Litho plates have come a long way since the days when printers or repro houses needed to mix their own coatings and apply them to the grained metal using a whirly machine rather like a potter’s wheel. The environmental consequences of such production methods are today unthinkable.
Today plates can have minimal environmental impacts, thanks to develop on press and chemistry-free plates. When first introduced these were very much a niche product, suited to very short runs and needing presses to run with matched founts and blankets.
The latent image could be difficult to see and the surface coating was liable to scratching. If the plate was not mounted on press within a relatively short time, the image would start to fade and the plate be unusable.
This in no longer the case but myths persist despite the efforts of Fujifilm, Kodak and Agfa to demonstrate that the new generation of plates can suit pretty much all applications, UV printing included.
At the launch of Kodak’s Sonora X plate, one of the beta users explained how he had placed two plates facing each other in the same bag and subjected them to a rigorous shaking. There was just one small scratch, easily dealt with. In comparison the consequence of the same test with the previous generation of Sonora was two unusable plates.
Fujifilm’s Superia ZD is its develop on press plate which is UV compatible, joined this year by Superia LH-S2, a low chemistry plate for printers wanting a more environmentally sensitive solution than a conventional wet processed plate, but not yet ready to go to develop on press technology.
Agfa has flown the flag for the low chemistry approach with its Azura plate technology. The laser loosens the non image area which is then washed off by the action of rollers in a soapy gum solution before getting to the press.
This solution is generally disposable to the drain. Just as Fujifilm has created a similar plate to the Azura in Superia HS, so Agfa’s Azura TE has the develop on press characteristics of the Fuji Superia HD.
Now Agfa has introduced a new technology, slightly different to Azura in the Adamas plate. This is a low chemistry plate suited to UV use, particularly the rising LED UV subsector where the inks and chemistry are reckoned to be more aggressive than traditional UV. Not surprisingly this is also a plate robust enough for long runs without a preheat step. Agfa says that it will achieve runs up to 350,000 impressions.
“Azura is limited in run length and is not suited to LED UV,” says Iris Bogunovic, Agfa product manager for thermal plates. “And there is a big gap between Azura and the Elite Eco plate. Adamas fills this gap. It uses a slightly different technology to Azura, but is still an eco solution. It answers demands from those that want the eco approach with additional robustness, particularly to match the environmental story of LED UV in energy saving.
“We believe these LED UV customers will be very interested in Adamas.”
It has a slightly different coating and graining designed for fast ink water balance, thus falling also within Agfa’s Eco3 approach to creating a bundle of plate, on press chemistry and software to minimise an overall environmental (and financial) impact.
The idea was conceived ahead of Drupa and introduced at that show. It was put together with the Arkana drip through processor to minimise water use, with ink saving software and with the plate developed to achieve ink water balance in the shortest possible time. The take up has been a doubling of volume each year since, says Bogunovic.
“And our expectation is that this year we will double plate volume again. It delivers easier working and less maintenance for the press operators and the owner of the business gains a cost saving as a result. We can show from the experience we have accumulated what the benefits are going to be for a business.”
The Eco3 approach means less chemistry, less water and less waste. Importantly it means less ink is used through ink management software InkTune and PressTune. “There is greater potential for cost saving than in prepress,” says Bogunovic. ”If we can save a company 1 tonne of ink, it’s something to talk about. And it’s helping the customer achieve the consistent quality needed and getting to the first sellable sheet faster.”
InkTune is built around grey component replacement technology, refined for the 21st century and can enable ink savings of 15%, says Agfa. Each image is analysed and how elements on a sheet are treated is varied without a compromise to quality.
ColourTune takes this a step further, creating output profiles according to the press conditions and jobs. Historically, says Bogunovic, “Press manufacturers do not show any real interest in controlling the parameters of the press unlike fixing mechanical problems: consequently they like to work with us because we can bring additional value to them.”
With faster turnarounds taking hold, printing across multiple sites to minimise the distance the finished job has to travel after completion, predictable quality is of increasing importance.
