CTP--Still Testing the Waters
As computer-to-plate grows in popularity and application, prepress officials and technology providers trade outlooks on CTP's hottest issues—especially the true commercial availability of thermal plates. What's better—thermal or non-thermal? Warning: They tell it like it is.
BY MARIE RANOIA ALONSO
Is the jury still out on the long-term merits of thermal imaging—and the consumables considerations any reasonable prepress director must labor over when deliberating which output device to recommend, thermal or non-thermal?
For one, Maureen Richards, prepress technical director at United Lithograph, now a Mail-Well company, has her thermal reservations.
"The current thermal technology is not 'utopia,' but I am perhaps biased by the success of our non-
thermal Galileo CTP workflow," Richards reports, noting that United's Agfa Galileo platesetter, working in tandem with a Polaroid digital halftone proofer, has boosted prepress productivity at the Somerville, MA, printer. "We do not think that the thermal solutions available today offer a significant enough advantage for our business."
Yes, United's Richards concedes, thermal technology allows longer press runs, up to a "gazillion impressions," she quips. "But the fact is, we are a commercial sheetfed operation with average run lengths between 20,000 and 40,000 impressions."
"The thermal process images much more precisely. I won't argue that under a 10,000X microscope the edges on a thermal-imaged plate are better defined than our double-YAG green plate, but let's be real. First of all, how much of this is negated by the whole process of putting a petroleum by-product on a substrate? After all, that's what printing is," Richards argues. "Secondly, our customers do not come in for their press OKs with a microscope in hand, but rather rely on a BetaView 12 to check the registration and overall quality of their jobs. To date, they're very pleased with the results we achieve with our Galileo."
Is Richards just anti-thermal? Not really. Just pro-caution. "I believe that the real benefits of thermal are yet to be realized," she states. "We would like to see a processless plate, better quality control tools at the RIP and some robust editing tools at the computer that drive the proof and plate."
What's holding thermal back? All together now: Consumables.
"The true availability of thermal printing plates and the flexibility of plate manufacturers to provide these plates must improve considerably for thermal CTP to be fully optimized," contends Scitex's Stan Najmr, product marketing manager chiefly responsible for the roll-out of the Scitex Lotem 800V thermal platesetter. "Thermal plate technology is still not where it needs to be; the industry needs more than just one or two vendors to rely on for availability of plates for full production capacities, far beyond just the testing stage."
Doug Richardson, product manager, thermal imaging, at Creo, holds out hope for the consumables front in the near future. "Progress is still possible in terms of more plates, less expensive plates and other thermal consumables possibilities," Richardson contends. "However, with respect to plates, today there are more thermal offerings than visible-light options."
As for thermal CTP delivering prepress utopia, the common theme tends to be that thermal CTP's true impact hinges on the real-time arrival of processless materials. Creo's Richardson finds this is a rather strange phenomenon.
"The combination of thermal CTP with today's plates offers more than conventional and visible-light platemaking methods," the thermal advocate argues. "With thermal, independent of the process control on-press, there are simple processors and pour-down-the-drain chemistry, as well as daylight handling.
"Processless does reduce costs associated with maintaining a processor and the chemistry involved," Richardson continues. "However, this additional cost savings is small compared to the benefits already possible on-press."
Richardson reports that, based on Creo's experience, processless plates will perform every bit as well as the current crop of conventional plates, and they will be drop-in compatible with Creo's thermal platesetters. As such, Richardson predicts, a wholesale switch to thermal and thermal processless materials is possible—in fact, eventual, resulting in the processless utopia for prepress within the next decade.
Peter M. DeWalt, president at Reynolds-DeWalt Printing, is looking forward to the deliverance of Richardson's prediction. DeWalt gives thermal CTP four out of five stars at present, with the last star on indefinite hold until the consumables portion of thermal CTP hits higher performance and commercial availability levels, giving the industry more choice and less processing.
"We are anxiously awaiting the commercial availability of thermal printing plates that require no processing," DeWalt states, noting that his company recently introduced Kodak Polychrome Graphics thermal plate technology into its operation, working with a new Scitex Lotem 800V thermal platesetter.
"At this time, I do not believe there are significant quality benefits between the DuPont/Agfa Silverlith SDB and the Kodak thermal plate, but I certainly do look forward to working in a daylight environment," DeWalt contends. "That may just be my opinion, but I feel it's valid nonetheless."
Dave Bartram, CTP marketing manager for Kodak Polychrome Graphics, understands the sense of caution and optimism expressed by many commercial printers deliberating the thermal plate purchase.
"Even though the great success of Kodak's thermal plates, working in tandem with Creo and other thermal CTP imagers, can hardly be overstated, I have a hard time putting the terms 'CTP' and 'utopia' together in the same sentence," Bartram reports.
"With that said, let me take a crack at overstating my case. The Kodak Polychrome Graphics thermal plate 830 now constitutes about 70 percent of the total U.S. off-press CTP business, with visible light and thermal plates finishing 1997 at roughly equal volumes. Yet our sales of the thermal plate 830 product increased 300 percent in 1998.
"It looks to me like all the visible-light CTP products combined have increased sales less than 50 percent during a year that saw overall growth at around 200 percent. The verdict of the marketplace is in: Given the choice of commercially available CTP plate products on the market today, thermal is the way to go—and the place to go for thermal plates is Kodak Polychrome Graphics," Bartram says.
Talk about fighting words.
Still, Bartram admits, what lies ahead for thermal CTP may not be utopia, but some new and exciting thermal plate products from major competitors set for distribution this year will certainly make for some real competition in the off-press thermal CTP arena.
