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Thermal CTP's Next 100 Days

April 1998

The Round Table
Creo—with nearly 200 thermal imaging device installations worldwide—remains the current leader among thermal equipment suppliers. Creo's connection to Heidelberg, too, only increases the Vancouver, Canada-based thermal technology innovator's Trendsetter marketing power.

Here's Creo view on processless thermal CTP—its potential and the thermal plate. "Many people refer to processless plates as the real benefit of thermal; this is not the case," asserts Creo President Dan Gelbert. "Even after processless plates will be commonplace, perhaps by 1999, there will be a need for processed thermal plates."

Why does Creo take this stance? The main reason is that some applications, such as long runs, UV inks and abrasive substrates, require post-baked plates. Processless thermal plates, by definition, cannot be post-baked, Gelbert explains.

"The new generation of thermal plates coming to the market, such as Horsell Electra DC, Kodak IRx, Fuji Brillia LH-P and Agfa Thermostar, require such simple and conventional processing that it is no longer a large factor," Gelbert suggests. "A point to keep in mind: Any processless plate reduces the cost of ownership of a CTP device, not only by saving on a processor and chemicals, but by eliminating the automation needed to take the plate from CTP to the processor."

At Agfa Div., Bayer Corp., the current status and future direction of thermal CTP appears bright. Stay tuned for enhancements to Agfa's Galileo digital platesetter and Agfa's Thermostar thermal plate offering, not to mention a strong marketing of DuPont thermal plate innovations, now under Agfa's belt.

With thermal platesetters in mind, specifically Agfa's Galileo digital platesetter, here are some thoughts from Agfa's Steve Musselman, marketing manager for CTP and imagesetting systems.

"Frankly, permutations of Galileo will support green, thermal (including wet and dry), red and perhaps even blue (UV), from an engine point of view, and from a plate point of view, we have greens, reds, blues and thermals—Agfa plans to support them all," he reports.

Too often, Musselman argues, the market is distracted from the goal—in this case thermal CTP—and is confusing the means for the end. Are they buying technology, or are they buying solutions? The real questions are: What does the customer require and expect? Where is the productivity and profitability?

"In head-to-head press tests, there is no significant benefit on-press of either thermal or green digital plates over each other. Significantly reduced makeready, increased ink density latitude and reduced dot gain are typical attributes of each type of system," Musselman stresses. "True, different optics systems will deliver different results, but it is has been proven that Agfa's internal-drum designs continue to deliver best-in-class imaging results, whether it is with a Galileo or an Avantra."

However, he admits, there are some hidden costs of ownership with thermal systems: increased cost of operation (the shorter life-span of thermal lasers in use has shown to burden the customer with laser-replacement costs of $65,000 on a 12- to 18-month schedule) and slower throughput (typically 33-percent to 50-percent slower than green or red systems).

Also, processing trains for some currently available thermal plates impart post-imaging trauma (inconsistencies, cracking, etc.) in their pre- and post-baking requirements. The ability of daylight operation is perhaps the only real, practical benefit of thermal plates, Musselman concludes.

Still, this fuels further debate. Several of thermal's grandfathers—Presstek and Creo included—argue vehemently that extensive reliability tests conducted over the past few years have been substantiated by, in Presstek's case, some 700-plus digital imaging presses using the exact same lasers as Presstek's CTP devices.

Talk Isn't Cheap
Scitex has entered beta testing of the Lotem 800V external-drum, 830nm digital platesetter. Leigh Kimmelman, product marketing manager for output imaging systems, reports that Scitex America is fully committed to thermal CTP—and projects a strong industry sweep of CTP devices as the months move on.

"CTP, in general, and to a lesser degree thermal CTP, is on the verge of mass acceptance," he reports. "It's come a long way in the last couple of years. We've seen monumental mergers and consolidations take place between CTP mega-suppliers, as well as the emergence of thermal materials.

"Although the availability of thermal materials is not yet where it should be, or where we expected it to be at this point, we will eventually have a strong selection of thermal consumables," predicts Kimmelman. "That will open the market, leading to the promise of true processless CTP."

Krause America is anxious. "We're ready now for thermal CTP, but is the plate industry offering a mature plate at a reasonable cost that is here to stay, or is it merely a transitional plate that will only be here until the ultimate plate is developed?" questions Tim Kohl, CTP product manager at Krause America. "You can't wish a reliable, commercially available thermal printing plate into the market."

Gerber Systems, like other thermal device manufacturers, is patiently awaiting the dawn of widely available thermal plates—not just new product announcements, beta endeavors and controlled releases.

