Print production process: Prepress operations, The

print production process: Prepress operations, The

Bonoff, Steve

Section 2

Editor’s Introduction

The prepress operation, or pre-whatever output, continues to change. Traditional methods continue to disappear into the sunset. IPAs Steve Bonoff discusses how his members have had to change in order to stay in business. And as all things become digital and software based Dave Watterson, GATF’s Art Director, discusses the danger of “the production of design” and potential loss of creativity in graphic communications. What is “holistic printing?” Dennis Mason provides an introspective article on how important it is to view the entire production process, and color management at all stages of the print production process. Digital proofing and computer-to-plate are now a given but are still evolving and improving in quality. Nothing stays the same.

The Changing Pre Arena

By Steve Bonoff, President, IPA– the Association of Graphic Solution Providers

Phone: 952-896-1908; email: steve@ipa.org

Web: www.ipa.org

As prepress companies evolve from service providers to solution providers, they are relying more and more on value-added services to differentiate themselves from the competition and provide continued revenue growth and profitability. This reliance on value-added services brings with it a host of new challenges and is having an impact on every level of a company’s business– from management to sales and operations.

After much research and strategic planning, IPA leadership determined that prepress companies-unless they are serving a niche market-must transition and become more full-service graphic solutions providers to be successful. Prepress companies have a high level of digital competency and a close relationship with the content developer, and they need to take advantage of that relationship by getting involved at the time of idea generation and concept work; managing their customers assets; and providing upstream services such as creative, design, and digital photography They also need to provide a full range of prepress and output services, so what we’re looking at is a full-service graphic solution provider from concept to distribution. Many IPA members have already moved in that direction by providing many of these services themselves or forming partnerships with other graphic communication companies.

As our members are changing so must their association. We’ve had to re-engineer who we are, who we are serving, and what our purpose is. Our job is to help members make the transition to and succeed as full-service graphic solutions providers, not only to survive but also to thrive and be profitable. In addition to addressing management issues, IPA is focusing on three areas where members can provide more value and service to their customers:

* Upstream services such as creative, design, and digital photography

* Downstream services, including electronic output; digital, large-format and variable data printing as well as traditional printing; and fulfillment

* Operational services that link upstream and downstream and address workflow and network publishing issues

The IPA focus is not very different from that of the aggressive graphic communications company. According to the recently released IPA Economic Study, members who are the profit leaders show tremendous nimbleness in changing products, markets, and operational structure. IPA also is demonstrating that same nimbleness and sensitivity to the changing needs of its members.

The Production of Design

by Dave Watterson, Art Director, GATF

Phone: 412-741-6860; email: dwatterson@gatf.org

Web: www.gain.net

The October 2002 PIA Management Portfolio reported on the recent trend of printers to diversify their service and bring design in-house. According to Trend;:atch the percentage of commercial printers who view adding creative and design as a top sales opportunity can be as high as 10%. These full-service printing companies are now offering page layout, design, digital illustration, logo creation, photo editing, font creation, graphics, and Internet site design. Design firms are also bringing some levels of printing capability into their shops, i.e., short-nin digital printing. TrendWatch’s most recent survey found that 14% of service bureaus and 6% of graphic designers cite digital printing as a top sales opportunity.

On the face of it this seems like a sound business decision, an opportunity to bring another “value-added” to the table. But to quote the designer Milton Glaser “no decent artist went into this line of work to be a good businessman.”

Designers in recent years have had to learn a great deal more about production and the intricacies of the process. This steep learning curve has often placed the designer at odds with the printer. At a recent industry conference the speaker defined a designer as “a person who changes his mind for a living.” While this comment brought howls of laughter from a production– based crowd, it is a prime example of the printing house stereotype, portraying the designer as an adversary. This myopic view of the creative side of graphic communication is at the core of the danger of any growing trend to rely on the “producer” to be in control of the “creative.”

While good design must work within the given limitations of the process, it is a mistake to expect the creative to always work as a neatly fitting cog in the unimaginative gears of print production. The graphic designer Paul Rand said, “Without aesthetic, design is either the humdrum repetition of familiar cliches or a wild scramble for novelty Without the aesthetic, the computer (or printer) is but a mindless speed machine, producing effects without substance. Form without relevant content, or content without meaningful form.” Design is more than mixing type with pictures and formatting it nicely. Design is about concepts, making raw information and ideas into something that will entice, intrigue, educate, and inform the audience.

