CTP's New Image

These days, CTP (computer-to-plate) is part of almost every successful printing company’s game plan. Sure, there are still companies producing plates the old fashioned way, but they are missing economies of scale that, in lean times, can mean the difference between staying in business or failing.

Printers adopting CTP have to answer some questions. Will you opt to go with metal or polyester? Are you in it just to save money or are you concerned about environmental issues? There are varying levels of “chemical free;” what is the best choice for your company?

Popular Process
“Many of the quick and small commercial printers adopted CTP years ago when polyester plates first came out in 1985,” observes Frances Cicogna, director of graphic arts marketing for Mitsubishi Imaging. “This was because they transformed their imagesetters into CTP devices simply by putting in a roll of polyester plates, instead of film, and changing the developing solutions. In today’s environment, many of those same folks have prospered as a result of that technology and continue to invest in a dedicated polyester CTP platesetter.”

Jim Luttrell, director of marketing for ECRM, concurs. “The majority of owners of smaller and quick printing operations have indeed accepted CTP as both a viable and valuable revenue generation tool,” he says. “This is especially the case with the development and availability of patented flatbed violet laser imaging technology, which has made CTP not only much more affordable, but increasingly necessary in achieving or maintaining profitability. The reliability and low cost of ownership quickens the ROI, enables new revenue streams, and enhances a shop’s production quality, as well as its throughput.”

Yet Mark Baker-Homes offers a different perspective. From his vantage point as vice president, sales and marketing, for Glunz & Jensen, he points out, “We see that almost all the quick printers we talk to want CTP. So, in that respect, it is being accepted. However, many of the smaller printers are having difficulty finding financing once they have made the decision to take it. Traditionally, metal CTP has been too expensive, and with the financial climate, we have seen fear in users.”

“Printers must shorten and remove cost from their production cycle, and implementing a CTP solution is one way to achieve this goal,” notes Brian Wolfenden, Presstek’s director of marketing communications. He goes on to say that the environmental friendliness of the CTP process is another reason for its growing popularity, but we’ll address that aspect in a moment.

According to Arthur Verwey, vice president, worldwide marketing for Xanté, quick and small commercial printers want CTP for the most basic reasons: “It saves time and money, and provides lower overhead,” he states simply.

The other aspect CTP that makes CTP so attractive is its innate facilitation of the digital/offset hybrid workflow that is so prevalent in the industry. The computer-to-plate process allows printers using digital prepress—and particularly a PDF workflow—the freedom to route any job to the most appropriate output device. With CTP, the digital original finds its way to the press as easily as it goes to the digital printer. As Wolfenden succinctly notes, “It’s all about the right tool for the job.”

“Most quick and small commercial printers are looking for CTP to replace [the process of] film producing, stripping, and burning plates. Most of these printers are printing small to medium size jobs, which make it a perfect CTP and digital/offset environment,” offers Verwey.

“CTP fits within a digital production environment by supporting the business owner’s ability to satisfy the client’s immediate needs,” says Luttrell. “Digital workflows are designed to feed both digital presses (for shorter job runs) and platesetters for longer, more quality conscious projects. An owner who can’t satisfy both demands is risking the loss of short term and long term business to operations that meet the clients’ needs for one-stop servicing.”

“We see an increasing number of copy shops adopting CTP and offset printing technologies because it allows them to take on more variety of work in terms of run length and quality,” observes Cicogna. “It also gives them a competitive advantage since they save money and can turn jobs around faster by keeping the work in-house.

She points to the example of Bob Gajewski, owner of Trend Graphics in Illinois. Running an all digital shop, he invested in a polyester platesetter and 4-up press. “His business has grown so much in the last two years since that purchase decision that a few weeks ago his company installed a second 4-up press. That’s a real testament to the power of offset printing,” Cicogna states.

“Many of the small printers have bought and paid for their offset presses, so anything that runs on them generally is where their profit comes from,” adds Baker-Homes.

“Digital offers immense flexibility, however users are rolled into lease payments—often click charges and a maintenance contract as well. They never tend to own the equipment, so its [the equipment manufacturer] that makes the profit,” he points out. “CTP, if it’s low cost, frees the printers up to maximize their profits by getting their presses running and helping them deliver profitable print. At the same time, they are using digital to deliver the flexibility required for some jobs. A mix of both is essential for the printer to be profitable in this current business environment.”

Metal or Polyester?
So are metal or polyester plate systems more common in our industry segment? Polyester has been the material of choice for a number of years, but metal is becoming more popular as the equipment becomes more affordable.

“In printers with 4-up printing presses, even if it is only one, we see virtually no polyester,” notes Baker Homes. “In smaller printers with duplicators, such as ABDicks or Hamadas, we believe there are 35-40% using polyester, 40% still using film, and quite a low installed base of the traditional metal CTP due to its price points.

Luttrell reports some pertinent statistics: “According to State Street Consultants, total new CTP sales in just the U.S. and Canada in 2005 were calculated to be 2,050 units. Of this figure, State Street determined that 750 were non-metal or polyester CTP systems. Using these numbers, polyester CTP system sales amounted to 36% of the total U.S. CTP market.

“According to a recent PRIMIR study, The Life Cycle of the Analog and Digital Lithographic Printing Plate, non-metal or polyester CTP sales in the U.S. and Canada are projected to increase by an average of 9.5% through the year 2010. The majority of these sales (90.9%) are projected to come from the commercial printer 1-19 segment (sales of $150,000 to $2.8 million). The buyers in this segment are expected to be mostly first time buyers who will purchase both workflow and CTP.”

Green Plate Special
Compared to traditional plate processing’s developers and chemicals, any CTP system is more environmentally friendly. Yet within the panoply of CTP products available, some are more green than others. While the truly processless and chemical free systems may carry a higher cost of entry, they tend to generate greater savings—for both the printer and the earth—over time.

“Today’s printers are acutely focused upon productivity and profitability issues,” states Luttrell. “The introduction of a chemistry-free media that can maintain or improve current production throughput, as well as reduce the existing plate processing cost, is good from both and economical and ecological perspective.”

“Many find [the green aspect] to be the reason to buy,” Baker-Homes reflects. “With such a large base of users still using film in the small printer section of the market, they see going green as a way to reduce their costs for chemical disposal and offer new services to the customer. And it provides a new way to promote their company.”

“When I talk to printers I see there is a real desire to be more environmentally friendly and to make purchase choices that are good for the environment,” concludes Cicogna. “Green printing has been a challenge, especially for quick and small commercial printers, generally because the cost of going green is still prohibitive for many of them. Much of the chemistry free CTP that is available on the market was designed for the larger printers and is expensive to purchase and maintain.”

Fortunately, that situation has changed. Today there are affordable CTP options designed specifically for our segment of the market. With a bit of research, quick and small commercial printers can find the system that can help them save green as well as go green.