Computer-to-plate (CTP) is becoming more of an industry standard with every passing year. The main reason is that the equipment has become more accessible and affordable to the quick and small commercial printing segment. Equipment manufacturers, recognizing the viability of our market segment, migrated their technology downstream to meet the needs of printers who still primarily operate a 2-up format.
Other reasons for CTP's growing popularity are streamlining of the print shop workflow, cost savings, and its environmental friendliness. Using the CTP process allows for the elimination of virtually all the chemicals associated with darkrooms and traditional prepress operations. Costs are lowered due to the elimination of darkroom supplies and because the process requires much less labor. CTP is environmentally friendly because if you are not using darkroom chemicals, you don't have to dispose of them. VOC emissions are cut drastically, if not eliminated entirely. All five printers interviewed for this article agreed that CTP is a win/win situation.
Efficiency & Quality Improvements
The first two things that printers using CTP want to talk about are the improvements they see in their workflow and in the quality of their plates. "It changed our workflow completely," says John Scott, owner of J&M Printing, Moscow Mills, MO. Scott runs a pair of Mitsubishi Eco 1630 CTP units. "It eliminated all the darkroom work, all the stripping, burning plates, and also it raised the plate quality—it's first generation quality. Besides removing all the time from all those processes, you just go from computer and within a minute you've got your plate. It just completely streamlined the whole operation."
"The impact was immediate," states Victor Kishter, owner of Corridor Printing, Columbia, MD, of his Xanté Speedsetter. "It saved us hours a day in our prepress. So getting a job from file to press was cut more than half. It went from a half day process to minutes."
Kishter bought his equipment, which was originally sold by RIPit, just as that company was being bought by Xanté. He initially had some concerns about the change of hands, but says there was no reason to worry. Across the board, every printer interviewed for this article was quick to point out that they have received outstanding service and support from their respective equipment manufacturers.
Jim Mitchell, owner of Mitchell Printing & Graphics, Batesburg-Leesville, SC, agrees. He opted for the Kimoto Kimosetter 410. "Because we aren't shooting from a paper master or layout to a negative, then plating that, we get nicer looking screens, nicer looking half-tones," he says. "I see a lot of things that kind of nibbled at us here and there that we didn't care for that seem to be improved. Registration seems to be a little tighter—that kind of accuracy we see with CTP that we didn't get from the old darkroom stuff. It seems we can maintain a higher degree of consistency across the same job on repeats."
Mike Benz, owner of Benz Press Werks, High Ridge, MO, installed a Glunz & Jensen PlateWriter 4200 when it was in beta. Prior to that, he had a prepress house produce his plates. Making the move to CTP "kept me from spending four to six hours a day stripping and burning plates," he states. "I literally have four to six hours a day to spend differently than I used to. And we don't spend near as many overtime hours because I'm not running out to get the film or waiting for the film to be delivered, stripping it, burning it."
Peter Savitt, owner of New York Digital Color Lithographers & Printing in New York City, chose the Presstek Dimension 225 Excel CTP system and Anthem Pro plates in September 2008. "Not having to deal with plates, not having to deal with film and stripping and all that is just fabulous," he insists. "This is better, faster, cheaper—I can do better work, and turn it out faster, and I can turn it out for less and make more on it. And I turn out a better product."
"I feel it has opened doors because it streamlines your operation," John Scott observes. "You're able to do more work, for one thing. Secondly, you're able to take in a lot more work and do it at a better price simply because you have streamlined your operation. I can't see anything that can transition a job prepress to press any cheaper or more efficiently than computer-to-plate.
He contends that part of that efficiency is due to using polyester plate material. "Simply because, with the poly, you hold a roll of plate material in your platemaker and you're good to go for 100 to 150 plates. Whereas, with computer-to-plate that's metal, you have to load each individual plate."
Mike Benz points out how the faster turnaround time helped him with one of his customers. "I had a client that needed 30,000 four-color handouts, 4x9", for a baseball game at Busch Stadium here in St. Louis. They had completely forgotten about getting these and the event was within one day," he recalls. "I got it at noon on Tuesday and we were able to generate plates, print the job, and deliver it by three o'clock the next day. I would not have even had film until probably noon on Wednesday before, and we were delivering the job at three on Wednesday. So, just the fact that we were able to squeeze the job in helped us with our relationship with the client. Bailing them out was huge."