Cost savings can also be achieved through adding an automated loader ahead of the platesetter releasing an operator for other value added tasks. Likewise as demand grows for shorter run jobs, there will be increasing pressure on the platesetter and the plate to keep pace with this demand. Current thermal platesetters run at around 70 plates an hour, which is within the limit of the plate speed. A 100 plates an hour system is feasible, though the 400 plates an hour that newspaper systems can achieve is currently beyond the scope of commercial printing.
Fujifilm’s ZAC processor has offered a low chemistry approach to conventional platemaking combined with the Superia LH-S2 plate. Fujifilm put together a similar approach combining its XMF workflow, pressroom chemistry and plate aimed at saving water and optimising the on press performance, explains Sean Lane, Fujifilm Europe product group manager.
This is also part of a new approach where Fujifilm will collect and recycle spent aluminium plates on behalf of printers using the Fujifilm plates. This is its PlatePresence, an initiative that has started in the UK.
“We were talking to a couple of customers at the end of last year,” says UK general manager Chris Broadhurst, “having a discussion about value. That became a conversation about the difficulties of administration, handling and waste.
“Subsequently we engaged with a couple of customers, finding we were no longer talking about the price of a plate, but the value we might provide by taking on the maintenance and servicing of equipment as a single point of reference for the plate room.”
That evolved into the service now being introduced. Those that sign up no longer need worry about unexpected service costs. Instead everything is rolled into a single point of contact.
The sharply increasing cost of aluminium has provided a useful impetus to what Fujifilm is providing. It supplies the unexposed plates and collects the spent versions, so that printers pay only for what has been used. It means a stable price for users says Broadhurst.
“There seems to be a real willingness for people to embrace this way of working,” he says. The inquiries have come in and Fujifilm will select a batch of eight or so customers to follow up with before implementing the first PlatePresence partnerships. The interest is there; without promotion at least ten companies contacted Fujifilm.
And this is about partnership. Fujifilm is removing the headache of administration, sorting out the maintenance and waste for the printer who can then focus on running the business. The interest has led Fujifilm into thinking about other areas where it might switch from selling a product to delivering value.
“One idea to explore,” says Broadhurst, “is ‘Why don’t we run the prepress department for the printing and extending from plates into managing the whole process?’
“We are already close to selling an imaged plate, we could bring everything into a single cost centre, so make the administration easier and easing the pressure on managing other aspects of the business.”
First though Fujifilm has to establish that the PlatePresence works and to perhaps get regional dealers around the country involved. And it will involve helping printers select the most suitable plate from Fujifilm’s portfolio for the printer.
The plates fall into three product categories, the develop on press plate, now the Superia ZD evolved from the ProT series, the LH-S which is positioned for higher volume users and those needing the robustness of a conventional wet processed plate, and now the LH-S2. “There was nothing in between the standard plate and the develop on press plate,” says Lane. “This fills the gap and is for companies where going completely processless is a step too far.”
The new plate requires washing in the gum solution after imaging to create the image and protect the surface of the plate. “We see it appealing to printers in two ways. There is an environmental case, and there is the financial cost of disposing of chemistry and maintaining a processor which is not there with a process free plate.
“This will also save time in production. Elimination of the processor is driving the dialogue as much as environmental reasons for going processless.” The new plate removes the processor without the perceived risks of the step up to develop on press. “People start that conversation, and ask ‘Can I go processless?’ There are so many benefits and the technology is widely accepted as a reliable process. But it is a step change. When you change anything there’s always an initial hesitation because ‘it’s not what I’m used to’, but they quickly adapt to the new conditions.
“We find that people rarely go back once they have moved to processless.” As well as improvements in the plate coatings to increase contrast and address the softness of the latent image, plate loading systems on press are improved. What used to cause concern is no longer an issue, he says.
