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four-up goes mainstream

Jan 1, 2001 12:00 AM

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Though printers still need to carefully consider plates and features, cost and technology are no longer barriers to four-up CTP adoption

While technological advances made in the CTP area may have less to do with adoption rates than with digital workflow and customer demands for faster job turnaround, CTP manufacturers have nevertheless unveiled an array of new four-up platesetters. By lowering the price points and offering more new models, manufacturers are looking forward to increasing their sales.

A survey of CTP systems for the four-up market indicates that printers have a larger number of platesetter choices than in the last several years. Many manufacturers, for example, made product announcements at Drupa. And a recent TrendWatch study, Direct-to: Are We There Yet?, on the overall state of the CTP and direct-to-press trends, indicates that 18 percent of commercial sheetfed printers plan to invest in direct-to-plate by 2001, and 1,100 plants are ready to buy direct-to-press systems this year.

At the same time, while more than 20 manufacturers offer eight-up CTP systems, only about half that number offer four-up platesetters. "Four-page systems won't set the world on fire," observes Joseph Webb, partner of TrendWatch (Harrisville, RI), a graphic arts research organization, "but they should be steady sellers in what we expect will be a difficult capital investment environment for heavy equipment suppliers. Eight-up systems are still in greater demand than four-page systems at this time."

CRUNCHING PRODUCTION TIME Marc Johnson, CTP product manager at Presstek (Hudson, NY), offers a more enthusiastic perspective. He says 180 platesetters have been installed in the four-up arena, but he sees a potential of 5,000 to 10,000 shops that have the infrastructure in place and can support the capital investment for four-up CTP.

Johnson says that those buying four-up platesetters are four-color commercial printers with annual sales of $1.5 million to $5 million, and five to 20 employees. These shops now find CTP within their reach and are able to make the capital investment. While eight-up systems can run to $500,000 or more in total investment, Johnson maintains that their four-up counterparts have come down in price over the past two years. The Presstek Dimension 400, for example, is in the $130,000 range, requiring another $50,000 to $70,000 in computers, applications and training to implement a digital workflow.

"Shorter run length is one of the factors driving CTP," says Johnson. "The shops I'm talking to are doing between six and 12 jobs a shift, and 60 percent of them have some sort of digital workflow. When you move from six to 12 jobs a shift, it more than doubles your work - there are 10 times more steps a printer has to take per job and work increases exponentially. CTP makes it possible to meet this demand."

Johnson notes that with jobs coming in on computer disks, many printers' customers treat printing jobs like copier jobs. Because customers are doing more of their own prepress work, they now want their jobs delivered immediately. Turnaround time has thus become another driver for CTP.

"CTP crunches production time from days to hours," Johnson says. "It eliminates film and other production steps. A printer can impose the job, zap the plates and take them directly from the platesetter to the press."

TECHNOLOGY WARS Leigh Kimmelman, CTP product marketing manager for CreoScitex (Burnaby, BC), asserts that technology is no longer a barrier to CTP adoption - some technology is in the third and fourth generation - and contends that printers are on the verge of mass acceptance of CTP.

"Commercial printers are adopting CTP mainly for the CTP engine, but also to integrate manufacturing processes utilizing digital files," says the exec. "The fit and register on press are better, and when you cascade this with the other benefits, management gets very excited. They soon realize they have increased their capacity without increasing their resources. Ultimately, revenue-per-employee goes up."

Making decisions about which CTP system to purchase isn't so simple, however. Kimmelman cautions that "technology wars" between manufacturers will continue, with each touting its product's strong points and the advantages of its technology.

CreoScitex's four-up offerings, for example, include three new Trendsetters and two Lotem models. Its newest CTP engine, the Trendsetter 400, can image ablative plates, which do not require any liquid processing.

ADAPTING TO FOUR-UP Rather than develop an entirely new device, many companies adapted their eight-up technology to the four-up market. The Graphic Systems Div. of Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. (Itasca, IL), for example, took its eight-up Javelin thermal platesetter system and adapted the technology to create the Dart. The Dart uses the same 32-channel laser diode array, automatic inline plate punching and processing, and manual, semi-automatic and automatic plate handling system as the larger platesetter.

"There's basically no difference between the four-up and eight-up systems," explains Peter Vanderlaan, development manager for electronic imaging hardware for Fuji. "The eight-up device can do four-up work, but printers with 29-inch and smaller presses need a less costly solution."

Barco Graphics (Vandalia, OH), too, recently took its eight-up Crescent 42 and created the Crescent 32 by imposing software restrictions that only allow four-up platemaking. The same technology is used and the device is upgradeable to eight-up, with software, if the printer purchases a 40-inch press.

Barco also offers a violet-laser CTP system, the Viking, based on the Crescent 3030, which used a red-laser diode. The Viking sells for less than $100,000 and images polyester as well as thermal plates. This price tag is said to help increase Barco's sales - dealer support specialist, and demonstration and training supervisor Phil Crosby finds that most adopters of CTP in the four-up market have annual sales of less than $10 million and are independent, rather than part of a larger entity that can support large capital outlays. These printers have already mastered a digital workflow, including stripping and imposition software, and are ready to make the next step to CTP.