In the early 1960s a new development in the graphic communications world was developed-Letraset. At first difficult to use, but with development became more prevalent. The power of the typesetter was now in the hands of the common man. What did they do with this newfound toy? Ascenders and descenders wound up in some truly bizarre placements, careful kerning and intelligent letter spacing was disposed of, and a random of spacing took hold. Some vibrant, innovative, and creative solutions were created, but mostly inferior, poorly-executed trash was produced.

The advent of the computer in the world of graphic communication took that access to type control to an unprecedented level. With the invention of PostScript and real life WYSIWYG, anyone had the power to layout galleys of text. What happened when the untrained and inexperienced now had this power? Typography slipped out of the control of those trained to produce it. Liberties as bad or worse than in the Letraset days became the norm. Inelegance became the rage, with no apparent consideration of content. Again, some truly creative solutions were developed, but these were relatively rare in comparison to the mountains of template-driven gibberish. In only a few years, we not only came to accept this as the way things are done, we have become unable to recognize the difference between good, bad, and merely pedestrian. The danger here can be twofold. If the mediocre is becoming acceptable and the process is driving the concept creation, there is little room left for innovative creative thinking. If the genesis of the concept for projects is to be controlled by the producers, if the designer who is looking to push the envelope, is working for the envelope manufacturer, what will eventually happen to the innovative, creative, groundbreaking work that clients deserve?

This growing trend of printers acquiring design firms or large design firms investing in in-house production facilities is a logical outgrowth of increased competition, eagerness to provide value added, and the desire to be all things to -all clients. Be careful of anyone who claims to be “full service,” a drawing teacher in college once told me, “The only things that should be full service are gas stations and ladies of the evening.” A good designer must seek solutions that are engaging and demanding visually. Unfortunately most people in production environments are more comfortable with old problems than with new solutions. While a designer’s most valuable asset is an ability to discover the unique and marketable characteristics of a product and service, production should not drive that discovery. Fundamentally design is a search, not for the right answers, but for the significant questions. The creative ‘act’ is a series of decisions, discoveries, and experiments, not a measurable, quantifiable moment. The irrepressible march to profitability may involve bringing aspects from all phases of our industry closer together. Let us hope the professionalism and pride we all take in our work can be translated into understanding and appreciation of the importance of the other puzzle pieces. For the sake of design in the future we should all hope the incorporation of the design and creative into the realm of production doesn’t result in the reduction of innovative and imaginative work. Even more important, let’s hope that the importance of GOOD-not good enough-in our marketplace remains a cornerstone. Even though the definition of great creative is a very subjective matter, we need to look for good design, good concepts, good execution and innovative thinking and not let our ability to recognize good from ordinary pass into a world of bottom-line driven drivel.

“Design is the method of putting form and content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions, there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.” Paul Rand

Twenty Million and Counting

by Greg Bassinger, Manager, Process Controls, GATF

Phone: 412-741-6860; email: gbassinger@gat.org

Web: www.gain.net

A new breed of CCDs has been announced. Sinar Bron Imaging released a 22-megapixel camera array, and others, like MegaVision, are offering 11-megapixel systems. These new CCDs will certainly convince anyone who doubted the quality of digital captures to take a second look. The file sizes and quality of images being created by these devices surprise us again.

Not only are the chips getting bigger, but the use of Fire,ire is becoming standard on most systems. New systems are native Firewire while retrofit kits are available for existing systems. This is an exciting option because most systems can now be run from a Firewire enabled laptop. This means portable solutions are more common, and actually portable. Imacon introduced a new portable capturing system that uses a new storage technique to squeeze even more images onto their mass storage box called the Ixpress image bank, while including metadata about the image capturing situation.

The implementation of color management into the camera software still needs to be addressed. A few systems allow the user to embed ICC profiles created outside the software into the RGB files. Others that support conversion to CMYK in the software allow the conversion to output profiles. I am not convinced this is a good idea, but the option is available. If the only file saved is the converted image to a particular output profile, that does not leave much room for repurposing of the image. I still believe in capturing and saving as much RGB data as possible. Anyone who uses an RGB workflow would be quick to point out the advantages of this.

