Nothing we heard at Graph Expo last week better summed up the technological transformation of the printing industry than  comments by Joe Demharter, president of Pitman Company, during a media briefing on what he called "the new complexion of the Pitman Company" after more than a century as a graphic arts supplier.

Fifteen years ago, he said, film and analog proofing represented a $300 million business for Pitman - a volume that is now mostly gone. In its place are a $250 million annual turnover in digital plates and a blossoming trade in digital inkjet devices and supplies, which could exceed $200 million for Pitman this year. Demharter noted that far as inkjet is concerned, "we have seen nothing yet" in terms of the market potential of that non-impact printing process. After much-anticipated inkjet breakthroughs are unveiled at drupa next year, he said, digital inkjet could develop into a $500 million business for Pitman.

For the present, however, digital plates still account for about half of Pitman’s yearly revenue - a telling indication of how thoroughly physical image carriers and their computer-to-plate (CtP) imaging methods continue to define what the industry understands as "prepress." Despite its maturation as a technology, plate preparation remains a good pulse to take whenever insight into the industry’s ongoing transition to digital production is wanted.

A spokesman for another company with a big stake in digital platesetting, John O’Rourke of Presstek, acknowledged that CtP has become something of a "background product" nowadays owing to its broad adoption since it first appeared in the mid-1990s. But he also pointed out that the replacement of first- and second-generation systems is now just getting under way, and that there is a "virtually untapped" demand for CtP solutions in the two-page market. According to O’Rourke, a bit of modification to the digital infrastructures that support imagesetting with film and polyester plates in many small shops could elevate these businesses to metal platesetting with new, affordable small-format CtP devices. The environmental benefits of chemistry-free digital platesetting also will win converts and stimulate new sales, O’Rourke added.

At the Kodak booth, veteran graphic market managers Rick Mazur and Rich Rindo noted another, equally significant fact of life for CtP: that an 18-year high in the worldwide demand for litho-grade aluminum is having a commensurate effect on the price of plates, with some types experiencing low-double-digit percentage increases as Kodak and other suppliers scramble to keep up with their customers’ needs. They said that a proliferation of short runs in color is driving a general increase in plate consumption, although not on the traditional side - that part of the market continues to disappear as more and more printers equip themselves for all-digital, filmless CtP.

The aisles of Graph Expo were full of "pressure points" at which the industry’s platesetting pulse could be taken. Following are vital signs from nine of them. In several instances, we’ve included or substituted news of related developments in proofing and prepress workflow.

Agfa announced the commercial launch of the :Avalon LF XT+ platesetter, the latest in its line of violet CtP devices. Available with manual or fully automatic loading, The :Avalon LF XT+ can deliver up to 40 B1-sized Agfa Lithostar digital plates per hour. As a member of the :Avalon :LF Violet family, it will be compatible with the violet chemistry-free plate that Agfa expects to release next year. Agfa says that the :Avalon LF XT+ is priced comparably to lower-throughput thermal platesetters.

Agfa’s thermal plate offerings at the show included the long-run :Energy Elite, chemistry-free :Azura, and low-chemistry :Amigo products. According to Agfa, :Energy Elite has exceeded its initial performance expectations by consistently running up to 500,000 impressions without baking and up to 1 million when baked. The plate, which won a 2007 PIA/GATF InterTech Technology Award, gets its long life from a patented emulsion that tolerates variations in exposure and processing. The technology behind the :Azura and :Amigo plates is ThermoFuse™, in which heat from an infrared laser melts and bonds ultra-fine thermoplastic pearls to the aluminum substrate. This action, says Agfa, creates the image on the plate without the need for chemical developing.

Taking the spotlight at the ECRM Imaging Systems booth was WorkMates™, a new, five-part PDF workflow aimed at small- and medium-sized commercial printers wishing to transition from film-based prepress to all-digital operation. With WorkMates, says ECRM, printers can create PDF files and then impose, RIP, proof, and manage print jobs entirely in the PDF file format. The five standard components - PDFMate, ImposeMate, RIPMate, ProofMate Generic, and PrintMate - have automated features for ease and simplicity of use. Other prepress functions such as trapping, FM screening, and color management can be implemented with add-on WorkMates Modules. WorkMates is optimized for use with ECRM hardware but is compatible, says the manufacturer, with all applicable prepress equipment.

A manufacturer of flatbed, capstan platesetters, ECRM sells two-, four-, six-, and eight-up violet CtP devices to the commercial print market: the MAKO series for metal plates and the DPX products for small-format polyester. ECRM says that capstan platesetters, mechanically simpler than drum CtP devices, use considerably less electrical power to deliver the same results as drum units in image quality and plate throughput. According to ECRM, its platesetters draw a mere three amperes of electricity when running - less than a PC, or roughly equal to three 100-watt light bulbs.

