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Two-up Metal Platesetters -- The CTP Periphery

January 2003

Printing is one of the few places where eight is a magic number. Even the once standard eight-hour day for many has become an artifact of a simpler time. Eight-page production, however, continues to be the standard of comparison for most facets of the printing process. For a time it seemed to be the de facto size for computer-to-plate (CTP) solutions.

Eight may indeed be enough, but it also can be too little or too much. Two-up platesetters actually helped pioneer the direct-to workflow and technology, albeit using paper and polyester plates. Small-format metal systems have been a more recent development. Very large format (VLF) platesetters, on the other hand, marked an early expansion of the metal CTP product category.

Printers at both ends of the spectrum are faced with basically the same arguments and ROI analysis as their eight-page brethren in considering a move to CTP-based production. There are a few size-dependent variables, however.

Starting with the entry-level systems seems like the natural choice. Direct-to systems for imaging paper and polyester plates often get overlooked in discussions of CTP. A variety of dedicated platesetters have been introduced, but polyester materials generally can be exposed by traditional imagesetters, as well.

Studying Poly Performance

The Graphic Arts Marketing Information Service (GAMIS) of Printing Industries of America undertook a major study of polyester plates in 2001. "The Market Potential for Polyester Printing Plates: 2001-2005" study was designed to gauge the performance of emerging "CTPoly" technology. It was prepared by William Lamparter, principal of PrintCom Consulting in Waxhaw, NC.

A central conclusion of the study was that polyester plates are suitable for a wide range of work in runs up to about 25,000 impressions, depending on the condition of the press and the quality requirements for a specific job. Lamparter reported finding numerous examples of printers producing quality process color work, tight register and heavy coverage products.

"These findings are significant in dispelling outdated stories about plate stretch, inability to register, plates flying off the press because they would not properly lockup and a variety of other performance-related problems," notes the study summary. "Many of the performance negatives about polyester plates may have been true at one time but, today, those stories are unfounded. These old tales have inhibited the penetration of polyester plates into the markets that could best use the technology."

And yet the technology remained behind the eight ball in the eyes of the majority of commercial printers, Lamparter acknowledges. "There really are two sides to the story," he says. "A huge number of printers do revolt when you say polyester, but there also is an installed base of dedicated computer-to-poly-plate systems that rivals—if not exceeds—the number for metal CTP systems."

Even though these devices are successfully meeting the needs of printers at the low end of the market, Lamparter says he still hasn't seen any significant change in the industry's opinion of polyester plates. "Polyester could go a lot further, but it's under-marketed," he points out. "One thing the technology has going for it: you can show that CTPoly is cheaper."

The prices for scaled down two-page metal CTP systems may be significantly less than those of their big brothers (four- and eight-page models), but the investment still is more than what owners of two-up shops are likely to want to make, according to Lamparter. Getting financing can also be an issue. "Any time these printers have a buck to spare they'd rather buy a press or a color copier, since they can sell the output," the consultant adds.

Total cost of ownership is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in discussions about CTP adoption. Performance on-press is a key factor in the equation. Whether there are actual differences in the performance of polyester and metal plates or not, the attitude of the press operator can be its own cost. As Lamparter noted earlier, press operators on the whole still love metal.

In a sense, almost every metal platesetter is a two-page machine since the minimum plate size supported typically falls into this range. Small press shops have been known to opt for a larger model to support future growth plans, but the addition of a larger press has to come in the near term for the economics to make sense. Some manufacturers do offer a field upgrade from the two- to four-page format.

Metal platesetters with a dedicated two-page format are a relatively recent evolution of CTP technology. If they can get past the "sticker shock," small printers will find some compelling reasons to make the move.

Faster turnaround is a primary reason for adopting CTP, be it in a two-, four- or eight-page format, says Mark Tonkovich, product manager for CTP at Heidelberg USA in Kennesaw, GA. However, he notes that there isn't a universal need for automation to meet that demand. "The base version of the Heidelberg Prosetter 52 (two-page platesetter) is a semi-automatic recorder to provide an attractive price point," the product manager explains.

The platesetter is offered in an automatic version, with the option of a field upgrade, Tonkovich says. "The smaller format market has more of a tendency for shorter run lengths, which can boost plate volumes," he notes. "Automation does add to the cost of a unit, but it can be justified with large volume plate requirements. Whether or not it's needed really depends on individual production demands."

