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Film is surviving but is it thriving?

Jan 1, 2002 12:00 AM


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Despite all the apparent signs to the contrary, computer-to-film is still alive — if not kicking in a particularly robust manner — in the U.S. marketplace,” reports Barry Happé, principal of Vantage Strategic Marketing (VSM), a UK graphic arts consultancy that published the “Direct-to Technologies 2000-2005” report in mid-2001. In a nutshell: Film ain't dead yet.

Imagesetters have, in fact, outsold platesetters threefold in terms of overall numbers, according to Happé. He points out that the imagesetter installed base in North America numbered about 19,500 in 2000, compared to 2,500 platesetters. And manufacturers from Agfa to Fujifilm to Purup-Eskofot do continue to sell imagesetters. Both Agfa and Fujifilm have introduced new imagesetters in the past few years. Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA), which also offers thermal and violet CTP devices, unveiled its Primesetter internal-drum imagesetter and the two-page Quicksetter 350 for quick and small commercial printers at Drupa 2000. At Print 01, thermal CTP pioneer CreoScitex (now Creo) (Bedford, MA) demonstrated three new Dolev imagesetter models: the eight-page Dolev 800V4 and 800V3, and the four-page Dolev 4press V2. The 4press V2 and 800V3 became available for worldwide purchase late last year. The 800V4 will be available for purchase early this year.

Happé reports that CTP accounted for slightly less than 30 percent of all U.S. metal offset plate consumption in 2000, and Print 01 saw vendor introductions of both film and conventional plates. In addition to its new Sword thermal CTP plate, Kodak Polychrome Graphics (Norwalk, CT) launched its DirectPrint no-chemical-process, conventional aluminum plate at Print 01 as well as the Kodak Premier Recording Film System for the U.S. and Canada.

“The film market remains active and viable. It's still a valuable opportunity,” observes Dave Carey, computer-to-film marketing manager for Agfa (Ridgefield Park, NJ). From the printer perspective, there are still customers that require film workflows, such as newspapers and publications that haven't yet made the switch to CTP and all-digital workflows. Carey points out that Agfa has sold more than 10,000 Accuset capstan-based imagesetters worldwide, plus more than 8,000 of the internal-drum Avantra imagesetters. Since the introduction of the four-page internal-drum Phoenix model, Agfa has placed 800-plus systems in 18 months.

CTP STILL TOO EXPENSIVE?

“The larger companies, such as the Donnelleys and the Quads, which are always the early adopters of new technologies, made the conversion to CTP several years ago,” says Carey.

So just who is working in the analog workflow? According to Kimberly Meyers, former marketing manager with Creo, the typical imagesetter buyer is the small printer with sales from $1.5 million to $4 million per year. Other markets include newspapers, many of which still use a film workflow, and printers in rural areas or small metropolitan markets, where the local industry has not yet adopted CTP.

“As CTP becomes more affordable, more large commercial printers are adopting it, as well as high-end medium-sized printers,” says Agfa's Carey. He adds that for many smaller and midsize printers, film remains a necessity because CTP is beyond their price range.

The required capital investment for CTP is greater than for film-based workflow. A combination platesetter/proofer, for instance, that images plates as well as proofs, and costs $195,000, excluding the processor or front-end. The range for metal CTP systems is reportedly $100,000 and up.

And while customers may be happy with an inkjet proof, printers with clients that demand to see dots must invest in the more expensive digital halftone proofing systems. Vendors say it's difficult for printers with less than $5 million in annual sales to justify the investment; for those with less than $2 million in sales, unless they're in specialized market niches, it's almost impossible.

“Today's imagesetter offers more for the printer's dollar, with increased throughput, more automation, and cheaper prices for film and conventional plates,” says Happé of VSM. “During a period of financial and trading uncertainty, it sometimes makes sense to hold off making a big investment in new technology when a smaller investment can tide you over in the short term.”

