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Processor-free CTP

Mar 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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For more than 10 years, the industry has awaited the arrival of mainstream processless CTP. After a few false starts, printers now have a variety of plates and platesetters to choose from. Some of the plates aren’t entirely process-free—they require a post-imaging water rinse or on-press development via fountain solution—but the inherent environmental and cost benefits are there.

Current processless plates generally support run lengths up to 100,000. “We’re seeing a much faster adoption of the chemistry-free technology in the four-up printers first,” says Ray Cassino, Heidelberg’s (Kennesaw, GA) director of prepress product management. He cites floorspace concerns among their reasons.

“We designed [non-process] plates for small- to midsize printers,” says Jack Wiethoff, Kodak Graphic Communications Group’s (Rochester, NY) global leader for digital plates. He adds that while Kodak today offers two violet plates, the company maintains thermal is a better option for most applications.

The following are highlights of currently available processless and chemistry-free thermal CTP technologies, along with emerging violet options.

Agfa’s (Ridgefield Park, NJ) :Azura chemistry-free plate system, which became commercially available in November 2004, is in operation in more than 300 printing and prepress sites around the world. Originally launched as an Agfa-only solution for Agfa thermal CTP platesetters, :Azura is now in use on a variety of platesetters from other vendors, including Screen’s PlateRite, Kodak’s Trendsetter and Lotem, Luscher’s Expose and Heidelberg’s Topsetter and Suprasetter.

Susan Wittner, marketing manager for Agfa, explains: “The :Azura plate is not a closed system—it runs on just about any platesetter. A user who has a thermal CTP unit already would drop the processing step and be able to run :Azura through their platesetter. It doesn’t require a special engine.”

:Azura is a grained and anodized aluminum thermal plate that uses patented ThermoFuse technology to physically bond images to the plate without any chemical processing. A clean-out step follows the nonablative imaging process to enhance contrast. :Azura can be handled in daylight.

At Ipex (Birmingham, England, April 4-11), Agfa Graphics will launch the next-generation :Acento and :Palladio four-up or B2-format CTP systems. Users can upgrade from the :Acento II E model to the higher-productivity :Acento II S. A new drum balancing system supports a wider range of small-format presses. :Acento II reportedly images all thermal digital plates sensitized for 830-nm lasers. :Acento, which fits plates from 12.75 x 14.56 inches to 25.98 x 32.67 inches, is designed for high-quality plate production in small and midsize commercial printing and packaging operations.
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Fujifilm’s (Valhalla, NY) Brillia HD PRO-T processless thermal plate, announced at PRINT 05, is in beta testing and will be available April 1, 2006.

Additionally, Fujifilm is developing a violet photopolymer, nonablative, chemistry-free plate. Slated for release in 2007, it exhibits many of the qualities found in Fujifilm’s existing LP-NV plate, including the ability to print with UV inks and solvents without baking, long run lengths and yellow safelight handling. Its development reportedly depends on commercial availability of high-power violet laser technology.

Fujifilm’s new processless plate range is based on a new high-definition (HD) plate emulsion technology that allows performance on press to remain very close to Fuji’s existing CTP plates. Compatible with most thermal (830nm) platesetters and approved for one percent to 99 percent at 200 lpi conventional, or 300 lpi for hybrid and FM screenings, Brillia HD PRO-T is a nonablative plate that carries a latent image with distinct contrast to allow visual inspection after imaging. When used on press, the plate carries ink and fountain solution, and is in full print production within a similar number of waste sheets to conventional PS or CTP plates. MultiGrain technology also allows for the same ink-and-water balance as Fuji’s existing CTP plates.

Brillia HD PRO-T reportedly requires imaging power close to Fuji’s existing thermal processed plate at 120mJ/cm2, resulting in the same plate production speeds. Supporting run lengths up to 100,000 impressions, it meets the demands of most commercial printers and can be handled under daylight conditions.

The Brillia HD PRO-T plate can be imaged with virtually any platesetter but is optimized for use with the Fujifilm thermal CTP devices in the Dart and Javelin series.

Fujifilm’s four-up Dart Series thermal platesetters—the Dart E and Dart III—feature high-speed drum rotation at up to 1,000 rpm. The Dart III can output up to 20 four-page plates per hour at 2,400 dpi thanks to its 32-channel laser diode exposure head. The Dart E has a 16-channel laser diode exposure head and outputs up to 10 four-page plates per hour at 2,400 dpi. Dart III boasts the larger plate format and is specifically targeted toward midsize printers.