The Prosetter 52 features violet imaging technology (405nm, 5mW) in an internal-drum design to lower the purchase price. It handles a maximum plate format of 20.66x26.37˝, outputting up to 20 plates/hour at 2,540 dpi (depending on plate type) in yellow safelight operating conditions. The unit's maximum resolution is 3,386 dpi, and it can be configured with up to two integrated punching systems. Field upgrade to a four-up Prosetter 74 configuration is also possible.

Budget and space constraints have a higher degree of importance in the CTP buying decision for the small printer market segment, reports John O'Rourke, director of digital media at Presstek Inc. in Hudson, NH. These concerns, he says, normally outweigh the potential gains from automation and automated handling capabilities.

"In general, prospective buyers of two-page metal CTP systems have a higher percentage of jobs with less than four colors, meaning fewer plates per job," O'Rourke adds. "However, shorter runs, quick turnaround cycles and having multiple small presses in the shop can increase plate usage." These factors will generally cancel each other out in terms of the impact on plate demands, he contends.

O'Rourke believes the advantages of thermal, process-free CTP are especially applicable to the two-page market. The per-unit cost of plate developing chemistries (or yield) is impacted by processing volumes, he points out. "While two-page shops can have reasonable plate volumes, the small size of the plates still works against their plate/chemistry cost ratio."

The Presstek Dimension200 thermal platesetter handles a maximum plate size of 20x21˝ in daylight-safe operating conditions. The system images most thermal plates (830nm), including Presstek's own Anthem and PEARLdry materials. The platesetter is offered in versions with imaging resolutions of 1,200/2,400 dpi or 1,270/2,540 dpi and can expose its maximum plate size in 3.1 minutes at 2,540 dpi. It supports screen rulings up to 200 lpi.

Print Imaging Services (Pisces), in Nashua, NH, has taken a different technology approach in going head-to-head with CTPoly systems. Its JetPlate desktop systems use standard ink-jet printer engines and a proprietary "liquid light" imaging solution to expose certain conventional UV-sensitive aluminum plates.

Hank Clifford, vice president of sales and marketing, naturally agrees with the assessment that printers prefer to run metal plates. "The registration on metal is better and the plates don't stretch on-press," he explains. "Operators can start and stop presses without impacting the plates on the cylinders. Older presses, in particular, tolerate metal plates better than polyester.

"Running four-color work on a four-color press just requires one setup, but four-color printing on a two-color press requires two passes. Registration becomes more critical for quality and to facilitate setups," Clifford points out.

Small-format printers had been largely relegated to adopting CTPoly systems because of the cost, he asserts. "They can't afford to make mistakes and be pioneers. They also can't afford the expensive systems adopted by eight-up users."

Small printers are being impacted by the broader CTP adoption trends, however. "The eight-up users have been able to trim costs out of their processes with CTP, which is enabling them to go down market and compete for more of the work that was traditionally done by small printers," Clifford reveals.

The Pisces JetPlate system is designed to offer printers a low-cost (under $20,000) computer-to-metal-plate solution. The company's 3000 plus series uses a slightly modified Epson Stylus Color 3000 ink-jet print engine to output a maximum plate size of 18.06x25˝ at 133 lpi with 0.002˝ repeatability. It can produce approximately one A3-sized plate every eight minutes and operates in yellow safelight conditions. The system includes a separate JetPlate Processor 64 (including post-baking) or CBU-18 curing and baking unit to enable hand developing.

ECRM is also a player in the two-page metal CTP market with two lines of platesetters. Its Mako 2 system uses violet imaging (405nm, 5mW) to expose a maximum plates size of 22x22˝ at seven resolutions from 1,200 to 3,556 dpi.

The TigerCat 2 supports a maximum format of 24x24˝, with a field upgrade option to a four-page format. It can be configured with violet (405nm), green FD YAG (532nm) or red HeNe (633nm) laser imaging systems for exposing silver or photopolymer metal plates. It offers a choice of eight resolutions from 1,200 to 3556 dpi with a 200 lpi maximum screen ruling.

Distributed in the U.S. by GraphLine Inc., the HighWater Platinum 2218 is a flatbed platesetter offered in violet (400nm) or green (532nm) laser versions. It handles a maximum plate size of 18.1x22˝ with a manual loading/unloading operation guided by pins. The unit images metal plates at a resolution of 1,270 or 2,540 dpi and exposes its full image area in less than four minutes at 2,540 dpi. It is driven by a Harlequin-based RIP that also enables proofing from the same file and supports features such as Ink-Monitor for capturing ink usage data and Q2 Workflow Manager for automating the prepress workflow.


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