When the only innovation of a technology is simply making it bigger, it’s a sure sign of maturity. The advances in the near future will be larger imagers and better soft-vare handling. A replacement sensor for the CCD is years away at best. At this point, it is not necessary to look for alternatives to the CCD due to its problems. Most of the early errors caused by the chip design have been solved by better chip design and software. Look forward to bigger chips and faster capturing times. These are the advances that will thwart development of scanning technology and devices.

Holistic Printing

by Dennis E. Mason, President, Mason Consulting, Inc.

Phone: 708-246-7786; email: masonconsulting@juno.com

Web: www.masonconsulting.com

Much conventional medicine is characterized by specialists. Internists treat the unseen part of the body, while dermatologists, optometrists, podiatrists, and others focus on external specialties. A problem detected by an internist will likely be referred to someone more focused, such as a cardiologist or pulmonary specialist. In medicine, as in other disciplines, turf wars exist. The prescribed treatment for angina, for example, might be open heart surgery, angioplasty, a stent, or dietary or lifestyle changes, depending on the specialist.

Holistic medicine, on the other hand, treats the whole person by weighing physical, nutritional, environmental, emotional, social, spiritual, and lifestyle considerations and seeks to attain a balance among -all the factors which affect health. Surgery may be prescribed by the holistic physician, but not until all other possible sources have been duly considered.

Printing, in many respects, is like the human body-and diagnosing a printing problem is very much like diagnosing a physical illness. Like human sickness, the source of a printing problem may not be readily apparent or intuitively detected. Printing difficulties can be approached from the traditional operational specialties of prepress, press, and postpress—or can be treated holistically, by looking at the process from start to finish. Good printing is much like human wellness in that the quest to achieve quality must consider even aspect of the process. Despite general consensus in this area, however, many printers have yet to put in place the analytic tools which permit a holistic approach to process issues.

Color management, properly implemented, offers much of that holism for many common printing problems. When viewed from the standpoint of the entire process, color management can provide the framework for standardizing the process and making it more consistent from job to job. Perhaps more important, color management can provide tools which facilitate accurate diagnoses of problems. Calling in a color specialist is much like engaging a holistic physician, a good one will look at the entire operation and consider all aspects of the process which might influence achieving good color. A color specialist who focuses strictly on the pressroom or prepress is probably not the holistic analyst you seek.

Most truly holistic color experts advise beginning by fingerprinting the press, since in the process it often presents a fixed parameter. After all, it makes little sense to direct the press to print outside the gamut attainable or to call for a more precise registration than is realistic. One color management and control specialist recommends a three-pronged analysis as a basis for color management. The technique involves using a standardized color file to generate different outputs: a plate, a proof, and a press sheet. Comparing these three outputs, one to the other as well as to the original standardized file, enables pinpointing sources of difficulties in the overall printing process. Carefully analyzing the standardized outputs can provide an orderly transition to computer-to-plate or computer-to-press. Printers who implement color management properly can benchmark their operations against industry standards and move closer to printing “by the numbers” on press. Quad/Graphics, for example, is striving toward “lights out” printing, in which operator oversight is only nominally necessary. While true lights out printing cannot be expected in the foreseeable future, moving toward that goal is what holistic printing and color management is all about, But color management now goes beyond the walls of the printing plant. Differences in perception among individuals have long plagued those producing, approving, and attempting to match proofs as part of the printing process. Ensuring that proofs are viewed under a 50(>00K light is a step in the right direction.

Implementing digital workflow throughout the printing plant can provide a holistic solution to color management, but only within the plant. Recently more printers are moving to proofing solutions utilizing International Color Consortium (ICC) profiling, which can extend the color management envelope beyond the printing operation. Popular today is proofing using ink jet printers with few differences from the model on your desktop. At least two major suppliers of color matching software now can produce SWOP certified ink jet proofs.

The next step is remote proofing, long available for content and position by viewing PDF or other files. At Graph Expo 2002, a remote proofing concept was introduced that assures the remotely generated proof matches exactly that viewed by the sender. Although this technology is only in its formative stages, it holds promise for reliable remote proofing. Surely other color management software vendors will follow with similar products. We can now see the day when printer and print buyer can look at different proofs, generated even on different proofers, and concur on any necessary changes.

