01 July 2014 Prepress

Free for all: processless plates go mainstream

Chemistry-free or process-free, the new generation of plates are breaking out of their niche areas and are mainstream players with longevity.

Using a no process plate was once a statement that the print company wanted to be seen by customers and employees as greener and cleaner than others.

Environmental charities in particular liked the association with a more ecologically aware printer. But there were drawbacks: the plates could only manage short to medium runs; they might need a change in press set up with regard to fount solutions, blankets and inks; and they would cap the productivity of the platesetter, perhaps by 50%.

Processless and chemistry-free plates were confined to niche areas, those who wanted to promote their environmental credentials and smaller printers without the volume of plate consumption and where the space saved by eliminating the processor and the savings in cutting out chemical use and waste were welcome. Printers could put up with the low image contrast for an onpress processed plate, the softer plate surface and any other handling issues.

The new generation of processless plates has changed this. These are mainstream plates that can deliver runs to 150,000, that do not need changes to press set up, that offer a better contrast and will not limit the productivity of a platesetter. It is not impossible to see that a plate which needs post image development in a bath of chemicals will become an anachronism. Currently if printers are in heatset web printing, UV printing or other harsh conditions, the processless plate may not deliver. But in every other circumstance it can.

As a further mark of how this technology has become mainstream, Chinese plate producers will offer processless plates as will the second tier of western plate producers like IBF from Brazil and Ipagsa from Spain.

But the three main players, Fujifilm, Kodak and Agfa, are happy that their solutions keep them one step ahead of the field and that they are taking the latest generation of plates from the relatively sheltered B2 sector to mainstream B1 printers.

Agfa began field trials with its Azura TU plate a year ago ahead of a commercial release at the end of the year. The technology is the latest iteration of its Thermofuse technology where the laser’s energy in the platesetter forms a strong bond between the plate and the coating. Non exposed coating is washed off in a gum solution, creating some waste that needs to be disposed of. The CX processing unit has been designed to bring this to a minimum through reuse of water and is employed by all volume users.

Companies that are large plate consumers like DG3 and Stephens & George, where production processes cannot be slowed, have switched to Azura TU as their core plate. “We needed to improve the run length over the TS version,” says Agfa’s Nick Lazell. “And we wanted to increase the speed of the plate to match conventional CTP plates.”

The image was also changed to a blue to match conventional plates that printers have been using. When moving from the conventionally processed plate to TU this means that has been no difference in the way that minders operate, many not even made aware that the plate had changed.

“We are taking to a lot of the larger customers in B1. This is a mature product, the third generation of the technology, so there is no reason not to make the change. The CX unit will process 7,000m2 of plate before it needs to be cleaned. There is no need to plumb it into the mains drainage and all that needs to be taken away are a few bottles of spent gum, easily within the scope of a waste contractor. With the CX, 80% fewer bottles are created for the same volume of plate.”

Currently the plate is only available to B1 and on 0.3 gauge, so web offset is not yet covered, but a thicker plate is under consideration, says Lazell. There are also tests underway with UV inks, though as with conventional plates these cut plate life, to around 20,000-25,000 impressions for Azura TU, says Lazell. “This plate meets the needs of most printers, it is specified to a 20-micron dot, Sublima 360. We are finding that customers want to go green and the savings that come from this. It takes away the housekeeping around the developer and checking for temperature or conductivity of the developer.There is a premium attached, but we are out looking for business.”

The Thermofuse technology delivers a consistent, repeatable image. However, Agfa is the only major supplier with this approach. It had worked on the onpress alternative with a plate which was discontinued a dozen years ago, but research and development is rumoured to have continued.

Kodak and Fujifilm have however persisted with it. So much so that Kodak is backing Sonora to the hilt as one of the core technologies to drive its future growth.

There is a steadily growing user base across the UK, one of the latest being Severn which will use the plate on its Komori LS429 H-UV. One of the first was Uxbridge printer Maygray where the Sonora plate has been used for well over a year. “The plate has been a revelation,” says a spokesman. “The place has been cleaner and tidier. There is not as much contrast as with a standard plate, but this has not been an issue. The plates come out, are packed in the job bag in the studio and are taken to press.”

