The State of Computer-to-Plate Technologies for Flexography

Computer-to-plate technologies have been in place for well over a decade. Although the landscape might suggest the market for CTP imagers has matured, there are several driving factors pushing the technology even further making the investment in CTP beneficial.

What we know today is CTP is a proven technology. Worldwide, the number of Flexo CTP devices installed is about 3000. Even with the advances in digital presses, CTP remains a part of the manufacturing process and for good reason. Manufacturers like Esko, Screen, Xeikon, Luscher, and Stork are pushing the limits to make our production lives better.

Why CTP?  Because you can reduce make-ready and waste, reducing raw material, labor, and resources to create the same job. When you add workflow, you improve the consistency and speed of how jobs are prepped for the press. And for higher volume environments, a workflow expedites the time to press, regardless of the operator’s experience level. Then, add the benefit of High-Resolution Imaging for instance, and the quality of the job is improved creating a distinction from the competition.

More brand owners are demanding CTP as part of their requirements to capture business. By having a CTP offering, they have the confidence plates going to the pressroom are repeatable, certainly more so then film-produced plates. In contrast, we are seeing film imagesetters becoming less relevant.

Once the decision is made to go CTP or to expand the CTP offering, you should put everything into context. The easiest analogy to use when selecting a CTP solution is “it’s about fit”, ideally the perfect fit. There are no two converters the same. Everyone’s environment is different, with different stages of Digital Front Ends (DFE), different combinations of presses, applications, etc. As a reseller, it’s critical we understand this and provide best of class solutions by matching customers with the appropriate manufacturer’s products.

From a hardware standpoint, imagers have different capabilities, but the end product remains the same across all platforms – an ablated plate ready for press. This chart of computer-to-plate manufacturers provides an at-a-glance summary of features and benefits.

CTP Chart

Let’s break down the differences in application based on the mechanical merits of the CTP devices.

Magnetic drums. With a magnetic drum, the plate “sticks” to the drum via magnetics and does not require any special handling to be successfully imaged. You can also add pin systems that allow for easier registration on press by punching the plates prior to imaging.

Imaging Resolution. Looking to attract new customers with better quality output? Industry-standard resolutions offered are 2400 and 2540dpi. Then there is High Resolution or High Definition that use 4000, 4800, and 5080dpi. For security printing, there are even resolutions up to 8000dpi for notes, bonds, and micro-printing applications.

If your looking for better print quality, higher resolution is certainly an option to explore with all of the offerings and the results are immediate. One nice benefit for existing CTP installations is that imagers can be upgraded in the field with high-resolution packages to protect your initial capital investment.

Speed. Speed is directly influenced by the wattage of the laser. For simplicity’s sake, the higher the wattage of a laser, the faster the imaging drum rotates while ablating the carbon mask of the polymer plate material.

Capacity is what determines speed. If production requirements demand up to 8 cases of 25×30 polymer a month, slower lasers will meet the demand. Higher volumes or the need for high resolution requires higher wattage lasers. For corrugated shops that work with large 50”x80” polymer plate material every day, all day, this can be a huge advantage to making deliveries while impacting labor costs positively.

Efficiencies. Since the CTP market has reached maturity, manufacturers are bringing some fantastic innovations addressing productivity, efficiencies, and plate handling. Esko continues to build on its UV Inline applications that allow the plate to be ablated all the while an LED exposure head follows creating the face exposure.

There are semi and fully automatic plate handling solutions offering efficiencies for mid-to-wide web applications including the back, face, and germicidal exposures. Plate handling tables that load and unload the plates into the CTP imager like Xeikon’s Gen2 devices, make plate handling much easier. Inline/carwash type solutions are also available where the plate exits the CTP device into post-exposure then washout.

There are solutions that pass air over the optics to keep carbon/dust from settling onto the lenses and mirrors. Vacuum zone control is gaining popularity to make imaging easier and faster for partial plates. Smartphone and tablet applications are being developed to monitor the progress of plate imaging while the operator is performing other tasks. Lastly, reporting capabilities are being built into the software reporting back to the ERP systems to manage the data, material, billing, and shipping specifics.

Digital Front Ends. DFE’s are where we see equally exciting advanced technologies. Today, we can offer an ERP system that delivers jobs through automation from a web storefront to customer service. Triggers can be placed to send out soft proofs to customers, passed onto prepress with S&R instructions that then get imaged on the CTP devices. You can also drive advanced laser finishing solutions with the same file, add shipping costs, and archive the jobs all the while reporting back to the ERP throughout the process. Screen CTP Solutions include workflow and high resolution already in the purchase price, while rival manufacturers have a more comprehensive a la carte offering for workflow.

We will continue to see significant contributions in innovation coming from CTP device manufacturers. Customers can pick and choose the options that impact their business the most, making our lives easier, more productive, and driving better profitability.

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