Is CTP Still in the Digital Mix?

As high-volume digital presses from Xerox, Kodak, HP, Konica Minolta, Ricoh, Xeikon, and Océ gobble up print volume that used to run on offset presses, what’s in store for computer-to-plate (CTP) technology? Will CTP gradually fade away as offset volume declines? Will new advances keep CTP relevant and help offset to survive the digital onslaught? Are the new chemistry-free CTP devices pushing out the older CTP technologies?

Let’s look at the latter question first. With a large installed base of fairly robust equipment, older CTP technologies are still in use. Coupled with the availability of used CTP equipment, it is unlikely that the older technologies will soon be completely wiped out by the new chemistry-free devices. Yes, the new CTP equipment is more environmentally friendly, but that is not always enough to sway buying decisions.

That said, the new technology is making strong inroads. According to a recent State Street Consulting survey, some 83 percent of printers with between one and 19 employees said that processless or chemical-free plates are a very important factor when making metal CTP purchasing decisions.

According to Thomas Krumm, Presstek’s group director, CTP, “The overall volume for CTP plate growth in the established markets is flat. However, the no process/chemistry-free plate volumes are growing at about 25 percent in these markets, mainly due to environmental concerns and legislation.”

“The adoption of processor-less and process-free technology is a good example of how CTP adapts to an easier to use, more cost-effective, and environmentally friendly solution,” says Tim Murphy, president of Printware.


Getting Along

Everybody knows that digital is growing and offset is shrinking. According to NAPL’s 2011 Printing Industry Profile, digital printing grew from eight percent of sales in 1998 to nearly 38 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, offset lithography shrank from nearly 89 percent of sales in 1998 to almost 55 percent in 2010. It’s the old half full/half empty dilemma. Offset’s share has tumbled, but it still accounts for more than half of printing sales. With that in mind, future scenarios that have offset/CTP and digital output devices coexisting don’t seem far-fetched.

“Computer-to-plate and digital presses are not an either/or scenario,” notes Suzanne Bostick, senior product manager, Mitsubishi Imaging. “Savvy printers are benefitting from the flexibility to choose the most cost-effective technology to do the job, thereby increasing their competitive reach.”

“Clearly, color digital is doing plenty of work that was done on offset, but our customers tell us they must offer both,” says Larry Spevak, president of ColorBurst. “Offset is extremely economical for jobs over a few thousand prints.”

Bostick adds, “Many printers talk about the challenge of how to price and estimate the cost of the different technologies. When substrate, quality and job length could be executed well from either technology, how quickly a printer can get a plate to press is a big factor is establishing the tipping point at which our customers prefer CTP over digital printing.”

According to Xitron’s Bill Owens: “The newer technologies, especially digital, are complementary to existing CTP and offset. We have seen a significant number of users invest in supplemental CTP technology, especially for one- and two-color small-format jobs. These are jobs which one might think would be ideal for the toner-based digital devices. However, we see shops with existing press investments making new investments in CTP to continue getting the most out of their previous pressroom investment.”


All Digital?

Is the future all digital? In some ways, yes. Remember that CTP is as much a digital technology as is digital output. The difference is that one is used to create a static piece while the other can be used to produce both static and variable output.

There is a move—especially among the franchise segment—to an all-digital output model. This can be very efficient and profitable for some work, but is limited is other ways. Digital’s sweet spot is in shorter runs with fast turnaround, with or without variable. Longer runs and certain quality requirements still favor offset.

Some of the new all-digital models have recognized this and eventually have added CTP and offset to their shops to accommodate customer job demands. Others are approaching the dilemma somewhat differently and are outsourcing offset work, especially four-color jobs that can be efficiently gang-run. However, the majority of shops continue to operate in a dual configuration.

As the quick and small commercial printing industry continues to evolve, there is no doubt that offset’s share of sales will continue to erode, but with more than half of all of today’s sales it won’t disappear for a long time. Its place in the job mix has been enhanced by the advances in processless or chemical free computer-to-plate technology and, despite offset’s shrinking share of the job mix, modern CTP will help insure its viability in the years to come.