Traditional plate styles are declining as print volumes, particularly in newspapers, are dropping. For all three, however, the good news is that their processless plates are performing well and sales are increasing. For Agfa this is its Azura range, for Kodak it is Sonora and for Fuji it is the Pro-T and now the Superia ZT develop on-press plate.
The advantages of develop on-press are clear: no processor to purchase, to operate and importantly to clean out. In turn this means no spent processing chemistry to dispose of. Rather than a processor, develop on-press plates are imaged, loaded onto press and the non-image area is removed in the first few rotations of the press and carried away on the first few sheets. It is important that this debris is transferred to the paper and does not end up in the fount solution.
There has been tremendous progress since the first generations of these plates. Then the image was unstable with limited latency and needed shielding from daylight if not being used immediately. The image was relatively soft and suffered poor contrast. Because of this it was possible to mount the plates in the wrong sequence on press. But the biggest issue was durability. The ecological benefits of develop on press were available only to printers working short print runs, and then only on friendly papers. And when these plates failed they tended to do so suddenly without the slow deterioration that gives a press operator the opportunity of trying to eke out a few more impressions.
This reputation lingers, but unjustly so. Higher speed plate coatings and more powerful lasers in platesetters mean that there is no speed penalty in using these plates. Further image contrast and resilience is much improved and most importantly run length goes well beyond 10,000 or 20,000 impressions. Kodak quotes runs of up to 100,000 for the Sonora XP, Agfa says 75,000 for the Azura TE and Fujifilm up to 150,000 for the Super ZD on a conventional press set up.
Runs drop sharply when running UV inks, though Fujifilm continues to state 50,000 impressions. Kodak will achieve around 10,000 impressions with the Sonora XP, but can achieve 30,000 impressions with the Sonora UV that it introduced this year.
A further advantage of the new generation plates is that without processing, another variable has been removed from the offset litho process. A printer can be sure that a plate imaged three months later for a reprint will be precisely the same as the plate used for the print run that had been signed off by the client.
Even so these plates carry a premium and are not yet universal. Printers working with carton boards or running heatset web presses for example will stick with conventional plates. Many B1 printers continue to run standard digitally imaged plates. And while these do not enjoy the development dollars that the new style plates receive since the technology is largely mature, all suppliers have continued to make incremental improvements to existing plates. A key focus has been reduction in the amount of processing chemistry needed, in turn reducing the amount of water consumed and the amount of cleaning out needed. Agfa reckons that this may be needed only once every three months.
There is another approach to plates, made possible by improvements in laser imaging, particularly in the UV lasers. Computer to conventional plate imaging is now feasible. For very high volume plate users, say those with large heatset web presses, conventional presensitised plates are often preferred as they are much cheaper than thermally imaged plates. Now Chinese supplier Cron has put together a package of platesetter and UV plate that makes sense at the smaller end of the market, supplied here by Currie Group and by AGS.
However, the changing dynamics of the litho market are also changing how printers buy consumables. In short the press manufacturers have recognised that as the volume of machine sales fall, the supply of consumables can fill a gap in their revenue base. Langley Communications, owner of Manroland Sheetfed, has acquired Druck Chemie, while both Komori and KBA are packaging recommended consumables. But all are dwarfed by Heidelberg’s determination to be a major consumables supplier under its Saphira brand. It applies this to a range of plates and inks that are produced to Heidelberg’s specification, or are white label versions of existing products.
Heidelberg has also made several acquisitions, beginning with HiTech Coatings in the UK and including Blue Star, a Belgium pressroom chemicals provider, and most recently Fujifilm’s European chemistry business, to develop and supply its own products. These can be matched to the performance of the press and minimise any compatibility issues on press. Heidelberg is unlikely, however, to buy its own plate production or mainstream inks factory.
But it will supply inks and consumables that are not its own through its online shop that Heidelberg wants to build into the industry’s equivalent of Amazon. It will levy a handling charge, but like Amazon, will open access to a huge number of printers.
As the number of printers declines the relative cost of servicing them increases for an independent consumables supplier. Online sales are a way to address this. The regular revenue related to consumable business will smooth out the peaks and troughs of press sales.
The motivation is not purely about growing revenue. As the performance of presses increases the need to have them running in top condition also increases.
It has been likened to running a Formula 1 car: the fuel and oils need to be in harmony with the engine and tyres to extract the optimum performance.
