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CTP IN SMALL PACKAGES

Sep 1, 1998 12:00 AM


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After much crumpling of paper and consulting of rhyming dictionaries, we have composed a couplet to kick off this feature: Two, four, six but not quite eight!/What's happening with small-format computer-to-plate?

Okay, so Robert Frost has nothing to fear from us. But when it comes to small format metal computer-to-plate (CTP), some graphic arts service providers and vendors are waxing poetic--particularly about the four-up arena. In this article, we'll review two-up and four-up metal platesetter options as well as consider some users' experiences.

Overall, the eight-up format continues to dominate CTP installations according to UK-based Vantage Strategic Marketing. As of the end of 1997, the market research firm estimated a total of 716 metal CTP units installed in the U.S. Eight-up units accounted for 60 percent of these installations, followed by four-up with 18 percent and two-up with 10 percent.

It isn't difficult to understand why eight-up units prevail--as we've noted before, CTP isn't cheap--a complete eight-up CTP installation (platesetter, server and network upgrades, proofing system, copydot scanners, etc.) can exceed $1 million. For both the eight-up and four-up format, digital proofing remains an issue.

It seems that few but the largest printers--who tend to have 40-inch presses requiring the eight-up format--possess the necessary financial resources and customer demand to make the CTP move. Nick Haddon, Cymbolic Sciences marketing director for print products, concedes that "sticker shock" has been an issue for printers with half-sized or smaller presses. "The alternative buy for a medium-sized commercial printer is essentially an equivalent-sized imagesetter," submits the exec. "There is quite a difference between what you'd pay for a CTP unit and what you'd pay for a four-up imagesetter. But we anticipate lower CTP equipment prices--it will become more affordable and a legitimate choice. . . the market for four-up units is considerable."

Also, as we've noted in previous articles, successful CTP implementations are built on digital workflow skills. This poses yet another hurdle for smaller plants that haven't moved beyond manual film assembly. "A lot of the smaller printers are weak in the prepress area," notes Bill Ray, president, Group InfoTech. "The underlying problem is a lack of file handling expertise." Ray suggests that some smaller operations would be better served by a direct imaging press such as Heidelberg's QuickMaster. The prepress shop owner/consultant explains that since the duty cycle on sheet-fed presses is "a lot less" than that of web presses, adding imaging time to the task of running the press isn't as critical. "A smaller shop may have more time but less money," is how Ray puts it.

Nonetheless, even eight-up CTP is within the grasp of some smaller shops. Ries Graphics for example, an $8 million general commercial printer, recently installed an Antares 1600 from Agfa. "We had just put in new 40-inch and 20-inch presses," explains Don Ries, Sr. "With all those extra cylinders we wanted to keep plates flowing to the pressroom."

The Butler, WI-based printer does a little bit of everything: books, catalogs, labels, point-of-purchase displays, posters, signs, brochures-- "anything from one-color on up," according to Ries. "Most of the plates we're generating are for our 20-inch press. We knew that when we bought our platesetter. We needed the capacity for our short runs."

The range of available small-format CTP equipment is less extensive then that of large format. Players in the four-up marketplace include Barco (which acquired Gerber), Cymbolic Sciences, Creo,UK-based ICG, Optronics, Presstek as well as several OEM arrangements--both Agfa (Antares 1000) and Fuji offer Cymbolic Sciences PlateJet 4, while Sakurai (Platemaster) offers Presstek's PearlSetter. Heidelberg Prepress has teamed with Creo to manufacture the latter's Trendsetter 3230. Others in the eight-up market have signaled their intentions to offer the smaller format, too. Scitex, for example, will introduce a four-up version of its Lotem platesetter in 1999.

Robert Hanselman, CTP product marketing manager for Optronics (Chelmsford, MA), credits shorter runs with creating greater interest in four-up platesetters. "We anticipate strong growth in the small-to-medium (up to 30 inches) press market," relates Hanselman. "This is due largely to shorter run jobs, including a virtual explosion of ultra-short runs (1,500 to 5,000)."

Adds Tom Leibrandt, CTP product manager for Sakurai, "You're looking at a four-color half-size press for under a million dollars, whereas a 40-inch press could cost between $2 million and $3 million . . . CTP is becoming more affordable for the small- to medium- sized printer."