Once the job is released to the pressroom, color management now comes into play again. At the close of 2002, an estimated 378 web presses in North America had closed loop color-a 38% increase from the 273 equipped with closed loop color in 2001. Color management in one of many forms is available on most modern sheetfed presses as well. Clearly, controlling color automatically or semi-automatically in the pressroom is becoming a standard.

Managing color today requires a view from 30,000 feet. The days are gone when a plate and proof were handed to the pressroom with good wishes. In the early years of the 21st century,color is the responsibility of everyone and no one-everyone in any part of the operation can affect color either positively or negatively, and no one, in that color is such a broad issue only top management can be responsible for color today.

Dennis E. Mason is the president of Mason Consulting Inc., a firm specializing in marketing and technology issues in the graphic arts and electronic industries

Color Management

by Ray Cassino, Director Product Management, Prepress, Heidelberg USA

Phone: 700-419-6567;

email: Raymond. Cassino@heidelberg.com

Web: www.heidelberg.com

Today’s imagesetter market has nearly been replaced by CTP devices. As the industry moves toward filmless work-flows, the need increases for digital color proofing. The first wave was thermal CTP, mostly purchased by larger printers. The second and larger wave in adoption is violet CTE With its attractive entry price and generally lower cost of ownership, violet CTP has opened the doors of CTP to half-size and smaller shops that previously could not afford CTP.

This increase in the number of CTP units sold to smaller printers has created a demand for proportionally priced digital proof ing systems. While larger shops can afford to invest in digital halftone proofers, smaller shops cannot. These shops (as well as larger shops) are taking advantage of the new color management tools that are offered with low-cost, contract-quality, inkjet proofers.

ICC Profile

The foundation of the color management for these devices is the International Color Consortium (ICC) profile. This is the digital fingerprint and requires two profiles to be made, one of the proofer (source) and one of the printing press (destination). These two profiles are loaded into a RIP/utility software driving the proofer and through three-dimensional color space changes, the profiles are compared and applied to the image data so the proof “matches” the press sheet. (Note: The word “match” is not precise and color scientists like to use the word “correlate.” However, most print buyers don’t buy a “correlation,” but a “match” to the press sheet. As long as we agree that there is no such thing as a 100% match we can use the words interchangeably.) How good the color “correlation” you achieve is based on several factors.

The first is the ink set on the proofing device itself. At a minimum, the color gamut must be larger than the gamut of the ink with which you are printing. This allows a “matching” of the printed inks with the ink on the proof. The larger the gamut of the inkjet inks, the closer the match with non-process colors will be, i.e.. Pantone and spot colors.

Applications for Creation of ICC Profiles

The second factor in color correction is the application program that creates the ICC profile. Common applications are usually desktop varieties that run on a Mac or PC and are connected to an automatic scanning spectrophotometer. Many programs today can make an ICC profiles, and some offer more sophisticated algorithms than others. The better the program, the lower the Delta E. the closer the proof will look like the press sheet.

Applications to Evaluate the Match

The third factor is how the application compares the ICC profile of the proofer to the ICC profile of the press sheet and creates the “match.” This is commonly referred to as the CMM or Color Matching Module. These modules are usually imbedded in the RIP connected to the proofing device and does the comparison and matching on-the-fly during proof output.

Proofing Paper

A fourth and major influence on how close a “match” is achieved is the proofing paper. The original application for inkjet proofers was not contract color proofing. Special brighteners were added to many of the papers to give snappy looking color for photo realistic effects and point-of-display advertisements. This made the image pop off the page, but was a detriment to the color proofing applications. Even though most profiling tools offer good paper simulations, the brighteners in a paper can wa-eak havoc on a good color match. For proofing applications it is best to use a paper with few brighteners.

The Significance of Dots

Certain market segments insist that a proof has to have a halftone dot. “To dot or not to dot” has been debated since the first inkjet proofs were introduced. Today the resolution of the inkjet proofers has increased to the point where some can offer an “inkjet dot.” These are not the same dots as used for printing, but they are dots and can satisfy some customers who insist on seeing a dot. Another technology that works well with inkjet proofs is stochastic screening.

