Has processless reached critical mass?

Is Kodak right, and has the adoption of process-free printing plates reached a tipping point akin to that of CTP taking off?

When the manufacturer made this assertion last month it certainly went out of its way to cite the sort of figures that would arrest the attention of any print boss – citing potential annual savings in excess of €75,000 (£60,000) once all the various factors beyond merely ditching the plate processor are taken into account. 

This includes the cost of the processor itself, the water required, the chemicals and their disposal and management, and the power to run it. There’s also the cash tied up in inventory. 

According to Rich Rindo, general manager of worldwide graphics marketing and vice-president of its graphics, entertainment and commercial films division, alongside the obvious environmental benefits the economic gains are a way for printers to improve margins. 

Yes, process-free (or processless or chemistry-free) plates do cost more per square metre than conventional equivalents, but Kodak and indeed its peers argue that a price premium of around 15%-20% still works out as being more cost-effective for many printers once the knock-on benefits are taken into account. 

By removing the plate processor, not only is there no drawing of a short straw required when it comes to cleaning the thing out (surely nobody’s favourite job, ever), the whole department benefits. “It gets the pre-press area close to an office environment,” he states. 

Kodak is newly-enthused about the process-free plates market because it believes that its latest Sonora plate resolves the issues experienced with its earlier product in this space, Thermal Direct. Rindo describes it as a “a plate with mainstream capabilities, which can handle about 70% of overall print applications.”

Unusually, the firm even went so far as to reveal it has signed up 900 Sonora users in under a year. 

However, Kodak does not operate in a vacuum in this space, and when it comes to the big three plate manufacturers both Fujifilm and Agfa have already established significant customer bases for competing products.

“Kodak is just catching up, we had that splash some years ago,” says Agfa UK managing director Joergen Vad.

Agfa’s Azura product is not technically process-free because it uses a clean-out unit to clean and gum the plate (rather than the clean-out process taking place on-press as it does with Fujifilm’s Brillia Pro-T and Kodak’s Sonora). 

The word on the street is that Agfa has a ‘true’ process-free plate in the pipeline, possibly for release later this year, but in the meantime Vad says customers are happy with the existing product line-up, including recently launched Azura TU which handles run lengths up to 150,000. 

“There is no magic, there has to be some sort of process, whether in a clean-out unit or on press,” he states.

“In terms of square metres we are far ahead of our friends. We are on our third or fourth generation now. The trick is to make a plate with no drawbacks. One of the big drawbacks with some of the other products has been that the image on the plate is not very visible. Our customers are very busy and cannot do guess work.”

Meanwhile, Fujifilm product manager Sean Lane says a firm indication of the mainstream nature of processless plates is the fact that the firm has effectively lost count of the number of customers using it. “It’s a mainstream product so we don’t keep tabs on it in the same way. And a lot of it goes through our dealer channels,” he explains. “We are well into the hundreds of users in the UK alone.”

An even greater indication of the market acceptance, from Lane’s point of view, is that customers no longer feel the need to crawl all over the plates before purchase. “In the past if a company was going processless we would have to do trials and people would be quite cautious and need lots of reassurance. 

“Nowadays, that’s changed dramatically. They understand the technology and we don’t necessarily need to do trials.”

Of course, process-free plates aren’t suitable for every application just yet. They are unlikely to be the best solution for many UV printers, or for long-run sheetfed or web print 

This could change. Lane says it is one of Fujifilm’s main R&D areas – perhaps in five or 10 years, processless will cover all the print bases. 

In the meantime, printers looking to make efficiencies should take a close look at potential process-free benefits that go way beyond a simple price per square metre analysis. 


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