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SCREENING SYSTEMS -- Spotting an Opportunity

May 2003
BY MARK SMITH


Rarely does the first generation of a "revolutionary" new technology live up to expectations. In software circles, for example, painful experience has taught many users to wait for version 2.0 of any new release.

The saying, "Once bitten, twice shy," definitely applies. The greater the degree of disappointment, the longer the road will be to convincing potential adopters that a technology is now "real."

Both stochastic/frequency-modulated (FM) screening and high-fidelity/extended gamut color separation technologies first made a lot of noise in the market during the mid '90s. Versions of each achieved some success, but both have been seen as failed technologies given all the hype at their introductions.

Nearly a decade later, the makings for a groundswell of support seem to have been quietly building in the industry. Computer-to-plate production, advances in digital proofing, greater processing power in prepress, and electronically controlled presses now are seen as enabling advances in screening.

The advanced screening product category has seen greater activity, with most of the major manufacturers introducing new solutions. Creo Inc. rolled out a 10-micron version of its Staccato FM screening. Hybrid systems have come on the scene—including Agfa's Sublima and Spekta from Screen (USA)—that seek to apply AM (amplitude-modulated) and FM screening where appropriate. Fujifilm has created its own product class with its Co-Rés—or common resolution—screening, which arranges halftone dots in a way the company claims distinguishes it from traditional AM and FM screening.

It's hard to think of a better reason for making any business move than responding to a customer request. Almost two years ago, Creative Press, in Anaheim, CA, was asked by one of its largest customers to look into stochastic printing, reports Kevin McHugh, prepress supervisor.

The client, a paint manufacturer, had been approached by another printer touting the process. "After completing a project with that supplier, the company asked us if we would look into the technology," McHugh says. "At the time, Creo was looking for Staccato 10 micron screening beta sites. We had been a Brisque shop, so we ended up converting to the Prinergy front end, Staccato and a color-managed workflow all at once."

At the time, the shop was printing 175- to 200-lpi screens, its prepress supervisor notes. "Today, 85 to 90 percent of our work is produced using Staccato; we're still receiving some film. I'm amazed at the detail it picks up. The results are near photographic quality."

Printed representations of paint chips were the initial application pursued by Creative Press. It saw the screening as a vehicle for producing smoother tints and gradations in blended colors and pastels, McHugh says.

Mass Production

The printer has expanded its use of the process to include production of posters, brochures, labels and more. One reason clients have been so willing to embrace the process is the fact that the shop hasn't been charging a premium for it. Part of what makes the process practical is Creative Press' ability to use its Trendsetter Spectrum platesetter/proofer to output plates and proofs for the screening.

Side-by-side comparisons really sell the technology, McHugh claims. The printer had to do a fair amount of testing initially to stabilize its processes, so it would ask clients to send in sample jobs or reprint previous work. "Our testing process ended up being a selling tool," he says.

The character of Creative Press' operations masks some to the potential benefits of the process, McHugh asserts. He can't fairly judge the impact on makeready times, for example, because the shop has set very exacting process standards for all its work.

"Since we aqueous coat everything on-press, I can't even say the sheets dry faster," the prepress supervisor continues. "In theory, they should. We don't have any data on ink usage either, but our salesman did comment that he thought we were using quite a bit less ink since switching to 10 micron screening."

Creative Press runs three six-color, 40˝ sheetfed presses that are basically identical. A common printing platform and running with 10 micron screening almost exclusively have helped the shop get its processes under control and keep them that way, McHugh adds.

Kirkwood Printing, in Wilmington, MA, opted to replace its CTP system—platesetter and front end—in large part to get a better screening technology. The commercial printer initially switched to running ABS (Agfa Balanced Screening) on two Agfa Xcalibur 45 platesetters before transitioning to the manufacturer's Sublima hybrid screening. Sublima is said to offer the benefits of high line screens without requiring changes in the printing process.

Except for uncoated jobs (which are run with conventional screening at 175 lpi), the shop basically uses Sublima as its house screening, reports Stan Monfette, prepress director. Its standard practice is to use the 210 lpi level of the screening, but about 20 percent of the work is printed with a higher line screen, Monfette adds. "We generally go up to 240 lpi, but we have played around with the 280 lpi screening," he continues. "The margin of quality difference isn't that great between 240 and 280 lpi."

Images have greater detail and the screens are much smoother with the higher screen rulings enabled by Sublima, according to Monfette. In addition, patterning in flat tints is eliminated, he notes. All the benefits reportedly come with smaller file sizes.

The prepress director sees the potential for the screening process to enable use of process color tints in place of spot colors, but Kirkwood's promotion of the process had been restricted by the NDA (non-disclosure agreement) it signed as a beta site. "We haven't been able to say much about the technology," Monfette explains.

Since the company couldn't tell customers about the process, it obviously couldn't charge a premium for the higher line screening. "I don't see us charging a premium for it in the future, either. Sublima gives us a competitive edge, without adding costs," Monfette says.

Getting Calibrated

"Once you go through the initial step of calibrating your process, there's not a lot of difference in running any of the line screens—ABS, 210 lpi or 240 lpi. In fact, Agfa gives you the option to set up multiple line screens with multiple curves on the same press sheet," he notes.

The switch to printing with higher line screens can be almost transparent to press operators, Monfette claims. "You do have to adjust your use of offset powder, since so much of the sheet is covered with ink," he explains. "With longer runs, you also have to watch the dot gain."