With much of its efforts devoted to engineering the Crescent 3030T, Crescent 42T and Crescent 68T family of internal-drum, 1,064nm platesetters, ranging in price from $175,000 to $725,000, respectively, Gerber is obviously justified in its passion for thermal plates.

"Companies like Gerber are based on CTP, with thermal CTP being a considerable component, to say the least," asserts Ron Goulet, vice president of engineering at Gerber Systems. "In certain prepress environments, the thermal plate presents the next frontier in CTP. It all boils down to the strong marketing job done a few years back by Creo and Kodak. They did a very effective job at marketing thermal CTP, and the industry is still, in many ways, reacting."

What is Fuji's thermal reaction? Tim Combs, vice president of marketing for Fujifilm's Graphic Systems Div., sees thermal continuing to gain greater acceptance in the CTP market—as Fuji moves to the middle stages of certifying two thermal plates with platesetter OEMs. Fuji has chosen to provide two types of thermal plates, a medium-run plate requiring no pre- or post-baking, and a long-run plate, which requires baking both before and after development.

Regarding thermal's activity in the market, Fuji's Combs doesn't think plate performance, necessarily, has been a limiting factor.

"Sure, you can find accounts who don't like some of the requirements of the current products, such as baking, but, in general, performance has been pretty good," he contends. "A bigger issue is the choice of lasers. Up to this point, the 830 IR device is the only one proven in the market. I believe there still exists some question of the long-term viability of the 1064 laser."

When will thermal CTP reach its height? Fuji's Combs takes a second to tackle this one. "Is it a question of thermal or is it a question of CTP in general?" he counters. "Users want simplicity, reliability and cost-effective solutions to digital production. Thermal seems to offer an easier path in some cases, but costs for equipment today are still quite a bit higher for thermal than visible light recorders."

Nick Haddon, director of marketing for printing products at Cymbolic Sciences, sees validity in the Fuji executive's thoughts. "At least for the short term, there will be a significant difference in the price of CTP units exposing visible CTP plates and equivalent thermal units," Haddon says.

"Thermal units will be more expensive, largely due to the current lack in availability, choice and price competition of thermal plates. Visible CTP plates will remain the most popular choice, particularly for the medium-size and smaller commercial printer."

Before a company commits to the full production of a plate, with its coatings, processors and chemistry, Haddon suggests samples must go through extensive tests to prove such things as press performance, run length, printability, shelf life, resistance to UV inks, production yield and price. "The small and medium-sized printer will be faced with limited availability of thermal plates for some time," Haddon projects.

Are We There Yet?
"You'd think, from all the marketing hype, that thermal is the only way to go CTP, but today a vast majority of printers are using visible light and doing a fabulous job," Gerber's Goulet contends.

"At Gerber, we're waiting for more thermal plates to become openly available from more of the major vendors before we make any firm assessments on the growth of thermal CTP and its push for the processless CTP environment."

Scitex's Kimmelman sees the future bringing truly processless thermal to the prepress department, but offers no promises on exactly when this processless prediction will come to fruition.

"When you say the word thermal, people think processless, but that isn't necessarily the case," Kimmelman contends. "People want processless, and ultimately they will get it—but for today, thermal and processless are not interchangeable."

Presstek's Fuhs has some reservations about the term process-free. "I think we should change the process-free term to something more descriptive," she advises.

Why? For example, Presstek's PEARLdry and PEARLwet are process-free (no chemicals) but require a wiping step after imaging to remove the loosened (ablated) top coating. PEARLgold is imaged and goes directly onto the press without additional steps.

"The terms thermal and process-free are nebulous," Fuhs argues. "The customer wants to know: What variables are eliminated? Any steps added back detract from the overall purpose of process-free and thermal. The processor is bad because the chemicals vary from day to day; vacuum frame light sources are bad because they're inconsistent, dirty and require film."

After a pause, Presstek's Fuhs has a brainstorm, which may indicate that at least one hard-working, fiercely dedicated thermal CTP technology researcher is in need of a thermal-free vacation.

Fuhs, like many of her industry counterparts at various thermal CTP technology providers, works thermal day and night—evaluating beta sites, projecting the direction in which the thermal market will mature, and marketing an array of thermal CTP materials and devices. If you can get

Fuhs on the phone, you're lucky. Even e-mail can be hit or miss (mostly miss) with this on-the-go thermal insider, always running to investigate and promote thermal's potential.

Thankfully, she can still laugh!

"We need a rating of good vs. evil," Presstek's Fuhs muses. "How about little angels and devils? The new rating that we need would center around the number of steps (devils) to make the plate and the variables that are eliminated (angels) or added (devils). We could have the Church Lady from 'Saturday Night Live' do the ratings."

Time to book a cruise, Sandy.

—Marie Ranoia Alonso



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