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Oct 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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With the advent of digital technologies, mediocre printing is something that few print buyers, ad agencies and customers accept from commercial, catalog and publication offset printers. Now, national retailers are raising the quality bar on the most disposable of printed materials--the insert.

Retailers know that high-caliber printing of these multi-page advertisements helps lure customers into store aisles. In printing literally millions of inserts every week, quality must come inexpensively while accommodating the difficulties of absorbent papers, excessive dot gain and harsh lint. Generating quality work under these conditions has been the hallmark of Retail Printing Corp. (Taunton, MA). Since 1979, this newspaper insert printer has steadily built a following among supermarket and retail chains. The company's 350 employees work on eight heatset web presses.

Early on, Retail recognized that quality helps attract bigger customers. Because its average print runs were in the two million to five million range--with other jobs requiring as many as nine, 10 or 15 million impressions--the company regularly hunted for plates that could provide the next step in quality while supplying long-run lengths. It evaluated negative surface plates from a host of plate providers.

"Whatever was latest and greatest, we tried," recalls John Medeiros, director of operations and corporate development. "Some plates performed better than others, but none could provide the quality and quantity we were searching for. In our experience, getting high runs off of surface plates just wasn't possible."

Until 1990, all of Retail's presses had two-form ink rollers. The company was satisfied with their performance until it purchased a state-of-the-art, three-form ink roller press.

"The print quality from the older presses compared to the new press was glaringly different," says Medeiros. "Dot gain was the culprit. Our customers immediately noticed the difference, depending upon which press the jobs were coming from. Solving this problem kicked our investigation to find the right plate into high gear."

The printer's search ultimately led it to Printing Developments, Inc.'s (PDI) bimetal plates. The plate's ability to control dot gain on Retail's older presses eliminated the problem and increased the quality output of the older presses.

The ability to move dot values to compensate for dot gain is a key insert printer requirement. As the only plates that can be sharpened during processing, bimetal plates can adjust dot densities 6 to 25 microns to improve detail in shadow areas, while holding highlights and creating more intense, vibrant and cleaner colors.

"There's a certain amount of degradation in the print quality of old equipment as time goes on," Medeiros explains. "Printing off of a copper surface and being able to sharpen an image on the plate via chemical processing allows us to compensate for dot gain on the press."

As Retail employees began working with the plate, they discovered its many advantages over surface plates. "Bimetal plates are truly meant for the pressroom," asserts Medeiros. "Surface plates rely heavily on running the right stock on pristine equipment. PDI plates help compensate for less-than-ideal conditions and the many environments that can exist."

The printing exec likes that the plate accommodates many types of paper. Retail Printing works with a variety of stocks, including newsprint, supercalendared, coated and premium offset, on 100 to 133 screen linework, which yields better print resolution. This is a significant departure for most insert printers, many of whom generally run 85 to 100 line screens for average newsprint.

The plate's adaptability also helps Medeiros maintain agency and customer standards and their demand for better matches. "In a perfect world, all film would be generated the same way," he says, "but we deal with 30 to 40 clients who output film differently. Bimetal plates are the great equalizer. We can adjust the sharpness of the plate chemically, rather than manipulating the work on film."

Retail also went computer-to-plate (CTP) about a year ago, after more customers expressed a desire to transmit jobs digitally. The process was seamless, because both PDI's conventional and CTP products use the same processor and chemistry. And, the bimetal plates do not need pre- or post-bake ovens. "It's not a matter of money but of real estate," explains Medeiros. "Floor space is a big issue in any plant today. If you have to give up floor space to peripheral equipment, there are costs to be considered." Retail's facility is 250,000 sq. ft.

According to Medeiros, these plates run with 20 percent less water than standard plates. He notes that attaining perfect register is difficult when running wide-format presses at high speeds. "But bimetal plates allow us to drop our water settings, so we reach balance sooner, decrease web stretch and greatly reduce register issues," he enthuses. "When we go up with either PDI's conventional or CTP plates, we stay up."

Medeiros most of all appreciates the product they turn out. "We saw a measurable jump in quality when we switched from conventional to bimetal plates," he says. "And when we adopted CTP, we fine-tuned operations even further. Any time you go through multiple steps, from file to film, through chemical processing and then to the plate, there's room for error and gain issues. But registration is a lot tighter in the CTP environment. Bimetal plates maximized our efficiency as well as our quality."

For more information, see the charts on page 84 of the October, 1999 issue of American Printer.