Image Press (West Boyleston, MA), a $2.5 million commercial printer, installed a PlateJet 4 from Cymbolic Sciences after reaching a competitive crossroads. The shop has two 28-inch presses--a Heidelberg M and a Shinohara. "We had a two-up imagesetter," says co-owner Henry Michie. "If we went with a four-up imagesetter we'd be going sideways. If we didn't move forward, we'd be out of business. We were losing jobs to the eight-up, multishift shops. When jobs had to be turned over in five days we couldn't get it through prepress fast enough. Why buy a four-up imagesetter when all your competitors are running eight-up direct to plate?"

Michie reports that Image Press is effectively competing for jobs that had gone to bigger competitors equipped with digital presses. "We can't go down to runs of 100, but at about 200 to 250 we're off and going."

Quality was the second motivation for moving to CTP. "We get a better printed job," notes Michie. "Our midtones are much better than what we could get with film. From a fit point of view, whether it's a four-up or eight-up machine, you always have little problems from say the upper right to the lower left, depending on where you are on the roll of film off your imagesetter. We have zero fit problems--it just hits."

Asked about ROI, Michie emphasizes increased throughput over material savings. "Everybody wants to know about figuring your payback," responds the exec. "You don't calculate it by looking at material savings or this or that. You figure out how many extra jobs you run in a week. Can you run one additional $3,000 or $5,000 job a week? We're making money with it."

While an Iris FX suffices as a contract proof for the majority of Image Press' customers, Michie believes a moderately priced digital proofing device holds the key to accelerating CTP adoption. A high-end proofer, he says, would eliminate the "got-to-have-the-dots" holdouts (both customers and fellow printers). However, Michie cautions that because the technology is evolving so quickly, those who wait too long could get left behind.

Waiting wasn't an option for Las Vegas Color, which was founded as a prepress shop about 20 years ago. "Our last printer customer went in-house with its prepress work," recalls Larry Scheffler, co-owner. "We could either do a swandive or we could get into printing ourselves."

Las Vegas Color ultimately installed a Creo Trendsetter 3230 --along with everything else--this past November. "We kind of jumped into it all at once," Scheffler explains. "We bought a five-color 28-inch Sakurai with a coater, a 28-inch two-color Sakurai, four letterpresses, MBO folders, cutters and stitchers. We are one of the few all-CTP shops in the nation--we have no stripping tables and no film."

Las Vegas Color serves an ad agency and hotel clientele, with typical jobs including rack brochures, in-room tent cards, postcards and keycard holders. Its CTP gamble appears to be paying off. "As a prepress house we did about $3 million annually. This year we'll do almost $7 million in prepress and printing combined because of CTP," submits Scheffler.

While Las Vegas Color's CTP investment was considerable (it also has a Gerber Impress for electronic bluelines, a Kodak Approval and a dye-sub proofer) Scheffler, like Michie, cites improved throughput as a mitigating factor. "We are running our presses 16 hours a day with one guy making plates. If we were doing stripping, bluelines and all the rest, we'd need eight people. In our first month, we made 512 plates without one remake. There were no fit problems, no hot spots, no dust particles, nothing. It was unbelievable. The turnaround is phenomenal. If we get a job in at five o'clock, we can do it by the following afternoon. We coat everything we print--15 minutes later we can flip it over and print the other side and then go to the cutter in half an hour."

Quality, too, has changed for the better. "More than anything else, the Creo gives us our value-added--our 200-line screen. We print everything 200-line screen, coated or uncoated, and we print as high as 300-line screen. We can only do that because of CTP. With the dust and dirt and the contacting, it would be a headache to do 200-line screen conventionally. Our biggest problem now is that we are continually adding dots to the quarter tone and highlights because they are too clean. We're getting exactly what we're putting in."

As for metal two-up, the outlook isn't quite as rosy, according to Barry Happe, principal, Vantage Strategic Marketing. The majority of two-up metal CTP units are being used for business forms and overprinting checks, explains the consultant. Little four-color work is being done because "the current cost of the platesetter is prohibitive for the majority of small commercial printers," notes Happe. "If you recall, Scitex produced the DoPlate 200 specifically for the small GTO-type printer with a conspicuous lack of success, due to the cost and lack of integrated digital workflow among smaller companies.

