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.
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.
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. …