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Need To Know


A core factor in improving efficiency and productivity for many printers, Brendan Perring sets out to investigate the cutting edge ‘sexy’ developments in computer-to-plate technology.

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The sexy side of CtP

From the takeaway menus coming through their letterbox to the newspaper they pick up on the way to work, the average digitally saturated first world consumer sees print simply as the end result of an arcane process that they vaguely associate with technology akin to the age of the steam engine—or so print-guru Benny Landa would have us believe speaking at recent print exhibition Ipex 2014.

If only that print consumer knew of the hugely complex and interwoven strands of technology that must come together to produce that flyer for the local Pizza Hut in all its exact brand-coloured glory, or the intense competition war that rages between manufacturers for the slightest of performance gains. One of these key historic battlefronts is computer-to-plate technology (CtP). Once heralded as the revolutionary technology that would keep print at the forefront of communications in perpetuity it has seen its light somewhat overshadowed by the hype surrounding digital print technology and the ‘reports of litho’s death being greatly exaggerated’. And believe it or not, there really is a sexy side to CtP.

The Screen PlateRite 4300S is sold by Apex Digital Graphics, designed to provide versatility in plate production for 4-page and 2-page presses, it can output up to 21 plates per hour (724 x 615mm) (28.5" x 24.2") at 2400dpi

Indeed, while the market share of violet processed CtP imaging systems has fallen away outside newspaper applications, the battle lines in commercial sheetfed being drawn between ‘processless’ or ‘chemistry-free’ plates and the still dominant technology in the market, thermally ‘processed’ plates, seem set to start grabbing headlines in the not too distant future and consequently make a significant impact on the development of CtP systems.

“The next goal is CtP systems in combination with processless plates that produce longer run lengths and are compatible with running UV ink. Thus eliminating chemistry from thermal platesetters, it would be a significant market advantage if someone could achieve this Holy Grail,” says Bob Usher, managing director of Apex Digital Graphics, who adds: “We are already up to technologies such as Brillia HD Pro-T3 from players like Fujifilm, and this is a significant improvement on level one some five years ago now. The early adopters may have had some teething problems but it has been incredibly stable for the last four years or so.”

Ralph Hilsdon, Agfa’s global director of marketing, Pre-Press, also comes in on this point, adding a wider view: “The pursuit of achieving chemistry-free plates that can achieve longer run lengths and greater compatibility is certainly true, but it really is horses for courses to some extent. We divide the market into two halves, the mainstream market which is predominantly sheetfed, and demanding applications like heatset web for things like magazines as well as packaging.  There is no technology for this latter area that is on the horizon for taking chemistry-free or processless plates into this market. For these applications you really need conventional process CtP systems and plates.” 

The next goal is CtP systems in combination with processless plates that produce longer run lengths and are compatible with running UV ink

The newest offering from Apex Digital Graphics
is the chemistry-free Mitsubishi Violet DigiPlate
VDP-4. The system punches, exposes, washes
and dries plates at a rate of up to 20 per hour, and
at a choice of resolutions: 1270 or 2540dpi using
 a 120mw laser
This ‘Holy Grail’ and the pursuit of it in areas such as sheetfed is what continues to make an analysis of CtP so interesting. And so instead of focussing in forensic detail on the features of each and every system from the major players that can be found with a quick google and have remained largely stable for the last few years, it is perhaps more beneficial to analyse the major trends shaping this sector on the background of the current technology available.

Looking to Apex, it offers the fully automatic Screen PlateRite 83000E/S for B1 and 4300E/S for B2+ thermal platesetters, in addition to the 2055Vi-S Violet platesetter for B2.

The newest offering from Apex, a development reflective of Ushers comments, is the chemistry-free Mitsubishi Violet DigiPlate VDP-4. First shown at Print Efficiently 2013, the system punches, exposes, washes and dries plates at a rate of up to 20 per hour, and at a choice of resolutions: 1270 or 2540 dots per inch using a 120mw laser. Plates are created from rolls of polyester material, with a new plate thickness being developed by Mitsubishi in order to create a more rigid B2-sized plate: the 0.3mm gauge material is supplied on rolls of 41m in length. 

Plates for B3-format press can also be produced on the machine from 0.2mm gauge material, which is supplied in 61m rolls. The unit can combine two rolls of material at one time, enabling the fast switching of production from B3 to B2 plates.

Plate processing is carried out using just tap water following exposure and print runs of up to 20,000 impressions are claimed by the plate manufacturer. Its significant advantage is the small footprint of the machine, and the fact that the processor is in-built.

“Experience of previous polyester plates leads us to suspect that longer runs would prove very little problem,” continues Usher, adding: “We have a long association with polyester plates, and when treated with care should provide for print runs in excess of 20,000 with no great problem.

“This new Mitsubishi unit comes along at just the right time for us. We see it filling a gap in the market vacated by the DPX series of machines that we were selling. Over 500 units of that model were installed in the UK and so we believe that there is certainly a market for this new unit—especially when printers are seeking more environmentally-friendly products and more cost effective production solutions.”