The Dart E, introduced at PRINT 05, can be paired with processless plates, enabling printers to get started with CTP at a cost of approximately $90,000.
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Presstek’s (Hudson, NH) Dimension CTP system and the Anthem thermal plate were designed to provide ease of use along with productivity and quality. Presstek’s Anthem anodized aluminum, chemistry-free plate is a “drop-in” product designed to provide excellent ink/water latitude and compatibility with a wide range of press chemistry. After imaging, it requires only a water rinse; there is no baking or gumming. It images at 800 to1,200 nm and is daylight safe.

The Dimension Excel platesetter is available in two- and four-page formats, and it can be configured as a standard (Dimension225 and 425) or high-production (Dimension250, 450) device. Each has a small footprint and is optimized to work with Presstek chemistry-free Anthem and process-free Applause metal plates.

Presstek’s chemistry-free Freedom thermal plate is imaged on the Vector TX52 platesetter for small-format (52-cm and under) printers. Look for more information about two-up CTP in our April issue.
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Made available worldwide at PRINT 05, Kodak’s Thermal Direct non-process plate features a traditional grained and anodized aluminum substrate, giving it the look and feel of a presensitized aluminum plate. According to Kodak, Thermal Direct plates are compatible with all popular CTP imagers, and a wide range of inks and fountain solutions.

Thermal Direct features a proprietary, thermally-sensitive coating that is 70 percent thinner than photopolymer violet plates and 38 percent thinner than typical processed thermal plates. A polymer resin permits the coating to be dissolved by the press fountain solution and completely carried out of the press on the makeready sheets. Kodak also reduced the coating colorant on Thermal Direct plates to virtually eliminate the potential for ink roller glazing but still produce an image of sufficient visibility to determine press cylinder placement for the plates.

Capable of producing run lengths up to 100,000 impressions under optimal press conditions, the plate can hold one percent to 98 percent dots at 200 lpi. Thermal Direct boasts one-hour white light handling and four-hour yellow safelight handling.

The plate is part of the Kodak All-in-One Processless Package, a complete four-page CTP prepress solution that includes a Magnus 400 imaging device and the Prinergy Evo PDF processor.

With a six-up drum size and imaging speeds up to 21 plates per hour, the Magnus 400 also offers up to 250-lpi screening and Staccato 25 micron screening.

The Magnus 400 Quantum platesetter is Kodak’s top-of-the-line four-page CTP device.

With the full automation option, it delivers up to 28 plates per hour using Kodak SQUAREspot imaging technology.
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Heidelberg’s worldwide launch of the Saphira Chemfree thermal plate took place at PRINT 05. The negative-working, grained aluminum plate is offered alongside Heidelberg’s Suprasetter.

The new plate technology was developed as an extension of the Speedmaster SM 74 DI’s Saphira Thermoplate PL. The Saphira Chemfree plate uses a new, latex-based coating technology called micro spheres. The coating is nonablative and eliminates traditional thermal plate processing variables. The Suprasetter’s patented thermal laser (830nm) is used to bond the micro spheres to the base metal and expose the plate, forming the printing image.

Heidelberg’s Suprasetters offer versatility when it comes to plate handling, format coverage and punching. Numerous configurations are possible, from the 4- or 8-page basic model to the Single Cassette Loader (SCL) and the fully automatic Multi Cassette Loader (MCL). A new internal punching method ensures punching is performed with maximum register accuracy for Heidelberg presses as well as most other presses available on the market.

A new laser developed exclusively by Heidelberg reportedly ensures excellent imaging quality and maximum productivity. Modules can be added to increase throughput. The Intelligent Diode System (IDS) ensures operation can continue with no noticeable drop in performance even if a diode fails.
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The nonphotosensitive Aspen Metal Plate was designed especially for Xanté’s (Mobile, AL) Impressia Metal PlateSetter, allowing for a chemical-free, process-free, no-rinse workflow in daylight conditions. It accommodates run lengths up to 25,000 impressions. The 6-mil plate comes in sizes from 10 x 15 inches to 13.38 x 19.87 inches.

