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CTP 101

Apr 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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Successfully implementing CTP requires printers to manage the transition to a dramatically transformed manufacturing process. This article will review key concerns for quick and small commercial printers evaluating an all-digital workflow.

When you eliminate film in favor of bits and bytes, your digital infrastructure must be able to keep up with production. You'll need up-to-date hardware and software and an internal workflow designed to avoid production bottlenecks. Most printers will require one or more digital proofing devices, as well as upgraded desktop publishing workstations, networks, scanning capabilities and archiving procedures.

Until recently, printers implementing low-cost CTP solutions might have opted for dye-sublimation or phase-change proofing devices; today, nearly every new CTP installation features some form of inkjet proofing. While inkjet has won broad acceptance for its strong price/performance balance, remember that not all devices are equally adept at creating contract-quality color proofs and outputting press-sheet-size imposition proofs. Options for imaging high-quality, two-sided, large-format proofs include Agfa's (Ridgefield Park, NJ) SherpaMatic and TechSage's (Lystrup, Denmark) SpinJet, both of which automatically reinsert the proof to image the second side. Hyphen Asia Pacific's (Sydney, Australia) ImpoProof solves the back-up problem while reducing imaging time by bolting two Hewlett-Packard proofers back-to-back, allowing both sides of the sheet to be imaged simultaneously. (See “Imposition proofing,” July 2002, p. 28.)

Moving up to a modern network

PCs are the heart of any prepress department. Although you may still vividly recall writing a big check to buy your current workstations, desktop computers that are more than two years old act like boat anchors attached to the stern of your workflow. Newer machines are faster, have larger hard drives and will be compatible with the latest operating-system upgrades.

Moving data quickly from your Macs and PCs to your new platesetter requires a modern, efficient network. Many small and midsize printers have grown their networks organically, linking their original prepress department network to their expanding neighborhood of networked PCs in the finance and sales departments. If your network is a decentralized rat's nest of small hubs and lengthy uplink cables cascading out of holes in an acoustic-tile ceiling, use your conversion to an all-digital workflow as the impetus to start anew. Category 5 cabling and stackable 100Base-T switched hubs featuring Gbit backplane connections will create an information superhighway that can handle the rush hour of simultaneous proofing and platemaking. Consider combining the effort with a DSL router and firewall to provide secure Internet access throughout your company.

Shops that haven't already mothballed their large-format cameras will have to abandon these heavy-metal security blankets in favor of digital scanning. Speed is of the essence when capturing full-page originals. Look for FireWire or USB 2.0 connectivity — the original USB specification is much too slow. Additionally, if you'll be scanning more than a few legal-size originals, look for a scanner that offers an optical resolution of at least 1200 × 1200 dpi over an 8.5 × 14-inch area.

How will you handle reprints? Just as you've previously retrieved film flats from a file room, you'll want to be able to call up the desired job from your digital archives. Although many companies have historically relied on tape formats such as DLT because of the low cost per GB, most small shops are well-served by archiving their completed jobs with the new crop of inexpensive DVD-R burners. Holding 4.7 GB of data on disks that have fallen in price to less than $3 each, DVDs have the advantage of being readable in the built-in optical drive of most newer Macs and PCs.

Electrographic plates: real simple

Electrographic devices are the ultimate in simplicity. Similar to a laser printer, these devices deposit toner onto a substrate via a charged imaging drum. A special ink-receptive toner enables offset printing, but many devices can also serve as high-resolution laser printers. Manufacturers offering such devices include Printware (St. Paul, MN). The Printware 1440 can image both inexpensive “paper” plates as well as the more durable organic photoconductor (OPC) aluminum plates. In addition to being daylight safe, both options offer the advantage of being totally processless — when the plates emerge from the laser printer, they are ready to hang and run.

Xante's (Mobile, AL) recently introduced Platemaker 4 is its latest device for electrographic CTP, and extends the legacy of its workhorse Platemaker 3.

Xante users can choose between the Myriad 2 (a dry-toner plate with a polyester substrate) and the Myriad 4, which has a paper substrate.

“We made the decision to purchase the Platemaker 4 based on the positive experience we've had with Xante products,” says Floyd Black, president of Personalized Printing (Carrollton, TX). “In four years of operation, there's never been a moment of downtime on our Platemaker 3.”

