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Best practices for computer-to-plate

Nov 1, 2000 12:00 AM

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Seven habits of highly effective CTP users The first time Scoville Press went digital, it failed miserably. A year earlier, in 1995, management of the Plymouth, MN, commercial printer had proactively developed a master plan to transition from its conventional workflow to a digital one. It was less of a transition than it was a sudden switch: "We went from Friday conventional to Monday digital. It was a leap off a bridge," recalls prepress manager Rusty Grimes.

Scoville, however, managed to turn its initial digital difficulties into a study in model computer-to-plate (CTP) implementation. In the ensuing months, workflow diagrams and standard operating procedures were put to paper. Management tested all prepress personnel, kept the 10 who scored highest in aptitude, then brought in experts to train the entire workforce (currently 170 employees) on working in a digital environment.

Once employees became skilled at film output - hitting layouts and doing color separations accurately - Grimes began researching CTP devices. Between 1998 and 1999, he tested five or six models and several manufacturers' plates. Scoville installed two Purup-Eskofot Imagemaker B2s this past May.

"So far, we are really happy," the prepress manager reports. "We've hit all the goals we've wanted to hit."

Today's CTP adopter can benefit from the wisdom of others' experiences. Here, then, are seven pearls of wisdom gathered from those experts in the trenches - other printers.

EVERYONE INTO THE POOL? Just because you want to do CTP doesn't mean you have to jump in head first with your eyes closed. Nor do you have to purchase the most expensive platesetter on the market if it gives you more features than your operation needs. First, figure out what's right for you.

A year after installation, John Heinzmann, desktop manager for Quantum Color (Morton Grove, IL), can still tick off his CTP wishlist: "We wanted the ability to make last-minute changes, ease of operator training, a single-page workflow, InRIP trapping... We wanted it to work!"

Quantum Color is a $35 million high-end sheetfed printer whose jobs range from artists' reproductions to annual reports. In one facility, it operates three six-color Heidelberg presses with coaters and one five-color press with coater. Another facility houses small-format one- and two-color sheetfed presses. On the prepress side, the company uses a 300 GB working file server with another 200 GB of RIP storage.

Quantum operates in a Scitex workflow, which Heinzmann had originally wanted to move away from with a CTP purchase. But research led him to conclude that no other vendor offered a comparable workflow.

The only problem: "Scitex did not have a viable CTP machine," Heinzmann says. Still, its workflow was best for Quantum's needs. "So we waited for the Lotem."

For other printers, the need for a palatable price tag and return on investment (ROI) can rightly drive their CTP decision. Take Rick Rehm, owner of PEPR Graphics (Chino, CA), for example. Originally a Web and graphic design company, PEPR purchased its own printing equipment six months ago. It now operates an A.B. Dick two-color press with a swing-away Townsend T-51 head, and some finishing equipment. A Pentium III 800-MHz computer drives a Xante PlateMaker 3 polyester platesetter.

Rehm says he chose a polyester-based system over metal because the PlateMaker could image the screens and halftones PEPR needed to produce on its jobs, and at a more reasonable price than a metal system.

"Check out your options and get the system that fits your jobs," the exec advises. "For us, the PlateMaker 3 was the right move."

At Eastern Rainbow/Souhegan Color, president Bob Stuart had been considering CTP "off and on for years. I was waffling and wasn't sure whether to go with a green-laser Agfa Galileo or a thermal CreoScitex system." Eastern Rainbow (Derry, NH) is a 92-person trade shop that offers traditional prepress services, along with design and digital photography. Souhegan (Nashua, NH), which merged with Eastern Rainbow in 1999, is a 175-lpi printer, running four 28-inch presses.

An opportunity to beta test Agfa's violet Galileo turned up early this year. Stuart acknowledges that much of his decision to go with it came down to ROI. By going to CTP, Stuart wanted to save on paper costs, an estimated $800,000 of his annual budget. But he had found in his calculations that the paper savings, given most platesetter costs, weren't significant enough to offer him a good return. A violet system offered a cheaper service contract, and Eastern Rainbow/Souhegan Color would get a beta discount.