"If you look at who has been selling two-up metal CTP machines, it comes down to Printware, some early installations of Gerber 2800s, Presstek in conjunction with Sakurai and PrePress Solutions," observes Happe. "All the other metal CTP vendors that are making this small format are concentrating on newspapers.

"We think that polyester CTP--as typified by the A.B. Dick PlateMaster 2000--is much more likely to take up the digital slack in this market format sector, especially with Agfa promoting polyester so aggressively, and a third major supplier coming in to supplement Mitsubishi Paper and Agfa in the future."

Although he may be in the minority, Rich Bressem, president Technical Printing Inc. (TPI), is doing color work. The Sunnyvale, CA-based printer uses a two-up Presstek PearlSetter 52 to make plates for a Heidelberg Speedmaster 52. "We're primarily a manual printer," explains Bressem. "We have 36 employees on two shifts. We do quick turnaround, high-quality color covers to go with those manuals, which is why we were looking for a two-up format."

Bressem explains that being in the center of Silicon Valley--"an environmental hotbed"--also figured into the decision. "We were already using recycled stock and non-oil-based inks. We wanted a direct-to-plate system that didn't require processing or chemicals, and the PearlSetter is the only one that fits the bill."

TSI also features DocuTechs, a polyester platesetter from PrePress Solutions, a Didde two-up press, and a Heidelberg GTO-DI. "It's all based on quick turnaround," claims Bressem. "We can turnaround 5,000 manuals in two working days."

Finally, a new entry to the two-up metal arena was previewed this past spring at Seybold New York. Iris Graphics (Bedford, MA) is developing the Iris2Plate, a platesetter for two-up duplicators and small presses. Based on the company's inkjet technology, it works by forcing a continuous stream of oloephilic fluid through tiny nozzles at high pressure onto uncoated aluminum plate material--no chemical processing is required. The system--which is still in the testing phase--can output four plates per hour at 600 dpi and is expected to be priced at $60,000, including the RIP. No date for commercial availability has been set, however.

So that's what's happening with small-format CTP. On the four-up side, lack of capital and digital output skills will thwart some would-be adapters. On the two-up side, few applications require the quality and speed benefits delivered by metal CTP. As we've seen, however, for some smaller plants four-up is the ticket to remaining in business.

"Approximately one-third of our sales have been in the 3230 four-up for the first quarter," reports Axel Zoller, marketing director, Heidelberg Prepress. "More printers are buying into this proven technology; it's clear that this market is maturing."

Are you ready for CTP? Doing a prepress audit can help you identify where you stand. Areas to examine include: *Percentage of work received digitally vs. analog *Percentages of black-and-white, process color and spot color work *Throughput, or the number of fully imposed flats imposed digitally per shift/day/week *Skill sets of each prepress employee *Film waste due to incorrect stripping, trapping or file preparation *Digital capacity: hardware infrastructure such as workstations and configurations, servers, on-line, near-line and off-line storage, network topology and bandwidth *Digital proofing capabilities and acceptance by major customers Source: Agfa Digital Roadmaps (www.digitalroadmaps.com)

If you've attended industry trade shows, you'veprobably enjoyed comparing notes with your peers. Another way to find out how others are faring is to participate in online discussion groups such as the Computer to Plate Pressroom (www.ctpp.com).

Created by Dave Mainwaring about three years ago, this popular list has grown to 1,000 subscribers. Mainwaring's brainchild grew out his desire to learn more about CTP and his subsequent frustration with the available resources. "I started with zero knowledge," confides Mainwaring, whose background is in human resources rather than graphic arts. "I had a book on prepress and used that as my outline for forum subjects. It's really grown overnight."

Since September 1997, the CTP list has been sponsored by Digital Art Exchange (DAX). Recent threads have included acceptable plate remake percentages, server platform options and a spirited Creo Trendsetter vs. Scitex Lotem debate.

As moderator, Mainwaring occasionally suggests topics for discussion and ensures that a certain decorum prevails. "I get razzed a little bit about being a mother hen," he concedes. Participants are required to register, which also helps keep the peace. To join, e-mail the list administrator (admin@ctpp.com).

Mainwaring recently launched a new forum: Business Systems Computer Integrated Printing (BSCIP). This list is for "those on the edge of CTP technologies but not in the mainstream of CTP," according to Mainwaring. The list will focus on databases, digital asset management, estimating, and similar topics. To subscribe, send an E-mail to: subscribe-bscip-l@dax-it.net.