Prepress & Workflow

Automated Black Magic

Posted: April 6, 2008 by
Noel Jeffrey

Unless you're a designer in a prepress trade shop, chances are computer-to-plate (CTP) devices for flexographic plates have been below your radar. The benefits that CTP machines and the automated workflow that goes with them bring to your work, however, make them worth knowing about. These benefits boil down to faster time-to-market and higher quality reproduction of more complex design.

CTP for flexo has been around for some 10 years now but two of the major vendors agree that adoption has been slower in North America than in Europe. It 's also not nearly as comprehensive as it has been in the commercial printing world, where CTP is for all practical purposes a given. Ian Hole, v.p. of market development at EskoArtwork, says there are 1,500 sites worldwide using CTP out of approximately 5,000 potential sites.

The large prepress trade shops were the first to adopt CPT workflows. "All of the large volume houses purchased machines," Hole says. "Some 50% of all polymer work is done CTP. Two or three large trade houses alone image 100,000 sq. ft. annually compared to a smaller shop that might image 3,000 sq. ft. "

Vic Stalam, v.p. of marketing segments and packaging, Kodak Graphic Communication Group, says, "The large trade shops moved quickly into CTP both here and in Europe. In North America, there are a lot of smaller converters in the label and flexible packaging segments that use flexography. CTP adoption among these companies has been slower."

Lowering investment costs

Naturally, the initial investments in workflow software and the imaging equipment plus the higher plate costs were stumbling blocks. These costs have all come down considerably. Hole says: "The prices of machines are nowhere near the $500,000 they cost when they first came to market. Today larger machines are around $300,000 and smaller machines can go as low as $85,000. There are product answers for small shops on limited budgets. The solution is to not buy a machine that does more than they need it to do. "

John Marino, new business integration manager at Phototype in Cincinnati, offers another point of view. "Time and cost drove us to go digital," he says. "The print quality is far superior; you can get to market quicker. It allowed us to compete with gravure because our product was now as good as gravure. " Phototype is a premedia house whose final products are plates and/or files to image plates. Its customers are approximately 65% CPCs and 35% printers and converters .The company runs an EskoArtwork Cyrel Digital Imager (CDI).

In addition to the ability to bring in new business, Marino points out that the actual out-of-pocket costs are basically a wash. "The plates may cost a bit more per square inch but you're no longer outputting film. In reality, it also takes less time than to produce film."

Expanding business opportunities was also the motivation for installing a Kodak Thermoflex II Wide at Dynamic Dies in Holland, OH. The company offers a wide variety of flexographic plates and steel rules dies. Its customer base is primarily converters and printers. Jim Eden, General Manager, explains that today, 98% of their business is serving the corrugated segment of the flexographic market. Four years ago, when it was 100%, they decided to expand the business to web and narrow web plates by first hiring a new sales representative for this segment. Then two years ago they installed the CTP device.

"More and more of our customers were asking for digital plates," he says. "We were able to pick up more web business because CTP offers a cleaner, crisper plate. " Since the company runs 24 hours a day, five-and-a-half days a week, they still use their analog device as backup, particularly for corrugated work.

Both Stalam and Hole agree that brand owners and package designers are more involved in production than commercial customers and therefore are aware of CTP benefits and will ask for it. "Analog workflow from film to plate is both a craft and an art, with lots of black magic going on, " Stalam says. "Digital workflow is a science that offers more predictable results."

"Speed is important to designers," Hole says, "but the standardized CTP process produces consistent quality every day. Maintaining brand color over time consistently—not just the first time but exactly the same way every time—is critical. Digital workflows can be repeated."

Upstream automation

Even though the actual CTP machine itself saves time and money, the automated digital workflow that goes with it is key. "Workflow comes first before CTP itself," says Kodak's Stalam. "It should be put in before the device comes in. Using new workflow tools, you can still output film. "

"Everyone is different," says EskoArtwork's Hole. "Once you understand your customers' problems, then you can help them decide if the software should be installed at the same as an imager. Solve the biggest problems first. If they need software to increase efficiency, then CTP 12 months later is fine. "

Michael Hood, graphic development manager at Dynamic Dies, says the company also has a full service art department. Their premedia workflow is all digital. Using Kodak's Prinergy and a module called TIFF Assembler that is supplied as part of the Kodak ThermoFlex TIFF FE software and also as stand-alone software, they are able to gather files and jobs and do a number of prepress tasks automatically before sending impositions to the platesetter.

