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September 2005

Technology Editor

Printers in growing numbers are having second thoughts about their computer-to-plate (CTP) systems. First-time buyers are still the dominant force in the market today, but the aging installed base is rapidly driving up the percentage of shops looking to invest in a second, or even third, generation of technology.

By the end of 2004, the installed base of CTP devices in North America had reached nearly 12,000 units, including metal and non-metal systems, according to a new plate market study recently published by PRIMIR (the Print Industries Market Information and Research Organization).

Completed by State Street Consultants in Boston, the "Life Cycle of Analog and Digital Lithographic Printing Plates" study predicts that sales of replacement metal CTP systems will exceed new installations in 2007. This projection is based on a seven- to 10-year life cycle.

Some vendors suggest a slightly more bearish expectation for the productive lifespan of a metal platesetter, but most are in that ballpark.

"The vast majority of the CTP systems we have sold are still in operation, so seven to 10 years (of operation) seems easy to achieve," says Neil McLean, product manager, workflow and prepress equipment, Kodak Graphic Communications Group. In most cases, CTP engines have been retired for productivity reasons rather than due to operability issues, he adds.

"Older CTP technology using a visible laser has much higher operating costs than today's thermal or violet systems," McLean asserts.

"We are starting to see a wave of CTP users interested in updating and replacing their original, earlier generation systems," similarly reports Mark Tonkovich, product manager, CTP and proofing, at Heidelberg. "These CTP processors were purchased in the last four to six years and have suited buyers well, but technology has moved on significantly."

Modern devices offer greater efficiencies, Tonkovich says. Printers buying replacement units are gaining efficiencies such as internal punching and robust automation, he asserts.

Building on that point, Peter Vanderlaan, group manager, EI output products at Enovation Graphic Systems, a Fujifilm Co., suggests owners of aging CTP systems consider two factors when gauging the useful lifespan of their equipment. "Does the platesetter meet my current production requirements (image quality, plates per hour, etc.)?" and "Does the service cost justify running an old-style platesetter?"

Time for an Upgrade

Older technology can become effectively orphaned due to changes in technology and vendors exiting the market, Vanderlaan adds. He points out that current generation products typically offer "field upgradeable" options that can help keep them competitive.

Life cycles for technology in general are getting shorter, partly due to ongoing improvement in electronics and data transfer standards, contributes John O'Rourke, director, CTP products, at Presstek Inc.

"CTP is not immune to these impacts. We have systems in the field that are still very productive after six and seven years of use, but our current product line provides better performance," he says.

O'Rourke agrees that the key question for printers to ask is, "Does the resident system still provide value?" There is not one generic answer, he says.

The fact that many systems are leased, for terms of 36 to 60 months, provides a built-in point where users have to decide whether to trade in or buy out their existing machines, notes David Furman, Agfa Corp. senior marketing manager, CTP systems-North America. This has the potential to skew replacement cycles.

In Agfa's experience, many users opt to upgrade because they need more productivity. "We have customers still using units from eight years ago or longer, but five to seven years is a good range (for an expected life cycle)," he says.

In the great thermal versus violet debate, much has been made about the comparative longevity and cost of those laser alternatives. Yet vendors from both sides seem to agree that a routine laser replacement isn't a significant factor in determining the worth of an installed platesetter.

"The vast majority of CTP systems in the field today are covered under a service/maintenance agreement (SMA)," points out O'Rourke. "Since laser components are typically covered under the SMA, that should not be a factor in the replacement decision process."

"With most devices, the issue is not the laser that fails, but rather a mechanical failure," adds Kodak's McLean.

"Strictly speaking, a platesetter can last indefinitely with proper care," asserts Michael Sterflinger, senior product manager, violet CTP technology, at RIPit Computer Corp. "The effectiveness of the system over time is more dependent on changing technology."

When it does come time to make a switch, current users now have experience to draw upon when revisiting the question of what level of automation makes the most sense for their operations. In general, vendors say the trend is toward maintaining or adding levels of automation, especially at larger shops.

"Our experience is that the need for automation is binary—printers either have the plate volume that demands automation or they do not," says Presstek's O'Rourke. "An exception can occur when the price point for automation moves downward with second generation systems."

"If a small printer is making very few plates every day, what's important is the initial capital investment," says Kodak's McLean. "Bigger shops want to produce more plates faster with fewer employees, so the trend is always to increase automation."

Heidelberg is a proponent of the field upgrade approach noted earlier, Tonkovich says. "The key is to invest in a modular and flexible CTP device that can grow with your production needs," he advises.

Enovation's Vanderlaan believes advances in technology have tilted the balance in favor of automation by allaying concerns about reliability. "Automation has become so reliable, it's no longer a second thought," he says.

While this is a platesetter story, it's worth mentioning that the plate side of the equation appears poised for a sea change. Processless, or at least chemistry-free, thermal products are becoming commercially available from the leading vendors, and several will be showing violet imaging solutions as technology demonstrations. These products will be included in Printing Impressions' upcoming post-show coverage of PRINT 05 & CONVERTING 05.

The reason for mention here: such plates could provide motivation to replace or overhaul an existing CTP system. They hold the promise of eliminating the cost, variability, space demands and disposal issues that can come with plate processing.