That hasn't been an issue for Kirkwood because its average run length is only 5,000 impressions. The shop produces a mix of commercial work, ranging from pocket folders to fairly large catalogs. It runs three (eight-, seven- and four-color) 28˝ sheetfed presses and a six-color, 40˝ machine.

The potential to increase shelf appeal is what drew the attention of Digital Productions' management to Hexachrome printing technology from Pantone Inc. It quickly recognized that the ability to reproduce vibrant colors more accurately has much broader application.

Hexachrome is a six-color printing process that uses reformulated CMYK, plus Hexachrome Orange and Green inks. It is said to offer twice the gamut of conventional CMYK and reproduce more than 90 percent of all solid PANTONE colors. According to the manufacturer, the net result is vivid printing with improved tonal reproduction, richer colors and sharper shadows and highlights than is possible with conventional processes.

Digital Productions started working with Hexachrome about four years ago, shortly after it was introduced, recalls Chuck Budd, company president. "We do quite a bit of work in the toy industry," he notes. "A lot of the toys have very bright, colorful parts, so it's always been a challenge to reproduce that look in print. The vibrancy in the images that Hexachrome produces is what attracted us to the process."

An interesting twist on the story is the fact that this West Deptford, NJ-based company is primarily a prepress shop. "We don't do any printing in-house, but we work very closely with several printers," Budd says.

"Printing with Hexachrome is very easy once the files are set up properly," he continues. "A lot of the printers we've worked with were amazed at how quickly it comes up to color on-press and how easy it is to maintain color once you've hit it. We haven't needed to work with printers to change their procedures in any way."

The shop produces a mix of packaging and collateral work, with the split being about 65 percent packaging and 35 percent collateral, Budd estimates. The majority of the jobs it prepares are destined for sheetfed offset production, but some are printed flexo.

More faithful reproduction of difficult images continues to be the main reason Digital Productions uses the process, the company president notes. "For example, we're hoping to start a catalog project for a florist that is a large importer of tropical flowers and plants," he says. "We are going to be able to hit the colors of the flowers more closely using Hexachrome."

Budd also understands the advantages in using the process to simulate spot colors. For that reason, the company is considering a move to stochastic screening to achieve greater color consistency, he says. It's currently using conventional Crosfield screening.

The prepress exec believes a broad range of print producers and applications would benefit from using the process. He thinks some "horror stories" from the early days may explain why printers have been slow to adopt it. "The software has come a long way in the last four years," Budd notes.

Even with the significant improvements to Pantone's Hexware software for doing color conversions, prepress is still a little more involved, he concedes. "That is really where additional costs can be incurred. There's more time involved in doing the separations," Budd says. "We find it's not much more expensive than printing any six-color job once it hits the press. The inks only cost slightly more."

Based on Digital Productions' experience with the process, Budd says interest in Hexachrome printing tends to "snowball." Once a marketing department starts to see the results of the printing process, they start specifying it on future projects, he explains.

Rink Printing, in South Bend, IN, pays more than just lip service to the business philosophy of partnering with suppliers. The commercial print shop has a particularly strong relationship with Fujifilm's Graphic Systems Division. It regularly serves as a test bed for new technologies, de facto demo center and print supplier to the firm.

The company was introduced to Fujifilm Co-Rés screening through this latter role. The screening system reportedly enables users to print high screen rulings while using standard output resolutions. According to the manufacturer, a 300 lpi screen can be output at a 2,400-dpi resolution and screen rulings of 175 lpi can be output with a 1,200-dpi resolution.

Since the software upgrade for its RIP was still in development, Rink has only used the screening system with plates supplied by Fujifilm, points out Mike Rink, company president and CEO. Its first "live" jobs included two brochures and a Christmas card.

Rink says his company was tapped to print the Co-Rés jobs because of its pressroom capabilities and relative proximity to Fujifilm's U.S. headquarters. "We're a high-quality printer that does a lot of short-run agency work," he explains. "Fuji knew we had good process control in place, including fingerprinting our presses." The sheetfed shop's pressroom arsenal includes a five-color, 40˝ Heidelberg with coater and two (40˝ and 28˝) six-color Komori Lithrones.

No Tale to Tell

The story from a printing perspective is that there is no story, Rink says. "Unless I had told our press operators what we were doing, the jump up in line screen ruling probably would have been transparent to them," he notes. "We've actually done a test with 175- and 375-line screens and kept the press settings the same. I think all printers would print 300- or 400-line screens if they could do so without any additional burden in the prepress area," the printing exec adds.

Rink Printing previously tried to move up to higher line screen printing by adopting the waterless printing process, its president reveals. "The appearance benefits were nice, but we abandoned the process because of difficulties running the plates."

The shop's high line screen tests with Co-Rés have shown similar improvement in the appearance of printed pieces, Rink reports. The rosette pattern is not easily identifiable, gradations are smoother and images have a sharper look, he says. "In addition, spot colors can be built in CMYK with a cleaner, more continuous-tone appearance."

While he hasn't yet had an opportunity to use Co-Rés screening in prepress, Rink says the purported benefits of the technology do make sense. "The biggest advantage of the technology is in the file size," he asserts. Producing higher line rulings at lower resolutions reportedly keeps file sizes down to about half of what would be required with traditional screening systems. This reduces the prepress overhead.

"The system offers the same productivity gains at lower screen rulings, too," Rink concludes.
 

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