But develop on press is not the solution for every printer. The plate is more expensive and not suited to long runs or the sort of tough on press conditions that are part of UV printing. Fujifilm has grown its team to guide and advise printers, developing skills about pressroom conditions. “About 10-15 years ago we recognised that the issues in future would be about the press rather than prepress,” says Lane, “so we quickly adapted the skill set to be press room based.
“We can recognise where a product will work for a printer and advise which way to go. This lets us go in with our eyes open knowing there are other solutions for each company.”
The Superia LH-S2 came from this – Fujifilm watching the growth of LED UV and printers needing a plate that would suit the demand for fast turnaround and the need to get the job out the door. “Europe leads in this aspect of LED UV. Printers with environmental criteria wanted a more robust plate,” he says.
The plate became generally available in April, four months after controlled trials began. “We are now getting increasing interest.”
Kodakhas stayed with the develop on press concept, improving the capability and performance of successive generations of its Sonora technology to cover more of the print landscape. Sonora X is the latest iteration and one capable of replacing a wet processed plate in every non bake plate application. The Sonora XP remains as Kodak’s standard develop on press plate, suited to the standard commercial printer running a couple of B2 presses, there is a version for newspapers and now the Sonora X for the widest spread of applications.
Kodak’s figures point to the effectiveness of the technology with double-digit increases in volumes produced and sold. To date processes plates account for 20% of Kodak’s plate business, a similar amount as its rivals it believes. But Sonora X is a significant shift on that. “This is a fundamental change,” says Brad Kruchten, before he retired from the business. “offering extra strength, extra run length and extra speed.”
“Sonora X can transform this industry,” says Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke. There was a huge testing programme before the plate was released earlier this year. It involved 111 printers, 132 presses, inks from 21 and founts from 20 suppliers. It was used on all manner of papers and materials, a vast array of applications and runs of 200,000 on newsprint and 1 million on heatset web presses. This is not a plate for the environmentally aware only who are prepared to compromise on durability to be able to position themselves at the head of an echelon of environmentally aware printers. The testing has since ben extended and Kodak has around 100 customers staying with the plate beyond the trial.
Sonora X will work in any thermal platesetter, without any special handling required and can cope with the finest screen rulings and spot sizes. The plate uses the sort of graining associated with a web offset plate, then comes the anodising layer and the Sonora layer above that. There is a new coating about which Kodak is saying little beyond that it delivers extra robustness, further run length and enhances press performance.
It remains early days for full feedback. Though customers are more than happy to talk about the impact from using the earlier generation of processless plate. One large US direct mail printer is producing 800-1,000 plates a day. The big advantage it says is removing the maintenance intense processors along with saving 1 million gallons of water a year.
Extrapolating the experiences across all Sonora users Kodak claims that Sonora has saved 2.73 million litres of chemistry and 361 million litres of water a year, which is probably on the conservative side. Then add in the amounts saved by Agfa and Fujifilm products and the environmental impact of develop on press products becomes clearer. It is not only about chemistry; it is not only about saving energy from the processor. It is also about something as intrinsically commonplace as saving water.
If climate change starts to bring water shortages in its wake, then what printers pay to use water will increase. The imperative to look at how printers produce plates and which plates they use will need further and increasingly urgent consideration.
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Fujifilm’s Superia ZD is its develop on press which is UV compatible. It has recently finished an extensive testing programme to be made generally available. It solves problems that UV printers had when using the previous generation ProT3 plates.
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The sharply increasing cost ofaluminium has provided a useful impetus to what Fujifilm is providing. It supplies the unexposed plates and collects the spent versions, so that printers pay only for what has been used. It means a stable price for users says UK general manager Chris Broadhurst.
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Azura has been the most popular chemistry-free printing plate and a mainstream product for Agfa since first introduced more than 20 years ago. Subsequent development has expanded the addressable market and led to the Azura TE as a full develop on press plate.
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Agfa says that its new low chemistry Adamas plate will achieve runs up to 350,000 impressions and will have the resilience to run on presses with UV inks and chemistry without blinding or without the printer having to remake a set of plates part way through the run.
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