CTP--The Digital DRUPA
DRUPA 1995 was the beginning of the thermal computer-to-plate frenzy. Leading the charge: Creo and Kodak. Five years later, new platesetting initiatives are poised for DRUPA 2000. What digital platesetters will be announced at DRUPA 2000? Dusseldorf, Germany, holds the answers.
BY MARIE RANOIA ALONSO
At DRUPA 1995, a tiny Creo Products—tiny compared with the CTP giants Linotype-Hell, Gerber and Scitex— touted the production and workflow merits of thermal CTP for commercial printing. Creo's message was all thermal. Kodak consumables were Creo's enabling technology, bridging Creo's thermal output engines with the digital plate production demands of the average commercial printer.
Who didn't take notice?
There was no doubt at DRUPA 1995; the vendors were betting big R&D dollars that the industry was ready to go filmless and CTP machines were going to make this move happen. Creo was an early leader, at the time, in thermal CTP, with roughly two dozen output devices installed.
What a difference from one DRUPA to the next. Two months from now, Creo, no longer tiny by any measuring stick, will enter DRUPA 2000 as the new owner of the digital prepress component of Scitex and a strategic joint-venture partner with Heidelberg Prepress, the owner of the former Linotype-Hell.
What opportunities will DRUPA 2000 hold for Creo, Heidelberg Prepress and competitive thermal CTP and conventional CTP platesetter vendors? Since DRUPA 1995, platesetter manufacturers have been slugging it out over new launches and debating the promise and commercial viability of thermal technology. They have also been partnering, acquiring and OEMing back and forth.
At DRUPA 1995, suppliers like DuPont Crosfield took center stage, joining Escher-Grad in touting the upgrade path from film recording to platesetting. BARCO, Cymbolic Sciences, Eskofot (minus Purup), Optronics and Screen, on the other hand, were constant in emphasizing their respective, circa 1995, plate recorders' abilities to image film.
With Baited Breath
What should we expect for DRUPA 2000 from the CTP vendor community? Expectations are for this technology segment to grow rapidly as conventional, thermal and new variations of the platesetter evolve to meet the needs of a broader base of users—from the small, standalone printer to the multi-site mega-consolidator.
While many contend vehemently that the YAG laser devices with photopolymer plates will maintain their leadership position in value when packaged with manual-load devices such as the Fuji PlateJet and Brillia LP-N plates, thermal CTP devices will continue to gain marketing momentum and installation strength, offering printers a variety of semi- and fully automatic incarnations.
At DRUPA 2000, Presstek will debut a new thermal CTP system that will incorporate its latest laser technology. Presstek's new system, scheduled to be launched at the event, will be extremely versatile, supporting a range of plate sizes.
Presstek also hints at a significant plate development forthcoming at DRUPA 2000. The only clue to the nature of the development is the company's emphasis on thermal technology's superiority to visible laser systems.
Presstek is positive about thermal imaging primarily because it enables ablative imaging, which, in turn, ensures a chemical-free process. Further, Presstek executives report, this chemical-free environment promotes greater stability, given the reduction in variables inherent in a multi-step production process.
Krause Sings the Blues
Krause America is plotting a few strategic launches of its own. According to Krause's Dan Wilzinski, the company will have something "new to introduce to the industry in the DRUPA 2000 timeframe, a technology for imaging plates shaped by the needs of the printer—violet laser diode imaging."
Wilzinski reports that violet laser diode technology will be an attractive, cost-saving, daylight-exposure technology that is ready to compete with visible and thermal technologies in many applications.
"Violet laser diode imaging was developed in response to the needs of the printer who is looking for yellow light plateroom conditions, with a less expensive plate and a simpler, less expensive imaging device," Wilzinski explains.
"Many Krause customers will now benefit from the advantages of violet laser diode with an easy, drop-in replacement to Krause's internal-drum platesetters."
Blue laser diode platesetters—often referred to as violet, because they actually emit energy in the violet spectrum—are expected to be in big demand in the later portion of this year and into 2001.
The Other Players
The announcements planned for DRUPA 2000 may be the validation of blue-laser predictions, supported not only by Krause, but by CTP output and consumables manufacturers including Agfa, Citiplate and Fuji.
While Fuji officials are reluctant to go on record with great emphasis on the short-term anticipation for the blue laser market, Tim Combs, vice president of marketing at Fujifilm, reports that his company has been conducting ongoing research with blue laser diodes and UV laser exposure heads, and, in fact, already has plate technology that can be used on such devices.
Agfa, likewise, has been studying the blue laser and, at present, officials report that Agfa's Lithostar Plus blue laser-sensitive CTP plate lends itself nicely to this technology. The Lithostar has been tested on Escher-Grad's Cobalt 8 blue laser platesetter—the first commercially announced blue laser diode platesetter on the market.
