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Survival of the fittest: printing industry adapts to changing times.

Faced with rising paper and postal costs, the obligation to meet recent environmental-protection regulations, and competition both from high-quality photocopiers (see previous article "Printing on Demand: A New Market Niche" by Cliff McGoon), and new electronic media such as online systems and CD-ROM drives, the printing industry has responded with an efflorescence of new technologies to help it not only survive, but prosper, in the coming years.

Chemical-free imagesetters

Ultimately, the fate of commercial printing depends on the print buyer. But some of the changes shaping the industry go almost unnoticed by consumers, buried in the internal print-production pipeline like invisible chromosomal mutations.

One such change is the ascension of the dry-process imagesetter.

In the typical print-production process of today, computer files are output as film from an imagesetter. Then the printer makes plates from the film. Then the plates are used on a standard offset press to create the final product.

The chemical-free (also called dry-processing) imagesetters change the process subtly, near the beginning of the pipeline. They have several advantages over conventional imagesetters. They use heat and light, not chemical solutions, to process film.

The cost savings are not such, however, that all printers and service bureaus are going to rush out and buy chemical-free imagesetters, cautions James Martin, worldwide director of sales and marketing for the Ultre Division of Linotype-Hell, Melville, N.Y., manufacturers of the Vision line of dry-processing image-setters. He explains that because environmental regulations vary from location to location, some companies with large capital investments in conventional imagesetters won't be motivated to embrace the new technology immediately.

But Martin also points out that, as old machines wear out, many of their replacements will be chemical-free. And he adds that Asia, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and South America -- places that do not currently have much of an investment in conventional imagesetters -- will represent a boom market for chemical-free imagesetters. He also believes that more print buyers will now purchase their own in-house imagesetters because they won't have to deal with water hookups, chemical storage and chemical disposal.

The Ultre Division of Linotype-Hell shipped its first chemical-free imagesetter in the fall of 1994. Since then, the company has sold 250 worldwide.

Film-free imagesetters

Although they are hitting the market at about the same time as chemical-free imagesetters, film-free imagesetters are an even more radical departure from conventional print prepress methods. Rather than outputting film, they output printing-press-ready plates.

These imagesetters bypass film altogether, further reducing environmental side effects such as film disposal. They also shorten production cycles and expenses by eliminating the stages wherein film is output, stripped together and made into plates.

This technology has its drawbacks, however. Sharon Kruskopf, marketing manager for Purup in the company's U.S. Office in Mendota Heights, Minn., says output from Purup's products is "nowhere near the quality of film." She says plates processed using this equipment have lower resolution than conventional plates, and that they are less able to hold dots. In other words, she warns, don't expect these plates to create pieces that will have the production quality of National Geographic magazine, annual reports or fine brochures.

Kruskopf also cautions that the plates created from Purup imagesetters are good only for short press runs, no more than 15,000 or 20,000 impressions.

Not all plate-free imagesetters have these limitations, however, according to Garron Helmen, marketing manager for Creo, which specializes in producing high-end equipment. He says Geo products are highly comparable to, and in some cases even superior to, conventional imagesetters. And, he adds, some plates can make up to one million impressions.

Both Kruskopf and Helmen agree that plate-free technology has two current drawbacks. First, it works only for jobs that are completely digital, which will present some major headaches to many of today's print buyers. For instance, most magazines still receive their ads as either camera-ready art or film which needs to be stripped together with other elements before being burned into plates.

The second problem is proofing. Print buyers have come to rely on Matchprints and other film proofs to tell them how their jobs will look before they come off the press. But without film, buyers will have to rely on digital proofs, which do not as closely approximate final products.

More than 30 Creo products are up and running in Europe and North America. "The market will keep growing," says Helmen. "It's taken off in the last year. In the next year, it will peak."

Plate-free printing presses

Things are changing so fast in the print industry that evolution sometimes seems to double up on itself. No sooner does one adaptation appear than another threatens to make it obsolete. The conventional imagesetter displaced typesetting equipment. Chemical-free imagesetters are replacing conventional imagesetters. Film-free imagesetters are replacing chemical-free imagesetters. And now plate-free printing presses are poised to make the entire imagesetter family outdated.

With the new plate-free technology, you can go right from your computer files to the printing press, in almost the same way that you can now go from your computer directly to a desktop laser printer.

Xeikon, based in Morstel, Belgium, makes a computer to press product called the DCP-1. "It's like a web Xerographic machine that prints on both sides of the paper at a quality that approaches that of offset," says Jeff Rich, director of sales for AM Multigraphics, Mount Pleasant, Ill., distributors of Xeikon products in North America.

The Xeikon plate free equipment creates pieces with a quality somewhere between what you would get from a quick printer and a high-end commercial printer, says Rich. Pieces print at a resolution of 600 dots per inch. "But it appears higher than that to the eye," adds Rich.

Again, environmental protection is a benefit of this technology. The equipment doesn't need film or plates. Rich points out that, with Xeikon's product, printers also skip ink, using toner instead. Toner, he says, requires no special disposal methods.

Unlike film free imagesetters, which are unable to give high-accuracy proofs because they are digital, plate free printing presses take advantage of the fact that they are digital to give what might be called "perfect proofs." In effect, printers and print buyers, can use finished products as proofs. Because everything is digital, it's easy to stop and start the press and make adjustments on computer files. If the print buyer doesn't like what she sees, the printer doesn't have to output new film, strip materials together or burn new plates. All he has to do is make the changes on disk and fire up the press again.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of plate-free printing presses is the flexibility they give buyers. In the past, because of all the "make-ready" time it took to get each different project prepared for the press (camera-work, imagesetter output, stripping, plate burning), it was more cost-effective for print buyers to pay for a small number of long press runs than a large number of short press runs. In consequence, print buyers were under pressure to create one-size fits-all communications, rather than developing pieces tailored for specific markets.

With plate-free presses, buyers don't have to be hamstrung in this way. They can take advantage of high-end "print on demand" methods, updating materials more frequently, avoiding the cost of printing more copies than needed to take advantage of volume discounts, and skipping the costs of storing printed pieces.

This technology also has its limitations, however. For example, toners for Xeikon products, come only in the four process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), not in any of the hundreds of Pantone colors that many art directors and print buyers have come to rely upon to give their communications visual flash. Also the equipment is best used for making 5,000 or fewer reproductions. After that point, says Rich, it would probably be more economical for buyers to use conventional offset presses.

Worldwide, about 250 plate-free presses from Xeikon/Multigraphics are being used now.

Rich predicts this brand new market will continue to grow, perhaps to the level of tens of billions of dollars in sales in the next few years.

The survival of the fittest

Through technical innovation, the printing industry has managed to increase cost effectiveness, comply with regulatory demands and the consumer preference for environmental responsibility, and even challenge photocopiers and electronic media in terms of their ability to deliver inexpensive, fast, current and customized information.

Apparently, these innovations are paying off.

The U.S. print market grew six percent in 1994 and will grow another three percent in 1995, according to Ron Davis, chief economist for the Printing Industries of America, Alexandria, Va. He expects the market to keep growing through 1996.

"Overall, the new technologies will have a positive impact on the print industry," he says. "Printers are firmly entrenched in the information distribution business. If the industry plays its cards right, we can get a new generation of printers and printing and-imaging companies."
COPYRIGHT 1995 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Heger, Kyle
Publication:Communication World
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Words:1490
Previous Article:Printing on demand: a new market niche.
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