Chemistry-free and processless plate making has been around for about two decades, but the urgency of ditching the processor and winning back the floor space in production varies from one print shop to the next.
It often depends on the need for productivity and the role that perceptions of environmental care play in the corporate culture of the print provider – or the clients being serviced.
On the environmental front, even plates that use chemistry nowadays do not use the toxic stuff that was common back in the 1990s, so all of it is a lot cleaner and greener nowadays.
How vendors see the market
Mark Brindley, Agfa Oceania managing director, sees sustainability and productivity as key lenses through which to view CTP and platemaking. He says, “The environmental impact of these solutions is an important factor, yet Agfa Graphics is taking this one step further by adding total cost of operations and convenience to the equation.”
The company has formulated what it calls the ECO3 principle, which Brindley sums up as ‘sustainable innovation that focuses on ecology, economy, and extra convenience’.
It begins with Agfa’s Arkana plate setter, which ‘offers consistent, high-quality plate processing with minimal chemistry usage and maintenance, allowing printers to further reduce their CO2 footprint’. Agfa says maximum throughput on all 8-up and VLF CTP lines makes it the match for high-production and heavy-duty environments.
Matched to the Arkana is Agfa’s Energy Elite Eco, an advanced, robust no-bake thermal printing plate for high-end, high-performance commercial, packaging and UV printing. Says Brindley: “It offers an unprecedented run length of up to 600,000 prints (up to 150,000 copies when using UV ink), ensuring maximum productivity for a variety of applications and press conditions.”
Meanwhile, Agfa has added the Avalon N8-90 to its family of thermal CTP systems. Brindley says, “They are equipped with the latest Grating Light Valve imaging technology, featuring both the GLV itself and a solid-state laser diode bar, resulting in an exceptional imaging speed and a low drum rotation velocity.
“For Agfa Graphics, the areas of CTP that has advanced the most is thermal,” notes Brindley, with the company offering its range of Azura plates.
Azura TE plates use Agfa’s ThermoFuse technology to image off-press and clean on-press. Designed for high-volume printing, Azura TU plates cover all sizes of sheetfed presses from B2 up to sheetfed format 6 and 7 for book and display printing. They also serve the fast growing web-to-print applications that are printed on VLF sheetfed presses.
And the Azura TS is a thermal plate for low-to-medium volume commercial printing where simplicity and reliability are priorities. “It preserves the high-quality imaging of traditional platemaking, without press changes or chemical processing,” says Brindley.
Bernie Robinson, Currie Group managing director, identifies thermal plate making as the most environ-mentally sustainable of the CTP technologies. The Cron-ECRM drum setters are Currie Group’s solution in this market.
“Currie Group has been selling Cron plate setters since 2010, the new Cron H series CTP units offers high performance alongside improved convenience and cost efficiency for all types of commercial and packaging applications,” he says.
The H-series comes with fully automatic plate loading and paper removal features for up to 50 x 0.3mm plates or 100 x 0.15mm plates, says Robinson. “All H-series units are compatible with Cron multi-directional bridges. The exposing engine, based on Cron’s market leading magnetic linear drive platform, provides fault-free imaging across a wide choice of resolutions and a total range of 1-99 per cent, in either conventional or stochastic screening. Consistent drum vacuum pressure control, and optional integrated online punching for three punch configurations, enables precise registration to an accuracy of 0.01mm for a wide range of formats.
“Due to the high level of integration, H series units are just one-third of the size of similar products,” explains Robinson. “The H-series CTP has been developed to provide print operators with a high quality image whilst also saving money on print production and running costs.”
The H-series is currently available in 26H, 36H, 46H, 60H and 72H configurations. The thermal CTP units range in size from two-page-up to VLF, with a choice of lasers. Each model can accommodate any print job from A4 to A1, with ample space for register and trim marks, as well as colour bars.
Says Robinson: “The latest-generation lasers, together with patented plate handling technology, ensure maximum reliability with fast throughput. With up to 56 plates per hour, TP-3696H model can keep several different format presses fed with work, optimising press utilisation, flexibility and overall productivity.”
Other models in the range have laser options designed to match budget requirements. G models have different laser architectures, the G models having the latest generation, liquid-cooled technology. Optional plate feeders, punches and handling systems are available to further tune installations to production needs, automating and streamlining workflow. The processor has a choice of a washout unit or plates can be washed on-press.
At Australian Graphic Servicing (AGS), the focus is on thermal direct plates, double-layer thermal plates for UV inks, UV CTP plates and AGS Glunz & Jensen inkjet plates.