Because the surface is a little softer and more prone to scratching, Maygray reuses the interleaf papers to protect the surface. Placing them in the job bag keeps light away from the surface also as until the plate is on press the image will weaken in sunlight.

The process is also a lot more stable as taking away the processor has eliminated a variable. “Previously we knew we would have to recalibrate the platesetter, but could never know the frequency, so we couldn’t do it on a Friday knowing that things would be fine for ten days. The result was that we could suffer fluctuations in quality and we had to monitor this and recalibtrate. Now Kodak has given us calibration curves for coated and uncoated and there has been a big improvement in constancy since.”

There have been changes to the press consumables used, but as a process of improving quality rather than because the technology forced a change. It is now using Heidelberg materials, having had the system checked over by a chemist from the company.

The match of press chemistry to plate is a change that may be necessary. Where there have been issues with this generation of plates, this is usually the cause. The Sonora's surface will also stand up to some UV inks, being chosen by Platinum Press and Severn as the plate for their new Komori H-UV presses.

Fujifilm’s Pro T3 has been in the market a little longer than either Sonora or the Azura TU, but has the same broad appeal beyond the smaller printer. Howard Hunt is geared up to use Pro T3 on its B1 Mitsubishi sheetfed presses, although not yet for the same supplier’s 16pp web machines where it has moved to the Brillia HD LH-PXE plate. This is also a step forward in terms of the environment because the plate needs no baking to deliver 500,000 impressions and is processed in the ZAC processor for controlled chemistry usage. Compared to the previous plate, the energy profile has plummeted and chemistry consumption by 75%.

The company is also the first in the UK to install the XR-1200F recovery unit. “This reduces waste volume, cost of treatment, water consumption and CO2 emissions,” says Stuart King, group operations technology manager. Water use before recovery was down from 30 litres per square metre of plate to 14 litres, falling further as water can be recirculated after cleaning. “That will be a massive saving,” he adds.

He spent almost a year looking at and testing the system that is now in operation from the Screen PTR HD 8900 platesetter for the Brillia plate, the processor and recovery system.

The Pro T3 plate will be imaged through the existing Trendsetter. King says this will be a back up to the other plate line as Howard Hunt is prepared to run the processless plate on the web presses, albeit with much reduced run lengths.

The company with the greatest proportionate experience of no process plates is Presstek, from the plates used on its DI presses to technologies that use more conventional platesetters. At first all were ablative plates where lasers remove the coating over the non image areas of the plate. Now it has grown beyond this user base to produce a plate which will be available in conventional litho and waterless versions.

The waterless version is starting beta testing in mainland Europe where waterless is stronger than in the UK, with the negative thermal processless plate coming shortly after. Presstek’s UK head of sales Ian Pollock, however, reckons that the benefits of the waterless plate should increase awareness of what the technology can do for commercial printers. “There is better quality because of sharper dots and the increased stock range possible and UV applications are a lot easier,” he says. There is also the absence of spray powder and the beneficial effects on any piece of metal from removing water.

He is also optimistic about the more conventional plate which will beta test in the US where Pollock says IPA replacement founts are more aggressive than those in Europe. “If it works in the US, it will work in the UK,” he says.

The plate will require a wash out before loading on press, but residual waste is entirely hazard free for disposal. “This will be of interest for people who are looking for an alternative to the big three suppliers. It is not not a develop on press plate,” he says. “It will be successful if operators love it.”

The third approach to no chemistry plate production is via inkjet imaging, where only the image is produced and there is therefore no waste at all. To date Intec, selling Glunz & Jensen, and Marlowe Graphic Systems offer this approach to smaller printers using Epson inkjet printers to produce the plate. The jobbing end of the market has also been served by the Mitsubishi no process plate system sold through Apex, ensuring that at every point in the market there is a plate that matches the need for printers to be more sustainable.

Gareth Ward

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There is a steadily growing user base of the Sonora plate across the UK, one of the latest being Severn which will use the plate on its Komori LS429 H-UV.

One of the first was Uxbridge printer Maygray where the Sonora plate has been used for well over a year. “The plate has been a revelation,” says a spokesman.

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