The Great (Digital) Plate Debate
BY CHERYL A. ADAMS
In the great digital plate debate, the stakes are high, competition is fierce and expert opinions are numerous . . .
"Thermal is dead!"
"Visible light will fade away!"
"Polyester is taboo!"
"Blue laser diode isn't a technological breakthrough, it's a setback!"
"Anything but silverless UV CTP is economically unsound!"
When the dust settles, which consumables (and related technologies) will be left standing? Which ones will not only survive, but thrive in a future where print will compete with other media channels and other digital printing options, such as distribute-and-print, and the Internet?
As more commercial printers address the transition to computer-to-plate (CTP), questions like these must be asked (and answered!) before taking the technological plunge. Printing Impressions contacted many of the leading CTP consumables suppliers—who spoke passionately about their plate technologies—to shed some light on the great digital plate debate and to aid with the CTP plate/platesetter purchasing decision.
Is Thermal Dead?
Surely not, says John O'Rourke, consumables product manager at Presstek, noting that his company is fully invested in thermal. "We are a CTP business. All of our technology is thermal; it was a conscious choice. We felt the path to process-free and chemical-free would lay in thermal ablation technology."
When thermal technology came on the market, it was the early days of CTP implementation and most systems were visible light; but now the overriding number of new systems purchased are thermal, he explains.
"All this talk about violet laser being hot and thermal being dead, is just that—talk," he states. "Look at what's being sold. Creo is selling the most CTP systems, and they're mostly thermal."
To find out what's hot and what's not, printers need to look at what other printers are buying, he advises. "Look around. What is being presented at DRUPA? What's available from the showroom floor? What can you write a check for today? Not violet laser; it's 'vaporware.'
"Violet laser technology requires light-safe handling and chemical developing," O'Rourke continues. "The Presstek choice is process-free and chemical-free, and it is what we believe makes more sense for print today and in the future."
And some of today's trends—specifically, blue and violet laser technology, which will always be linked to chemical developing—will prove themselves not fit for the future, he asserts.
"Blue laser diode platesetting, which requires chemical developing, is a setback," he states. "And we [at Presstek] think that, with environmental and regulatory sensitivities being what they are, hitching your cart to a horse that (for the foreseeable future) will always require chemical developing is probably not the best choice for printers looking to purchase CTP systems."
As for the future, O'Rourke predicts a rapid proliferation of thermal plates because process-free (or "zero-process") plates eliminate chemical developing. When such variables are removed, a printer gets a much more predictable and repeatable system, he says.
"And commercial printing is in the business of repeating," O'Rourke notes. "Repeatability is how you make money. And any system that allows you to do this more efficiently is better for your business."
Providing still more defense of thermal's longevity, O'Rourke compares thermal's proven track record with other "vaporware" products, as he calls them, that made their tech-demo debuts at DRUPA. For example, he cites flaws in the concept of spray-on polymers: Instead of eliminating steps, spray-ons add steps, he claims. "You have to A) spray it on the printing press, B) cure it, C) image it, D) clean it, E) print it and F) clean the press again to maintain its pristine surface. That's six steps versus the two steps of thermal.
"Thermal is processless and chemical-free," he concludes. "It's the proven plate technology today, and it's the investment that will last into the future."
Agfa and the Holy Grail
In the quest to eliminate processing steps, the "processless" plate is the digital plate manufacturers' Holy Grail, says Jonathan Ashton, Agfa's senior marketing manager for CTP plates. The hottest trend in the CTP consumables market today is the elimination of off-press processing steps, which includes no more baking, he contends, noting that, given an oven's high electricity costs, the trend is to eliminate the pre-bake step and provide fast, cost-efficient solutions that are environmentally sound.
"Yesterday, the trend was aqueous and recycling. Today it's processless. Today, printers want to eliminate activities that are not core to their businesses," Ashton explains. "To make a plate, you have to image it, pre-bake it, process it, bake it, then post-treat it for more impressions—it's a manufacturing process. And, a printer's manufacturing should be printing on the press, not manufacturing plates. We're tying to eliminate the amount of manufacturing printers have to do. As a supplier, it's our responsibility to minimize the manufacturing effort required for the end-printed product."
Printers are in business to print. And no one cares what happens to a plate before it hits the pressroom, Ashton insists, as long as it's a quality plate. So, the more variables that can be eliminated the more value is added.