NOVEL DESIGNS According to David Parker, director of sales and marketing at Luscher (Ronkonkoma, NY), manufacturers are also seeking simplified designs to keep the cost of hardware down. The simpler the design, the fewer things to go wrong in a production environment.

By using the same technology as the Xpose! 180 (an 80 x 58-inch platesetter), which combines internal- and external-drum architectures, Luscher's four-up platesetter, Xpose! 80, places optics 4 mm from the plate surface and delivers the full energy of the laser to the plate.

Luscher also announced a novel "pizza" rotary flatbed platesetter. It spins like a record player's turntable while 32 diodes move across the plate in a circular fashion.

Gretag Cymbolic Sciences (Richmond, BC), on the other hand, developed its T-Wave technology to use both thermal and visible-light systems to develop plates. The T-Wave system uses thermal diodes with an internal drum. Gretag is developing a four-up platesetter, which will use essentially the same technology as its eight-up system.

Jeff Edwards, product manager for CTP systems at Gretag Cymbolic, explains that today's manufacturers are primarily working with four laser wavelengths, from 400 nm to 1,064 nm. Because the lasers match with the plates, the type of laser plays a role in selecting a CTP system.

"Some systems have many plates available for each wavelength; others have only one plate available," says Edwards. "It's a very complex and highly technical issue that confuses many consumers. A printer that doesn't understand plate availability, or doesn't understand the technology, can make a wrong decision. But fear of investing in the wrong equipment is an inhibitor to the developing market. Basically, it's important not to be locked into a single vendor for plates."

THERMAL VS. VISIBLE LIGHT Printing plates are indeed one area of contention for CTP considerations. While a plate decision could be relatively simple if a printer is buying completely new equipment, most continue to use older processes, and when they change, seek to integrate the old with the new.

Without getting into the details of internal vs. external drum and flatbed scanning architectures (see "Imaging architectures: a glossary,"), it is important to note that laser technology has been developed to fit the type of plate being used. Essentially, the architecture either holds the plate and the laser diode moves, or the plate moves over a stationary diode. Lasers are often used in arrays to speed up the exposure process. While infrared laser diodes at 830 nm are popular for exposing thermal plates, manufacturers continue to work with violet-laser technology, which is expected to reduce the cost of platesetters further.

One vendor that offers both thermal and visible-light CTP solutions is Agfa (Ridgefield Park, NJ). Peter Kushnieruk, senior product marketing manager for output systems, asserts that many midsize commercial printers have run lengths of 25,000 to 50,000, and visible-light exposable plates meet their needs.

Agfa developed the Galileo VS 4, and the faster VXT 4, with the violet laser because its use in DVD technology makes it less expensive than other visible-light lasers. Violet lasers only turn on when exposing a plate, which also reportedly extends their life.

The VS 4 exposes silver-halide plates, while Agfa's Galileo Talant uses thermal ablative imaging to develop plates with an aluminum substrate. The Talant is designed for use with Agfa's Mistral plate, and doesn't require chemical development.

"We have the choice of a thermal plate system if it's needed: say a printer has longer runs or web presses that are harder on plates, or heavier paper or corrosive inks," explains Kushnieruk. "But Agfa also offers a cost-effective violet silver-halide solution for printers that have shorter run lengths and are familiar with handling silver plates. Many people claim thermal is the winner; it's not true. Different niches have different needs."

MORE PLATE CONSIDERATIONS Dave Mitchell, vice president of sales for Purup-Eskofot Inc. (Kennesaw, GA), however, estimates that thermal plates now command 50 percent of the market. The rest is split between photopolymer, used with visible-light CTP systems, and silver halide, largely used with violet-laser technology.

Photopolymer plates are reportedly quite popular because they are less expensive and more environmentally friendly than silver halide - wash water can be dumped down an ordinary drain. Silver halide, on the other hand, is more expensive and requires costly waste-removal solutions - but it's been around the longest and plants want to continue to amortize their past investments.

According to Mitchell, Purup-Eskofot markets a range of polyester platesetters through Mitsubishi, A.B. Dick and Ryobi. Printers buy rolls of polyester material that the platesetters cut to size, punch and image. Mitchell estimates that most printers use this solution for runs up to 20,000 and notes that it offers huge time savings.

ASSURANCE WANTED Jim Crawford, group manager for output media at Fuji, maintains that compatibility is important when considering CTP. He explains, for example, that Fuji's Dart CTP platesetter and its LH-PI thermal plate were made for each other.

Crawford also suggests there are other benefits a printer can discover by deciding on the medium first when choosing a CTP system. By starting in the pressroom with considerations of run length and working through the workflow process to the front end, he says a printer can get a good idea of how the plate will work in production.

"Get a plate that works for your applications," the exec suggests. "For example, the type of substrate being printed on, the harshness of the ink, run length and the wash-up could require a bakeable plate."