Personalized Printing doesn't rely exclusively on paper plates. According to Black, it's easy for press operators to switch between aluminum plates and plates output from the Xante platemaker. “Our press operators print the jobs in the order they were received,” says the exec. “All day long, they go from Myriad 2 to metal and back, so they aren't forced to separate the paper-plate jobs from those running on metal plates.”

Polyester: minimal processing

Most of the action in small-format CTP has focused on Setprint, Cristala and Silver DigiPlate polyester material offered respectively by Agfa, Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) and Mitsubishi Imaging (Rye, NY). Featuring the same high-resolution emulsion as silver-halide aluminum plates, this option simply bonds the silver-halide coating to a polyester substrate. Plate material is sold in standard-width rolls and can be imaged with a helium-neon laser, which has allowed many printers to get their first taste of CTP by loading a roll of polyester plate material into their existing imagesetter. While polyester CTP is not processless, most plate processors developed for use with polyester plates require only one chemical and no connections to a water supply or drain. A.B. Dick, Esko-Graphics, Heidelberg, Mitsubishi, PrePRESS Solutions, Printware and RIPit all offer devices that have been built specifically for the task of imaging polyester plate material — some of these devices can also expose imagesetter film.

A.B. Dick's (Niles, IL) recent introduction, the DPM 2340, combines an accurate internal-drum imaging mechanism with the stability of a UNIX RIP. Operations that want to image both polyester plates and film may be interested in the new DPM 2404/2508, which includes a Harlequin PostScript 3 RIP and an integrated polyester-plate processor. The DPM 2404/2508 is capable of imaging screen rulings up to 175 lpi on polyester plates and 300 lpi on film, due to its maximum output resolution of 3600 dpi.

Esko-Graphics (Kennesaw, GA) is another long-time player in the polyester marketplace with the DPX series of platesetters, which can accurately image polyester plates for use with four-color presses in sizes up to 18.1 × 21.7 inches. The DPX system is an internal-drum device with an integrated plate processor; unique features include dual-plate rolls and a 3600-dpi maximum resolution. Mitsubishi Imaging also offers the Dot??Mate and DPX series of platesetters, as well as the entry-level SDP-Eco1630II.

Heidelberg recently revamped its Quicksetter line of platesetters to complement its Printmaster line of small- and medium-format presses. Featuring two fully automatic devices for imaging polyester plates, the Quicksetter 300E is appropriate for portrait-feeding presses (such as the Quickmaster 46) while the Quicksetter 400E meets the needs of landscape-feeding presses (such as the GTO 52). The marking engines for the new Quicksetter line are provided by RIPit (Citrus Heights, CA), a firm that specializes in prepress products; Heidelberg distinguishes the Quickmaster devices by driving these platesetters with its MetaDimension RIP, a modular PDF-workflow system that can be extended to include high-end functions such as trapping, imposition and CIP4 ink-key data creation.

Heidelberg's choice of the RIPit engine didn't surprise Ray Sullivan, owner of an Alphagraphics franchise in San Mateo, CA. “We have the same RIPit unit we purchased in March 1997,” reports Sullivan. “It's working well and we have every expectation it will continue to meet our needs in the future.”

RIPit attributes the success of the SpeedSetter 300 and 400 to its virtual-drum technology, which combines 0.0005-inch typical accuracy with a 10-micron spot size to allow fine-screen rulings and a level of repeatability suitable for four-color process work.

RIPit routinely recommends Heidelberg's Cristala polyester-plate material, which features a white polyester substrate said to provide greater image stability than previous black polyester materials.

Aluminum-plate options

For long runs, large solids and other situations that exceed the capabilities of electrostatic or polyester, you'll want to consider the use of 12-mil aluminum plates. Going this route isn't necessarily expensive. Pisces' (Nashua, NH) Jetplate, for example, is a 2002 GATF (Sewickley, PA) InterTech Award winner based on a modified Epson inkjet proofing device. Pisces has recently introduced the Jetplate 3000plus (an upgraded version of its original system) as well as the Jetplate 9600, based on Epson's popular new printer of the same name.

“We don't want a darkroom, an imagesetter and all the room they take up — we just want happy customers,” says Dan Bower, general manager of Litho Tech LLC (Grants Pass, OR). “Although it hasn't completely replaced our use of negatives and traditional plates, the Jetplate's fine stochastic screening provides print quality that is in some cases better than what we were used to — our customers have been very impressed.”

