Presstek Perspective: Process-Free: The Holy Grail for Platemaking By Ed Marino, CEO of Presstek July 7, 2003 -- Don't you hate getting stuck behind a bus when you are on a road trip? It's big, it's noisy, and it smells bad with all of the fumes it emits, especially lumbering up a long grade on a windy mountain road. And how about all the fuel it consumes? Now imagine driving that bus onto your shop floor. First, where would you put it? Space, after all, is expensive and at a premium. What will you do about the fumes? How will you dispose of old oil, diesel and other toxic fluids the bus contains and sometimes inadvertently emits? You can hardly wait to get it out of there! You're probably wondering, "What does this have to do with me? Why in the world would anyone put a bus on their shop floor anyway?" Interestingly, a standard commercial bus takes up about 43 linear feet. And the equipment involved in a full Photo-Chemical Thermal CTP processing suite - to pre-bake, chemically process and post-bake plates - takes an average of 39 linear feet. In the nearly three-quarters of a century since offset printing technologies first started to take hold, photo-chemical processing has been core to the process, first with film and photo-chemical plates, and now, increasingly, with directly-imaged photo-chemical plates created using computer-to-plate (CTP) imaging technologies. Because of the early use of film to create offset plates, film and photo material manufacturers naturally became the primary suppliers of offset plates, adapting their film-emulsion coating technologies to create photo-chemical aluminum offset plates. The costs associated with producing and processing these plates, as well as the cost of disposing of unused chemicals and the associated environmental impact, have long been considered "business as usual" in the printing industry. In fact, how many printers can actually articulate the total costs associated with platemaking? For those who can, the Holy Grail of a process-free plate looms in front of them as what must often seem like an unattainable goal. Photo-Chemical Plate Processing Let's take a look at the cost dynamics of conventional platemaking. The exact steps involved in photo-chemical plate processing vary with the type of plate system in use. So do the processing materials, which, by the way, are not interchangeable from one plate type to another. Photo-chemical thermal CTP plate processing may involve pre-baking the exposed plate in an oven, passing it through chemical baths (to dissolve the unexposed non-image areas and leave the hardened image areas), and post-baking in yet another oven. (Some types of photo-chemical thermal plates omit the pre-baking step.) While the steps involved in chemical processing of photo-chemical plates are quite specific to the plate system in use, all the steps in making any photo-chemical plate are critical to the success of the plate on press, from exposure through finishing, and variability in any of the steps can result in a plate that produces less-than-optimal results, or worst case, is unusable. Material and Process Costs The table below shows a base case for the cost of platemaking using a photo-chemical thermal CTP process. Item Photo-Chemical Cost Plate + Imaging $10.00 Pre-Bake 0.50 Develop 1.25 Finish 0.75 Post-Bake 0.50 Waste Disposal 0.50 Total $13.50 We have used a cost of $10 to represent the relative cost of all imaged plate consumables, and we have assigned relative costs to the rest of the steps in the process. While it is natural to consider imaged plate consumables as part of the job costing process, it is startling to realize that the balance of the process can add an additional 35% to the cost. And that doesn't even take into consideration all of the infrastructure costs associated with the process. Think about it. Pre- and post-bake ovens must be kept at a consistent temperature-whether or not plates are actually being processed at the time, resulting in significant energy consumption. Chemical balance must be maintained in the processing chemicals, and that balance can be affected by a multitude of factors, including age of the chemicals, the contamination that is a natural part of the chemical processing, and pH changes. And it costs money to appropriately dispose of used chemicals according to local, state and federal environmental regulations. Nor does the 35% uptick take into account the cost of the space, or the need to maintain a human-friendly environment by counteracting the heat generation and potential for chemical contamination inherent in these systems. In contrast, a process-free plate requires no processing or chemicals. It emerges from the platemaker ready to mount on the press. The only cost associated with making that plate is the base cost of imaged plate consumables. That means that the 35% add-on process cost goes away, you recapture the giant bus parking space, and you create an environmentally friendlier environment for your employees. And the Benefits Don't Stop There The other obvious-but not to be underrated-advantage of process-free platemaking is the boost in productivity your shop can achieve. With no pre- or post-processing, the time consumed making plates is significantly reduced, even if everything works perfectly the first time using conventional platemaking. But what happens if there is a problem, if the chemical balance isn't just right, or the pH level has shifted, or the oven temperatures have slipped? More than likely, the problem will not be revealed until unacceptable sheets begin to emerge from the press. That means the press must be stopped; the offending plate must be re-made; and the job must be restarted. Press wait time is expensive. And these types of all-too-common issues can cause a job to miss its production deadline, or otherwise create a bottleneck in the production process that can have a domino effect on the entire shop workload. With process-free, on the other hand, there are minimal steps from raw materials to finished plate; the daylight-safe and chemistry-free process has few potential failure points; and plates are stable, reliable and maintain consistent quality. The likelihood of having to remake a plate that has already been mounted on the press diminishes to near zero. The cost model, then, compared to conventional photo-chemical thermal platemaking, looks more like this: Item Photo-Chemical Cost Process-Free Cost Plate + Imaging $10.00 $10.00 Pre-Bake 0.50 0.00 Develop 1.25 0.00 Finish 0.75 0.00 Post-Bake 0.50 0.00 Waste Disposal 0.50 0.00 Total $13.50 $10.00 And the accompanying infrastructure expenses, including disposal of chemistry, energy consumption, ambient heat generation and productivity impact simply go away. As does that bus parked in the middle of your shop! And don't forget the importance of extending the value of process-free to your customers. The notion of buying responsibly is catching on in the corporate world and will continue to build momentum as companies jockey to position themselves favorably with their customers and with the marketplace as a whole. You can-and should-sell this benefit to your customers. You can-and should-help them to print responsibly.