September 6, 2006 -- For the past two years, the availability and acceptance of processless/chemistry-free plates has been growing faster than ever before. With the introduction of processless plates at Drupa 2004 and Print 05, today’s printers have a number of products to choose to use. The need to focus on productivity and profitability is prompting printers to take a second look at processless/chemistry-free plates to maintain or improve their current production throughput as well as reduce their existing plate processing costs. "One of the principal attractions of chemistry-free or processless plates is the streamlining of workflow and elimination of variables associated with plate development and processor maintenance," explains John Zarwan, an independent consultant who wrote a report entitled CTP Plate Making: Understanding the Real Costs. The importance of eliminating chemistry and processing was confirmed with the introduction of a number of processless plates at Drupa 2004. Experts point to a number of benefits: reduction of capital expenditures and costs associated with acquiring, managing, and disposing of chemistry, less space consumption, environmental friendliness, and compressed plate production times. Printers have a variety of choices, however. One of the biggest is the choice between thermal or violet imaging. For many years, thermal imaging was the only option for processless plates. But about five years ago, CTP systems using violet lasers became available, giving violet some momentum. While thermal still dominates in North America, violet is becoming a viable option as more manufacturers make them available. Experts say that violet’s positive features include faster imaging, lower machine costs, and lower cost of ownership while its negative aspects include the need to be handled in yellow safelight or an additional step of some type of wash or clean-out and gumming to make them daylight safe. Growing availability of processless/chemistry-free plates Agfa: At IPEX 2006 in April, Agfa offered a technological preview of a working chemistry-free plate for violet laser CtP. Agfa Graphics’ violet chemistry-free plate will use ‘photopolymerization’ as the digital imaging principle. After the violet laser forms the printing image, no chemical process affects or alters it in any way. Prior to a cleanout step, the plate is preheated to stabilize and harden the printing image so that non-image areas can be removed safely using preservative gum. Agfa hopes to have the new violet chemistry-free plates in use by the end of 2007. Introduced at Drupa 2004 and commercially-available in November 2004, Agfa’s :Azura chemistry-free negative-working thermal plate system can be used for run lengths up to 100,000 impressions on a wide range of commercial printing applications on both sheetfed and web presses. Today it is in operation in more than 600 printing and prepress sites around the world. Originally launched as an Agfa-only solution for Agfa thermal CTP platesetters, :Azura is now in use on a variety of platesetters from other vendors. :Azura is available in 2-up, 4-up and 8-up formats. For those needing large-format plates, Agfa offers the :Amigo developer-free, thermal plate, part of its ThermoFuse family. ThermoFuse is Agfa's patented imaging technology made popular by the success of the :Azura chemistry-free plate with well over 400 installations worldwide. With :Amigo, Agfa brings the benefits of this advanced technology to higher volume printers, including the VLF market. Citiplate: Last summer Citiplate announced both a new thermal and violet no-process digital plate formulation designed for plate imaging in leading CTP platesetter brands, at the manufacturers' standard wavelengths, power levels and resolution settings. Citiplate's no-process thermal digital plate formulation images at 830 nm. The no-process violet digital plate formulation features high imaging speed, for use at the lower power levels generated by latest 405 nm violet laser diode platesetters. Citiplate has also developed a processless RIPit branded digital plate for use with RIPit’s SpeedSetter Violet Metal (VM) CTP systems. Using Citiplate "no-process" violet photopolymer technology, these processless RIPit brand plates will self-develop on-press, within a few turns of the cylinders. Fujifilm: IPEX 2006 in April was the worldwide introduction of Fuji’s new range of processless CTP plates in both thermal and violet products. The Brillia HD PRO-T processless thermal plate, announced at PRINT 05, became available at IPEX while the Brillia HD PRO-V violet photopolymer chemistry-free plate, will be available in 2007. Brillia HD PRO-T processless thermal plate is compatible with most thermal (830nm) platesetters and approved for 1% - 99% at 200lpi conventional, 300lpi hybrid and FM screening. Brillia HD PRO-T is a nonablative plate that carries a latent image with distinct contrast allowing visual inspection after imaging. When used on press, the unique new MultiGrain technology quickly carries ink and fount enabling the plate to be in full print production within a similar number of waste sheets compared with conventional PS or CTP plates. The new MultiGrain technology also contributes to the same ink/water balance as Fuji's existing CTP plates. The Brillia HD PRO-V is a violet photopolymer, non-ablative, chemistry-free CTP plate designed to achieve 1% - 99% at 200lpi conventional, 300lpi hybrid and FM screening. Brillia HD PRO-V exhibits many of the qualities found in Fujifilm’s existing Brillia LP-NV violet plate, including the ability to print with aggressive UV inks and solvents without baking, long run lengths, and yellow safe light handling. Heidelberg: Making its international debut at PRINT ’05, the Saphira Chemfree Thermal Plate is a negative-working, offset aluminum plate to be used in conjunction with Heidelberg’s computer-to-plate thermal platesetter, the Suprasetter. The Saphira Chemfree plate uses a new, latex-based coating technology called micro spheres. The coating is nonablative and eliminates traditional thermal plate processing variables. The Suprasetter’s patented thermal laser (830nm) is used to bond the micro spheres to the base metal and expose the plate, forming the printing image. Designed for a wide range of sheetfed