Though lips are sealed as to specific platesetter product announcements for DRUPA 2000, the following technological tidbits offer a direction for the platesetting market, as it steams ever closer to the May event.
Agfa's emphasis for the DRUPA 2000 timeframe will be on Galileo S, a visible-light plate manufacturing system. Featuring a high production speed, this system is designed to bring maximum throughput to high-volume printing operations. Galileo S images plates at speeds up to 50 percent faster than the standard Galileo visible-light system.
Expect Agfa's Apogee Series2—at least—PDF production system to drive the company's collection of Galileos, including the thermal Galileo, Galileo T. Apogee Series2 is an enhanced version of Agfa's PDF-based production workflow. The recent incarnation sports the new module, Apogee Create, which makes reliable PDF masters.
Creo (and perhaps, if regulatory approval is granted prior to DRUPA 2000, Creo/Scitex) will support its fleet of thermal platesetting devices, including the VLF Trendsetter Autoloader (AL), Creo's plate loading and unloading system that fits onto VLF Trendsetter systems. Creo and joint-venture partner Heidelberg Prepress will emphasize the Prinergy PDF-based work-flow, linked to the Heidelberg/Creo Trendsetter Spectrum digital halftone proofing system. The system uses a common RIP, resolution, linescreen, screen angle and thermal imaging technology to image both proofs and plates.
The Creo Proofsetter Spectrum achieves the same degree of integrity in a dedicated, standalone proofing solution, which utilizes Creo's SQUAREspot thermal imaging technology to replicate files, dot-for-dot, on both proof and plate.
Turning to Scitex—or, depending on how one looks at it at present, Creo/Scitex—the Lotem thermal platesetters will command Scitex's thermal utput attentions at DRUPA 2000. The Lotem 800V2, which was a major emphasis for Scitex at GRAPH EXPO 1999, is an enhanced version of the company's Lotem 800V system.
With its 48-beam laser head, the Lotem 800V2 platesetter is capable of imaging up to 16 pressready plates per hour.
One would anticipate that the Lotem family, including the four-up Lotem 400V, the Lotem XL for large-format output and the LotemFlex 40/45 flexsetter for flexographic packaging applications, would be on hand at DRUPA 2000, but Creo's recent acquisition of the digital prepress contingent of Scitex may alter expectations.
Fujifilm plans to showcase its PlateJet 4 and PlateJet 8 visible-light platesetters and the company's eight-page Javelin Luxel T9000 830nm thermal platesetter. Featuring an output productivity of 12 plates per hour at 2,400 dpi, the Fuji Javelin offers an automatic internal plate punch that provides quick repeatability. Javelin users have the versatility to mount up to eight optional punch blocks for a variety of punches, based on an array of plate sizes and press specifications.
The Javelin runs the Fujifilm Brillia LH-PI series of non-prebake, non-postbake thermal plates at full speed (1,000 rpm).
Screen will put the international spotlight on its four-up PlateRite 4000 thermal plate recorder, the latest launch following Screen's eight-up PlateRite 8000. Sporting a high-speed drum rotation speed of up to 1,000 rpm, combined with a 32-channel laser diode exposure head, the PlateRite 4000 can produce 16 plates per hour at 2,400 dpi.
The PlateRite 4000, naturally, is compatible with Screen's TaigaSPACE automated job workflow system. Though a semi-automatic configuration is now offered with the PlateRite 4000, there may be single and multiple cassette auto-loaders and a processor bridge on hand at DRUPA 2000.
Xitron recently announced new RIP interfaces for the Fuji Sumo, Luxel F9000 and Javelin 8000, as well as for the Screen PlateRite 4000/8000 and Tanto 5120 (DT-R5120) digital platesetters. All of these interfaces are available on Xitron's Navigator NT RIP, which is based on the Harlequin core RIP.
The interface offers full support of intensity, neutral density, filter and punch control, media handling and reporting from the RIP. Xitron's full-featured RIP offers PDF support, error handling, reporting and recovery, and optional In-RIP trapping.
In other news, Xitron recently announced an OEM partnership with Escher-Grad Technologies. This agreement allows Xitron to package Cobalt 8, the market's first violet laser diode (VLD) platesetter, with a Xitron RIP. The package is called the Xitron Cobalt CTP System.
Optronics will, no doubt, have a thermal focus at the international show, with the company's Aurora ThermalSetter on display.
Purup-Eskofot will show its ImageMaker CTP Thermal system, which features an imaging area of 32.2x42.5˝ or 24.4x31˝.
But Wait, There's More . . .
Of course, this is just a hint at what the platesetter market has in store for DRUPA 2000. Many more companies will be making big announcements, and enhancing the available technologies for putting ink on paper.