If completely eliminating conventional plate-making is your goal, you'll need a CTP system that combines high-resolution output with the durability needed for long runs. Several vendors offer devices that can image 12-mil aluminum plates in all the popular two-up and four-up sizes.

Agfa's Palladio, a violet-laser, cassette-loaded flatbed platesetter, can handle a wide variety of plates widths and lengths, including plates for duplicators and narrow-web presses.

“We were hesitant about the violet plate because of special lighting and handling, but those concerns were unwarranted,” relates Susan Goldsmith, president, Marcus Printing (Holyoke, MA). She also noted an advantage offered by the Palladio that goes beyond the plate characteristics and imaging specifications: “The real benefit of our new platesetter was the Agfa Apogee workflow. With our previous CTP device, we used plates from a separate vendor and had to develop our own homegrown workflow — so every time something went wrong, there was a lot of finger-pointing between the various vendors. With Agfa, we have a single source for our supplies and only one place to go for resolution of our problems.”

Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. (Hanover Park, IL) offers both thermal and violet plates and platesetters in four- and eight-up configurations. At Graph Expo, it introduced the four-up Saber Luxel Vx-6000, optimized for use with its Brilla LV-NV violet plate. (For more on smaller-format CTP devices, see “Four-up CTP,” August 2002, p. 28; and “Graph Expo: automation from prepress through postpress,” November 2002, p. 68.)

ECRM's (Tewksbury, MA) imagesetters can be found in many small to midsize printshops. The vendor has extended its knowledge of that market's needs to a line of CTP devices that includes the Mako, DesertCat and TigerCat. Most quick printers will likely find the Mako to be ECRM's most attractive option; with its small footprint, interchangeable press-specific pinbars and the option of an online plate processor bridge, the two-up Mako is designed specifically for duplicators. ECRM also recently released the Mako 4, a four-up violet device.

CTP system manufacturer Highwater (Cheltenham, England) isn't as well-known in the U.S., but its Platinum series of platesetters offers ease of use through its flatbed design. The Platinum 2218 is a two-up device (22 × 18-inch maximum plate size), and the Platinum 2230 and 2236 models have the unusual capacity to image two small plates (placed side-by-side on the platesetter's bed) in a single pass. Highwater's Torrent RIP is capable of driving both the CTP device and a variety of inkjet, dye-sublimation and color-laser proofers. Highwater's Platinum devices are distributed in the U.S. by GraphLine (Tamarac, FL).

Presstek (Hudson, NH) is another manufacturer that offers both plates and platesetters. Its Dimension series of external-drum platesetters is available in two-, four- and eight-up configurations and utilizes Presstek's Anthem or PEARLdry waterless plates.

Imaged with the same Presstek ProFire thermal laser used in many direct-imaging (DI) presses, these plates go from platesetter to press with no chemical processing required. Dimension's high-resolution imaging is a key benefit, according to Ross Newport, sales manager, Community Printers (Santa Cruz, CA). “Our Dimension easily images 200-line screens, which has been a major plus for us, and the Anthem's sharp dot breathes new life into even our oldest press,” says Newport. “We're hanging more plates and running more jobs per day than was ever possible with our old film-based workflow.”

Planning the transition

If you've been showing customers bluelines, ColorKeys or other analog proofs, start phasing in digital proofs before you abandon your imagesetter. It's preferable to introduce change incrementally rather than hitting your customers with everything simultaneously. If you're still relying heavily on camera line shots, you'll want to spend a few weeks learning to efficiently scan and clean up artwork.

Above all, don't underestimate the need for additional training. Although every vendor will attempt to explain how the system works as part of the installation process, trial by fire isn't the best approach. Consider sending your staff to the CTP vendor's off-site training academy; if that's not an option, consider courses at GATF or tutoring from an independent consultant. Clear some time from your production schedule for the week of the CTP installation — trying to produce live jobs on the same day the packaging comes off the platesetter is never a good idea.

Survival in the industry's fast-turnaround future requires all print shops to adopt all-digital production methods such as CTP. With a little research and adequate preparation, you can pass the test and graduate to a more efficient, higher-quality workflow.