"We'll try to stay ahead of the curve by aggressively developing our no-process and digital waterless plate technologies, while intensifying our efforts to improve our existing preheat and no-preheat products," Bartram says. "The increasing choices for thermal CTP plates and platesetting systems promise faster CTP market growth and a healthier, more sophisticated, more competitive, offset printing industry in a world of increasingly complex and diversified media choices."
In 1997, PDI introduced the PRISMA 830 CTP plates and the PRISMA 1064 CTP plates, which are both thermally written. Since then, PDI's Dwight Zilinskas reports that PDI realized it had made the correct choice in going thermal.
"Although products released earlier by our competitors required high energy prebake and postbake ovens, as well as UV filtered safelights, our PRISMA products eliminated the need for any of these," Zilinskas explains. "These advancements provided a major leap ahead for the CTP industry and, as we move forward in 1999, our studies show that PRISMA products rank No. 2 for being the largest number of thermal CTP installations in commercial and publication printing operations in North America. Quebecor, World Color Press, Mail-Well, Treasure Chest, Spencer Press and St. Ives are just a few of the many printers that have adopted the thermal technology of PRISMA CTP plates."
Jim Crawford, PS plates product manager, Fujifilm Graphic Systems Div., forecasts 1999 to be a very big year for the commercialization of Fujifilm's Brillia LH-NI and Brillia LH-PI thermal plates. The Brillia LH-NI requires prebake and postbake to be press-ready for runs exceeding 1 million impressions.
Fujifilm's most promising thermal technology for expansion into the short-run web and commercial sheetfed market, however, is the Brillia LH-PI, which requires neither prebaking nor postbaking to achieve its pressroom potential of 300,000 impressions—a tremendous benefit to commercial printers that are unaccustomed to having baking ovens in their prepress environment. The LH-PI only requires a conventional-size processor, so a small footprint develops, rinses and applies finishing gum to make the plate press-ready.
"Thermal should continue to grow in the U.S. market due to the promotional efforts of platesetter manufacturers concentrating on this technology," Fujifilm's Crawford suggests. "It is unlikely that all printing establishments will universally need or want thermal technology, therefore, the landscape for the next five years should offer competing technologies that are the new tools of the trade."
Keep in mind, Crawford continues, that there are new technologies such as blue-laser diode and low-res screening geared for high throughputs to support short-run color that will continue to challenge the capability envelope for thermal.
"Much has been made about processless technology—typically, the promises depict a panacea, while the reality shows an alternative method to obtain a sellable sheet for the customer," Crawford cautions. "While processless can eliminate an effluent waste stream for the printer, questions will challenge the true viability of the technology."
For instance, Crawford asks, how will the printer have to alter the plate making process to accommodate the new technology? Will other process variabilities be introduced? What is the run-length capability of the plate? What are the pressroom chemistry characteristics?
"Printers, like most people, are resistant to change. Consequently, the most successful processless product will be one that most resembles current workflow habits—and will therefore be adopted at the highest rate," Crawford suggests.
Scott Ralph, prepress director at Phoenix Color, thinks thermal consumables are moving in the right direction—fast. "At GRAPH EXPO 98, almost every major plate vendor showed a thermal plate. I found this to be a very good sign that thermal is being accepted by the major players," Ralph reports.
At present, Phoenix Color is running two Creo Trendsetters. "The exciting news for us is that, beginning early this year, we will be moving to the Fuji positive thermal plate, which requires no baking," Ralph states.
"As for the benefits of thermal," Ralph continues, "I will name a few: no red-light environment, soon to be no baking, and more reliability and consistency."
How could thermal CTP be better? Ralph has one suggestion. "I believe thermal CTP costs to be almost on par currently. But with the additional vendors shipping thermal plates," Ralph says with optimism, "I hope plate prices fall in '99."
Heidelberg Prepress on Thermal Imaging Consistency
Ray Cassino, CTP product manager at Heidelberg Prepress, offers a five-star review of thermal imaging technology as 1999 takes shape.
Thermal imaging offers superior quality. The core technology gives consistency. It is a very consistent, stable product, so by its very nature, normal process changes will not change the result on-plate. If the developer gets hot, if you give too much heat or if the environment changes, you still get the same, consistent, repeatable output.
Thermal CTP offers flexibility. It allows a prepress environment to expose four different types of media—film, plates, MatchPrint and thermal Digital Dylux—thus decreasing costs. In general, thermal imaging opens CTP to bigger markets, to small- and mid-size printers that can now offer more service with just one machine.
Visible-light technology only allows exposure of plates. It is also a mature technology and only minimal improvements can be anticipated. Thermal is the key to the future—the future being the processless plate.
Presstek on On-press Thermal Imaging
Efrem Lieber, director of sales and marketing at Presstek, forecasts great competition and quality advancements for the on-press thermal imaging market.
"On-press CTP, with more than 4,000 thermal imagers in place, is the No. 1 CTP implementation in the world. And why not? Today, owners of Heidelberg Quickmaster DI, GTO-DI and Adast 705C DI presses are getting litho quality output at low costs per page, in real time. And all of those implementations use Presstek thermal ablation waterless plates and ablation imaging.
"The best is yet to come. In 1999, the Scitex-KBA 74 Karat and Heidelberg Speedmaster 74 DI presses—along with the Adast 705C DI—will add four-page formats to the advantages of on-press thermal imaging with Presstek technology. And in 2000 and beyond, other press manufacturers will add DI presses to their repertoire to provide high-value, high-return, high-tech thermal CTP products to their customers."