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IMAGESETTING VS. PLATESETTING -- Setting the Pace

February 2002
BY MARK SMITH


Just "to" it. With all due apologies to Nike, this play on its famous slogan seems to similarly capture the mood in the printing industry. Computer-to-plate (CTP) has become the hip, happening thing in the market. All the attention being paid to the technology makes it hard not to get the impression that everybody is to-ing it.

The hoopla also makes it easy to understand why film users can sound a bit defensive when asked about their decision to stick with the tried-and-true workflow. For this community, an equally apt anti-slogan could be derived from those paternal words of wisdom, "If everybody else jumped off a cliff, would you?"

By no means is anyone implying that adopting CTP is foolhardy, mind you, even if for some it did require making a leap of faith.

In fact, the value of the workflow is reflected in the adoption of the "computer-to-film" (CTF) moniker to denote the outputting of imposed, single-piece film ready for platemaking. Users of the film/imagesetter duo simply want the process to still get the respect it's due as an effective workflow option, and one that continues to account for a large share of the market.

If one buys into recent popular theories, Checkmate Graphics in Ellicott City, MD, should be dead by now—twice over, in fact, muses Mike Granata, production manager. "Trade shops are already supposed to be dead," he notes, "and I've been hearing for the last 10 years that the end of film was coming. I still don't see the end in sight. We're a small company (four employees), but we are profitable.

"I don't understand what has become so difficult and negative about burning plates conventionally. There are issues, but for a high-quality shop addressing those concerns should be second nature," Granata says. "People claim CTP is so much faster and the quality so much better that it is a waste of time to go to film. That is completely untrue."

CTP is Not for Everyone

"I'm not anti-CTP," the production manager continues. "For the right printer, in the right circumstances, it is excellent technology. It's just not right for everybody. For smaller printers, in the $2 million to $7 million sales range, it just doesn't make much sense."

Checkmate installed an eight-page Fujifilm Sumo imagesetter in order to have the flexibility to output film sizes from 10x12˝ to 30x40˝. Along with doing work for end customers, the shop outputs film for a lot of printers, including plants with in-house prepress capabilities and even some with CTP systems.

"Not every job is best suited to go CTP," Granata asserts. "Printers that have bought into the idea that CTP can do everything, and gotten rid of their imagesetters, are now forced to send out for film."

In addition to concerns about proofing expressed by many film users, Granata says the biggest problem with CTP for a trade shop is that a single device can't be configured to meet all the needs of a diverse customer base.

"Our industry has never adopted a standard for punch configurations. Even the same print shop may use different punch configurations and plates depending on the job. We work with 50 to 60 different printers, and we can't possibly support every punch configuration.

"We've looked at CTP in depth, and it just wasn't practical for our business. We'll probably do that type of analysis on a yearly basis, though. We will install CTP when clients demand it but, to date, we've never had a single one ask us to run CTP," Granata concludes.

Peczuh Printing in Price, UT, bought into the concept of adopting CTF to smooth its transition into CTP. "We decided to invest in a Tanto 5120 imagesetter and Trueflow workflow system from Screen (USA) because we wanted to ease our way into an eight-up workflow," reveals Tim Peczuh, prepress manager. The shop previously had been using a four-page imagesetter to support its 29˝ MAN Roland 304 press, but needed to upgrade its prepress capabilities after adding a 40˝ MAN Roland 706 press, Peczuh explains.

"We felt this was a prudent and conservative first step prior to making the big move up to CTP," he continues. "The benefits of CTP are many, and also well hyped by the manufacturers and those shops that have already made the jump. What's less talked about are some of the problems and challenges that come with the CTP workflow."

Affordable and accurate digital color proofing probably remains Peczuh's biggest concern. "For us, the analog proof still works," he says. "We are improving our digital proofing systems, but we still have to develop a comfort zone with clients signing off on a digital proof."

The family owned print shop uses up to a 210-line screen to meet the quality demands of its customer base, which includes non-profit charities, network marketing companies, and scrap book and crafts companies. One of its higher profile clients is the Children's Miracle Network, which raises funds for children's hospitals throughout the country. Started by Tim's father, Frank Sr., Peczuh Printing has grown into an $8 million business with 70 employees.