Stochastic Screening

Stochastic screening, which has the advantage of moire free printing and excellent detail reproduction, is the perfect compliment to ICC profiled inkjet proofs. While difficult to do with film-based systems many problematic issues of stochastic printing are eliminated with CTP The second generation or second order screening available today reduces most of the graininess that was common with the first stochastic algorithms. Since there are no dots in the print, there is no need for dots in the proof. The proof is used for what it was intended for: to match color to color, not dot for dot.

Strong Case for ICC Profiling

The most obvious advantage is that it gives the best match between the proof and press sheet under a variety of print conditions. Unlike other proofing methods the ICC profiling process uses three-dimensional color space changes to make the match between the proof and press sheet which gives a close match. ICC profiling is a reality check on the printing process. It tells you upfront what color is possible on a certain press with the type of ink and paper you are using. But the most significant impact of ICC profiling is it changes the way we print. Today most printers make a relatively inexpensive and simple prepress proof, and then adjust the expensive and complicated press to match the proof. This is like the tail wagging the dog. Color management with ICC profilings allows us to do the exact opposite. Once the profile of the press is determined with a particular set of inks, paper, etc., the proof is then matched to the press sheet. This results in a proof that press operators can match. It makes for a happy print buyer as the proof matches the press sheet and the makeready process is significantly reduced resulting in a higher profit through efficiency and less wastage. The only caveat is that for the system to work, you must print to the numbers.

What calls for a new profile?

A new press profile is needed when there is any substantial change in the prepress or press parameters. For example, going from 1001pi screens to a 2001pi screen, changing ink manufacturers, or from a coated to uncoated stock, require new profiles. Individual profiles can be made to account for all the differences that will result in a different print.

Aside from the technical advantages, the real driving force behind this technology is the cost savings in media, capital expenditure, and increased productivity. The cost of an inkjet proof can be one-tenth of a halftone digital or analog proof. The capital investment is usually under $20,000, which includes all computer hardware, software, spectrophotometer, and training, with a turnaround time for an 8-up proof of about ten minutes. These economic factors and further technical advancements will position inkjet proofing as the most popular method for contract color proofing for the future.

Proofing Trends 2002

By Don Goldman, ConsultWare

Phone: 781-294-0990; email: ConsultW@aol.com

Simulating the final printed results, called proofing, has been an inherent part of the printing workflow since the beginning of print production. Proofs are used as visuals during the design stages for checking typography/content of pages, positions of graphics and text, impositions, color accuracy, and for obtaining customer approval (contract proofs). Imaging on some type of hard copy material has been the dominant means of delivering a proof. The generation of proofs has been always considered part of the print production process.

The Evolution of Digital Proofing

Until the 1950s proofs were generated mechanically using a proof press. Blueprint paper was adapted for generating proofs of imposed press forms. Analog, film-based proofs began to replace mechanically printed proofs.

In the mid-1980s digital proofing methods began to reach the marketplace using Continuous Inkjet (CIJ) and thermal dyesublimation. But the pressroom and some customers still wanted proofs with halftones to simulate final printed images. The Kodak Approval halftone proofing method introduced in the early 1990s, met this need. By 1998, Imation (now KPG), DuPont, Presstek, Creo, Fuji, and Polaroid all offered high-end proofing solutions.

Use of wide format proofing de,ices began in 1992, coinciding with the introduction of eight-page filmsetters generating imposed one-piece films, but the market was not ready for this technology. By 1997 wide format proofing became more entrenched, especially in operations where one piece films were being generated.

The Changing Dynamics between Customers and Printers

In the late 1980s the responsibility of proofing began to shift with the introduction of desktop publishing. Printers received the PostScript files ready to print. Proofing and proofreading became the responsibility of the document creator. Customers’ added color laser and inkjet output devices and submitted with the job file a proof to guide the printer on the contents of the submitted PostScript or application files. The later part of the 1990s the final output and contract proofs were the responsibility of the printer, and typically these proofs are made using filmbased analog methods or high-resolution continuous tone inkjet and digital halftone-generated devices.