Since a platesetter traditionally has been part of a system, replacing that component can often necessitate making other changes. The ability to accept one-bit TIFFs enables platesetters to interface with almost any front end, notes Agfa's Furman, but production demands may dictate upgrading the workflow system and/or proofing, as well. Also, it has been common practice for plate manufacturers to specify that their processors be used with their plates, he adds.

It should be noted, of course, that digital metal solutions weren't the only CTP options attendees found on the show floor in Chicago this month.

Polyester CTP technology continues to advance, making it more stable and providing cost advantages compared to aluminum solutions. Mitsubishi Imaging has gained a commanding position in that sector by offering its Silver DigiPlate materials and teaming up with Esko-Graphics to market the DPX platesetter line.

The companies chose PRINT 05 as a launch pad for the new DPX Lite two-up (13.3x21.6˝) internal-drum platesetter. It joins a product family headed by the DPX 4 four-up (26.7x29.5˝) unit.

Both platesetters produce press-ready plates at resolutions up to 3,000 dpi with variable spot size. The compact systems are rollfed, automated and have integrated plate processors for daylight operation.

Computer-to-conventional plate (CTCP) also remains an option. While Esko-Graphics previously was reported to have pulled back on its plan to introduce the new Espresso CTCP system, basysPrint North America is moving forward with its UV-Setter products.

The company is touting the extension of "scrolling" technology across its product lines. With DSI2 imaging technology, the head continuously moves over the plate during the exposure process. Solutions for commercial printing include the UV-Setter Series 5 (27x37˝), Series 7 (37x45˝) and Series 11 (62x129˝).

Earlier this year, basysPrint announced an end to its relationship with Konica Minolta Graphic Imaging U.S.A. under which the latter had been distributing UV-Setter systems in the United States. Konica Minolta continues to offer its processless, polyester combination solution—the SR-830 thermal platesetter and TF-200 seven-mil plate.

In terms of numbers, digital metal platesetters clearly dominate at the show floor. New product offerings from almost all of the vendors were scheduled to be on display.

New Family Emerges

Agfa is launching a line of thermal platesetters called Avalon that feature the Avalon HD imaging head, a second-generation design based on the latest GLV (Grating Light Valve) technology. Replacing the Xcalibur line, the new platesetter family includes LF (eight-up) and VLF models.

Avalon LF is offered in five configurations with throughputs up to 40 plates/hour and has been optimized to run Azura chemistry-free plates. Avalon VLF is available in eight model sizes, with dual plate option, and four throughput choices, up to 18 plates/hour.

Enovation Graphic Systems will be showing Fujifilm's new entry-level Saber Luxel V-6e four-up (30.12x27˝) violet platesetter. A unique feature of the manual and semi-automatic configurations is vertical loading of plates from the top of the machine, eliminating the need for a front feed table. The modular systems can be upgraded to the higher productivity versions in the product family. Celebrant Gateway TIFF spooler comes standard.

At PRINT 05, Heidelberg will showcase both thermal (Suprasetter) and violet (Prosetter) CTP devices along with new chemistry-free plate technology. To give buyers added flexibility, the automation components for both systems can interface to either engine.

For smaller format printing, the Heidelberg Quicksetter 300E can image paper, film and polyester plates. Its virtual drum technology supports a 10-micron spot size.

With Creo now firmly part of the family, Eastman Kodak is introducing the Magnus 400/400 Quantum platform as the next generation of its four-page thermal CTP solution. The brand name was introduced last year with the Magnus VLF line.

The new models actually have a six-up drum (external) size that handles a maximum 26.77x29.5˝ media format and are designed to support chemistry-free and processless plate materials. They can image up to 21 or 28 plates/hour and a 250- or 450-lpi line screen, respectively.

Having now integrated ABDick's operations, Presstek is highlighting the Vector TX52 chemistry-free two-up (19.875x20.87˝) platesetter targeted to small-format printers wanting a metal platemaking solution.

The platesetter images Freedom chemistry-free plates (up to 20/hour), which are rated for run lengths up to 25,000 impressions. A self-contained water wash unit is built into the device in keeping with its compact design.

Screen (USA) is highlighting a range of thermal platesetters topped by the PlateRite Ultima 16000 (57.9x45.9˝), 24000 (68.9x55.1˝) and 32000Z (83.6x50.2˝). These machines support down to a 25.6x21.7˝ format and offer in-line punching as an option. The company also is featuring its high-speed PlateRite 8800II eight-up machine.

Winning Combination

Xanté Corp. is another company showcasing a combination solution—the two-up (13.38x19.87˝) Impressia platesetter imaging non-photosensitive Aspen aluminum plates. The process-free system is said to produce up to 60 plates/hour with a maximum 2,400 dpi/150 lpi resolution.

New player Maestrale North America will introduce the Maestro 540 (20x21˝), 750 (26.57x29.53˝) and 1100 (32.68x41.34˝) external-drum platesetters. These machines can be configured with thermal or violet lasers that are field swappable.

RIPit offers turnkey solutions for small- and mid-size printers. Its new SpeedSetter VM4 is a four-up violet platesetter that features a small footprint. It is bundled with the OpenRIP Symphony core RIP, with optional solutions for imposition, trapping, proofing and screening.

As a final option, show attendees will also have the opportunity to check out a couple of ink-jet based CTP systems. JetPlate Systems is debuting the JetPlate 4800 with enhanced ink-jet imaging technology and Glunz & Jensen will showing its iCtP (ink-jet CTP) technology, including the PlateWriter 4200 platesetter and patented Liquid Dot solution.


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