More value, plate after plate, impression after impression, up to a half-million impressions, Ashton says, noting that second-generation thermal technologies have eliminated the pre-bake step and increased imaging speed to provide plates with extremely long runs.
Advancements in the longevity of digital plates should interest newspaper printers, Ashton explains, noting that CTP is a driver for those operations wanting to expand into commercial printing. The capacity of the digital plate market will rapidly grow, he predicts, should newspapers cash in on the market.
"We are seeing a lot of activity in the CTP arena, both in the commercial, mid-range market and the bigger newspapers," he concludes. "I believe that the industry as a whole is looking more toward CTP as being a 'remain in business' vs. a 'bleeding edge.' Now we're moving beyond that; CTP is mainstream."
The trend is for suppliers to provide total solutions, not just consumables, Ashton says. And Agfa, as a leading producer of plate materials, as well as platemaking systems, is in a "key position" to offer a wide range of integrated platemaking possibilities.
Leading the Thermal Revolution
If Drupa 95 was the beginning of the CTP revolution, Drupa 2000 proved that the revolution is alive and well. "In '95, CTP was looked at with a wary eye, cost barriers and dependence on film reinforcing the bias. Today, however, it's a different story," says Bruce Davidson, Kodak Polychrome Graphics' worldwide marketing manager for plates. "Computer-to-plate is fast becoming the norm in litho platemaking, a trend driven by the need to produce quality printing, faster," he says.
A vital factor in this development is the widespread availability of high-quality CTP litho plates, which Davidson notes give results as good as, or better than, the conventionally imaged plates they replace. "Kodak Polychrome Graphics strongly believes in the future of thermal technology," he states. "We feel that the full potential of thermal technology is not yet explored and offers many interesting possibilities for the future."
Thermal plate technology revolutionized plate production in commercial printing when it was introduced in 1995. It has excellent performance on-press: the halftone dot is as durable as the best conventionally imaged plate dot, he asserts. "New thermal laser diodes introduced in 1995 enabled our scientists to develop plates using polymers similar to those used in conventionally imaged plates; polymers optimized for litho printing," Davidson says.
The combination of these plates with the new, very sharp exposure profile of thermal imaging, he notes, brought new benefits in accuracy and precision, delivering higher resolution, as well as increased predictability.
"Our commitment to thermal imaging began when we introduced the Approval, a fully digital, halftone proofing system," Davidson notes. The Kodak Approval was launched in 1990 as the best way to get halftone dots digitally onto a proof. This was followed in 1995 by the Intertech Award-winning Thermal Printing Plate/830 and the Electra 830 Printing Plate.
"At the same time, we are committed to Thermal CTP," says Mike Yatsko, conventional plate marketing manager, for the US and Canada. "We also recognize that there are many of our customers who have not yet made the move to CTP, and still use a conventional workflow. We continue to improve our conventional plate portfolio, through enhancements to speed, spectral sensitivity and on-press latitude."
Will Visible Light Fade Away?
"People thought visible light would fade away, that thermal is the only plate technology that will be here long-term. But DRUPA shows differently," states Ben Butera, Fujifilm's assistant product development manager for plates. The next generation of visible light plates has been improved, he says. They provide greater highlight, as well as dot durability and improved chemical resistance on-press.
"Fuji believes that visible light CTP, or high-speed photopolymer, still has a future in the market," Butera adds, noting that the release of Fuji's new imagesetter, the Luxel, is evidence of that belief and financial investment in visible light plate technology.
Also, second-generation no-bake plates are attracting a lot of interest lately, he remarks, and sales are "really starting to take off." Traditional no-bake plates required post-baking to improve runlength and chemical resistance on-press, he explains, noting that after so many impressions, the plate's image weakened and had to be re-baked. However, with the advent of "true" no-bake plates (which were released earlier this year and have gained sales momentum), at least 300,000 impressions can now be achieved without any baking, whether pre or post.
Also, he reports that existing no-bake plates require pre-baking in order to achieve good chemical resistance on press, so the elimination of the pre-bake step in second-generation visible-light technologies is a significant advancement.
Printers are buying these "true" no-bake plates because "they want to get rid of their ovens," Butera adds. "No-bake plates are also a natural choice for smaller sheetfed printers who tend not to have the floorspace for ovens (not including a gum rinse unit, in some cases, as well). Also, when the oven is eliminated, so is the electricity needed to run it, as well as the air conditioning that is required to quickly cool the room back down to its normal temperatures. Those reasons alone are compelling enough for printers to consider no-bake plates."