Happé contends that imagesetter buyers are those printers that either aren't ready to go CTP because of workflow issues or that haven't yet decided which CTP system is best for them. “Many anticipate violet becoming a viable alternative to thermal, and so a number of midsize printers continue to hold off making the investment decision,” he says.

WORKFLOW CONCERNS

Some printers do have legitimate workflow concerns. “The output of metal plates from the platesetter is a little more complex than selecting the platesetter in the Chooser and clicking on Print,” admits Ted Keesee, former electronic prepress manager at one of the Johnson City, TN, plants of Mazer Corp. (Dayton, OH). “You first have to know where your files are coming from and that they're in the right format.” Going CTP also requires educating the customer on how to supply digital files, prepare and format their print jobs, and select and judge digital color proofs, according to Agfa's Carey.

Mazer Corp. specializes in educational printing. Both of its Johnson City plants run three shifts a day in the pressroom. One facility runs three 36-inch heatset web presses (two two-color and one four-color). The other plant operates sheetfed presses, including two 40-inch, six-color presses; one 28-inch, six-color press; and one 40-inch, two-color press with an inline UV coater.

The company bought an eight-page Image-Maker (the product line is now renamed Plate-Driver) from Purup-Eskofot (Kennesaw, GA) in August 2001. Mazer began using the device for eight-up film output; now it uses PlateDriver to image both film and plates, depending on the customer's needs. It has two different workflows for CTP output, depending on the nature of the job and the customer's requirements. Some files are saved and processed as one-bit TIFF files — each color is a separate file, exposed through Purup-Eskofot's NewAge software (now called FlowDrive) that bypasses the RIP. The other workflow is based on DK&A's (San Diego) INposition imposition software, which sends fully imposed RIPed files to the platesetter.

In addition to putting together specific CTP workflows, Mazer moved some management employees to network and computer maintenance and administration.

Despite these considerations, Keesee says Mazer began doing some work CTP because customers were asking for it. “Some of our customers like that workflow,” he explains. “They're typically the ones that want first-generation dots for the best quality.”

In addition, “film storage real estate is at a real premium for us,” Keesee says. “Our film room is overflowing.” With the PlateDriver, Mazer could learn the digital workflow without getting locked out of the traditional analog version.

While the PlateDriver is field-upgradeable, capable of being retrofitted with different laser types, Keesee says Mazer is considering buying a thermal platesetter from Purup-Eskofot when it's time to increase CTP output capacity. The current visible-light model would then be downgraded to image only to film.

The exec acknowledges that decreasing costs associated with today's thermal platesetters figure into Mazer's purchase strategy. Thermal-sensitive plates have become cheaper than the first-generation plates, as has the processing chemistry. And because there's no silver involved, disposal costs are lower. “The thermal platesetters and plates will still be a little more expensive than traditional plates, but we'll be able to compete on jobs that are being quoted in a film-based workflow,” Keesee says.

IMAGESETTERS AND POLY PLATES

Many customers that are buying imagesetters today are — like Mazer Corp. — reportedly using them to image to both film and plates. Some polyester plates can be exposed through standard imagesetters, and an increasing choice of imagesetters or platesetters can handle polyester or plastic materials.

“There's a big market in Canada for dual-capability systems,” says Janet Carmichael, national marketing manager, graphic arts, at Unisource Canada (Richmond Hill, ON), supplier of printing and prepress consumables. The same situation appears to exist in the U.S.: “Half of our film systems are sold to companies that will also use them for polyester media,” says Dennis Ryan, product manager, prepress, for Heidelberg USA. Heidelberg's current imagesetters, the Duosetter, Primesetter and Quicksetter lines, can image both film and polyester plates.

“The market for ‘pure’ film imagesetters is shrinking,” Ryan adds. “But when you factor in the number of imagesetters that are running polyester plates, the market, in terms of unit sales, may not actually be shrinking.”