New enhancements to existing devices from BARCO Graphics to Printware, coupled with new plate recorders entering the market from Agfa, Krause and Cymbolic Sciences this year, just to name a few, will without reservation set the stage for a new platesetting market.
DRUPA 1995 may have been a turning point for the industry; Certainly much of the technology announced at that event became the butt of a few jokes—there were more CTP systems on display than there were actual installations worldwide.
Five years later, with thermal CTP now out of the diaper phase and fully implemented in thousands of locations globally, coupled with new blue laser diode platesetters poised to challenge thermal's grip over the marketplace, to use an old phrase: We ain't seen nothin' yet.
Between DRUPA 1995 and DRUPA 2000
. . . The Thermal Revolution
(Editor's Note: The following information was provided by Kodak Polychrome Graphics.)
When the graphic arts industry last gathered for DRUPA in May 1995, no one imagined the coming computer-to-plate (CTP) revolution that would sweep the industry in just five short years.
At the time, projections of CTP adoption were minimal. Barriers ranged from the cost of CTP systems (anywhere from $300,000 to $750,000 in 1995), to printer reluctance to move away from film, to perhaps the biggest challenge—managing the digital workflow. The base of potential CTP users seemed small; estimates put the percentage of printers equipped for digital prepress at only 20 percent.
Despite these hurdles, almost four dozen manufacturers demonstrated some type of CTP solution at DRUPA 1995. Why? It made sense. CTP seemed the obvious extension of the slow, but evolving, digitization of prepress. CTP also held the promise of increased efficiencies and productivity.
Among the CTP solutions presented at DRUPA '95, including some 14 "digital metal plates," only one was based on thermal technology: the Kodak Direct Image Thermal Plate (now the Kodak Polychrome Graphics Thermal Printing Plate/830). The introduction of this plate, in conjunction with the Creo Thermal 3244 Platesetter, changed the face of the CTP market.
Warming Up to Thermal
Since the market probe installation at Quad/Graphics' Hartford, WI, plant in 1994 and the beta installations at R.R. Donnelley & Sons' Magazine Division, in Mattoon, IL, and the Rand McNally Book Services Division in Versailles, KY, in September 1995, the worldwide installed base for thermal CTP has grown to an estimated 2,000 platesetters. While both thermal and visible light CTP continue to grow, most experts forecast that thermal will overtake visible light sales either this year or in 2001. Some industry factions believe the crossover has already happened.
Thermal CTP provides many benefits for the printer. The primary advantages are: improved daylight handling, plate functionality that is like that of conventional plates—requiring no special handling or press adjustments—and the potential for extremely high resolution.
Thermal CTP is the result of a rich research and development philosophy within Eastman Kodak Company combined with a keen strategic market view. Mike Rundle, Kodak Polychrome Graphics' worldwide project manager for CTP products, recalls, "The development of the thermal CTP plate shown at DRUPA 1995 was an outgrowth of Kodak's work on laser thermal imaging in the mid-1980s, which resulted in the introduction of the original Kodak Approval system at DRUPA 1990. Kodak continued to explore the applications of this technology. In fact, it was a retrofitted Approval laser-thermal printhead that allowed Dr. Neil Haley and Steven Corbiere to begin their work on thermally sensitive, digital printing plates."
R&D had delivered a plate that delivered superb image quality; Kodak's management decision to work with Creo to develop a thermal platesetter resulted in a viable production system for thermal CTP. Since the plate became commercially available in January 1996, demand has grown exponentially.
"During 1999, we have scaled up production of the Thermal Printing Plate/830 globally," notes Bruce Davidson, Kodak Polychrome Graphics' worldwide marketing manager for plates. "We are now manufacturing in Japan, Germany and the United States."
After DRUPA 1995, every major manufacturer introduced a thermal plate. While these plate companies were just getting started in thermal products, Kodak Polychrome Graphics was striding ahead to realize the full potential of thermal technology. One result was the company's Electra 830 plate, the first widely available no-preheat thermal product. Notes Dave Bartram, worldwide plate marketing manager, CTP, for Kodak Polychrome Graphics, "The Electra 830 can achieve 200,000 impressions unbaked and more than three million impressions baked."
Kodak Polychrome Graphics plans to further fuel the thermal revolution at DRUPA 2000. Mark Stewart, CEO of Kodak Polychrome Graphics, said at a recent pre-DRUPA press conference, "The company continues the long history of innovation and excellence of its parents, Eastman Kodak and Sun Chemical, by investing tens of millions of dollars each year in its R&D projects. With a single focus on the graphic arts industry and an unequalled expertise in plates, film and proofing, Kodak Polychrome Graphics continues to translate our cutting-edge technologies into innovative products and value for customers. The results will be seen at our booth at DRUPA 2000.