"It saves us time and materials," Hood says. "Our sales forces of 21 representatives cover the country from Omaha, NE, to Philadelphia and New York. We also go as far south as Richmond. Our turnaround is typically 2.3 days and we ship every night we're running at 7:30 p.m. Automation just makes it easier to hit deadlines."

Phototype's Marino points out that to survive, it's necessary to move more automation upstream. Phototype has a different perspective, because they own a design service called Gravity ( "What you do to the file upfront to make automation work is key," he says. They use Adobe Illustrator, EskoArtwork Art Pro, and Backstage to automate separations, trapping, and job tickets. Understanding color is also significant.

"If we have a fingerprint of the press from the printer, we can also make the backend more automated, " Marino says. "We call it smart art." Marino also predicts that PDF is the workflow of the future. Phototype helped develop the parameters for flexo in the Ghent Workgroup PDF specification for packaging.

What's next?

Both Kodak and EskoArtwork agree that there's still room to improve CTP production and reproduction. At Graph Expo last fall, Kodak was showing its newest CTP device, the Trendsetter NX Imager. This system exposes a Flexcel NX Thermal Imaging layer, which is then laminated to a plate for exposure and processing. The company says the result is a digital flexo plate that "eliminates drop off of highlights and provides exceptional printing results."

Stalam explains that Kodak uses their SquareSpot technology to achieve high quality. "These plates will hold to a spot size of 10 microns," says Stalam. "After the lamination process, the plate looks, feels, and smells like any other flexo plate. The investment in the NX Imager and Laminator is no more than 10% higher than traditional systems, and we're working hard on that as well. Like our ThermoFlex line, it will be available in a variety of sizes. "

According to Hole, EskoArtwork will be showing a number of advances in automation in both software and hardware at the drupa tradeshow in Düsseldorf, Germany, this spring. "We want to make it as easy as possible to make a plate or a sleeve," Hole says. "At drupa we'll be showing a CDI that will simultaneously image and expose the plate, outputting it ready for processing. This eliminates the exposure step in the workflow."

Flexographic Basics

Most CTP units for digital flexo plates are laser imagers that take plates that consist of a photopolymer layer topped by a masking layer. As the imaging drum in the machine rotates, the laser head creates the image on the plate by ablating (removing) portions of the masking layer to reveal corresponding areas on the photopolymer areas.
Another digital process in use is direct laser engraving, which simply put would be the opposite of laser ablation. Invented over 20-plus years ago by Stork Systems in the Netherlands to directly engrave screens for rotary screen printing, the technology continued to advance. In 1999 multi-beam laser technology was the springboard for the arrival of direct engraving systems for all relief processes—flexo, letterpress, and dry offset.

Other Flexographic Systems

While EskoArtwork dominates the flexo CTP market and Kodak has made a commitment to the packaging market, other vendors offer digital imaging systems as well. Anderson & Vreeland Inc. in Caldwell, NJ, offers a line of FlexoLasers that are designed to achieve exceptionally high-quality utilizing multi-beam Fiber Optic Laser technology. FlexoLasers are compatible with all commercial ablative masked photopolymer plate materials, whether solvent or water-wash. There is no limitation to plate thicknesses.

FlexoLasers are available with PixFlow software workflow and, more recently with OpenRIP Flexo 5.0 features from RIPit Imaging Systems in Citrus Heights, CA. It offers its SmartDie function that will automatically apply pre-assigned output specifications such as "step-and-repeats," plate distortion, and traps and bearer-bars.

A&V also distributes Stork's Helios 6010, a unique system that digitally engraves flexo, dry offset, and letterpress plates and sleeves in a single system. Stork itself offers a complete range of direct laser engraving systems.

At Graph Expo 2007, Screen (USA) featured the PlateRite FX870, which is compatible with all flexo workflows, including Screen's specially developed packaging workflow, Packstudio SE. It also is compatible with the company's Trueflow SE PDF/JDF-based workflow management system. Screen (USA) is a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan-based Dai Nippon Screen Manufacturing Co., Ltd.

The PlateRite FX870 directly exposes the black mask layer of resin plates, eliminating the need for film or other intermediate processing. The company claims superior halftone dot reproduction that ensures dependable results, even in the highlight and shadow areas.

It can be used in both flexo and letterpress printing production. Additionally, the PlateRite FX870 offers the option of imaging digital offset plates.

Noel Jeffrey regularly covers print production, digital imaging, print-on-demand, and related subjects for graphics trade media. Contact her at