Andrew Dunn, AGS business development manager, pre-press, says that in terms of the hardware, some of the greatest advances in plate setting are encapsulated in its range of Cron CTP setters. These refinements include the removal of lead-screws technologies and the upgrade to magnetic levitation imaging; UV lasers, which in the Cron range have become as popular as thermal lasers; and space saving with Cron’s new H model, which has a three-in-one one combination of loading, punching and imaging.
And on the AGS Glunz & Jensen 3600 PlateWriter, the advancement in high-fidelity Liquid Dot inkjet technology has made an impact, he says.
Dunn sees a strong future for processless plate technologies. He sums up the advantages of processless plate making as reduction in delivery costs, reduction in handling of dangerous chemicals, zero outlay for processor maintenance; zero spending on water, power and other resources needed to pre-heat and post-bake plates – and of course, winning back floorspace taken up by a processor.
“Thermal Direct Plates as of 2017 are now considered the norm in mainstream plate making,” notes Dunn. “AGS would only sell a processor if the customer is printing with UV inks.”
Anthony Harvey, Kodak Australasia’s marketing director, categorises thermal CTP as ‘a major part of Kodak’s rich history’.
He says, “Since Kodak’s invention of its market-leading CTP thermal imaging technology more than 20 years ago, the company has shipped 21,000 CTP units worldwide. Today, a big focus for this technology is automation – which uses less power, takes up less space, and can be configured to meet a printer’s throughput and plate requirements”.
Among Kodak’s latest thermal CTP developments, Harvey identifies the new Multi-Cassette Unit (MCU) for Kodak’s Trendsetter Q400/Q800 and Achieve T400/T800 platesetters, which offers automated plate loading and unloading of up to 480 plates in four cassettes, so that presses can run continuously for longer.
For plates, Kodak continues to devote significant R&D towards reducing a printer’s environmental impact while maintaining productivity and quality, says Harvey. “In 2018, we will launch the next generation of process-free plates, which will have features that will make it possible for a majority of offset printers to switch to process-free plate making, completely eliminating the cost and environmental impact of plate processing. Our new processed plates, such as Electra Max thermal plates, allow printers to achieve long run lengths without baking, even in harsh conditions such as UV.”
Kodak is focused on growth areas such as the packaging sector, where one of the challenges has been that plates need to be very durable in order to withstand the UV environment and a variety of substrates. Harvey sats, “New advances, such as the Kodak Electra Max plates, are making it possible to have plates that can deliver long run lengths without baking, even in challenging press environments.”
Harvey says Kodak has even developed process-free plates that can achieve longer run lengths in UV and other harsh press situations, so now more packaging printers are able to go process-free. “With the rise in UV for commercial printing due to the development of low-energy UV technology, we also see that commercial printers using UV are now able to use either processed plates that can achieve long run lengths without baking or process-free plates, both of which help them reduce environmental impact and costs.”
He says that process-free plate making, only available with thermal plate technology, “Is the most important innovation for printers in the pre-press area, benefiting both individual printers and the sustainability of the print industry. Since Kodak introduced Thermal Direct plates in 2005, the technology has advanced significantly, from plates that made sense only for small commercial printers to a mainstream solution that is saving the print industry millions of litres of water and chemistry each year.”
Peter Scott, managing director of Screen GP Australia, notes that its PlateRite range continues to be updated with faster speeds, lower power consumption and longer-lasting laser diodes. The latest addition in the PlateRite HD 8900N in three speeds, 36,42 or 70 B1 plates per hour, are the E, S and Z models respectively. On the E and S versions, a high-resolution option will image up to 4,000lpi.
Which CTP process, in Scott’s opinion, has advanced the most – thermal or violet? “Thermal definitely — we no longer market anything else but thermal platesetters, even our flexo/letterpress models for labels and packaging, which can also image thermal offset plates. There’s still a call for violet plates for longer runs but, with processless plates on the rise, thermal is offering even more advantages in today’s shorter-run world.”
Packaging and labels is a dynamic growth sector for CTP, he says. “Our thermal PlateRite FX flexo/letterpress CTP devices have sold well through our dealer, Jet Technologies. In offset packaging, often there is a requirement for oversize plates and Screen has the broadest range of VLF CTP, all the way up to 2.28 x 1.6 metres. Newspapers tend to prefer violet plates but even here we are starting to see a move towards thermal processless.”
With Screen’s Equios automated workflow and others, the CTP device can be regarded as another output device alongside digital cut-sheet and wide format if the customer so wishes, says Scott. “Some printers prefer to keep digital and offset separate but there is increasing demand for colour-matched output from offset and digital, so it makes sense to unify the workflow; which is what Equios offers.”
“As the world’s leading producer of CTP setters, we can work with either processed or processless plates. Our OEM customers and resellers who make plates have no problems at all supplying Screen CTP in either environment,” he says..” I think processless is for everyone who wants to move that way. It’s definitely not niche anymore, at least in Australia and New Zealand. Screen PlateRite CTP devices are ready for this, with outstanding reliability and image quality.”