While there's a huge potential for four-up CTP, Crawford concedes that CTP does require a more expensive workflow. Printers therefore need to determine how many plates they need to image in a day and a CTP system's savings. While printers in the $1 million to $10 million annual sales range are CTP prospects, Crawford notes some are taking a cautious approach.

"Printers want some assurance they will get hardware and plates at good prices to determine their payback," says Crawford. "CTP isn't a simple notion and the printer needs to understand the advantages to make an educated decision."

DIGITAL PROOFS: FRIEND OR FOE? Barco's Crosby also cautions against simultaneous, multiple learning curves, suggesting that printers develop their digital skills and processes in prepress before tackling CTP. Another important area of consideration is digital proofing, an essential part of the equation and one of the benchmarks for developing CTP.

"When you're not making film anymore, digital proofing becomes an issue," says Crosby. "There is a host of choices for digital proofing and the discussions range far and wide on which can and which should be used to proof CTP. You could make a list of digital proofers and at least one person using every type of device."

Others find that proofing is no longer the obstacle to CTP adoption that it once was. In the past several years, the halftone dot proof has been joined by inkjet output from Iris, Epson, Hewlett-Packard and other manufacturers to produce less costly proofs.

Presstek's Johnson estimates that 90 percent of print customers accept digital proofs. Price is a primary driver of acceptance, with digital proofs costing several dollars and halftone dot proofs beginning at $30.

"More customers are doing their own proofs and sending the digital file to the printer," says Johnson. "It's scary, but it works. Halftone dot proofs didn't give you accurate color anyway, so it's a matter of establishing trust and making the process easy for the customer. Money, time and trust have blown down the barriers to digital proofing."

Printers, however, "can't screw up," warns Johnson. "They must make sure they deliver good color matches and have quality control in place."

IT'S NO FAD As always, talking to other printers that are employing a particular system is the best guide to making the right CTP choice. Regardless of the debates over which is the best technology for delivering CTP, the different systems work. Printers should choose which fits best with their particular needs and workflow.

Ray Cassino, marketing director for prepress systems at Heidelberg USA (Kennesaw, GA), predicts that there will be even more growth in the four-up segment next year, due to the introduction of more efficient blue-violet lasers and media. Heidelberg is developing a new family of internal-drum, blue-violet platesetters to ship around Print 2001.

Cassino reports that four-up systems are selling better than eight-up systems. Heidelberg, which markets the four-up Topsetter 74, a thermal platesetter that exposes plates in the 830-nm range, found that eight-up thermal systems accounted for approximately 75 percent of its platesetter sales in past years. Currently, four-up systems account for half of all sales. The exec attributes this increase to the introduction of lower-cost proofing devices.

"CTP has emerged as a mature technology at this point," says Cassino. "It's very successful. Ninety-eight percent of the people who ventured into CTP have done very well. CTP is here to stay. It's by no means a fad and it's not going away. It's only going to get bigger."

Choices in the four-up CTP market have increased, as eight-up technology has matured. Clockwise from top left: CreoScitex's Lotem, Gretag Cymbolic Sciences' T-wave system, Agfa's Mistral thermal ablative plate, Fuji's Luxel, Luscher's Xpose! and Presstek's Dimension.

About one-half of U.S. commercial web printers have CTP, but only about one-tenth of sheetfed four-up commercial printers do. Thus, for CTP, the market opportunity lies with smaller printers running sheetfed presses. Prices are coming down from the $400,000, more-than-eight-up platesetters to four-up units in the $150,000 range, making these systems financially feasible to midsize commercial printers. The digital workflow and proofing links necessary to make this a viable production alternative are also now available.

For an investment of $250,000, a commercial printer has a number of alternatives to consider. For a printer considering a new investment, the direct-imaging (DI) alternatives may make the most sense. For a printer with a recently purchased press on the shop floor, CTP may be the way to go. In either case, DI and CTP will go a long way in hiking a printer's competitiveness by reducing job turnaround time. - from PIA's Vision 21: The Printing Industry Redefined for the 21st Century

Internal drum The plate is mounted inside a stationary drum and a single powerful laser beam exposes the plate. A mirror spins at a high speed to deflect the laser beam onto the plate. The diameter of the beam creates different imaging spot sizes while maintaining high quality. Plates can be punched in the machine.

External drum The plate is mounted on the outside of the drum, and the laser beam moves parallel to the drum's axis. This arrangement places the laser closer to the plate and allows for multibeam imaging heads to be used. To create different resolutions, the distance between the laser beams has to be changed. Because the system is dynamically balanced, plates must be punched off the drum.

Flatbed To expose the plates, either the plate or the imaging head moves across the surface. A rotating mirror deflects a single laser beam onto the plate. A special lens focuses the laser beam to control spot size and shape. Plate loading and unloading is fast and easy, and plates can be punched in the machine. - from Purup-Eskofot's "A Guide to Computer-to-Plate"