commercial printing applications, Saphira Chemfree Thermal Plate uses no developer, no water and no large footprint processor. The technology reduces chemical costs by eliminating high-volume water and waste associated with the traditional thermal process and is environmentally friendly. In June 2006, Lee Printing Company, Clinton Township, Mich. was the first print shop in the US to begin using the Saphira Chemfree thermal plate solution. Kodak: Made available worldwide at PRINT 05, Kodak’s Thermal Direct non-process plate features a traditional grained and anodized aluminum substrate, giving it the look and feel of a presensitized aluminum plate. According to Kodak, Thermal Direct plates are compatible with all popular CTP imagers, and a wide range of inks and fountain solutions. Thermal Direct features a proprietary, thermally-sensitive coating. A polymer resin permits the coating to be dissolved by the press fountain solution and completely carried out of the press on the makeready sheets. Kodak also reduced the coating colorant on Thermal Direct plates to virtually eliminate the potential for ink roller glazing but still produce an image of sufficient visibility to determine press cylinder placement for the plates. Thermal Direct no-process plates are capable of producing run lengths up to 100,000 impressions under optimal press conditions and the plate can hold one percent to 98 percent dots at 200 lpi. Thermal Direct boasts one-hour white light handling and four-hour yellow safelight handling. Presstek: In April 2006 Presstek introduced the Presstek Anthem Pro, a new generation chemistry-free thermally imaged digital plate. Anthem Pro requires a simple water rinse after imaging to prepare the plate for printing and features Presstek's exclusive PRO graining technology. Presstek developed PRO graining specifically for Anthem Pro. PRO graining, in combination with Anthem's thermal ablation coating system, provides improved ink/water latitude, greater color stability and better overall print performance. Like all of Presstek's CTP plate products, Anthem Pro offers truly chemistry-free performance. It does not require any gumming, baking or chemical processing and supports run lengths up to 100,000 impressions. In combination with Presstek's Dimension series of thermal platesetters, Anthem Pro delivers a high performance print solution with a streamlined workflow and high quality printed results. First customer shipments are expected early in the third quarter of 2006. In addition, Presstek offers chemistry-free Freedom thermal plates for small-format printers, Print 05-introduced Aurora chemistry-free plates for Screen and Kodak thermal CTP systems, and processless Applause plates. Xante: In October 2004, Xante introduced its non-photosensitive Aspen Metal Plate designed especially for Xanté’s Impressia Metal PlateSetter, allowing for a chemical-free, process-free, no-rinse workflow in daylight conditions. It accommodates run lengths up to 25,000 impressions. The 6-mil plate comes in sizes from 10 x 15 inches to 13.38 x 19.87 inches. Platesetter manufacturers are also preparing for growth in the processless/chemistry-free plate market. At Print 05 last fall, Agfa launched a new line of thermal platesetters called :Avalon. Agfa offers the :Avalon in both VLF (Very Large Format—up to 83x63") and LF (large format—up to 45.7x32.2") models. :Avalon can operate with chemistry-free :Azura plates and offers Agfa’s cross-modulation Sublima screening. Throughput ranges from 10 to 40 plates per hour. Automated plate loading is also available as an option. This past spring, ECRM Imaging Systems announced its support of Agfa, Fujifilm and Citiplate and their development of chemistry-free or processless plates. ECRM promoted its vision that not only is violet technology the future of CTP, but that violet chemistry-free plates, imaged by violet lasers, would eventually gain acceptance by the market. These recent announcements reconfirm ECRM’s previous supporting statements for processless plates and its own corporate strategy of developing violet CTP technologies. ECRM, producers of imaging systems for commercial printers and publishers around the world for over 35 years, has shipped over 27,000 imaging systems including over 1,000 CTP platesetters. ECRM MAKO CTP devices are manufactured with modular violet diode optics that offers users an easy upgrade path. Immediately upon the Agfa plate release, ECRM CTP customers will be able to take advantage of Agfa’s new chemistry-free plate technology without sacrificing throughput speed. These plates reportedly require at least a 30 mW violet-diode laser for exposure, while ECRM CTP machines are delivered with a standard 60 mW laser. The processless plates from Fuji and Citiplate reportedly will require higher powered lasers, says ECRM. The next generation of violet diodes offering higher power intensity is being developed by suppliers such as Nichia, Sanyo, and Toshiba and should be available by the time these violet chemistry-free plates are in full production. The higher powered lasers will be offered to ECRM customers, via a field upgrade kit, for the use with the new Fuji and Citiplate chemistry-free plates. Presstek manufactures the Dimension Excel, Dimension800, and Vector TX52 platesetters to streamline plate production for Presstek’s Anthem, Freedom, Applause chemistry-free or process-free plates. The Dimension Excel is Presstek's two- or four-page computer-to-plate system for up to 100,000 plate run length while the Dimension800 is the eight-page model for up to 100,000 plate run length. The Vector TX52 is a two-page chemistry-free CTP system designed to provide the short-run, small format printer with a metal platemaking platform. In April 2006 Xante’s Platemaker 5 made its debut with the ability to produce polyester plates, film and paper proofs designed specifically for small commercial printers and print shops in need of a low cost, high quality, chemical free CTP system. Powered by Xanté patented and patent-pending technologies, this system brings drastically improved halftones and tighter registration to the two-up portrait press marketplace. Debora Toth is a freelance writer who has worked in the graphic arts industry for 25 years. She can be reached at [email protected]