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PRINTING PLATE UPDATE -- New Precious Metal

June 2005
BY MARK SMITH

Technology Editor

Given all the debate about the technology of coatings in recent years, one might think printing plates are an exception to the rule that it is what's below the surfaces that really matters. One thing almost all of the solutions, even analog plates, have in common, though, is an aluminum base. Polyester plates are the exception, of course.

This commonality in printing plates hit home earlier this year when vendors notified customers of price increases due to the rising cost of raw materials. Aluminum prices reportedly have risen some 40 percent over the past two years, and higher energy prices have compounded the problem.

"Aluminum represents more than half the cost of a litho plate, and production efficiencies cannot offset the magnitude of the increase in aluminum prices," points out Jack Wiethoff, staff vice president for plates at Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG).

Matters were made worse for plate manufacturers by Alcoa's decision to exit the litho aluminum market, says John O'Rourke, director of CTP products at Presstek Inc. "The net result of Alcoa's departure is we have to manage our supply chain much more diligently," he explains.

O'Rourke sees this situation as analogous to the crude oil market. "It's a commodity product that has a standardized global price and availability," he says.

In the case of aluminum supply, it is effectively fixed due to the capital expenditures and construction lead time required to add capacity, adds Jim Crawford, group manager, consumables, at Enovation Graphic Systems. The outlook is now more promising because plate manufacturers are forecasting demand to aluminum suppliers on a longer timetable, Crawford believes. This should lead to greater market stability, he says.

KPG's Wiethoff is not so optimistic about the short-term outlook. "Unfortunately, the cost of aluminum and petroleum have continued to increase since the January price increase. Unless there is a pullback of the cost of these two commodities, it is likely there will be a second round of industry-wide plate price increases," he says.

The dynamics are a little more complex for Heidelberg USA, since it doesn't directly manufacture any of the plates it co-develops and markets, points out Rick Boggess, director of consumables. "Manufacturers are telling us they have long-term aluminum contracts in place to ensure they have enough raw materials," he says. "However, they are holding distribution and OEM partners very tightly to their (demand) forecasts."

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