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Showing the Digital Way--Alex Hamilton

November 2000
Having just returned from Chicago, home of the Graph Expo trade show, I must now return to the drudgery of daily work. And right now, that means forecasting the future of the prepress industry.

If only prognosticating were easy.

Frankly, it's anything but. The data are clearly contradictory. On the one hand, sales are rising (although profits are not) and all the leading researchers seem to agree that this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, there looms the impact of the Web, which most pundits predict will severely impact commercial printing's future.

Yet, if navigating one's way through the crowds tromping around McCormick Hall is the yardstick by which to measure the printers' optimism for smearing ink on smashed trees, these folks don't seem too worried. Attendance was strong and many of the major vendors reported selling lots of gear.

Of course, exhibitors showing "direct-to" technologies (direct-to-plate and direct-to-press) were among the busiest booths on the show floor. Interestingly, however, these technologies are still in their infancy, at least in terms of the number of installations and revenues generated.

CTP has now been around for about five years—at least as a viable technology. And while a quick read of this or any other trade journal would suggest that just about every printer on earth has given up on film, that is just not true. According to data presented at the Executive Outlook session just prior to Graph Expo, digitally imaged plates are projected to account for 9 percent of all plates this year, up from 7 percent in 1999. And, while they are on an upward trend, plates imaged on CTP systems are expected to account for less than one-fifth of all plates in 2004.

Although there is a current bottleneck in plate availability, this is not likely to last too long; it just takes manufacturers such as Agfa, Fuji, Kodak Polychrome Graphics, PDI, Presstek and others a while to crank up plate volume.

Perhaps the reason why more printers haven't made the transition is the one that everyone is facing in the graphic arts: money. Depending on your plate consumption (translation: what kind of pricing you get), digital plates cost between 25 percent and 40 percent more than conventional ones. For many printers, this more than accounts for the difference between the combined cost of film and conventional plates. When you add in plate remakes due to human error or AAs, many printers still find it more economical to stick with film-based workflows. Given that there are some very attractive deals on imagesetters and film these days, it may be some time before CTP becomes the dominant method of making plates.


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