The same is true of a press that can run at 18,000sph. The ink needs to stay on rollers and blankets and not become a mist to settle on everything around the press room, and also the ink needs to cope with acceleration to speed, and then stopping after a limited time run time as print numbers come down. Likewise fount solution and washes need to work with each other
This is especially true with the rise of UV printing. Matching plate, ink and chemistries is essential. When Komori first introduced H-UV, it was configured as a system matching the UV lamps from Baldwin with blankets, rollers and inks from Toyo. This way it would be able to guarantee that all parts of the system would work together. Other inks became available though were not immediately endorsed by Komori. Now Komori has its own formulation of K-Supply inks which are produced for the press company.
The same experience has driven Flint Inks to link up with Air Motion Systems, supplier of LED UV technology to create a package for printers nervous about the technology. Flint has been one of the foremost suppliers of inks for LED UV inks and associated consumables, including varnishes. It can handle the sale and set up of a retro fit unit which becomes a viable way to update a press for rather less than buying new. One of the key benefits is that UV can enable all manner of value added options: printing on plastics, using value add varnishes, and also metallics.
Many of the most recent press sales in Australia, certainly from RMGT (Ryobi) and Komori have been UV specified, H-UV for Komori and LED-UV for the Ryobi presses, which has been manufacturing LED-UV presses since drupa 2008.
Ink manufacturers like Flint, Toyo, Toka and DIC are developing a new generation of UV inks, in Flint’s case the Xcura Evo, which it says is a highly reactive UV ink series for sheetfed and web offset presses that cures with the latest UV lamp technology.
Combining stability and printing performance. It is suitable for commercial and non-food packaging application on paper, board and some non-absorbent substrates.
The new UV press technology comprises either traditional UV lamps doped with iron halides or light emitting diodes (LEDs). These have a spectral output with higher wavelength than traditional UV lamps, which eliminates the production of ozone and reduces heat generation.
Xcura Evo is developed using specially selected raw materials that match the higher wavelength output of these low energy systems.
Flint says the main advantages of the new technology can be summarised as economical and ecological. Economical in that energy consumption will be significantly reduced, while quality assurance brings increased productivity and press uptime, reduced work-in-progress, and an expanded capability to run heat sensitive materials with less heat management costs. Ecological benefits come as energy will be saved, and new technology systems do not produce ozone.
UV inks typically have a higher per litre cost than conventional inks, but the benefits of instant drying, lower energy costs, and direct transfer for post press processing can outweigh these costs for many. The lower energy costs in particular can be substantial, Cyber for instamnce says that with its Ryobi (RMGT) LED-UV presses power for the dryer is down by 91 per cent and the press by 43 per cent.
This is not confined to offset but is reflected in developments in digital printing. HP Indigo needs to fend off competition from lower priced dry toner machines and sees the impact of additional inks as a way to do that. It unleashed a neon pink toner at drupa last year. A silver toner is about to go into beta for label printing and will then be introduced to its commercial presses. Behind these are other neon inks and fluorescing glow in the dark inks. Security applications are opened by use of ink which responds to dark light.
Xerox has begun to introduce gamut enhancing fifth toners with the iGen5. At Print17 it added an opaque white toner to the blue, orange and green extra colours that were introduced a year ago. The white can be enhanced by a double hit for higher impact on dark papers or as a base for four colour printing on such substrates. Further additional toners, including metallics, are in the pipeline.
To this extent Xerox is catching up with Kodak whose Nexpress has long offered a fifth print unit with a range of options. These include a gold metallic toner, gamut enhancing red, green or blue toner, MICR and red fluorescing inks, and clear gloss, matte and dimensional effect toners. There is now also an opaque white toner which Kodak plans to offer in the first print station to enable printing on coloured or clear stocks.
Additional colours are also reaching the lower capacity machines. The best example is the Ricoh C7100x which, also the Heidelberg Versafire CV which is based on the same machine. This has offered a clear toner and a white toner to enhance the four colour image since launch. Ricoh added a neon yellow toner a year ago and has more recently announced the availability of a neon pink toner. The motive is the same as HP, namely to open more value added creative options for its customers.
There are other ways to create value added print results, one being the use of Color-Logic software to print on metallic foil. The printer lays down a black toner before running the sheet through a laminator where its heated rollers soften the toner and pull a foil into position on the toner. Four colour printing on top of the silver foil delivers an array of metallic colours matching the Pantone swatch book.
It is about a search for increased value as demand for commodity print decreases and margins fall, the same pressures that are affecting those supplying printing plates and inks.
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