In still other visible light developments, Butera says some existing plate technologies—Fuji's LH-NI—are being improved for much longer processing chemistry life and a much wider preheat latitude.
As a manufacturer of both CTP platesetting systems and the digital plates that run on them, Butera says Fuji is in the unique position of offering printers both products. And the key is that Fuji understands how the platesetter and plate work together.
"A lot of times people forget to look at how a platesetter and a specific plate work together. They might buy a platesetter and think all plates will work well with that system; but that's not true," he cautions. "How do the platesetter and plates work together? Are there any references of other printers using that combination? Also, it's important to understand things like runlengths and resolutions, and how these things might effect the type of plates they are looking to buy."
Polyester Sheds Its Taboo
That darned taboo about polyester plates! It began around 1975, when the analog version was introduced and was used to print only "simple stuff." Unfortunately, the reputation stuck, claims Jeff Troll, director of marketing at Mitsubishi Imaging.
But future generations of analog offered much higher quality than people realized, he notes. The assumptions that polyester handled poorly, that it stretches, etc., were inaccurate and made the product "very hard to sell."
Mitsubishi began promoting polyester-based material in 1985, when it was first introduced in the U.S.; but, because of the myths, the company had a tough time getting printers to try it. "Once we had the opportunity to demo it [Silver DigiPlate], we changed their minds," Troll says. "Look at all the steps we're saving; look at all the money we're saving."
Using the polyester material essentially turns an imagesetter into a CTP platesetter. If a printer can't afford to buy an expensive platesetter, there is the option for him to go to CTP right now, by utilizing the Silver DigiPlate materials through his existing imagesetter.
Mitsubishi has spent the past six years demonstrating its polyester products, and dispelling the taboo in due process. Troll says printers have heard about polyester's good quality, and they are asking dealers for the material. And they're asking if their presses can run the plates, he adds, so there is new interest from press manufacturers to accommodate polyester plates.
"We're not promoting a new polyester product; we're trying to break into new markets with existing products and our DPX system, which has been a good part of our success because of the platesetter's on-line punching and registration on-press. Specifically, we've been pursuing the four-color, short-run, two-up market that, up until a few years ago, would rarely consider printing with polyester."
Attitudes are clearly changing about polyester. The material is now capable of printing 175 line screens and four-color process work. "And," he says, "printers can make money doing it!"
But, in order to make money, the printer first has to learn how to properly handle this unusual, unfamiliar (oh taboo!) polyester plate. Mitsubishi has technical and pressroom support teams that can make the plate run on-press, and can teach press operators how to do it, too. And in the end, according to Troll, it is the press operator's ability that will determine whether the polyester plate will succeed or not.
"In the past five years, there's been a boom in the use of direct-to-polyester plates by small commercial printers," says Stewart Gallup, product manager of digital systems at ABDick. "It allows them to get high-quality output faster, and at a lower cost, than with traditional plates. The print quality of a polyester plate as compared to metal is almost identical at this level of printing, so the benefit is not only having the same quality level, but higher throughput and the ability to turn jobs around faster."
Direct-to-plate is, in general, faster and less expensive than conventional printing (it eliminates the film and processing steps, which saves time and money), Gallup explains. But because small printers have shorter runs, they use more plates, so the cost of the plate is very important, as well. Polyester plates cost less than metal plates.
AB Dick's polyester plate is Megapro, which is not a new product, but one that Gallup anticipates will soon see elevated sales, based on its use with ABDick's new direct-to-plate system, the DPM 2340. The new platemaker made its DRUPA debut and reflects the latest in technological trends. Gallup's list of such trends includes:
- Improved quality. The latest devices offer higher resolution, higher accuracy and faster throughput.
- More compact. Units are smaller in design to adhere to the space limitations of smaller printers.
- More affordable. The price is coming down, Gallup says, noting the $35,000 price tag on the DPM 2340.
- Designed as a true direct-to-plate system. Today's platemaker is made as one, integrated direct-to-plate system, he notes—not an imagesetter with a processor attached.
- No more polyester taboo. Vendors have successfully demonstrated the product's capabilities and many more printers are using it, Gallup reports. "People used to think polyester was used for lower quality printing, but then you demo it and show them 150 lpi printed with process color that looks just like metal plate quality, and you make believers out of them."