Crouching tiger

Another major industry saga that is set to influence both CtP and plate development is the fall and rise of Kodak, which after coming out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in leaner and fitter shape is focussing its still substantial research and development resources at this technology sector. Credited as the first CtP pioneer, the company’s regional marketing manager, Output Devices and Workflow Systems, EMEA, Peter Hulsmans weighs in how CtP’s evolution fits into a wider industry picture: “While the transition to hybrid and digital printing is ongoing, offset printing is still the overwhelming print technology being used around the world. Now more than ever all offset printing solutions, CtP solutions being just one critical piece, need to be optimized to maximize customer return in this lean and competitive marketplace.”

This view is one shared by AGFA’s Hilsdon:  “There is so much coverage of digital printing, and I am certainly not denying it is going to gain ground. But still today there is an awful lot of offset and a huge number of very old CtP engines that customers have held onto due to the recession and missed an investment cycle. But there has to be some replacement at some point, and that is starting now, so the CtP market is still a buoyant one for us.”

A key CtP system that is experiencing growing sales is the entry-level Kodak Achieve T400 Platesetter. Based on the successful Kodak Trendsetter platesetter platform and its recently developed TH5 thermal imaging technology, it can process 28 plates per hour. The growth is being driven by a renewed

Hilsdon goes onto explain that its chemistry-free devices now can cater for more than half of overall print applications across sheetfed and web, although he makes a caveat that the future of the technology will be more, ‘evolution than revolution’. He does predict however that rather major advances will continue to come in the workflow software area of the equation.

This focus on optimisation, evolution rather than evolution, is a trend that Apex’ Usher picks up on: “Most of the changes generically over the last three years in CtP have been improvements to plates. So developments from the likes of Fuji and Kodak allows printers to get away from chemistry, producing what is termed ‘processless’ systems, which develop on press.

“The impact this is having is clear, as from a dealers point of view the sale of processed and processless plates is now about balanced.”

Indeed, with this technology, as the background emulsion is still on the plate, all the thermal laser is doing is fusing the polymers together to form an image. When the plate goes onto the printing press it removes the areas that have not been laser etched. So the combination of the fountain solution and the stickiness of the ink picks off the non-mage area and dumps it on the blanket, which is then transferred to the paper, removing the need for chemistry all together.

We have a long association with polyester plates, and when treated with care should provide for print runs in excess of 20,000 with no great problem

Capable of being run on the majority of thermal CtP systems, often with the addition of clean out units, the drawback to processless however is that these systems are limited to run lengths of about 100,000 and they are not suitable for UV applications as the ink is more aggressive. Developments from the likes of AGFA with its Azura TS and Avalon N4 thermal platesetter, and TU with the partnered Azura CX Clean-Out Unit (150,000 run length) have sought to attack this problem, as what they term their ‘chemistry-free’ system has a gumming solution that the plate travels through to remove the non-image area. This is because an issue with the usage of emulsion-based thermal chemistry-free plates is that it is effectively something of a contaminant over time to the press itself. While the definition of ‘processless’ and ‘chemistry-free’ is hotly debated between the major players in the market, the competition between Kodak, Fuji, and AGFA in this area should nevertheless continue to drive development on all fronts, including thermal CtP. 

Evolving demand

With this in mind, Kodak’s Hulsmans continues, revealing some impending news to Print Monthly: “The Kodak CtP portfolio consists of the Kodak Achieve Platesetter entry-level system, the award winning and robust Trendsetter, the premium Magnus family and various VLF and Newspaper CtP options. The Kodak portfolio fits every printing environment in both affordability and capability. As the creators of CtP technology, Kodak continues to innovate, not imitate. Later in 2014, new versions of the Achieve and Trendsetter platesetters with advanced automation capabilities will be available globally.”

The Agfa Avalon N8 engines can produce up to 65 B1 plates per hour, pictured here setup to process chemistry-free plates using an Azura clean out unit. Ralph Hilsdon, Agfa’s global director of marketing, Pre-Press, says that the CtP market is back on the up as a technology renewal cycle gets underway

Picking up on Usher’s comments, Hulsmans also says that its development of ‘processless’ systems is at the forefront if its ambition, and is in direct response to a print industry which is far leaner and more competitive that they boom days of the mid-1990s.

He argues that the market share of specific CtP technologies is more a reflection of geography and application: “On a global scale, Kodak is experiencing a substantial increase in entry-level Achieve Platesetters— both 4 and 8-page systems— especially when combined with Sonora XP plates.

“The combined economic and environmental benefits of an investment in Achieve Platesetter with Sonora XP Plates is meeting the customer demands for competitive pricing, high quality, ease-of-use and sustainable print.”
Indeed, Hulsman goes onto outline that this system when combined with its TH5 thermal imaging technology offers an entry-level offering that draws on its well-respected Trendsetter platform and builds on nearly two decades of development of Kodak’s Squarespot imaging technology.

Kodak certainly has the tools to make a firm comeback as it is still reportedly the only CtP vendor that still has 100 percent manufacturing control over all the elements of this technology area: workflow, plates, CTP and service. Its ambition is also clear, as 2013 saw a new release in every graphics category at the company, and with some 800 customers worldwide for Sonara its plates and thermal CtP systems, the company has just announced it will be adding a new plate manufacturing line at its Columbus, Ga. facility.

