, this was a critical consideration. In addition, while the pressroom operates around the clock, the digital prepress department has only four employees.

To enable McCord to make plates without interruption, its Galileo is configured with the PlateManager option that holds up to 400 plates of various sizes in four cassettes. On the back side, the Galileo is directly connected to an on-line processor to facilitate a completely automatic and unattended workflow.

During one recent peak production period, the Galileo produced 22 plates in 80 minutes—including plotting and processing. The Galileo's high productivity benefits from the tight coupling between the plate type and imaging head. McCord is using Agfa Lithostar Plus plates, which use a silver-halide, diffusion-transfer coating, and the 532nm frequency-doubled YAG laser, which is upgradable.

This configuration supports screen rulings of up to 300 lpi (limited only by the plate) and images a 2,400-dpi, 200-lpi plate in four-and-a-half minutes.

Interestingly, the firm didn't have digital prepress capabilities at all as recently as 1996. However, Ashlock and Singer took advantage of this "clean slate" to start a digital prepress operation from scratch. With PostScript workflows mature, they jumped into the thick of it by installing an Agfa Avantra 44 eight-up imagesetter.

"We could have bought a two-up imagesetter, but that wasn't where we wanted to be," Ashlock recalls. "We bought the equipment for where we were going, so we got an Avantra 44 and learned imposition."

While some printers may question the wisdom of taking such a leap, the results have been remarkable: McCord has a total spoilage rate of about 1 percent of sales. The reason, Ashlock and Singer maintain, has more to do with communications than technology. McCord employs teams comprising members from each department to manage production, ensuring that the prepress department generates flats that meet the needs of both pressroom and bindery. "Our interdepartmental communication is excellent," Singer enthuses.

Similarly, they credit the person they recruited to manage the new department and system with its success. McCord hired Tonni Shaw, an electronic prepress veteran who had already mastered four-page workflows on an Agfa SelectSet 7000. "We let her run a company within the company," Ashlock confides.

In building up the new department, Shaw made sure the infra-structure would support the huge volumes of data that are inherent in fully digital imposed workflows. In addition to multiple Power Mac workstations to prep pages and flats, McCord installed a Digital Alpha 2500 file server connected to a 25GB RAID. For high-resolution imaging, it uses a Fuji-Crosfield 6250 drum scanner. All equipment is networked via Fast Ethernet (100Base-T) using three NuSwitch hubs to isolate heavy traffic.

McCord's prepress department backs up files onto DLT daily, while finished jobs are archived onto DAT tapes. Despite the popularity of CD-R media, Shaw says McCord uses DAT because it is considerably faster. "We go into the tapes a half-dozen times a day for pickups," she explains.

For digital proofing, McCord took the same empirical approach it used in choosing the Galileo platesetter. The firm tested just about every technology on the market, including DuPont Digital WaterProof, IRIS Realist, Kodak Approval, Polaroid PolaProof and even Creo's Trendsetter.

Shaw says McCord selected Digital WaterProof because of its excellent color calibration and matching capabilities. And, to make sure the bindery gets exactly what it needs for finishing, McCord installed a Gerber (BARCO) IMPress imposition proofer, which generates two-sided bluelines.

Some printers are worried about what clients say about digital proofing, but Ashlock is not concerned. "Most of the customers that I deal with are sophisticated and understand the nature of digital proofing," he says.

Further, since much of McCord's work consists of annual reports, brochures and sales collateral where "critical" color is the norm, Ashlock says that it's the press output that concerns clients the most. "They come to the press check and tweak it no matter what the proof looks like. With our new Galileo, we're able to print better than the proof."

McCord Printing wasted no time integrating the new platesetter into its workflow. After five weeks of testing on carefully selected jobs, the Galileo is being ramped up to full speed. "There's been a considerable drop in our film use," notes Shaw.

Shaw says the Galileo is creating new opportunities for McCord's salespeople, as the firm can now increase its line-screen rulings from 175 lpi to 200 lpi or even 225 lpi at the same resolution to produce more vivid images. If the resolution is bumped to 3,600 dpi, they can go even further. "The plates are so clean, we're able to enter new markets without being concerned about film-related optical diffusion," Shaw remarks.

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