Production: Do ‘Processless Plates’ Fit into Your Pressroom Operation?

In order to be successful in our industry, we need to be innovative, seek new and improved ways to streamline production, and explore options that save money and improve the bottom line. I believe processless plates may be an important part of meeting that goal.

I started out curious what a plate that needs no processing is referred to as. I posed this question to a few well-regarded plate manufacturers and was told that while there is no industry definition for processless plates, there is at least a common thread between manufacturers referring to their products as true (or truly) processless.

Some key players of the processless plate movement in the newspaper industry are Fujifilm with the Superia Ecomaxx-TN, Southern Lithoplate’s Liberty NXP, Kodak with the Sonora plate, and Anocoil with their Verti plate. I have either used or tested all four on press and have found all to perform well under similar conditions.

If you’re evaluating how processless plates fit into your shop, your main questions should be “Why switch? What are the advantages of processless plates verses conventional/wipe-on plates, and why should you consider changing from conventional plates to processless plates?”

The Economic Advantages

There are several advantages in this area.

Labor Savings: For those of you who have ever cleaned a processor, you know what I’m talking about. Removing rollers, cleaning rollers and scrubbing trays all takes time. Add to that the time spent mixing chemicals, filling jugs, etc. With processless plates, this time and effort is a thing of the past, allowing prepress or press employees to direct their efforts to other areas of the operation.

From a manager’s perspective, there is also the opportunity to reduce payroll hours. Depending on how many processors you have and how much time is spent on each, the savings can be significant.

Processor Parts & Maintenance: More labor savings can be found here. The time spent maintaining processor gears, refurbishing rollers, repairing hoses and general routine service can be costly. In addition, the hard costs of replacing rollers, gears, electronics and miscellaneous processor parts can add up. Not to mention the time spent performing these repairs and lost production as the result of breakdowns.

Obviously the fact that processless plates bypass the processor allowing plates to go directly to press after imaging eliminates these expenses.

Utilities: If you’ve ever tracked wash water usage through a processor you can appreciate the savings here. Many processors are set-up with a constant flow of wash water in the rinse tray. The cost for this water and the environmental effect is huge.

Electric is another significant expense. Processors constantly use electricity; eliminating this consumable is savings that falls directly to the bottom line. Also, depending on the type of processor you have most blow quite a bit of heat into the room which can result in additional air conditioning needs or ventilation of the area.

Raw Materials: If you’re still using conventional plates, take a look at your monthly chemical expense. Enough said?

Environmental/Compliance Issues: In the big picture, we owe it to our communities and our planet to minimize water pollution by controlling/eliminating the disposal of effluent from our wastewater. In addition to the savings previously mentioned, unless you enjoy the occasional OSHA visit to review your chemical inventory and disposal procedures, this is one area that presents a clear advantage for the use of processless plates.

Of course there are two sides to every story. Processless plates are subject to ablation, a term used to describe the partial removal of surface coating by a laser resulting in the release of particulate into the air. Most CTP units will either be vented outside or internally filtered to keep this particulate from being released into the room air. If your machine has a filter, it is important to keep up on maintenance; most vendors include filter maintenance as part of their service agreement.

Process Quality: If you’re still using an analog/film based workflow then you’re well aware of the challenges.

Variations caused by chemical or mechanical anomalies within processors can adversely affect quality throughout the process. The digital advantage of direct exposure and CTP technology direct to press eliminates many of the potential quality challenges that exist in analog/film to plate processes.

Processless plates are capable of 2400 dpi, with tone reproduction that is more than acceptable for both the newspaper and commercial printing markets.

An operator loads plates into a Trendsetter. It’s important that each slipsheet is removed as plates are loaded to prevent issues with your CTP equipment. (Photo by Jerry Simpkins)
An operator loads plates into a Trendsetter. It’s important that each slipsheet is removed as plates are loaded to prevent issues with your CTP equipment. (Photo by Jerry Simpkins)

Other Features of Processless Plates

Whether you consider these advantages or disadvantages can depend on your particular situation, so I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide.

Exposure Time: One plate manufacturer I spoke with explained that laser exposure of processless plates on CTP equipment ranges from 110 to 260-270 millijewels; after I wiped the look of total confusion off my face, I quickly asked for a more simplistic explanation.

The basics of exposure times are: when compared to conventional plates in the CTP process exposure times for processless plates can take “slightly longer,” but not enough to affect production. More so, exposure time depends on sensitivity of the plate and the equipment/platemaker-laser being used.

Run Length: I have found run-lengths for processless plates to be similar to conventional plates. One plate vendor I spoke with stated that for the most part between 100 and 200,000 impressions fills 90 percent of the needs in the newspaper industry.

Most vendors offer standardized processless plates, unlike many years ago when depending on your needs, there were short run plates at a lesser price or longer run plates which obviously cost more.

Of course it’s important to realize that there are many variables in the printing process; paper, ink, chemistry and the press itself are but a few things that can affect run length.

Plate Pricing: Let’s be honest, for most of us, plate cost can be one of our main concerns. I personally believe that for many of the reasons previously detailed; cost savings throughout the process, environmental advantages, possible print quality advances, that there has been a massive movement to processless plates in our industry, and as a result, this has stabilized prices on the lower end to make the net cost of processless plates comparable or slightly better than conventional plates. Take into account the various savings points previously outlined in this article and you can make up your own mind. I throw the net cost advantage to processless plates.