No matter which brand they are using, the printers agree that very little training was needed to get their employees up to speed on the systems. "Virtually none," asserts Jim Mitchell. "We have a very astute and bright young prepress guy here who is very computer savvy and he just fell right into it. It was really very easy."
"We took about a week and a half to shake down. There is a learning curve, but my people are pretty well versed in the business, so there was really nothing difficult about transitioning" Peter Savitt reports. "You have to make sure that your files are locked and intact before you make the plates. There are no shortcuts; you have to make sure your file is good."
"It's no different than what we were doing, which is preparing files for film," says John Scott. "If you do film output, you can do computer-to-plate output. It is that easy. As long as your files are prepared for the CMYK or whatever, there's no difficulty at all in transitioning from burning and developing the regular metal plates to this mode of operation."
Mike Benz had a similar experience. His wife Marsha does the company's file prep work, but had previously sent the files out to the prepress house. "There was a learning curve, but it was pretty simple," he notes. "The ease of her learning how to prep plates for going to press was just phenomenal, with very, very little training. We installed the machine on July 26, 2006 and on July 27 at noon, we were running our own plates. Literally, when they left, we were producing plates."
Victor Kishter had a slightly longer learning curve, but not for his prepress staff. "When we went to computer-to-plate, we really had to get our pressmen involved in that process. We didn't want to have them dependent on our prepress people to put out the plates," he points out. "So we got all our pressmen involved in learning about creating templates; learning about how to output the plates for themselves. We saw a bottleneck there. If somebody's out or working on a big project, we don't have our pressmen waiting around for plates to get the job on the press. They have the skill to go in there and get what they need."
Cost Savings & ROI
The printers who have converted to CTP all seem to enjoy talking about savings they've experienced. "Over time it's going to save us money," says Jim Mitchell. "The poly plates are very inexpensive. And the cost of the equipment was under $2,000, so you can't really throw stones at that. It's a good investment all around, and our return on investment is going to be great."
One of the most compelling stories comes from Mike Benz. He and his wife were trying to decide whether or not to continue in the printing business; speculating that perhaps they would fare better as brokers. "One day a salesman suggested we take a look at this new technology," Benz recalls. "I had asked him about getting some new parts for my flip-top platemaker and he said, 'Instead of that, why don't you buy this?' and he threw down the [Glunz & Jensen] iCtP literature. It just seemed so far fetched, but when I looked at the lease cost and their guarantee that if I didn't like it within six months they'd take it back, I thought I don't have anything to loose." He reports that his company's sales were up by about 20% last year. "Our profitability is much better, and we're more current with our suppliers," Benz states.
"Any prepress cost you want to try to factor in, this is far and away one of the best dollar for dollar values that you can look at," says John Scott.
"Our ROI was immediate from the day it was installed," observes Victor Kishter. "There are not many pieces of equipment you can say that about, but for our company, it was one of the best investments we've made. It had a great impact, economically and time-wise."
Another big benefit to Kishter's company was the small footprint of his CTP equipment. "We had a huge room with all our prepress equipment in it. When we brought that in, we were able to clear out all that prepress equipment. We did a complete conversion and we picked up a whole bunch of space," he relates. And what did he do with that space? Added mailing services in order to open up a whole new profit center.
Peter Savitt points out that his bottom line has also benefited from the adoption of CTP. "I eliminated a person. I don't buy chemistry—this is completely chemistry free. The only chemistry I need is water; I'm completely green. It's a huge benefit."
Words of Advice
Several of the interviewees had some words of advice for printers who are considering the move to CTP.
"A lot has to do with what you have in your budget to spend on the equipment. There are higher end devices that have a lot more whiz bang," says Jim Mitchell."There seems to be a lot on the market that gives you this ability these days, but you just have to shop carefully and know what you're looking for. Talk to other people who have used the equipment of the sort that you're thinking about buying. It's always a good idea to do that. Other than that, I'd just say make a decision as quick as you can and move in that direction as soon as you can because there are just so many benefits."
Victor Kishter concurs. He also spoke with others who were already using the equipment he chose. "We were able to take advantage of real world experience, rather than just going on faith in the salesperson. We knew what that piece of equipment was capable of doing and what kind of impact it could have when we bought it."
"I would tell them to definitely go for it because as soon as you set up the piece of equipment, you'll wish you had it 10 years ago" adds John Scott. "As soon as that first plate came off, by the second plate, I was thinking, 'If I'd had this five years ago, what could I have done?'"