CTP Technology Raises the Bar

Every offset printer is aware that environmental regulations have become more stringent in recent years. And with each new law, the pressure to reduce chemical usage in the prepress department grows stronger.

However, regulatory concerns are only the tip of the iceberg. Customers want to know that their printer is doing everything possible to minimize their environmental footprint. Employees are concerned about the long term effects of working with the chemicals required for traditional platemaking. Then there is the cost factor. The closer platemaking is to being chemistry free and/or processless, the lower the cost over the long haul. There are fewer chemicals to buy or dispose of and energy consumption is dramatically reduced when using processless plate technology.

This perfect storm has caused the near demise of the once standard print shop darkroom and given rise to the wider acceptance of computer-to-plate (CTP) technology.


Green Plate Special

Suzanne Bostic, senior product manager for Mitsubishi Imaging believes that the most significant trend in the field is simply the increased prevalence of CTP adoption. “From a technological standpoint, better software and workflow products continue to be introduced and make CTP even more efficient,” she points out. “Another significant development would be the move towards processless and/or reduced chemistry plates. Many printers wish to be more environmentally friendly, and reduced chemistry processing is one way to achieve this.”

“We see customers placing orders simply to be able to eradicate their chemistry,” adds Mark Baker-Homes, vice president, sales and marketing, Glunz & Jensen. “Customers are asking about it, or staff are now more reluctant to handle it; causing discussions about who will clean out the processors or such like. Owners, in these difficult times, are frustrated by having to pay to remove chemicals.”

Brian Wolfenden, director of marketing communications for Presstek, agrees. He cites “true chemistry free thermal CTP, which means no use of processing chemistry, gum, or fountain solutions to develop the plate,” as the most significant development in CTP technology in recent years. He enumerates the benefits of this greener approach to prepress: “Reduced chemical dependency, safer products for the user and environment, lower cost with no need to purchase or dispose of chemistry, and streamlined production—no intermittent processing steps and fewer variables in the process.”

As important and attractive as the eco-friendly nature of newer CTP systems might be, there are also other benefits.

“Developing an imaging technology that is stable, high quality, and delivers consistent on press results is the most significant CTP development during the recent years,” states Kuty Paperny, director, global product management, output devices, prepress solutions for Eastman Kodak. “Adding the automation and ease of use to the CTP system established this technology to be the de facto standard in the printing industry.”

Other developments have also increased adoption of CTP. “PDF has removed the problems with lost fonts, missing images, incorrectly linked files. It has enabled small printers to easily receive files from customers using Mac or PC-based systems and still produce print jobs,” observes Baker-Homes. “It created a simple transparency that the really small mum-and-pop stores, five years ago, struggled to achieve, and now take for granted. It makes it easier for these types of shops to adopt CTP too, as they are no longer worried about if they can accept the job.”


Current Trends

“The high quality, high throughput, fully automated CTP solution that delivers consistent results on press allows the small commercial printers to successfully compete in the short run, high quality, fast delivery segment market,” Paperny states. The ability to automate the workflow has given rise to a sea change that, while slow to develop, allows small commercial printers to compete on a larger stage.

One reason that printers are waiting to dive into the advantages of an automated prepress workflow is because they have delayed replacing their existing equipment. Many factors contribute to this, including the economy and a general reluctance to invest in new equipment while the old is still serviceable. However, as the installed base ages and requires replacement, many choose to upgrade. Printers are moving from polyester plates to metal and/or from 2-up to 4-up as well as choosing low to no chemistry or processless technology.

Wolfenden observes that Presstek customers are upgrading to newer models that use less chemistry and provide faster throughput and greater resolution. “We are also seeing shops upgrading to DI presses—eliminating the need for off press platemaking,” he says.

“We have seen some of our customers migrate from 2-up to 4-up,” offers Bostick, “but they don’t switch from our high quality Silver DigiPlate, which comes in both polyester and paper substrates. High quality, affordability, and ease of use appeal to printers in the short-run arena.”

Paperny, however, has noticed a trend toward metal plate adoption. “As the technology becomes mature, consistent, and especially affordable, small commercial printers worldwide moved and are moving from other technologies to the CTP metal technology. The thermal technology has become the leading technology.”

“We do see many users switching from polyester, but that is not really down to a desire to get more sophisticated,” Baker-Homes points out. “It’s more to remove the idiosyncrasies that polyester has, the life of the chemistry failing if you make a lot of plates or very few, the desire to move away from chemicals, and even achieve the ability to recycle your plates afterwards, as they are traditional aluminum plates. We don’t see many switching from 2-up to 4-up, although we do see more 4-up users purchasing our systems.”


Looking Ahead

Considering the significant advances CTP has made in recent years, what do our experts think comes next?

“The next step always makes things faster, better, cheaper,” says Wolfenden. “The demand for faster turnaround, shorter runs, and different stocks (thicker, recycled, labels, envelopes, etc.) will continue to grow. At the same time, printers will need to operate more cost efficiently to maintain and improve profitability.”

“Reducing complexity, cost, and developing a greener CTP solution with processesless plates will most likely become the standard solution before the mid-decade in the prepress market,” Paperny predicts.

Bostick thinks we can expect to see violet processless polyester and paper plates—a hint of what Mitsubishi Imaging has in store. And Baker-Homes says that Glunz & Jensen is running multiple R&D projects related to CTP. He intimates that the company will demonstrate the result of that R&D at drupa 2012.

On thing is certain, as CTP technology becomes more sophisticated and offers increasing benefits, printers will find it to be the hub around which an efficient, productive workflow revolves.

“Process-free CTP saves time, space, and money for the quick and small commercial printing companies,” Bostick concludes. “By eliminating the processing equipment with its time consuming maintenance and environmental issues, printers will have a faster plate-to-press time cycle and will save money and effort as well. Spending less time and money on the setup of a shorter run job means more profit for the printer and more jobs on press. Eliminating or significantly reducing chemistry means a more environmentally friendly process, which savvy printers will market to customers focusing on sustainability.”