Get up to date
Arguable one of the company’s that has been one of the sharpest spearheads in the sector is the aforementioned AGFA. Its CtP systems are broken down into three broad areas, visible light (violet), thermal, and ThermoFuse. This latter area encompasses the: Azura TS (chemistry-free) and: Amigo TS (development-free) plate systems and are designed to improve workflow efficiency and improved plate reliability by eliminating or significantly reducing chemical processing.

AGFA has specifically pursued the sheetfed market with its chemistry-free systems and has made large inroads in terms of market share. But, as Usher explains, there are some key forces shaping the future: “The market is consolidating to fewer print sites that are bigger in scale. As a result, what we are seeing is those companies at the top end of the print spectrum that are reequipping going for higher levels of automation and speed to reflect this trend.”

Usher continues: “Now we are seeing at the opposite end that smaller print companies in the UK that have found life pretty tough and are looking ahead to a market that is not going to bounce back to its peak, but still have a ten year old CtP device they need to replace, are now investing in the latest CtP devices.

“We are now seeing quite buoyant sales even in the mature markets like the UK of basic machines such as the Avalon N820SC, which has punching stripped out of it to bring cost down. For these print businesses that services local markets, they are now often replacing an older higher spec machine with a new more entry-level system. This reflects they are normally now catering for lower offset volumes, with a diversified product portfolio which embraces digital print.”

A giant’s playground

With just a few of the major names involved in CtP’s evolution mentioned there are a host of other giants that are developing their technology in-line with the trends outlined, with several sharing the same engines that have been rebadged. Looking back to Fuji, its B2 and B1 CtP equipment spans the Luxel and PlateRite series, which encompassed the HD variant, while its VLF (very large format) optionS is made up of the PlateRite Ultima Series. FFEI offers the violet CtP range of Alinte 8 (8+e entry-level option) for commercial print, and the AlinteNews 80, 100, 120 AND CN20 variants for newspaper operations. Towards the semi-automatic end of the market there also a range of systems that have continued to see evolution from the likes of Glunz and Jensen, with its PlateWriter, and NewsWriter series also reportedly starting to see increased uptake as smaller print operations look to invest in a recovering market.

The Suprasetter A75 from Heidelberg can process up to 33 plates an hour in QM 46 format at a maximum size of 676 x 760mm (26.61 x 29.92”). This range is scalable in terms of automation and features innovations such as high quality lasers systems and an Intelligent Diode System to avoid downtime 

This finding echoes the comments from AGFA’s Ralph Hilsdon in regards to a ‘buoyant market’ for semi-automatic systems. It is also a trend recognised by one of the giants in the business, Heidelberg, who last but not least, is championing the future of CtP as print volumes begin to regain traction with print coming back to the fore as a key marketing platform to target a digitally-desensitised consumer.

Indeed, a recent sale of a Suprasetter A52 is indicative of this finding as Print Team made the investment to coincide with a move from two separate leased operating units to a single premises in Portland. A family firm run by Chris Smith, his wife and two sons, the purchase of the A52 and working under one roof is designed to give the company a much better physical workflow.

The Suprasetter features an automatic top loader, which means that plates can be output with minimal operator intervention. It will produce up to 20 plates an hour and will also run Saphira chemistry-free plates.

"With an excellent year’s trading we felt the need to automate our plate production and free up staff to concentrate on customer service. Having experienced the reliability of Polar guillotines from Heidelberg for around 20 years, we looked no further when it came to sourcing our platemaking equipment," says Smith.

O Factoid: Kodak first introduced a thermal CtP system at Drupa in 1995, two years later some 25 percent of the world’s CtP installs were thermal, moving up to 50 percent by 2001 O

This comment from a member of one of UK print’s core demographics supports the finding that a recovering economy over the last twelve months, combined with a delayed reinvestment cycle for CtP, will start to see sales of equipment start to take off. Looking back to Heidelberg, its Suprasetter range are designed to be scalable in terms of automation and productivity and are capable of handling chemistry-free plates. The laser systems in the Suprasetter range also offers one of the highest levels of precision and durability on the market and feature clever innovations such as the Intelligent Diode System developed and patented by Heidelberg. This means that even if one or several diodes fail, production is not interrupted.

Working for Heidelberg for more than 27 years, its operations and consumables manager, Stephen Kyle, outlines what he sees as the development pathway for CtP: “The key thing is how today’s CtP technology integrates into the wider production system of the prepress, press, and finishing, it’s all part of one story. Providing and end-to-end solution is very important to us and with Suprasetter we have a very high-quality and reliable machine.

“What marks it out is the laser technology which underpins it, and the ultra-high specification to which the machines are built. In terms of development, being able to go up to A1 on the 105, at 38 plates an hour means it keeps pace in most of the commercial market we deal with. And of course you then have the option of using two machines for those very large printers that need additional productivity, which we always recommend over a faster single system, because you have backup in case there is an issue.”


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