Start-up Paper Waste: I’ve worked with both process and processless plates and I was not easily convinced that processless plates could match conventional plate start-up waste on press.

To me, this was a major concern. With conventional plates, the image transfers almost immediately on start-up; with processless plates “the press is the processor” removing material from the plate surface and depositing it into the water pans.

Each plate (manufacturer) has a different level of water solubility. The typical process on press is wetting of the plate in the fountain to soften the coating, which begins the process in unexposed non-image areas on press losing adhesion of the coating. At this point, the tack of the ink completes the process transferring loosened material to the blanket and onto the paper which expels as “normal start-up waste.”

Throughout the testing of four different processless plate products, all vendors I posed the question of increased start-up waste to unanimously and unconditionally replied “no.” One vendor went the extra step and answered “No, if you follow manufacturer recommendations for start-up, make ready processes will clean up just about as fast as conventional;” this made the most sense to me, so I monitored our start-up procedures and must say they were right.

When you start-up your press, I’m betting your color balance and registration needs a little tweaking. The copies needed to achieve a clean sheet can be as few 50 copies; clean-up on processless plates I’ve found to be very short. Even with presets, if you can clean-up, achieve acceptable color registration and set your color on press within 50 copies please send along your secret.

This early in the start-up most of us are at the mercy of registration, ink/density settings, color balance, keying in the press and basic ink and water balance. I’ve found that by the time you have hit 50 copies  you’re still dialing things in, and I’m convinced processless verses conventional plates doesn’t make a bit of difference on start-up waste.

Although start-up waste is comparable, there is a challenge with processless plates.  Conventional plates deposit their waste in the processor and it is expelled with the waste/rinse water in your processor. Unfortunately with processless plates because your water train acts as the “processor” coating off the plate is deposited in the water pans adding to the frequency your pans will have to be cleaned.

Visible Image: I found one of the biggest challenges of processless plates to be the lack of an easily viewable visible image. In other words, the image on processless plates after exposure is faint and very hard to read verses the good solid visual image of a conventional plate. This can make it difficult for press operators to identify slug lines for CMYK on the plate as well as seeing errors on the plates that are more identifiable on conventional plates.

Light Sensitivity: Another challenge can be extended periods of exposure to white light. Processed and gummed conventional plates are fairly stable; whereas in my opinion, processless plates can be more sensitive to white light. This really isn’t a disadvantage in most newspaper environments; we normally push plates through the process and start runs shortly after imaging plates.

Direct sunlight from any windows you may have in your pressroom can be problem. Depending on the intensity of white light or sunlight, processless plates can develop issues affecting make-ready and increasing the time necessary for clean-up in a few hours of sitting out.

Unless you’re going to let plates sit in a bright white light for extended periods of time you won’t have a problem.

Slip Sheets: I’ve worked with CTP units that have automatic slip sheet removal as well as those in which the operator has to physically remove each sheet as they load plates. Either way it’s a pain.

We’ve all had that random slip sheet that gets pulled into our CTP unit and gums up the works. I’ve experienced fried slip sheets and slip sheets wrapped around rollers; it isn’t fun.

Slip sheets are intended to protect plates in the shipping process. At least one vendor I know of firmly believes they have perfected the shipping process and offers plates without slip sheets. I haven’t tried this option yet but I’m sure interested.

After being imaged the Computer-To-Plate unit drops, the faintly imaged processless plate, which is bent and locked up on press to be developed. (Photo by Jerry Simpkins)
After being imaged the Computer-To-Plate unit drops, the faintly imaged processless plate, which is bent and locked up on press to be developed. (Photo by Jerry Simpkins)

Some General Views

I asked vendors if the market would ever be all processless and how much longer they see conventional plates being available and got some mixed answers. I was told that conventional plates are becoming less and less prevalent in the newspaper market and that in five years processless plates could “own the newspaper market.”

While it seems that newspapers have adapted well to processless plates, upon further discussion with vendors, many believe it is likely there will be multiple options and technology in the market for some time to come depending on the specific wants and needs of the consumer. The commercial print market and newspaper market seem to vary greatly.

I also questioned vendors as to why it took so long for processless plates to come into the newspaper market. The following responses were provided by various vendors.

I’m told that as far back as 1998 3M processless plates existed as an analog process requiring exposure of film to plate. Throughout the years others have followed but as one vendor told me, they feel acceptance in the newspaper industry was slowed due to resistance from press operators. Vendors felt that processless plates seemed well “ahead of their time,” but newspapers didn’t agree.

Another vendor echoed this by stating that “because this technology represents such a paradigm shift for users, the adoption rate has been relatively slow. Had there been a more stringent external environmental force the adoption rate would have been much faster.”

Plate companies seem to agree that despite early lukewarm acceptance of processless plates in our industry, we’ve now seen the light and driven by improvements in speed/updated laser devices, improved pricing, quality and many other advances in processless plates that the time has now come for a plate like this. I would have to agree.

Jerry Simpkins

 

Jerry Simpkins is the general manager at Hi-Desert Publishing in Yucca Valley, Calif. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at simpkins@tds.net.

 

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