Even though the company still has about two years to go on its 36-month contract for the imagesetter, the prepress manager thinks the move to CTP might come sooner. "We will continue to utilize the imagesetter even as we transition to CTP, and beyond that point," he says. "We expect it to be a productive tool for us indefinitely."

Press Factors

Getz Color Graphics in Lenexa, KS, has a similar story to Peczuh's. It, too, is a family owned business with half-size sheetfed printing capabilities. According to Todd Getz, prepress manager, moving up to a 40˝ press also factored into the shop's purchase of an imagesetter last spring. However, since management decided that purchase was still a couple years away, it opted for a four-up Agfa Phoenix 2250 imagesetter driven by an Apogee front end.

The company did consider buying an eight-up device so it would be prepared to also support larger format work, but Getz says space constraints in the existing plant were an issue. A move to a larger facility is in the offing.

Customer demands made it impractical for the printer to go CTP, Getz says. "We have ad agency clients across the country that still want to send us their own film," he explains. "We did look at a copydot solution, but for now we decided it was safer to stay with film."

Getz Color is a full-service, prepress to bindery shop that specializes in the production of color pieces that can be printed multiple-up on a sheet, such as post cards, brochures, all type of business cards, folders, etc. It serves the national market.

According to Getz, the numbers didn't justify adopting a hybrid (conventional and digital) metal plate-based workflow. Polyester plates weren't an option because of the color demands, line screen rulings and run lengths of the shop's work, he adds.

The printer took a three-year lease on the imagesetter in order to give it time to install a 40˝ press and see what workflow demands the larger format brings, Getz says. That's where the company's planning is focused for now, he adds, although he does expect to revisit the question of installing an eight-up imagesetter or CTP system at some point in the future.

For The Elm Press, in Thomaston, CT, the buying decision didn't come down to CTF or CTP—it opted for both. In its case, however, CTPP (computer-to-polyester plate) might be a more fitting acronym. In a little more than a year, the printer has converted to running about 90 percent of its work with polyester plates, reports Vic Losure, company president.

Losure classifies the company as a small- to medium-sized commercial printer, with 15 employees and annual sales of more than $3 million. It uses half-size sheetfed presses to produce primarily short-run work in two colors or less, including forms, labels and other pieces.

The shop's capabilities and client needs made it "a prime candidate, if not the poster child, for polyester plates on half-size equipment," Losure says. The company installed a Heidelberg Primesetter 74 (four-up) imagesetter just ahead of the new two-unit Speedmaster 74 press with which it was designed to work in concert. The imagesetter also is used to produce film and plates for a Quickmaster 46 press.

"Because of the market we are in, time to press and makeready are incredibly important," Losure says. "That drove our decision to install the 74 press/imagesetter combo and to run polyester plates. We got the Primesetter for its flexibility to image both plate-ready film and punched, cut polyester plates, up to the 12 gauge."

Wild Levels of Efficiency

The shop previously output smaller format film that had to be stripped together prior to being used to expose conventional metal plates. "The two 74s created workflow efficiencies beyond our wildest expectations," Losure reveals. "We have excess capacity to sell to the trade and can do so at aggressive rates because of the efficiency of a digital workflow. Our costs are running about 50 percent less than what we had been spending for film and metal plates."

Nevertheless, the company still needs the flexibility to quickly switch between outputting polyester plates and film for two reasons, the company president says. A large chunk of its sales volume comes from serving as a distributor, so it has to send plate-ready film out to other printers for production. Internally, jobs that require critical registration or have run lengths in excess of 20,000 impressions are produced using film and traditional metal plates, Losure reports, due to the current limits of polyester plates.

Losure says his team did look at digital metal plate systems, but was put off by the significantly higher cost. The company also considered on-press imaging technology, but decided to wait for the price of the presses to come down. "I fully anticipate that within the next five years we will be looking at direct-to technology for our next press," the company president reports. "I see us acquiring a DI press before getting a metal CTP system."

After considering all the options, each of these shops just did what was right for its business and customer base, which means staying with film for the time being. They are rightly setting their own pace for change.
 

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