There is also a shift in workflow and file transmittal methods that influence the way proofs are made and who makes them. The development and refinement of Adobe Acrobat PDF file configurations is allowing customers to submit jobs with less production or file content problems.

Another trend is the use of quality on-screen proofs (soft proofs). In the late 1990s printers began to realize they could give their customers the ability to do a final check of their jobs by emailing Adobe Acrobat PDFs. They could review the text, page layout, and color breaks without delaying print production and print their own hard copies for internal distribution.

The August 2002 Graphic Arts Marketing Information Service (GAMIS) study on digital color wide format printing indicated that hardcopy proofs will continue to be the dominant proofing method for conventional printing, but there will be growth in the use of soft proofs by some segments of the print buying community. Less critical color jobs (e.g., industrial catalogs, sell sheets, newsletters, stationery, and some publications), especially where timing is important, are good candidates for soft proofing methods. Digital variable (VI) printing is well suited for soft proofing to perform final checking of the documents along with the reviewing the merging of variable data pages.

Today most wide format devices used in the printing industry are engaged in proofing. Proofing in the printing production process is estimated to cost $250 million annually The vast majority of printed jobs require some form of proofing.

In 2000 the lithographic proofing market was split about evenly, with analog/film methods having a minute edge over digital methods of all sizes and types. Soft proofing (categorized separately but actually a digital method) was for the most part experimental and insignificant in the total view of proofing in 2000. By 2006 analog proofing is forecast to lose more than half of its market share while digital proofing (primarily inkjet) becomes the dominant technology. Press proofing, mostly done during in-printing plant press checks, is expected to fall to about 3% of the total and to remain stable at that level from 2004 to beyond the forecast period. Soft proofing is expected to become measurable in 2003 and to grow to a 10% market share by the end of the forecast period. (See the following table)

Proofing trends

Reports from NAPL and IPA indicate more than 87% of the pages created today by customers are digital with the print provider receiving digital files rather than artwork or film.

Another influence has been the move to CTP fn a CTP workflow, proofing must be done digitally for both internal checks and for customer approvals. In a typical CTP workflow, preliminary laser proofs (single page or two page reader spreads) are used for position only (FPO) and color break checking prior to imposition on narrow format equipment. Then, a second proof is made using inkjet technology generated to serve as imposed “bluelines” as a companion to higher resolution (often a halftone) proof for color quality Another set of final imposition proofs is usually generated Lis a plate check mid guide for the pressroom.

A major inhibitor to the installation of digital proofing is the expense of digital devices capable of outputting halftone proofs. Many printers feel their customers will only accept proofs that emulate the film-based digital contract proofs traditionally offered.

The cost of halftone proofers is still expensive, and as a result the growth of digital halftone proofers has been slow Improvements in the inkjet reproduction quality have expanded the use of inkjet proofs as contract proofs. Discussions with printers reveal a clear indication they tire using contone inkjet proofers to provide contract proofs. In Europe the majority of contract proofs are continnous tone inkjet or dye-sub technologies.

The reason for this recent acceptance to the inkjet technology is a combination of improved RIP engines for proofing; the use of ICC profiles to match ink and press characteristics; spectrophotometer use, and improved inks. The result is proofs that provide adequate predictive results. Only the most discriminating print buyers (usually from ad agencies) still ask for dotted proofs, and even these buyers are tempted by the dramatically lower cost of wide format inkjet proofs. The cost per proof savings with this new technology is significant (e.g., $15 versus $50+), and the overall investment is less than a third of the cost of a dotted proofing system. The throughput is better as well, since inkjet proofers can operate with minimal operator intervention, thus lowering labor costs.

Another reason for the delay in full acceptance of digital proofs was the desire for two-sided proofing which is the typical way analog bluelines are presented to the customer or used for an internal quality check.

While two-sided proofing was considered to be a “must” by printers, just as dotted proofing was also considered to be a “must” for contract proofs, the market seems to have settled into using lower cost, less complex, single-sided inkjet proofing units for their imposition and for contract proofs. Another reason for a lower interest in two-sided proofs is that hvo-sided proofs have to be done sequentially; while printing one-sided on two machines (about the same cost as a two-sided arrangement) provides better throughput. While halftone “dotted” proofs are still desired by ad agencies and discriminating print buyers, the continuous improvement of inkjet quality provides reproductive quality results that can be matched on the press.

