Processless is getting the chemistry right

By Simon Creasey, Monday 01 October 2018

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Back in 2015, PrintWeek posed the question: Has processless become the new normal? The answer at the time was not quite, but it’s getting there.

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Many experts expected the tipping point to be reached shortly with adoption rates of processless technology projected to continue to rise rapidly as the quality and robustness of processless plates increased and the cost decreased.

Three years down the line, with the price of plates soaring thanks to the spiraling cost of aluminium, has that tipping point finally been reached? And – if it has –is there any need for conventional processed plates anymore? 

It’s fair to say that when processless plate technology was initially introduced in the early 2000s the reception was lukewarm. Many people felt the quality wasn’t up to scratch and the plates were not suitable for long run lengths. As a result take-up of processless, chemistry-free and low-chemistry plates was sluggish. But over the past decade or so adoption rates have accelerated as attitudes towards processless technology has changed radically.

This attitudinal shift has been driven by a series of different factors, according to Mark Graves, UK and international sales director at UK Euroconnect. 

“With a processed plate you had to purchase the chemicals for starters then you had a bath with a lot of chemicals in it that needed to be removed, so the cost of waste was a big factor,” says Graves. “Then you have the space issue. A CTP unit with an online bridge to a processor is three times the footprint of a CTP unit with a plate-stacker. Finally, in the UK now you really don’t have many people doing massively long run lengths so they don’t need processed plates.”

Growing trend

As a result of this combination of factors the adoption of processless has continued to rise. According to estimates from Kodak, around 10 years ago worldwide ‘process-free’ (which includes chemistry-free) accounted for around 5%-6% of sales and in Europe that figure was around 7%-9%. Today the company estimates that globally that figure stands at around 10%-15% and in the UK and Ireland it’s closer to the 15%-20% mark (including chemistry-free). 

Agfa comes up with a slightly different number. The company says it makes a distinction between processless plates – plates that are processed on the printing press; chemistry-free plates, which are plates that are cleaned by means of a gum; and conventional plates, which are processed by means of a high pH developer.

“Our estimation is that the global market for digital plates [this is not Agfa’s figure, but the figure for the global market] is split into 80% conventional plates, 15% chemistry-free plates and 5% processless plates,” says Guy Desmet, head of prepress marketing at Agfa Graphics. “For the UK, we estimate 50% conventional, 40%-45% chemistry-free and 5%-10% processless.”

Whichever way you dice the numbers it’s clear that take-up of processless and chemistry-free plate technology, particularly in Western markets, has risen sharply.

So is there sufficient demand from the rest of the market for conventional plates to justify manufacturers continuing to make them? Adrian Shuttleworth, worldwide product manager for Kodak’s Sonora process-free plates, says the need or demand for conventional [analogue] processed plates is “negligible in Western Europe, North America and Japan, [and is] declining in emerging markets”.

Conversely, Agfa says that there is still strong demand for conventional [CTP] plates as it believes processless technology cannot currently be used in all print segments. 

“Especially in segments where high run lengths are required – heatset web for magazine printing or coldset web for newspaper printing – processless plates have a major drawback over conventional and chem-free plates,” says Desmet. “The trend towards UV and low-power curing UV for commercial printing [also] gives processless plates a hard time. The compatibility is very much ink dependent and run lengths are drastically reduced – for some plate-ink combinations even reduced to none.”

He adds that processless plates also produce a higher number of wasted sheets before getting to sellable print, which is a major drawback for short run work given the high price of paper. In addition, the plate image contrast and daylight resistance of most processless plates is still a major mental hurdle for some customers.

“Processless plates typically need a dedicated way of starting up the printing press, which is not liked by the operators – the coating needs to be removed by the ink and/or fountain, and stays on the paper or somewhere in the printing press or pollutes the fount solution,” explains Desmet. “All of these factors are the reason why today the majority of the printing plates sold are still conventionally processed plates, or chem-free plates, as chem-free plates do not show these drawbacks.”

Despite these drawbacks sales figures provided by manufacturers show the general market trend is processless plate technology is on the rise and conventional plates are decreasing. 

Emerging markets

Even in some of the emerging markets, where conventional still holds sway and waste regulations are not as onerous as they are in the West, users are starting to consider switching to processless. “A lot of African markets are looking at Sonora and other similar technology because the price is coming down,” says Graves.

Shuttleworth adds his company sees “opportunities for process free in emerging markets as they migrate from both conventional analogue and processed digital CTP plates, because the benefits are just as evident and compelling there, as in the developed markets”.

And Agfa’s Desmet says the company continues to innovate on digital printing plates and has identified several opportunities where it can create value for its customers, both in the emerging markets and in the more established Western markets. 

“For the Asian market, we recently launched a chem-free plate that is resistant to the harsh pressroom chemicals that are used in this market. Processless plates cannot survive in that market,” he explains. “For the Western market, our Azura chem-free and our Energy Elite Eco, which is conventionally processed, but due to the very low amount of chemicals used and low amount of waste generated, can be classified as ‘low-chem’, are very successful products. The latitude and the stability of both plate systems, and the savings realised with Agfa’s ECO³ programme, create a value for the customer that goes beyond the savings from processless plates, which are limited to the prepress area – no processor/no liquid.”

All of the leading plate manufacturers say they continue to invest in innovation and are bringing new plate technology to market, whether that be in the conventional plate or processless/chemistry-free area. Just earlier this year Fujifilm launched the Superia LH-S2 low-chemistry plate that only requires a one-stage gum clean out, Agfa launched the new Adamas plate which offers all the benefits of chem-free, but has added robustness (according to Agfa) and Kodak unveiled its new Sonora X plate that it claims offers longer run lengths, faster imaging and more robust handling capabilities than other process-free plates. 

As for the future direction of travel, although Graves admits it’s difficult to predict with any accuracy or clarity where plate development trends are heading, he thinks we may ultimately reach a situation where we don’t even need plates. 

“Miracle Plates are just coming out which are uncoated aluminium,” he says. “The patents are in, but they probably won’t come to market for another three to four years – unless one of the big manufacturers buys them and stops them coming to market. Then you have the new breed of sheetfed inkjet presses from various manufacturers, which don’t use a plate at all.”

Unless a game changing technology comes along that’s capable of eradicating the need for plates entirely he thinks the most likely scenario is that at some point in the not too distant future “somebody will bring out a fully processless plate that does a 150,000 run length. When they do that then you can kiss goodbye to all the others,” adds Graves, who believes that processless technology will win out in the end.

Shuttleworth agrees. He says that “100% of the market” will switch to processless technology eventually. However, Chris Broadhurst, general manager, Fujifilm Graphic Systems UK isn’t so sure. 

“I think we are still some way off moving all business to processless,” says Broadhurst. “Whilst it is clear that processless plates are now much more accepted and usage is continuing to grow, there are still a number of applications that will suit process plates. This will change over time, but I would suggest total market usage to be some way off.”

And although Desmet sees a bright future for processless, like Broadhurst he says it’s important to draw a distinction between some of the limitations that are currently associated with processless technology and chemistry-free. 

“Chem-free plates can today cover almost all of the newspaper work and can cover most of the commercial work, with the exception of the very high run lengths that are required in heatset,” he explains. “The processless technology is today not there. All of the major players are working on improvements for their processless plates, but there is still a way to go and there are a number of major hurdles to take, in order to let processless plates become more successful.”

It’s only when these hurdles have been overcome that processless will finally reach that long awaited tipping point. 

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