The Xanté Impressia metal platesetter is designed to be an affordable metal CTP solution for two-up portrait presses using traditionally grained aluminum and chemical-free plates. Xanté’s “Z-7” imaging technologies enable users to automate calibration. The Impressia comes standard with 2,400 x 2,400 dpi capability, enabling users to achieve 256 levels of gray, and it can output up to 60 plates per hour.
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RIPit offers small-format printers cost-effective alternatives for reducing chemistry processing. For example, CTP users can add a plate pH chemistry neutralizer (for disposal). Additionally, Citiplate is developing a processless RIPit branded digital plate for use with RIPit’s SpeedSetter Violet Metal (VM) CTP systems. Using Citiplate “no-process” violet photopolymer technology, these processless RIPit brand plates will self-develop on-press, within a few turns of the cylinders.

No-process RIPit brand violet digital plates are expected to be marketed within 2006 through the established RIPit sales channel.
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According to ECRM Imaging Systems (Tewksbury, MA), the MAKO System 4x offers customers a clear path for moving to violet processless technology, when available.

The 4-page MAKO System 4 accommodates plates sized up to 24.2 x 29.3 inches. The MAKO System 4x utilizes next-generation optical technology that delivers higher levels of imaging accuracy. It images plates for a wide range of press formats from 8.9 x 9.9 inches to 26.0 x 37.8 inches. The MAKO System 4x offers resolution sets from 1,200 to 3,556 dpi and can output more than 20 Speedmaster 74 plates per hour at 2,540 dpi.

The automated MAKO4matic combines proven imaging technology with a straight-through plate path and end-to-end automation, including a new punching system that uses one set of punches to achieve multiple configurations. The system can accommodate almost all popular punching configurations on plate sizes up to 25 x 36.5 inches.
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Understanding the real costs of CTP
By John Zarwan

The move to CTP has increased printers’ productivity and efficiency by simplifying the print production process and streamlining workflow. Despite the cost savings achieved by moving from film-based platemaking to CTP, there still are important costs incurred in getting the plate from the platesetter to the press. Most printers accept these as unavoidable costs of doing business, and therefore do not track these costs very carefully. As the pressure on printers to increase efficiency and speed continues to grow, understanding these costs and their implications becomes increasingly important. It is absolutely critical for printers to identify and evaluate all their costs and processes, and to continue to make improvements. Many, if not most, printers tend to underestimate the total cost of chemistry, processing and maintenance. The cost of processing is not trivial. This is a real cost center; whether or not you choose to track these costs, you must be aware of them. These costs include:

  • The cost of the processor, including floorspace.
  • Cost of chemistry.
  • Cost of maintaining the processor.
  • Inventory costs.
  • Baking.
  • Waste disposal and environmental compliance.
Printers who keep good records—or whose suppliers provide reporting relative to the value of the chemistry purchased—report spending considerably more than those who only estimate chemistry use.

Further, each step in the production process represents an opportunity for error. It is critical to understand the potential sources of mistakes and their associated costs. In doing so, it is necessary to analyze the cost of each piece of the operation. In addition to the direct and indirect costs of material and labor associated with plate processing, extra steps have the potential to introduce variation in process control, stability and consistency.

One of the principal attractions, therefore, of chemistry-free or processless plates is the streamlining of workflow and elimination of variables associated with plate development and processor maintenance. Process-free eliminates almost all of the nonplate costs. The importance of eliminating chemistry and processing was confirmed with the introduction of a number of processless plates at Drupa 2004.

John Zarwan is an independent consultant. The full report, “CTP Plate Making: Understanding the Real Costs,” can be downloaded at no charge from

Small shops, big opportunity
An interview with John O’Rourke, marketing director, CTP products, Presstek Inc.

Presstek was the leader in bringing processless plates to market. Are you maintaining that edge in the marketplace now?
“There is a real value component in process-free and chemistry-free. [Printers] are validating it by identifying their preference, and the fact that the other vendors are looking to fill that demand is, I think, a real positive. Going back to more complex chemistry-based systems now is going to be viewed as a negative.”

Can you explain the difference between process-free and chemistry-free?
“To Presstek, process-free just means no processing. Today, the only product in the market that really satisfies that description is the Applause plate. The image is completely formed on the plate when the plate exits the imager. By contrast, a plate that allows the user to eliminate the plate processor yet still needs to be developed in the press by the fountain solution wouldn’t qualify as process-free.

“Chemistry-free really refers to products that have a rinsing step with water. There’s a post-imaging step, but it still doesn’t use chemistry. The Anthem plate and the Freedom plate, which is a derivative of the Anthem technology, require a water rinse.”

Since Presstek acquired ABDick, has the company’s focus shifted toward smaller printers?
“We came to market with a product—our main product being the two-page DI press—that targeted small printers, and we’ve really stayed there. With our CTP and DI offerings, Presstek has reached the small to midsize market.