What Does It Mean?

The printing industry has a poor record of reading the signs of the times. They hang on to older technologies with the firm belief that no one but a trained printer has the know-how to take a job from design to print. The use of inkjet printers is growing especially as part of computer-to-plate work-flows. Acceptance of continuous tone proofs is increasing both by customers and in the pressroom. There -also is a growing interest in incorporating soft proof technologies as a means of letting customers do a very final check especially on jobs with tight deadlines and short turnarounds. The successful printer in this new millennium is one that shakes free of traditions and makes new concepts and technologies an integral part of finding better, more cost effective ways to meet the needs of their customers. Faster and less expensive ways to generate proofs is one element in meeting customer needs.

Computer-to-Plate: Stable, Available, and Important for your Business Success!

By K. Richard Littrell, Customer Satisfaction Manager, Littrell Associates

Phone: 978-808-3984; email: rick@littrell.biz

Implementing a CTP workflow is a necessity for the printer that wants to grow. Why.? The implementation ofa completely digital workflow allows the printer the flexibility to easily multi-purpose their customers content. With PDF becoming the premedia production standard, the printer will be able to easily re-purpose the pages to go either to print (conventional and digital), Internet, or interactive media. This is the true power of a digital workflow. CTP imaging technology is mature and coming down market to the smaller printers. The chart above, provided by State Street Consultants, supports the premise that the small to medium size printers are becoming the prime purchasers of these systems. This is significant because as a technology matures, it comes down market and becomes affordable for “the masses”! Today over 60% of the CTP systems are purchased by organizations that have less than 100 employees.

Most printers have already implemented an imposed film workflow, usually with digital proofing being one of the last components implemented. Digital proofing, both imposition and contract, is the most difficult capability for the printer to implement. Inkjet proofing is the primary method being used today. (See previous article)

Discussions are now moot on whether thermal or violet imaging is better. Both work well and are supported by multiple vendors for both imaging and plate technologies. The main discussion now centers around whether or not to purchase automated plate-handling. Automation has a cost and printers must decide if it is appropriate for their budget, workflow and qualified personnel. Additionally there are various levels of automation, from multiple or single plate cassettes on-line, automated slip street removal, and online or off-line processors.

CTP systems are available from every major graphic arts equipment and media vendor. The stronger organizations can provide the user with both the equipment and the media. Due to the extreme level of competition in the market today, there is a question on whether a vendor can remain viable long term if they are not able to provide both equipment and media to the end user. So don’t limit evaluation to the technology but expand it to include the strength of the manufacturer. After the purchase and installation, you need someone to answer your questions and expand your capabilities.

There are over seventy-five different CTP imaging systems for metal plate applications. They vary in speed, format size, and automated configurations. There are over ten dedicated polyester CTP imaging systems, not counting the utilization of film imagesetters to expose polyester plates. If you include the imagesetters, choices are significantly increased. Polyester plates have traditionally had a difficult time being accepted in the pressroom. The plates available today have become more stable and will provide the printer with a wider range of operating capability than the initial implementations. For smaller printers with 1-, 2- and 4-up imaging applications, it is worth the time to seriously investigate using polyester plates. It is important to include your pressroom personnel early in the selection process. Their support for the solution is critical to its success.

The choices for CTP plates are widely available and complex. The thermal solutions are more widely available than violet solutions. If a system is visible light, it will be violet. The other visible light technologies have, for the most part, little to no money being spent to further develop their capabilities. The movement in visible light technologies is clearly towards violet (405nm) sensitive systems.

Thermal plate solutions primarily utilize an imaging system that has a sensitivity (wavelength) of 830nm. The older technologies require a pre-heat oven, which is expensive (>$20,000/year) to operate. Most vendors have introduced thermal plate systems no longer requiring the pre-heat ovens. But most technologies still require a post-baking process to increase the nin length capabilities of the plate and operating latitude in the pressroom, such as supporting UV inks. Thermal plate technologies dominate environments that require the longer run lengths (350,000 or more). But as run lengths are coming down, most less than 20,000, this requirement is becoming less relevant today.