"We believe our distinct positioning in this industry is to be 'The Media People' for graphic arts customers," Stewart continues. "This will be our DRUPA theme."
Kodak Polychrome Graphics believes that thermal technology will continue to be the platform for the broadest array of high-performing computer-to-plate solutions. At the same time, the company continues to investigate alternate technologies. It will be fascinating to see what products may transform the industry by DRUPA 2004.
A Creo Report:
Blue Laser vs. Thermal Platesetting
(Editor's Note: The following technical information was provided by Dave Brown, vice president, and the thermal imaging team at Creo Products.)
With more than 400 team members dedicated to research and product development, Creo continually evaluates the applicability of new technologies and solutions. The criteria we use to evaluate the feasibility of a new development include the value that it provides to the customer, its performance in a production environment and how cost-effective it would be for that customer to adopt.
Based on these criteria, Creo has performed a thorough analysis of the opportunity presented by blue-violet laser technologies. While we believe that there is no single, blanket CTP solution for everyone, our conclusions confirm our commitment to thermal technology as the solution that provides the greatest efficiencies and best investment value to our customers.
Thermal technology is the only process capable of imaging the entire range of materials used by printers and trade shops: offset plates, processless plates, dry (waterless) plates, proofing media, film and flexographic media.
It is clear to us that the future of CTP lies in a combination of thermal imaging technology and thermal processless plates, which will deliver significant economic benefits to printers and trade shops alike.
This is underscored by the fact that several vendors once offered blue laser CTP and most of them have since switched to thermal technology. It is further evidenced by the fact that 830nm thermal plates have become the most widely available CTP plates on the market—with multiple vendors selling a broad variety of plates in record volumes.
Consider the Plate Processor
We acknowledge that, in the future, blue-violet systems may be able to expose visible light-sensitive photopolymer plates. In the more distant future, they may even be able to expose high-speed photopolymer plates. However, both of these plate technologies have inherently lower resolution than thermal plates.
Blue-violet laser systems do not image the conventional types of plates that are currently in use. Instead, they require special high-sensitivity plates, which are processed after imaging. As a result, when considering an investment in a blue-violet laser CTP system, customers should be sure to incorporate the cost of a plate-processing unit and the environmental controls associated with it.
By eliminating processor chemicals and service, processless thermal plate technology reduces facility floor-space requirements, decreases the environmental impact of production and helps keep operating costs down. Removing the plate-processing step also supports better process control and cuts the time necessary to produce plates—the first time around and for remakes, if required.
The processless thermal plates coming to market today use ablative imaging technologies, with plates imaged in this way able to achieve run lengths of 20,000 to 50,000 impressions.
In January, Creo began field testing with Kodak Polychrome Graphics' Navajo ablative plates on the Heidelberg/Creo Trendsetter. As ablative technology is further refined, run lengths will increase.
The next step in processless plate technology is switchable polymer, which will further reduce operating costs for printers and trade shops.
Because costly anodized aluminum is not required to manufacture switchable polymer plates, this revolutionary technology has the potential to reduce the cost of CTP plates to less than that of conventional plates.
Thermal imaging technology finally brings cost-effective digital halftone proofing to printers and trade shops. The concentrated power of thermal imaging is necessary to image digital halftone proofing materials effectively and accurately. With the Heidelberg/Creo Trendsetter Spectrum, a combination of fast platesetting and halftone digital proofing on the same system brings higher efficiencies to the typical print-production environment.
The Bottom Line
The overall manufacturing cost for a thermal processless-plate imaging system is less than the combination of a visible-light (blue-violet laser) imaging system and plate processor. The cost of the plate processor alone exceeds the cost difference between a thermal-imaging system and a blue-violet laser imaging system. As a percentage of the overall cost to produce a thermal CTP system, the cost of the laser diode is negligible.
Volume pricing and the broad application of thermal technology have driven prices down since its initial introduction. Blue-violet laser diodes, however, were recently developed for specific application in DVD players. As a result, they are currently available with the capability to produce less than 10 milliwatts of power.
As far as CTP applications are concerned, this is sufficient to image only silver halide-based plates, which typically require hydroquinone-based developers. This chemical is a known carcinogen.
To image photopolymer printing plates, the development of blue-violet laser diodes that emit 100 milliwatts of power is required. As a result of this customization, which will also require time to develop, customers will not benefit economically from volume pricing.
In addition, blue-violet laser-sensitive plates will only be available from a limited number of media vendors in the near-term, which is certainly an advantage for the vendor(s) but not necessarily for the customer.
The benefits of thermal imaging technology far outweigh the potential benefits possible with blue-violet laser imaging technology. The majority of vendors associated with computer-to-plate technology development today are thus continuing to spend money on the development of thermal imaging and plate technologies.