Agfa offers its thermal and violet technologies – the thermal Avalons N4, N8 (B1-size) and N16 (VLF), and the violet Advantage N for conventional and chemistry-free commercial and newspaper applications. Azura CX85 and CX125 clean-out units comprise a cascading clean-out technology that gives the opportunity for greater plate throughput and lower wastage. The pH-neutral water-based gum circulates between two shallow trays, raising the clean-out efficiency, reducing gum consumption and extending bath life.
Australian Graphic Servicing (AGS) offers Cron CTP technology, which it notes is capable of up to 128 laser channel. The Cron setters have new cooling blocks which give longer life and more stable output. Cron CTP systems use single-channel laser diodes, and the benefit, according to AGS, is substantially lower replacement costs and a far lower probability for replacing the complete set.
Cron-ECRM drum setters, combining the expertise of Cron and US pre-press developer ECRM, are enjoying rising popularity in the Australian market. The thermal CTP setters come in 26, 36, 46 and 72 inch formats, ranging in output format from two-page-up to VLF, with a choice of latest-generation lasers. Each model can handle jobs from A4 to A1, with space for register and trim marks, and colour bars. Generating up to 56 plates per hour. The CTP line is compatible with a broad selection of front-ends, with Currie Group recommending its Founder or ECRM RipMate software, as part of its WorkMates platform.
For the narrow web, flexible packaging and wide-format corrugated printing sectors, Esko Australia offers the CDI (Cyrel Digital Imager), which claims output quality previously only available on offset or gravure printing. The setters can be configured optimally to meet the requirements of various specialty market sectors, from single-colour printing on corrugated boxes to complex multicolour work on packaging, and also in security printing. The CDI Crystal 5080 XPS flexo plate making system is primed for short runs and the increase in SKUs, offering lightning speeds on turnarounds, and works effectively with versioning. Exposing both sides of a flexo plate, the Crystal 5080 combines imaging and exposing into a compact footprint, with half as many manual steps, 30 per cent faster access to plates and 73 per cent less operator time.
Fujifilm supplies the PlateRite thermal systems from Screen including the B2 PT-R4600 and the high productivity B1+ PT-R8900, which is available in a number of versions, capable of producing up to 70 press-ready B1 plates (PlateRite 8900Z) per hour in manual, semi-automatic or fully automatic configurations. There are three configurations – in basic form, the platesetter will stand alone, requiring both manual load and unload. A low-cost upgrade provides auto unloading to an online processor or plate stacker. Fully automated, it uses a 100-plate single cassette autoloader which enables a full shift of unattended operation. Fujifilm XMF workflow is the backbone of all its output devices and is engineered to handle sheetfed, web and digital printing, using Fujifilm’s expertise in colour, imposition and workflow production.
Suprasetter A75 for the A2/B2 market features a variety of configurations, such as Automatic Top Loader and Dual Top Loader for high volumes. Generating plates at 2,540dpi and as high as 5,080dpi for specialties such as security printing, the A75 runs on low power consumption, claimed to utilise an average of just 5w on standby and 550w in imaging mode. Whilst the basic manual feed CTP has a very small footprint, a Suprasetter A52/A75 with auto plate loading system is by far the smallest plate setter in its class – the ideal pre-condition for being able to invest in CTP without having to restructure.
For Kodak, the Trendsetter Q400 and Q800 setters represent a move into ultra-high speed imaging technology, known as the W-speed, which accelerates throughput to 68 plates per hour on an 8-up plate and 75 plates per hour on a 4-up plate imaging Kodak Sonora XP plates. W-speed creates what Kodak says is the world’s fastest process-free CTP, delivering a more efficient, compact and faster plate-making process, without chemistry or processor use. Kodak has also responded to a growing demand for higher resolution imaging in the security, lenticular and high-resolution art printing markets. Its 4,800/5,080dpi option on Trendsetter can image small features with accurate detail, for example, background patterns, wavy lines of variable width, as well as micro printing not seen by the naked eye. The Q400 and Q800 now also come with a multi-cassette unit (MCU) offering automated plate loading and unloading of up to 480 plates, with up to four plate sizes on tap.
New to Screen’s setter offerings is the high-resolution PlateRite HD8900N B1 platesetter, which comes in a trio of speed configurations. The 8900N-Z achieves a maximum productivity of 70 plates per hour using two laser diodes and a 1,024-channel optically improved GLV (Grating Light Valve). The other two speed variations (‘S’ and ‘E’) produce 48 or 36pph. The HD8900 S and E models can be factory optioned for ultra-high resolution of 4,000dpi or 4,800dpi (for 3D lenticular printing). At 4,000dpi, the HD8900N can resolve up to 700lpi. For FM/ stochastic screening, the dot resolution can be tuned to RandotX 10 (10 microns).
