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Thermal CTP--Making Life. . .and Plates. . .Easier

August 1999
Two printers share their thoughts on how computer-to-plate technology has changed, and simplified, the production of plates.


To hear the newest members of the thermal computer-to-plate club tell it, the filmless process outranks even the television remote control in terms of convenience. While few 20-somethings can remember TV life without the armchair quarterback, many of today's commercial printers can scarcely believe how they made do without the convenience of digital platesetters.

The difference between digital and conventional workflows, it seems, represents a chasm as expansive (not to mention palatable) as pâté and liverwurst.

Bruce Wexler is a believer. The executive vice president of West Orange, NJ-based Earth Color Group recently encountered a tricky job: an eight-page brochure (a print run of 700,000 to 800,000) with more than its share of difficult tints and gradations. Even so, Wexler found that his company's recently installed Agfa Galileo thermal CTP device to be quite capable of handling the task.

"Our CTP workflow allows me to push 25 percent more ink than I would normally be able to push," Wexler says. "It allows me to raise my line screen, because the dot is much cleaner. Previously, I would normally run 150 on my web press; I now run between 175 and 200 line screen."

Problem Free
Results on-press are also stunning, he notes, buoyed by a cleaner, smoother look that features heavier ink coverage on the sheets. There are no holes, no hot spots—none of the traditional problems encountered with conventional prepress, Wexler contends. Boasting CIP3 technology is another plus, allowing him to preset all fountain settings on the press and automate the imposition process.

In short, the Agfa Galileo Thermal, running with ThermoStar digital plates, has completely turned around Earth Color's prepress operation.

"This is amazing. It's much more efficient, much more reliable now," Wexler points out. "In the past, we encountered registration problems during plate making. Now, we don't see any register problems. There are no more holes, no more dust, no more dirt."

Auto Pilot
"I looked at other machines, but the beauty is that it's completely automatic," adds Wexler. "It loads plates automatically, images the plates automatically, develops the plates automatically—and all I really do is take plates off the other end. I don't have to load the machine each time—it really operates itself. That's why we chose the Galileo."

Earth Color Group operates within the Apogee-PDF workflow, which Wexler deems a safer environment, as there are no re-ragging problems. "We can just burn in and burn out," he remarks. Minor, quick fixes can be made without "re-RIPing" an entire file. The workflow leading up to the laser imaging is one of the major reasons Earth Color chose to go with the Galileo Thermal.

The ThermoStar 971 plates are more apt to crack than they are to wear out, according to Wexler. Upon completing a 1.2 million impression run recently, Wexler's press operators removed the plates and found them to be in excellent condition.

Lasting Impressions
"With conventional plates, we'd probably change plates at least once, maybe twice," Wexler points out. "Our pressmen are seeing a difference; the quality is just so much better. We've ran as much as 1.4 million impressions on some plates at our plant in Florida. Agfa told us we'd probably get about 1 million impressions out of these plates. But I don't think they even realize just how many impressions you can really achieve.

"My feeling is we could probably get 2 million impressions out of a set of ThermoStar plates," he adds. "There's more of a problem with the plate cracking than the plate wearing, because of the way they're clamped to the press."

Looking back, the only improvement Wexler would make on his implementation experience would have been a more intensive training program.

"If I had it to do over again, I would pre-train a little bit more," Wexler concludes. "I would have trained on different imposition programs that I was working on up front, which was something we didn't do."

Sometimes, it only takes a demonstration for a client to see the benefits of going digital. Just ask Janine Maxwell, prepress manager for Lithocraft Inc., based in Santa Rosa, CA, which installed its Scitex Lotem 800V platesetter just last November.

Maxwell encountered one customer—a large corporation—that was loathe to change and, not surprisingly, resisted the conversion to computer-to-plate. The client insisted on using film, but an image had vignettes and it was banding. The prepress department did as much as it could to smooth out the banding, but it was still apparent.

Just Do it
"Our experience has been that when we go direct-to-plate, it smooths out vignettes even more," Maxwell points out. "We told the customer we'd reached our limits as to what we could do to the file, and the only thing we could do is go CTP. They said, 'Do it,' and we smoothed it out. They were extremely happy."

As a result of the Lotem implementation, Maxwell has noticed an improvement in scheduling, and how it's evened out Lithocraft's production.

"Correction times are a lot faster, as well," Maxwell remarks. "If we're on-press and the customer sees something wrong and wants to make a change, instead of hours of down press time, we can make another plate and be on-press within a half hour, depending on the change. We ran an annual report not long ago, a job that always requires alterations. The customer couldn't believe how fast the changes were made."

For all the things CTP has done for Lithocraft—eliminating film, saving time and eradicating registration problems—a return on investment was not the motivating factor in purchasing the Scitex Lotem.

"We didn't even look at return on investment. For us, it was more of a quality decision," Maxwell points out. "We knew that the quality of the plates and the printed product were going to be so much more superior to film.

"Speed was also a consideration. Customers want their jobs faster and faster. They get it to us later and they still want it on time," she adds with a chuckle. "Ultimately, we opted for computer-to-plate

because it was going to improve our workflow and allow us to present a better quality product to our customers. "

Before the Box

Bruce Wexler didn't want to get caught up in a battle of dots when it came time to acquire computer-to-plate technology. The executive vice president of Earth Color Group decided he would let the workflow, not the quality of dot, be his guide.

"My advice is not to look at the platesetting devices, but look at the workflow that goes into the machine," Wexler says. "There are a lot of good machines out there that can image digital plates, but it's the workflow to the platesetter that makes the difference, and it's what drove us to Agfa."

Wexler likened the task to purchasing a stereo. Manufacturers try to outduel one another with graphic equalizers, pre-amps, sub-wolfers and the like, but even the most ardent music lovers have a hard time distinguishing unique traits when they tune their ears toward the speakers.

Likewise, Wexler can't see a difference between most plates, dot-wise.

"People say, 'Well, our dot is better than your dot,' but I don't see enough of a difference that the human eye, or your client, will ever pick up," Wexler remarks. "It gets to the point of overkill, like having the most amazing stereo system, but your ears can only hear so much.

"To me, the Apogee workflow really just amazed us; it's got a lot of great features to it. It allows us to make our digital proofs off the same RIP file. I don't worry that what's not on my plate is not on my proof. We use the same RIP file to make that plate. If your digital proof doesn't represent what's on that plate—your client sees something different because it's RIPed differently—that's a big problem. If something goes wrong in the RIPing—there's a line of copy that's on the proof that's not on the plate—well, now you're on-press. If someone misses it, it could be a major, major problem."

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