- On-site technical/ pressroom support. A difference exists between a vendor's ability to demo a product's greatness and the printer's ability to realize that greatness himself. Gallup insists that press operators have to be trained in how to properly use polyester plates to achieve the higher quality.
- Printers will trade up, from imagesetters to platesetters. As small-format imagesetters begin nearing the end of their six- to eight-year life cycle, small commercial printers will consider getting rid of their imagesetters all together, Gallup predicts. They will look to trade up, buy new technologies and make the decisions to go direct-to-plate. As proof, Gallup says, ask any small-format imagesetter vendor if his sales have been declining over the past five years.
A Breakthrough Alternative
Ultraviolet shone brightly among CTP platesetting solutions offered at DRUPA 2000, where printers saw new UV laser platesetters, violet (UV) laser diode platesetters and mercury lamp UV platesetters (from two-up to 32-pages in size) shown by no fewer than 10 companies. But, with so many new UV platesetting engines emerging, what kind of UV-sensitive plates will they make?
All those just-introduced UV CTP platesetters are clear evidence that a technological explosion is happening in CTP, according to Robert Dainton, technical director at Citiplate, which manufactures an extensive line of high-performance UV-sensitive aluminum offset plates. These seem to be the right plate products at the right time: Breakthroughs in UV lasers, violet laser diodes and UV light-modulating technology are bringing a flood of new UV platesetters to market.
"The industry is observing the arrival of UV CTP workflow," Dainton says, "and it's silverless. It's the newest CTP alternative; one offering superior economic advantages for printers." He explains that silverless UV CTP alone economically achieves the same UV-sensitive plate type, whether digitally or with film. Compared to all other forms of CTP, he says, "silverless UV CTP has a simpler workflow, uses fewer and lower-cost consumables, requires less equipment investment and occupies much less floorspace."
Silverless UV CTP has a unique 'single workflow' and a major economic advantage, Dainton asserts. "Most printers have a mix of digital and film-based jobs," he says. "Using other forms of CTP, a printer is required to have a costly 'dual workflow,' whereby a digital stream and a film-based stream separately produce special and UV plates through different processing lines. This workflow model has poor economics, so printers who use it find it impacts their profitability."
"But," he continues, "silverless UV CTP has a 'single workflow' model with quite superior economics. It adds a UV CTP platesetter to the film-based UV platemaking stream most printers now use. Our high-performance UV plates can be used in both streams, for all digital or film-based platemaking, under bright-light handling and with one environmentally friendly, aqueous-based processing line. The cost-savings of using a single, high-performance UV plate type for all jobs—digital or film-based—are quite dramatic."
Dainton says that printers using single workflow, silverless UV CTP are reporting plate cost-savings averaging 25 percent to 75 percent, compared to other CTP methods that require a dual workflow.
"Not only are high-performance UV plates much more economical than thermal and visible light CTP plates," he says, "but because they do not contain silver, silverless UV plates offer an affordable, dual-purpose CTP and film-based solution that does not necessitate extended handling, expensive plate processing lines and significant chemical and waste disposal issues."
As word of silverless UV CTP spreads, "single vs. dual workflow" and "consumable economics" are sure to become key issues in the continuing great digital plate debate.
The Plate is The Thing
For CTP or film-based workflows, the quality of the plate is key. At DRUPA last month, the leading plate developers showcased the latest and greatest in plates, including the following.
Anthem plate: Wet offset thermal plate prints from a grained, anodized aluminum surface, allowing for compatibility with a broad range of press fountain solutions and inks. It delivers a runlength of 100,000 impressions and requires no pre-heating equipment and no chemical-based pro-cessors or post-development baking ovens.
Mistral: a dry, no-process plate providing maximum quality and high run lengths. Based on advanced thermal-ablative technology, which allows plates to be imaged and ready for the press in minutes (without chemical processing), Mistral is capable of screen rulings of 300 lpi and higher.
Thermolite: For short-run, on- and off-press thermal imaging. Agfa took a conventional aluminum substrate technology and put a thermally sensitive coating on top of it. The image is formed through thermal exposure of the emulsion and Thermolite is developed on-press. The plate has the dampening properties of a conventional aluminum plate; no porous coating on top of the aluminum as the water-carrying layer.
Lithostar Ultra: Positive-working aluminum plates engineered for compatibility with all major visible-light imaging technologies. Available in three models: Lithostar Ultra LAP-V (violet-sensitive/410 nm), Lithostar Ultra LAP-O (orthochromatic/488 nm and 532 nm), and Lithostar Ultra LAP-R (red-sensitive/650 to 670 nm). Also for use in Agfa's new violet-laser Agfa Galileo VS and Galileo VXT.
