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Speed demon

Mar 1, 1996 12:00 AM


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Computer-to-press or computer-to-plate?

That's the question B & B's director of prepress, Robert Carrier, asked himself. The Bristol, TN firm, a 32-employee, full-service general commercial printer that handles work from design through bindery, initially selected the former. In fact, lured by the technology's promise of fast turnarounds, Carrier even ordered the digital press.

Upon closer examination, however, he realized the equipment wouldn't be cost-effective. After all, the short run lengths at which the press was most cost-effective didn't match the firm's 10,000-piece average runs. Also, "we started looking at dollars and cents. If we have $650,000, do we want to devote it to one press that will spend a great deal of time making plates or, for roughly the same amount of money, do we want to go computer-to-plate (CTP), which affects every press in the shop?" he asks.

Carrier cancelled the digital press order and, seeking an alternative, investigated direct-to-plate systems. Next, he called a meeting with B & B owners and debated the merits of going direct-to-plate based on three criteria:

* cost must be equal to that already allocated for direct to press;

* turnaround time must be significantly decreased; and

* direct-to-plate solutions must feed every press in the print shop.

The $4 million B & B had looked at direct-to-plate options early in 1994 when only two manufacturers were delivering equipment and word on the street was that the technology "wasn't there yet."

As a Linotype-Hell site, Carrier was tied into the vendor's communication networks, both formal and otherwise. "We heard through the grapevine that Linotype-Hell was building CTP systems, and even heard the name Gutenberg (LinotypeHell's CTP offering)," Carrier says, "so we went to Philadelphia for Graph Expo and talked to company representatives."

In September 1994, the company signed a contract to buy a Gutenberg system, explains Carrier. The sale represents the first Gutenberg purchase in the world.

Linotype-Hell's Gutenberg with Streamline Production includes the platesetter, twin RIP 50Gs, the PageBuffer 50, as well as the LinoServer, FormProofer to create a digital blueline, Signastation for electronic imposition and S3500 scanner.

If B & B's decision to go to CTP seems somewhat financially as well as operationally hasty, it's worthwhile to consider that the company didn't have to make many of the major changes most printers would be required to undergo.

"The company already owned virtually all the necessary equipment except the Gutenberg platesetter, but used film," relates Carrier. "We had eight -up film recorders and had been going electronic with digitally imposed film flats for quite some time, so to integrate the firm for direct-to-plate, Linotype-Hell simply had to put the Gutenberg in place. It was a very easy transition. The firm had the foresight in previous years to see the direction things were going, so it had geared all its purchases for a totally digital workflow."

"We had, and still have, a four-page film recorder," continues Carrier, "and we already imposed eight-page flats, tiling two four-page films and stripping to eight-page flats, so we already did the biggest stripping jobs on computer."

Indeed, the firm's experience with four-up imposed film flats was so effective in smoothing the path to CTP that Linotype-Hell has formalized it into a "bridge solution" for customers considering the technology. By leasing or renting a Linotype-Hell four- or eight-up imagesetter for one year, printers can familiarize themselves with the digital infrastructure. If they then decide to adopt CTP at the end of the lease period, most of the money they've invested can be applied to a Gutenberg unit.

Installation, which required two weeks, took place in August 1995. Establishing, training and implementing 100 percent Gutenberg workflow at B & B reportedly was fast and easy. The process "never took us down, period." Two employees trained six hours each on the Gutenberg. "The Signastation was the biggest item in terms of training," Carrier says. "The operator spent a full day mastering that piece of equipment."

Workflow goes like this: jobs come in on disk, the firm creates a PostScript file, sends it to the Signastation for imposition, then to the FormProofer and Iris Realist digital proofer. Next, customers okay proofs and B & B makes plates. Luckily, 95 percent of the firm's jobs come in on disk.

"The purchase has gone well in the grand scheme of things," Carrier believes. "We put in the machine and literally started running proofs and plates immediately."

One benefit of the Linotype-Hell system? Carrier says other direct-to-plate devices have no real structure in terms of equipment that precedes the output unit. But, Linotype-Hell believes digital infrastructure--server, scanning, imposition technology, etc.--is just as important as the output device. "After all, if you can't get this high-volume of data to the output device, it doesn't really matter what the output device is," maintains Ray Cassino, product manager for Linotype-Hell.

But, what really matters is results. And B & B has them. "Before investing in the Gutenberg, we spent approximately $18,000 per month on film, plates, chemistry, etc. Now we spend about $7,000 monthly," Carrier reveals.

The firm saves time as well. "Production cycles on the average job last three to five hours; they used to be three to four days," he explains.

The shop quickly realized a radical, positive change in makereadies. "The idea was to cost-effectively reduce turnaround times and boost quality," Carrier says. Makereadies were reduced because the Gutenberg has a punch built into its drum so the plate is punched in register with the image. "Also, when you eliminate film and traditional stripping material, you eliminate dimensional stability issues. Third, traditional strippers can't strip a separation or piece of film precisely on," he adds.

"On Gutenberg-produced plates, our makereadies are 30 minutes or less. On most jobs in which plateready film is provided, makereadies can take 1 1/2 to 2 hours."

B & B uses an Iris Realist digital device as a contract proofer. "Some people say it's not a contract proof," relates Carrier, "but a contract proof is whatever clients will accept. We can match the Iris on press, and clients are satisfied."

According to Carrier, the CTP system is so effective that B & B today has 45 percent to 50 percent downtime in its prepress area daily."We're waiting for the next job all the time," he divulges. Rather than cut staff, the firm is aggressively seeking new business.

Toward that end, the shop has mailed a brochure, Speed, to customers. The publication touts the firm's new 72-hour turnarounds on some jobs- for no added charge. Carrier offers the example of a 16-page, four-color calendar that came in on a Monday morning. The job had six scans. "We placed the scans, did imposition and proofs and sent the proofs out at 2 p.m. that day. The proofs were okayed, and by 5 p.m. we were imaging plates.

"That's how we plan to build our business-by offering faster turnaround than anyone else in our market, and on top of that we deliver higher quality.

"We're committed to doubling our business in the next three years. This is a competitive field, and anyone can beat anyone's price if they really want to. Anyone in our market can produce the quality customers require," says Carrier. "But our turnaround time is something no one in our market can compete with."

For more information on the Gutenberg computer-to-plate system from Linotype-Hell, circle 16 on Reader Card