"If you're a giant web printer, you can get an ROI by snapping your fingers. But 10 percent savings on a $30 million paper budget and 10 percent of $800,000 is two different things," the exec points out. "What's the point of installing a CTP system if I'm not going to make money off of it? That's where violet made sense."

DON'T NEGLECT THE PLATES Have you thought about your plates? With platesetters costing anywhere from a quarter of a million to three-quarters of a million dollars, Jim Crawford, product development manager of presensitized plates at Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., says plate considerations often get pushed down the ladder in CTP evaluations.

"These are electronic systems, and prepress departments don't tend to view the plates," notes John Zarwan, principal, State Street Consultants (Boston).

Both Crawford and Zarwan contend that plates are important to your CTP choice, however. "Plate consistency is a big factor," says Crawford. "Printers want to have something that they know is going to roll up and stay clean on press. That's the most expensive part of the process day in and day out - you make money there or lose money there."

Plates factored into Grimes' CTP decision because Scoville Press is a half-web shop whose jobs average 500,000 runs. He says 90 percent of platesetter lasers are suited for short-run work, so he had to address Scoville's run length needs with the plate manufacturer.

The printer is currently experiencing other plate problems; namely, availability. Grimes recently found out that Scoville's plate supplier discontinued its plates. He says being a half-web shop makes it difficult to find replacement plates quickly - "there aren't a lot of web presses like ours in the Midwest," he notes. Scoville tended to use custom-cut plates. Because of dwindling supply, only 63 percent of the printer's plates are currently being run through its platesetters.

Then there's the ongoing debate of thermal CTP systems versus violet. Blooming Color (Lombard, IL) is a prepress house that provides large-format CTP services to point-of-purchase (POP) and packaging manufacturers. It began life in 1992 as a film shop, so had experience with the chemical processes involved in using a visible-light platesetter. Yet when president Valjil Patel and IT manager Viral Trivedi evaluated their CTP options, they went with a thermal CreoScitex platesetter.

One of the advantages of thermal, Patel notes, is that the plates can be handled in daylight. "Most of the media plate suppliers are in the thermal market as well," he observes.

Violet CTP user Eastern Rainbow/Souhegan Color did experience some problems with its violet plates. While Stuart says the issues weren't large enough to turn the trade shop/printer away from a violet choice, they did require some reorganizing of the facility layout.

"We had a few situations where having the computer monitors too close to the platesetter was flashing our plates," Stuart explains.

IT'S THE WORKFLOW, STUPID "It doesn't matter who you get your system from; CTP works," observes Phil Crosby, Impress proofing product manager at Barco Graphics. "We all have machines that work, that prduce plates day in and day out, and that run on press. One of the differences is: It's the workflow, stupid."

Indeed, Dean Fairley, vice president and general manager of manufacturing, Johnsbyrne (Niles, IL), says the $24 million sheetfed printer spent 90 percent of its time on workflow when it went CTP. Only the remaining 10 percent were devoted to platesetter issues.

"CTP is only an imagesetter capable of imaging a plate. The true work comes in the evaluation of the workflow to support the system," Fairley observes.

The exec relied on prepress employees to identify potential bottlenecks prior to installation. He then chose a PostScript workflow, which he says will give Johnsbyrne the flexibility to adapt to new technologies as they become available. The printer, which produces high-end commercial work for agencies and Fortune 500 companies, installed a CreoScitex Trendsetter in 1997.

Having done the workflow research prior up front, Fairley says Johnsbyrne was 80 percent CTP in the first three months. It is now 97 percent CTP; three percent of its customers still supply film for jobs.

Other printers suggest that familiarity with an imposition workflow has helped them make a smooth transition to CTP. "Install an imagesetter and learn to do imposition before even getting a platesetter," Stuart advises. "Film is forgiving. You can cut down on makeready and get more efficient color beforehand. When you install the platesetter, you'll gain even more efficiencies."