Those that are using imagesetters for poly plates are sometimes doing so as a low-cost, easy-to-learn entry to CTP workflow, although the devices being used in these cases are typically smaller than eight-up. Many of their users are small or quick printers with small duplicators or presses — 14- or 18-inch, or at the most, 28-inch presses. The smaller imagesetters, such as Heidelberg's Quicksetter series or the Duosetter, A.B. Dick's DPM 2000 CPS and RIPit's (Citrus Heights, CA) Speedsetter, serve this market well (see “Imagesetters and beyond,” January 2001, p. 50).

Polyester-plate CTP is also an option for those with larger presses. Heidelberg's Primesetter, for example, can expose film or polyester plates for 29- and 40-inch presses.

The advantage of doing direct-to-polyester with an imagesetter (vs. direct-to-metal plate using a platesetter) is that polyester plates are considerably cheaper than their metal counterparts. And the capital cost is more bean-counter friendly, too. “You can get the whole workflow, including RIP, input device such as a scanner, computer workstation, polyester platesetter and processor for $38,000 to $45,000,” says Ken Newton, senior vice president and COO, equipment, at A.B. Dick (Niles, IL).

Some printers are wary of polyester plates, maintaining the plates can stretch at longer runs, leading to register and quality problems. But others counter that today's polyester plates (the 12-mil vs. the older 8-mil kind) eliminate stretch problems. Polyester plates are, however, limited to runs of 25,000 or less.

But for printers that are doing short runs with spot or limited process color, this can be a viable option. According to Newton, A.B. Dick is placing its DPM systems with smaller printers that have fewer than 20 employees, and at in-plant operations, schools and government organizations.

CTP MIGRATION PATH

For other printers, an eight-page imagesetter can represent the first step on the migration path toward CTP. The flow of digital files to CTP output isn't that different from the workflow for fully imposed film output, according to Miles Wright, president of printing and prepress firm Walker-Ross (Raleigh, NC). Walker-Ross is a $10 million printer with 80 employees. The company has two Katana eight-up imagesetters from Screen (USA) (Rolling Meadows, IL) and, about 18 months ago, bought a PlateJet 8 platesetter from Gretag Cymbolic Sciences (now owned by Océ, which acquired Gretag Imaging, parent company of Gretag Cymbolic Sciences). Wright says that within nine months of installing the platesetter, more than half of Walker-Ross' output was CTP. After 18 months, 90 percent of its jobs was being processed direct-to-plate. The only work going to film now is for agencies that still send film and color proofs to publications, and some work destined for web printing.

There aren't many eight-up imagesetters being sold these days, however, unless the manufacturer is providing a trade-up program to CTP, according to Unisource Canada's Carmichael. Vendors say the eight-up imagesetter market is saturated. And “for the most part, printers that have a digital workflow tend to go CTP,” says Jim Jeffers, regional sales manager for Purup-Eskofot.

“There is still a market for film imagesetters,” observes Peter Vanderlaan, product development manager, electronic imaging hardware, for Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. (Hanover Park, IL), “but now more in the four-up than in the eight-up range.”

FUTURE FOR FILM

What does all this mean for the future of film? “The growth of the film market is probably ending, and we see that the film market is flattening out,” says Vanderlaan of Fujifilm. “But sales will continue. Film will never return to the market dominance it had two years ago, but it won't disappear, either.”

Purup-Eskofot's Jeffers points out that the traditional film markets — flexo and newspapers — are still buying film devices, as are small printers as their entry into a fully imposed workflow.

Adds Mazer Corp.'s Keesee, “Smaller companies sometimes can't afford to move to CTP, and there are some old-school printers that don't want to change their workflow.”

Even those that willingly go CTP still have an occasional need for their imagesetters. Larry Downey, president of printer and prepress shop Gandalf Graphics (Toronto), says “99.9 percent” of his company's work is done CTP. He says film use is almost nonexistent for Gandalf, but the need apparently still arises from time to time: “We only use film for the odd job where the client has not transitioned to CTP yet, because they don't have the ability to digitize existing film.”

Observes Creo's Meyers, “Film will never entirely go away. The imagesetter is a viable product for at least the next two to five years.”