Agfa’s Energy Elite Eco is a non-bake thermal for high-end commercial, packaging and UV applications, offering a run length as high as 600,000 impressions (150,000 on UV). Energy Elite Eco is compatible with the screening technologies of 340lpi Sublima and FM10. It creates durable images at 1-99 per cent resolution, without dot loss. Agfa claims that, even in harsh environments, this robust printing plate does not compromise on its premium, photorealistic imaging quality. By combining the Energy Elite Eco plate with Agfa’s Arkana smart processing technology, the full benefits of its ECO-3 features can be achieved. Using Agfa’s patented gum cascade system, Arkana cuts out plate rinsing. Instead, the cascaded gum has a dual function, cleaning the plate and protecting the plate with a finishing layer.
Currie Group supplies Agfa’s Azura thermal chemistry-free plates, comprising the TE range for up to 75,000 impressions and the TU range for up to 150,000 impressions. Currie Group also offers Agfa’s chemistry-free violet Azura VI plates. Elimination of chemical process variables (developer, replenisher and rinse water) reduces waste and the disposal costs associated with it. All Azura plates are based on Agfa ThermoFuse technology, a purely physical imaging technology that the company says guarantees simplicity and convenience under the widest range of conditions. Upon thermal laser exposure, the latex pearls in the single-layer water-based coating of the printing plate fuse to form a solid ink-accepting image, which is then bond to the substrate by a purely physical process. In the case of Azura TE, the plates can be directly mounted on press after imaging. In the case of Azura TS and TU, a dedicated clean-out unit uses gum to finish the plate and clean the unfused areas.
Superia ZP is a processless plate that eliminates the processor, chemistry, gum and water used in the conventional plate production process, the plate being taken straight from the platesetter onto the press. This means Superia ZP represents the fastest way of getting a plate on-press, and all the variables associated with processors and finishing units, including the time and labour involved with their maintenance, are eliminated. The processless Superia ZP plate (formerly PRO-T3), represents the most direct, rapid pathway from platesetter to press. The plate is imaged and mounted directly on-press, and has equal sensitivity to other high performance plates. The latest version of the Superia ZP represents Fujifilm’s most advanced printing plate yet. It offers a new Multi Grain (MGV) technology, which is a micro-graining process applied to the surface of the aluminium and guarantees the widest possible latitude in ink/water balance on-press. Another advance is a multi-layer coating, exclusive to Fujifilm, providing various functionalities within ultra-thin layers. Fine Particle Dispersion technology helps improve the softening of the non-image area and an undercoat layer incorporating Rapid Stable Start-up technology speeds up the removal of the plate coating by the ink/fount and onto the paper substrate.
The German press giant markets its Suprasetter family with Fujifilm’s low-chemistry LH-PJE and LH-PLE plates, based on Fujifilm’s ZAC processing system to keep chemical and water use to a minimum. Fujifilm says its ZAC technology is as close as it is possible to get to full processless, while retaining the benefit of a processed plate. Heidelberg also has the full range of Fujifilm Superia thermal and violet plates, including the LP-NV2 processed plate technology. The Pro-V low-chemistry plate option uses only a finishing solution instead of the traditional developer or replenisher for violet systems. The Fujifilm processless thermal PRO-T3 does away with the processor, chemistry, gum and water used in conventional plate making.
Kodak’s process-free Sonora XP plates target commercial, publishers and packaging printers, while the Sonora News process-free plates is popular in newspaper production. The Sonora plates completely do away with processing hardware and chemistry. Meanwhile, Electra Max thermal plates offered by Kodak provide maximum chemical resistance on-press, including on UV and H-UV presses, and maximum unbaked run lengths, print resolution capabilities, and chemistry savings. Libra VP digital plates come in two varieties – for newspaper production and commercial work.
The IBF Direct T thermal processless negative plate offers the best of both DOP (Develop on Press) and conventional thermal CTP plate technology. Also from IBF are the Eco-V and Million violet plates. And IBF’s Eco-T plate can be used either as a chemistry-free/neutral pH wash-out plate or in DOP mode. Fit eCO thermal plates from Xingraphics are a processless thermal plate technology, eliminating the need for chemistry and or additional equipment, removing further energy requirements whilst maintaining optimum printing results. Meanwhile, Xingraphics Primus Plus is a positive thermal plate with low water usage and reduced ink consumption. And Xingraphics Fit Envase is a dual layer plate coating technology on a thermal positive plate. It is the ideal solution for customers who want to be able to use high-resolution plates but do not want to bake their plates when printing with UV inks.
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