ON QUALITY CONTROL Your workflow should also include procedures that will minimize plate remakes. In a word: QC.

"We go through challenges every day in our business, so I don't know if we had any challenges particular to implementing CTP," relates Tim Poole, president of Dome Printing. "For the most part, it has just been things we've realized need to be done differently now."

The Sacramento, CA, printer, for example, used to have its strippers and proofers checking for file mistakes - it lost those two visual inspection steps with the digital workflow. Instead, says vice president Bob Poole, when plates were pulled out of the processor, they went straight to press.

"An employee at the desktop would look at a file on the computer, and the next stage was the press," Bob Poole remarks. "We had to put steps in to make sure we were validating what was going on press. That was a big challenge in the beginning, because we knew that our checkpoints were not sufficient."

Glenn Durdin, digital prepress manager and technical communicator at Bowne of Houston, agrees: "Preflight becomes doubly important once you go to a CTP workflow. You can't spend enough time preflighting. You have to touch every element of the file and tear the job apart to see how it's built - all to make sure that when you image to a plate, it is going to work on press. Your plate literally becomes your metal proof."

Bowne of Houston is currently doing beta testing on the Heidelberg Topsetter, which it installed on Sept. 5 and began running a week later. The Topsetter is supported by "a number of Macs in all colors, flavors and sizes," according to Durdin, and two Heidelberg Signa stations output imposition proofs. The financial printer runs both web and sheetfed presses, and last year ran $120 million worth of printing through its prepress department, where it employs 11 people in three shifts.

Dome, for its part, has now instituted a multi-step QC process. A supervisor looks at the file when it first comes in, then hands it to a prepress operator to preflight. After the file is imposed, an imposition person signs off on the proof. Then, the operator burning the plates will sign off on any proof corrections from the customer. Another employee approves plate corrections before the plate goes to press.

Quantum's production process, too, includes a final check before plate imaging: In this case, it's an on-screen check of files for trapping and color. That QC step was once done on film. "We used to do QC on a $50 light table. Now we do it on a $3,000 RIP," Heinzmann half-jokes.

Once plates are made, they are checked closely for content. Quantum invested in an Acme plate reader to measure the density of the tone reproduction on the plate.

STAY IN SCHOOL Rather, offer school: Workflow experience is great, but so is education. At Johnsbyrne, staff training began a year in advance of the CTP installation, according to Fairley. Perfection Press, a Logan, IA printer provided outside imposition training for all personnel. When its Presstek Pearlsetter CTP system was installed, employees received two hours of training on running the Harlequin RIP that powered it. "It was a slam dunk," sums up COO Randall Cavanah.

When considering training, do not forget about your clients. Both Blooming Color and Johnsbyrne have done mailings to educate their customers, and use brochures explaining the differences between CTP and film workflows on sales calls. Johnsbyrne also held information seminars in conjunction with its mailings.

PROOF IS IN THE DOTS Is it necessary to invest in a high-quality digital halftone proofing system? It depends on the printer's jobs and customers.

"There was a lot of concern about having a dot on the proof," says Heinzmann of Quantum Color. "But we've been able to prove to our clientele that we can match to the Irises." About 85 percent to 90 percent of Quantum's contract proofs are made on an Iris proofer.

"From a management standpoint, I think digital proofing is the weakest link in the CTP chain," observes Alan Cudahy, Quantum president. "There is a lot of technology improvement that has to be made there."

But it can work. Scoville Press has been using a digital proof for about three and a half years. Because it is not a high-end color printer, prepress manager Grimes says it has been able to rely on an Iris proofer for color proofing and an Epson printer with color tuner for its contract proofs. (Digital proofs are profiled to Scoville's Matchprints.)