“The ABDick acquisition opened up another market tier for us that we really weren’t reaching—in fact, nobody reaches it well, other than ABDick—which is the smallest printers often running single-page-format presses. These are the shops that are in every town in America, that are doing quick print and really broad-based print services.”

Do you see the opportunity for processless being particularly within the small-format arena?
“If you look at the highest volume printers, who use the most plates, these are the big publication houses with multiple shifts, lots of square footage, lots of employees. [They can] manage sophisticated systems with lots of infrastructure, such as baking ovens, because they’ve got a lot of resources.

“When you have fewer employees and resources, who wants to pay someone to muck out a plate processor? Also, smaller shops are going to reap a greater benefit by having the processor’s floorspace converted from a cost center to a profit center.

“From a straight labor, overhead, cost and complexity standpoint, the smaller printers are going to benefit better today and, I think, into the future.”

Violet processless CTP
By John Zarwan

With computer-to-plate (CTP) so well established, it’s easy to forget its advantages over conventional plate making: labor reduction; elimination of film and chemistry; improved print quality and consistency; pressroom savings and faster makereadies; and fewer production steps.

Processless plates extend those advantages. Most obviously, they eliminate the cost of chemistry, including inventory and storage costs, as well as the associated labor. Disposal costs are eliminated or reduced, with environmental benefits. Perhaps most important is the continued streamlining of print production.

For the first decade of direct-to-plate, only Presstek offered processless plates. But in the last two years, Agfa, Fuji, Kodak and Citiplate (privately labeled) have introduced or announced their own, and momentum and usage continues to build.

Thermal’s toe-hold
To date, all processless plates require thermal imaging, although Fuji and Citiplate have announced development of violet processless plates. Until five years ago, it appeared thermal had “won” over visible light. But since the introduction of CTP with violet lasers, visible light solutions have regained momentum. Thermal still dominates in North America; violet is relatively more popular overseas, particularly in newspaper applications. In the chemically developed digital plate world, both technologies work. Each is attractive to printers in various situations.

Violet’s pros and cons
The main arguments in favor of violet center around faster imaging, lower machine costs and lower cost of ownership.

While it is difficult to discuss a technology that is still in development and a long way from commercialization, it is not clear that the arguments in favor of violet imaging will carry over into processless plates.

Cost | Current violet lasers generally cost less than lasers used for thermal. One reason is their lower power. Another reason commonly given is that the technology is used in consumer applications, thus benefitting from a much larger market. As 30mW and 60mW lasers became available, they could image photopolymer plates.

By all accounts, however, substantially higher powered lasers will be required to image processless plates. These lasers are becoming available, but as they become more powerful, they also become more expensive and are less likely to be used in “mass market” applications. It’s very likely that much of violet’s cost advantage will disappear. But, note that most violet platesetters use “internal” drum technology while most thermal platesetters’ are “external.” Internal drum machines tend to be simpler, with fewer moving parts, and therefore tend to be less expensive to build and repair.

Handling | Violet plates are not daylight safe. Many of today’s chemically developed violet plates need to be handled in yellow safelight. This is likely to be the case for any future violet chemistry-free system. After imaging, chemical development addresses this. Processless violet plates probably will need some type of wash or clean-out and gumming to make them daylight safe. While this adds a step compared to many thermal processless plates, it does have the benefit of allowing the plates to be proofread. Of course, it is entirely possible that a daylight-safe violet plate eventually will be introduced.

A place for processless
Processless plates are not for everyone, particularly large, high-volume printers.

Many installations of processless plates have gone to first-time CTP buyers, particularly in the four-page market. They like not having a processor and certainly appreciate the space, labor and chemistry savings. As it will be some time before violet processless plates are available, it is not yet clear whether the system and plate cost, or the additional processing step, would be seen as relative disadvantages vs. thermal processless plates.

The advantages of chemistry-free platemaking also have convinced many to switch plates as they upgrade their equipment. They might be interested in violet processless, especially those who already have a violet system. But because of the increased laser power, any violet processless plate probably will not be a “drop in” product; it will not work with an existing unit. So the “emotional” tie to a violet laser would have to be pretty strong unless the violet processless plate was demonstrably superior to other available technology.

Of course, until we actually see the plate and its characteristics, and find out more about pricing of both the plate and the imager, it is difficult to determine whether that will be the case.

Denise Kapel is the managing editor of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at