Committed to film

One printer committed to film workflow is Press Sure Print Inc. (Minneapolis), a midsize printer that produces a range of products, including information booklets, four-color catalogs and brochures for HMOs and other health-care industry clients. Four-color work, with runs from 10,000 to 50,000 copies, is typical, but the company also gets a certain amount of walk-in work, such as postcards, menus, newsletters and stationery. The company has 13 employees, including two in prepress, but no film strippers.

HOW DRY ARE THEY?

Press Sure Print recently took delivery of a Creo four-page 4Dry image-setter, its second “dry” imagesetter. President Jane Hamre says she selected the 2Dry and 4Dry devices because of their processless (dry) workflows. Film comes out of the imagesetter ready for the vacuum frame. “Being a smaller print shop, it's hard to keep the developing chemistry fresh,” she explains. “Then there's silver recovery, disposal of developer or fix — it's a nightmare.”

Instead, the two imagesetters produce film in the same format as the printer's presses: a two-color and a four-color Heidelberg GTO; a 28-inch, two-color Heidelberg Speedmaster 74 with perfector; plus small offset duplicators and presses from A.B. Dick. Film is punched, mounted onto boards and then onto the vacuum frame to make plates.

“Jobs go through here so fast, we can deliver a color proof of a 16-page, 8 × 15-inch booklet to a customer in the morning, get the proofs back by 10 a.m., produce the plates by noon and be on press by the afternoon,” Hamre explains.

FLEXIBILITY, PROOFING ISSUES

In Hamre's view, CTP wouldn't improve Press Sure's workflow. The exec says she looked into the possibility carefully, but concluded that her company requires a lot of flexibility. “We print just about everything you can think of,” she notes.

Additionally, CTP would mean no Dylux proof — ”we would lose that last double-check before the press,” Hamre says. In short, there would not be enough of an improvement in either productivity or in value delivered to the customer to justify the additional cost of CTP.

Going digital doubles capacity

Web printers such as E&D Web are leading the way in adopting CTP. The Cicero, IL, commercial printer specializes in magazines, advertising inserts, covers, cover wraps and direct-mail pieces. Maximizing productivity, particularly in prepress, is a priority for the 36-year-old company.

E&D Web went digital in 1998, with a Creo Lotem 800 platesetter and Printing Developments, Inc.'s (PDI) (Racine, WI) Prisma thermal CTP plates. The company has used PDI's conventional copper and aluminum plates exclusively since 1982. “They produce the quality our customers demand,” says Ken Love, E&D COO.

Besides quality, E&D stayed with PDI because the Prisma bimetal plates eliminated baking. “We've dramatically cut processing times, and eliminated additional costs on gas and electricity,” says the exec. “We've also reduced possible pre-baking imaging problems and post-bake plate cracking, as well as EPA and OSHA regulatory concerns.”

The printer uses PDI's automatic, self-adjusting plate transport mechanism, which sits at the front of PDI's inline processor. It accepts plates from up to three platesetters and conveys them to the processor.

“We've doubled the capacity of our prepress department,” reports Love. “Conventional film processing would take 40 minutes under average conditions. With Prisma and PDI's automatic processing line, we conserve a half-hour per plate of man time and machine time for each of the 250 plates we produce every week. It's a huge savings.”

Online

Although the installed base of imagesetters is greater than for platesetters, the numbers don't tell the whole story. See our online exclusive, “What the numbers mean,” at www.americanprinter.com.

For more information…

  • “The Market Potential for Polyester Printing Plates: 2001-2005” report by PrintCom Consulting (Charlotte, NC); contact Jackie Bland, executive director, Graphic Arts Marketing Information Service of PIA (Alexandria, VA), at (703) 519-8179.

  • “Direct-to Technologies 2001-2005” report by Vantage Strategic Marketing; contact principal Barry Happé at bhappe@compuserve.com.

  • “Polyester's checkered past gives way to bright future,” online exclusive, www.americanprinter.com.

  • “CTP gets adopted,” May 2001, p. 20.

  • “Imagesetters and beyond,” January 2001, p. 50.