There is a lot of hype, and confusion, surrounding plate technologies that are supposed to be “process-less.” You will hear of systems that are “processor-less” and “chemistry-less.” Some require a wash and gumming system or an ablation removal system. Others require a change in press chemistry to allow further “processing” of the plate on the press. The choices in this technology arena are complex and the requirements for implementation are sometimes confusing.

The primary attraction of the process-less plates are reduced floor space and chemistry elimination. It is important to note that the gumming stations costs are similar to purchasing a processor and the ablation removal systems can cost in excess of $20,000. But the cost of chemistry waste removal is eliminated, which is significant in many regions of the world. Be very careful during the evaluation of these technologies. These technologies are available, but for niche applications. All of the major manufacturers are spending significant resources in this area, but progress has been slow.

Visible light plate technologies are now about violet sensitive solutions. The other technologies (argon-ion, helium neon, and red diodes) are a thing of the past. The silver-based plate technologies dominate this arena, but the photopolymer technologies are expanding with the introduction of the 30mW laser diodes. The lower power 5mW diodes are perfect for the silver– based technologies, but don’t have enough power to support the photopolymler emulsions. With the introduction of the 405nm sensitive photopolymer emulsions, the applications that can be supported (with post-bake) will be expanded into the longer run lengths and UV environment.

More violet solutions in the smaller formats (below 8-up) will be expected due to the low cost of the imaging system. As smaller printers look to investigate CTP solutions, the purchase price and on-going cost of operation are the more important issues. Violet imaging systems are well suited for the cost-sensitive consumer.

There are some interesting imaging systems that are outside the mainstream applications today. This includes polyester plates, UV, and inkjet imaging systems. These are -all niche products, but they are worth spending the effort to stay abreast of their evolution. To date the UV systems are still limited in commercial availability. These systems use glow lamps as their exposure units, which could impact productivity. The gas UV lasers are too expensive to implement and solid state UV lasers is still an immature technology. The printers would love a wider availability due to the cost of the conventional plates, but do not expect the major vendors to strongly invest in this area. They are not motivated to extend the life of the low priced conventional plates. The cost of the plate is more important in high volume environments, but in most operations it is a minimal issue.

Inkjet plate imaging is an interesting application, but has limited availability. The quality has improved to a level that is now commercially acceptable and offer users an extremely attractive purchase price. But this technology is caught in between the high quality polyester plate solutions, and low cost of the violet metal plate solutions, and are targeted at digital press applications. It is unclear whether inkjet imaging systen-is can withstand competitive pressures, but are viable for less demanding applications.

Polyester plates, around for over ten years, have had a hard time getting general acceptance. This reluctance by the printers is not based on their capabilities, but more on the attitude that “real men use metal in the press room.” The original polyester plates had a limited operating range. This has changed with the newer polyester plate. Most users today produce less than ten plates a day and operate presses that are 4-up or smaller. Some companies have implemented polyester plates using the thicker plates (12 mil) in an 8-up application primarily for black and white applications. Color applications are primarily limited to the smaller formats. With their supporting screen rulings up to 1751pi, the quality is sufficient for most applications. Seriously consider this technology if you are a smaller format ( 4-up) printer Nvith run lengths less than 20,000.

With the many options available in the market, it is important to thoroughly identify your requirements for the CTP system. Determine the quality level (screen ruling and whether stochastic screening is required), run lengths, prepress requirements (trapping, imposition, CIP4, and JDF support), and proofing needs. It is best to implement a digital proofing solution before going to CTP. It is imperative that you request test plates to run on presses, and use a standard test image such as a GATF press test form. Determine if the vendor will be a good partner. The technology is important, but the technical support is just as important. Smaller printers don’t have technical depth the larger ones do, so it is critical their solution provider be technically strong. A lower priced system can be more expensive in the long run, if you are not able to get the ongoing required support to the system.

The bottom line is that the CTP is widely available to the full range of printing applications and become a necessity for a printer. Delaying the decision for the “next” technology is a mistake that can cause long-term damage to your company. Carefully define your requirements and move forward into the world of digital workflows and CTP. Once you do, you will wonder why you waited so long to get all the advantages of CTP into you organization!

Copyright Graphic Arts Technical Foundation Jan/Feb 2003

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