Heidelberg used Graph Expo as an opportunity to brandish its credentials in prepress, which are extensive.  Although best known for its presses, the company also sells thermal and violet platesetters, plates, inkjet proofing systems, consumable products, and a long list of prepress-supporting modules in its Prinect workflow family. When it comes to prepress and consumables, Heidelberg is no late arrival at the party - it has installed more than 5,000 CtP devices worldwide and has sold prepress and pressroom supplies in the U.S. for more than seven years.

At the show, Heidelberg set aside a large portion of its .7-acre booth for CtP and other prepress offerings. Platesetters on display included the violet Prosetter P74 and the thermal Suprasetters A74 and S105. Also promoted were the entry-level Suprasetter A52, first introduced at Graph Expo last year, and the Prosetter P52, another solution for small-format work. The new Saphira Thermoplate PN and Saphira Thermoplate PA joined the existing Saphira Chemfree and Saphira Thermoplate NA plates for the Suprasetter devices.

Also demonstrated was a new contract paper, Saphira Proofing Paper Premium Semi Matte EZ, for use with HP and Epson inkjet printers available from Heidelberg in proofing bundles. Prepress-specific modules of Prinect included MetaDimension (a PDF or PostScript RIP), MetaShooter (for integration with TIFF-B format), Printready System (a PDF/JDF prepress output manager), and Signa Station (a digital impositioning tool).

Established in Germany in 1970 as a maker of light boxes, JUST Normlicht now offers a broad gamut of viewing and proofing stations, light tables, and other products for visual color control. Visitors to the JUST Normlicht booth at Graph Expo learned that one of the company’s objectives is to give printers the color-correct viewing capability they need to in order to keep up with changes in ISO viewing standards for graphic communications - changes that were adopted by ISO in 2000 but probably remain unknown to (or at least unimplemented by) printers still using vintage viewing equipment. The company hopes to drive adoption of the tightened standards by promoting the use of viewing systems that support the changed specifications for brightness, metamerism, and other factors that affect the appearance of proofed and printed color.

JUST Normlicht also is an advocate of portable soft proofing - a market orientation seen in its debut of the Virtual Proof Station at Graph Expo. This solution, says the company, is the first viewing and proofing station designed specifically for remote proofing applications. Offering everything needed to create an ISO 3664:2000 compliant soft-proofing area anywhere in the plant, Virtual Proof Station uses computer controls and monitor calibration devices to create a completely controlled viewing environment for on-press virtual proofing. Because it is self-contained, Virtual Proof Station can be moved from press to press as needed, always yielding precise, glare- and reflection-free viewing conditions.

Also demonstrated by JUST Normlicht at the show were its Color Match 5000 reflective and transmissive viewing devices; Color Proof Stations, in four printing formats; Control Station CtP PRO, for plate inspection; proofStation light-controlled viewing enclosures; and the Color Communicator2 TNG viewing booth.

Although the principal theme of Kodak’s presence at Graph Expo was digital printing, its show news included several significant announcements about CtP and other aspects of prepress. Most noteworthy was the launch of the Kodak Flexcel NX Digital Flexographic System, a turnkey solution that can deliver, according to Kodak, near-offset print quality on flexographic packaging substrates including paper, flexible film, foil, and label stock. Its key component is the Kodak Flexcel NX 830 Thermal Imaging Layer, a high-resolution surface that is exposed in a Kodak Trendsetter NX imager and then laminated to a Flexcel Flexographic Plate. A Kodak Prinergy Workflow System for packaging completes the integrated solution.  Kodak says that the Flexcel NX System yields consistent, stable dots as small as 10 microns, enabling flexographic printers to  reproduce subtle tonal gradations that are not achievable with traditional methods of flexo platemaking.

Kodak said that its Magnus VLF platesetters would get a big boost in productivity when equipped with the new Automatic Pallet Loader, a system designed to load up to 3,600 palletized plates without manual handling. The loader holds up to six pallets, each shipped directly to the customer with as many as 600 plates, for fully automatic, online loading to the platesetter. A large-capacity slipsheet storage system allows for easy disposal or reuse of slipsheet paper. Kodak said that all Magnus VLF platesetters with continuous-load or multi-cassette unit automation options are upgradeable to the Automatic Pallet Loader.

The new Kodak Smart Review System for monitor proofing combines highly accurate screen previews with professional tools for collaborative image inspection. The latest enhancements to the Kodak Matchprint inkjet proofing solution include support for new Epson printers, an updated version of the Kodak proofing software, and a new line of branded inkjet media conforming to GRACoL, FOGRA and SWOP specifications.

Prepress product line enhancements from Presstek included a new RIP and workflow solution and an automated plate loader for Presstek platesetters. Debuting at Graph Expo was the Momentum Pro Integrated PDF Workflow system, a fully integrated RIP and workflow solution designed to streamline and automate the production process using certified PDF tools. Presstek says that the workflow can be used as a centralized system for PDF creation and preflight, ensuring consistent output to multiple devices for small to mid-size printers. With Momentum Pro, the entire workflow can be controlled from the prepress workstation.