Agfa N91: A negative-working aluminum plate designed for use in visible-light (488 and 532 nm) platesetting systems, including the Agfa Polaris family. Designed for high performance over long runs, Agfa N91 achieves dots of 2 to 98 percent at 175 lpi, and enables press runs of 300,000-plus impressions, unbaked, to more than 1 million impressions.
LiteSpeed: A rewritable, spray-on image, currently in development. Based on the Thermolite technology, LiteSpeed is a chemical coating applied on-press to a metal substrate (the plate) and imaged, then removed and resprayed for more imaging.
Thermostar: Agfa's no-bake thermal product prints up to 500,000 impressions, while eliminating the pre-baking and manufacturing steps.
Kodak Polychrome Graphics
No-process plate: A thermal, negative-working plate that can be exposed digitally on a thermal external or internal drum equipped with a debris-removal/filtration system. This plate is capable of runs up to 50,000, features wide ink/water latitude on press and does not require preheat, development, gumming or baking.
CTP1: Demonstrated with the Thermal Printing Plate/830, this all-in-one, Compact Thermal Processesing System (CTP1) is an integrated equipment and chemistry system, including a preheat module, thermal plate processor and optional post-baking rinse gum unit (quick bake unit).
Aries Excel: A positive-working plate for medium- to long-runs: 150,000 unbaked or up to 600,000 baked.
Thermal Waterless Plate: Bringing thermal imaging to waterless litho printers, this plate can handle runs of up to 200,000.
UP3: A positive plate developed to work with UV and metallic inks and UV varnishes and washes; compatible with both fine conventional and stochastic screens.
DirectPrint: A negative-working plate that requires no prepress processing. This plate is developed on-press, eliminating chemicals and processors.
Another leading thermal manufacturer and DRUPA player is PDI, which demonstrated its Prisma CTP plates as a coexhibitor with its European dealer, Dantex Graphics. Thermally imaged with an 830 nm laser (CreoScitex), Prisma plates eliminate the pr-bake and post-bake processes and run with significantly less water. The result: reduced makeready time and web breaks.
Fujifilm's Brillia line of digital plates utilizes the same aluminum base as their conventional PS-Plate product line.
Brillia LP-NS: A negative-working, high-speed photopolymer plate with resolution of 2 to 98 percent of 200 lpi, argon-ion (488 nm) or FD-YAG (532 nm) light source and works with a wide range of press chemistries.
Brillia LH-PI: A medium-run length, positive-working thermal plate that is 1 to 99 percent of 200 lpi, does not require pre- or post-baking and uses an 830 nm IR laser.
Brillia LH-NI: An IR laser-sensitive, negative-working, long-run thermal plate with 1 to 99 percent of 200 lpi that requires pre- and post-baking with an 830 nm laser. According to Fujifilm officials, the LH-NI was recently improved for much longer processing chemistry life and a much wider preheat latitude.
Along with a wide array of paper, the company showcased two CTP systems at DRUPA.
SDP-Eco1630: Designed for both black-and-white and spot color CTP applications for small presses, the SDP-Eco1630 features high-speed capstan technology and outputs up to 78 plates per hour at 1,200 dpi. Using up to two-thirds less processing chemistry than analog systems, the SDP-Eco1630 features a self-contained processor that operates with two new processing chemistries designed to image Mitsubishi's Silver DigiPlate paper or polyester plate materials.
DPX platesetting system: Developed by Purup-Eskofot, this CTP system features an internal drum and produces process color plates for press sizes up to 18.1x21.6˝. The Genesis version of the DPX is an entry level device designed to fit duplicator-size offset presses up to 13.4˝.
Along with its MEGAPro polyester plate, ABDick showcased recent additions to its Digital PlateMaser (DPM) direct-to-plate device product line.
DPM 2340: A small-format, internal drum system featuring 3,600 dpi and output up to 45 plates per hour.
DPM 2000cp: An integrated quick plate with a built-in scanner: scan the hard copy direct-to-plate right on the device, rather than going to Photoshop, etc.
Aqua LHP: A silverless UV-imaged plate available in four UV imaging sensitivities: 5, 10, 50 and 100 millijoules per square centimeter. Aqua LHP plates are designed for use in both CTP and film environments.