To Implement or Not to Implement?

That is the question for people considering Computer-To-Plate technology. Finally, some help in deciding whether or not to take the plunge.

 

Computer-to-Plate (CTP) technology is a hot topic around the water cooler these days. A rapidly evolving technology, CTP has changed drastically over the last two years. Once an expensive process, the cost of digital workflow systems has been vastly reduced, becoming more affordable to the small in-plant shops. One outstanding benefit of this popularity is the increased availability of thermal CTP systems and printing plates. A completely digital workflow may seem limiting, but in truth offers just as many options as a traditional or CTF process. Using digital technology will allow you to use polyester or metal plates, or if required, print out onto film. Still, with so much information available via trade magazines, vendors and the Internet, it is difficult for even the most savvy professional to filter through it all to make a sound and profitable decision.

 

The Advantages of CTP

Clearly, the benefits of CTP are many. Most notable are the high level quality and reduction of expense while increasing productivity. Implementation can eliminate the need for producing film, decrease turn around time and usage of materials through perfectly registered plates, and provide high quality end product. The process also allows in-plants to produce short run materials in a more economical fashion.

 

"The whole point in going CTP is to improve productivity and reduce labor in the process," states Ken Newton, Sr. VP of Sales and Marketing at AB Dick. The main reduction in labor comes from printing the plate directly from the computer after proofing, as opposed to the traditional process of shooting a negative then burning a plate. Even with imagesetters, plates have to be made, incurring at least one extra step and additional risk of human error. Along with the elimination of unnecessary steps comes the benefit of perfectly registered plates. These plates reduce the time it takes for traditional make readies and saves money on wasted ink, water and materials, all before the first sheet is printed.

 

Other cost savings come from no longer buying expensive film and processing chemicals. Also, with digital file storage technology, there is no longer a need to store cumbersome negatives. While it is necessary to store negatives and metal plates for reprint purposes, digital files can be saved to disk for easy access. There is also a decreased chance that damage will occur to the digital files, while negatives and metal plates can be stored improperly or damaged while not in use.

 

Am I ready?

Only you can decide if you are ready to implement CTP. A few simple guidelines will help determine if CTP is right for your shop, either now or in the near future.

 

1.      Experience with digital production. If you are not currently using a digital workflow, including a preflighting and digital proofing system, chances are CTP is not for you. Ben Butera of Fuji states, “If you’re not ready workflow wise, you’re in a jam.”

2.      Cost analysis. The best way to determine potential profitability is to perform a workflow study – analog vs. digital workflow. While there is expense incurred in going digital, the reduction in time and labor may quickly outweigh the initial cost.

3.      Volume. The experts agree that the implementation of CTP is mostly a customer or volume driven decision. If your company provides digital files for the majority of work to be printed, CTP could be a great benefit. According to Dean Meyer of Heidelberg, another guideline is the number of plates produced on a monthly basis. If you are producing a minimum of 400-600 plates per month, using a completely digital system may be the way to go.

4.      Type of work to be performed. Small shops often outsource work because they don’t have the in house capabilities to complete the work in an efficient or economical manner. "Do they plan on doing all their processes in house or outsourcing them? If they plan on doing everything in house, they need to update anyway," said David Mitchell, VP of Sales at Purup Eskofot.

5.      Keeping up with the Joneses. The popular consensus is that if you want to update simply to keep up with current industry trends, you might want to think again. CTP has a definite future in printing, but not everyone has the need for it. The bottom line, according to David Mitchell, is quite simple. "If you're not going to save money or make money, don't do it."

 

From the Inside

A recent purchaser of a Heidelberg Duosetter Poly Platesetter, Gary Boyd of Iowa State University, offers his input. " In our situation, we looked at conventional costs versus CTP costs and estimated labor savings and thru-put". Boyd, Manager of Printing Services, also confirms that cost and labor savings, turn around time, and in some cases, better registration, were their reasons for the changeover.

 

Mr. Boyd also offered a series of steps for implementation that could be helpful for anyone considering CTP:

·        Use a team approach

·        Identify what you want to accomplish

·        Outline current processes (including plate rework)

·        Outline CTP processes (including plate rework)

·        Identify who will do what

·        Identify training needs

·        Research equipment/capabilities within acceptable price range

·        Establish Cost Centers/Costs - perform cost comparisons

·        Purchase equipment

·        Train Staff

·        Review after implementation window to make adjustments in processes

 

Negatives

Most companies, when considering CTP, must consider budgetary constraints. While these systems can be expensive, Dean Meyer points out that the prices have been reduced considerably over the past couple of years, and that there are systems available for under $35,000. David Mitchell of Purup Eskofot concurs, adding that while CTP used to be one size fits all, that is no longer the case. “Vendors have come through and targeted many different segments of the market,” said Mitchell. “Cost is not what it used to be.” Still, the cost can be daunting for small operations, especially when putting an entire system into place. However, as pro-CTP vendors are quick to point out, operators can show that the cost is easily justified when the benefits of reduced labor and materials are realized.

 

One issue of installing a CTP system was the lack of manufacturing support. Previously, few companies offered systems and quality materials needed for operation. However, with the increase in the usage of CTP, that no longer seems to be as much of an issue. More manufacturers are offering the necessary materials and naturally, with competition comes better pricing. Ben Butera of Fuji expresses his concerns about plates for CTP. “The processing and exposure may be more critical than a conventional plate,” says Butera. Then he adds, “Some of the conventional plates seem to be more stable.”

 

Other negatives include the amount of training involved in putting such a system into place, particularly if the staff is unaccustomed to a totally digital workflow. CTP must be fully supported from pre-press to the pressroom in order to work effectively. Often times, employees who are accustomed to traditional methods may balk at this new process and the training it requires.

 

As CTP continues to increase in popularity, printers will become more comfortable with the imminent changes that are occurring in the industry. As with all automated processes, labor, time and material savings can be significant, but not without a cost. Some veterans in the industry feel that with total automation comes the loss of the true art of printing. "What you'll have is someone who knows how to push buttons but doesn't know what to do when something goes wrong," said one old-timer. Others agree that the increasing use of computer technology is inarguably a great addition to the industry, but that ongoing training is a must.

 

The Final Decision

If after analyzing all the pertinent information, you are still unsure if CTP is right for you, then you might want to do some more research.  Reading industry publications and attending trade shows are two ways in which you can gain up-to-date information on both price and features of each system. Don’t be afraid to do some comparison shopping. Another avenue is to contact vendors for advice and product information. For example, AB Dick, who has installed approximately 1400 CTP systems, employs Implementation Specialists who will perform a workflow study for your operation and assist in deciphering the factors needed to make a solid decision. Having an expert in the field on your side can ease the pressure of trying to figure out how all the pieces fit into the puzzle. While vendors are always anxious to show off their latest equipment, they are also there to assist in putting the right equipment together with the right people. Ken Newton said, “AB Dick is helping people move into new technology in a reasonable fashion.”