Cavanah, at Perfection Press, says proofing was a main challenge when the printer began imaging Presstek Anthem plates on a Pearlsetter CTP system. Perfection Press runs two Heidelberg GTOs, an Adast press, an Agfa Chromapress, a Xerox DocuTech, and two Didde half-web presses. It also offers full finishing capabilities.

"We were concerned about what kind of proof customers were going to expect," Cavanah explains. The company dealt with the issue by doing tests for customers of Epson 9000 proofs against a printed sheet.

"We've also explained to customers how close the Epson proofs are to analog, and stress the cost of the Epson," which is significantly cheaper than either Colorkey or Matchprint proofs, Cavanah notes. Because Perfection Press tends to do very short-run work - a run of 5,000 is on the large side - Cavanah says customers are loathe to add the price of a Colorkey or Matchprint proof to their jobs.

Blooming Color customers, however, are in the POP market. "These are applications where details are very important," says Patel. The trade shop therefore outputs contract proofs on a CreoScitex Spectrum digital halftone system. Imposition proofs are produced on a Hewlett-Packard large-format plotter.

COLOR CHALLENGE The biggest CTP challenge, however, is color management, says Dome Printing's Tim Poole. A conventional workflow offered a number of fixed standards. Analog proofs were made on proofing substrates that already had pre-established dot gains, proofs were made with pre-established exposures and plates were fixed to how the film was managed.

"With CTP and digital proofing, there are no fixed standards anymore," Poole states. "Proofing and plating became variable, and so a lot of other areas became variable. No one has a locked-in color standard with CTP."

To resolve this issue, Dome has identified what it perceives as the best industry standard and has adopted testing procedures so it can benchmark its printing. Poole says help can come in the form of "some very good" process control tools from Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF). Dome also uses a QTI closed-loop color system with the System Brunner gray-balance control on its web press, and press operators pull sheets during sheetfed print runs and scan them with a Heidelberg gray-balance spectral control device.

Cudahy and Heinzmann of Quantum Color are concentrating on a profiled color management workflow as well. Quantum plans on matching optimal press conditions by footprinting its presses, then working backward into its prepress workflow by matching proofs to the best capabilities of its presses.

Implementing CTP successfully is no easy feat. It requires forethought, workflow knowledge and maybe even a bit of serendipity on top of it all. "CTP touches so many parts of the production process that it [early on] became the center of a lot of other discussions: proofing, plates, digital workflows, imposition," notes State Street Consultants' Zarwan (Boston).

For some, however, the effort is paying off.

Even seemingly small actions can significantly ease computer-to-plate (CTP) pains:

Ask vendors for references. "There's no such thing as a bulletproof platesetter," notes Rusty Grimes, prepress manager of sheetfed printer Scoville Press (Plymouth, MN). He suggests asking vendors for customer names, then asking those customers how they are using their CTP systems.

"We're a non-heat and heatset web printer. We would call vendors' references, and they would be sheetfed customers," Grimes relates. "You need to find customers that are similar, then find out what they like and don't like with their device."

Ask vendors for information. Grimes asked vendor sales reps for white papers on their products, and didn't hesitate to ask the harder questions: What did vendors' technicians have the most problems with? What were the most fallible parts of their device? What parts break most often?

Add oomph to your servers. "CTP files aren't small," observes Randall Cavanah, COO of Perfection Press (Logan, IA). When this 75-employee printer installed its Presstek Pearlsetter CTP device, it increased its server capacity from 30 GB to 100 GB. "If printers haven't been doing imposition files before and are starting it with their CTP system, they should think about doubling their storage capacity," he advises.

Get your own in-house repairperson. Scoville sent one of its employees to its vendor's repair program. Grimes considers the $3,500 money well spent. Not only does Scoville get 10 percent off its yearly CTP service contract, "our employee has since worked on everything from our scanners to our imagesetters to our CTP device," Grimes says.

Because he serves as the eyes and hands of a service technician who might be on call elsewhere, the employee can simply call a technician on his or her cell phone and get advice over the phone or order parts right away. "It's a big value," Grimes declares.