Presstek also introduced the Dimension450 Excel-Autoloader, a new plate-loading automation feature for Presstek’s four-page thermal CtP platesetter of that model name. Fully integrated with the Dimension450 Excel, the Autoloader mounts up to 20 pre-punched plates for continuous chemistry-free platemaking at a throughput speed of 17 plates per hour.

2007 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Screen (USA) as the first overseas subsidiary of Dainippon Screen Mfg. Co. Ltd., a birthday that the company celebrated at Graph Expo by announcing the sale of its 11,000th platesetter, a PlateRite 8600S, to a printing company in São Paulo, Brazil. Screen, which introduced its first computer-to-plate recorder in 1995, claims to have sold more CtP devices worldwide than any other manufacturer. Its thermal PlateRite series appeared in 1998, and at Graph Expo, the flagship models from the six-up, eight-up, and VLF segments of the series were on display.

In debut was a new VLF platform, the PlateRite Ultima 36000ZX, a platesetter for large-format sheetfed presses and high-output webs. Able to image plates from 25.6" x 21.7" to 82.6" x 62.9", the 36000ZX uses Screen’s grating light valve technology to produce 33 full-size plates per hour at 2,400 dpi or 68 plates per hour using eight-up plates. The eight-up PlateRite 8800Z handles plate sizes from 12" x 14.6" to 45.6" x 37" inches at standard resolutions of 1,200, 2,400, 2,438 and 2,540 dpi with an option for 4,000 dpi. The device can output 42 40.5" x 31.4" at 2,400 dpi. For six-page work, the PlateRite 6600S images plates from 12.8" x 14.6" to 38.5" x 26.9" at 30 plates per hour.

Screen also showed a CtP solution for packaging: the PlateRite FX870. This device directly exposes the photosensitive black mask layer of resin-coated flexo plates, producing a sharp halftone dot while eliminating the need for film and intermediate processing. Capable of imaging plates from 7.9" x 7.9"  to 34.2" x 30" at 2,400 dpi and 2,540 dpi, the PlateRite FX870 is compatible with all flexo workflows including Screen’s Packstudio SE packaging workflow.

Founded in 1989, Xanté became "the new Xanté" this year with the acquisitions of RIPit Imaging Systems and Exxtra Imaging Systems. Although its product portfolio has grown to include digital color presses and workflow software, the core of Xanté’s business remains the same: platesetting solutions for small- and medium-sized graphics businesses. Two product introductions spoke to that continuing emphasis at Graph Expo: the Impressia GTO platesetter and Harmony Violet Metal Plates.

A two-up, landscape-format platesetter, the Impressia GTO is made specifically to image Xanté’s processless, no-rinse Aspen Metal Plates. The device can expose one of these plates in the 16.5" x 25" size in 72 seconds. Resolution is 2,400 x 2,400 dpi for up to 150-lpi output, and plate life is in excess of 25,000 impressions. Xanté says the Impressia GTO will ship in the fourth quarter of 2007 at less than half the cost of other metal GTO-sized platesetters now on the market.

For its VM line of two- and four-up violet metal platesetters, Xanté premiered the high-durability Harmony Violet Metal Plate - a negative-working, high-resolution image carrier that supports run lengths of 250,000 impressions without baking and more than double that number when preheating is used, according to the manufacturer. The plate is said to be capable of holding dots from 3% to 97% at up to 200 lpi. Xanté also introduced a companion line of Harmony CtP chemistry products including a developer, a replenisher, a processor cleaner, and a plate gum.

At Graph Expo, xpedx was out to show that prepress proofing can be simple and affordable in both its hard and soft varieties. For hard-copy output, it presented KwikFlip™, a $5,000 solution designed to generate two-sided imposition proofs at a claimed price of $5 per sheet. A combination of software and physical alignment guides, KwikFlip can be mated with five Epson inkjet proofer models to output backed-up, four- or eight-up proofs at low resolution. xpedx bundles KwikFlip with two boxes of imposition paper, an ICC profile for imposition media, and a day of on-site setup and training.

Through a partnership with PROOF-it-ONLINE, xpedx will offer that company's Web-based proofing and approval management solution to xpedx customers for a one-time, all-inclusive cost of $1 per page. Users of the service, says xpedx, can post, mark up, and comment upon proofs as often as desired without incurring additional charges. The PROOF-it-ONLINE application manages tracking, versioning, archiving, and routing in a secure online environment. Once a project has been reviewed and approved in this way, a hard-copy final proof can be output wherever the job is to be printed. No special hardware or software is needed, says xpedx, which demonstrated the solution at its booth throughout the show.