Computer-to-Plate Systems

By Catherine Diamond, Associate Editor | April 15, 2014

Manufacturers of today’s systems are squarely focused on providing high-quality images while reducing waste and increasing productivity.

Computer-to-plate systems are an imaging technology that allows users to create an image that goes directly from a desktop publishing program to the plate. These systems were born from computer-to-film systems, and were designed to be more sustainable and efficient. Computer-to-plate systems don’t require the use of films or harsh chemicals, and offer an increase in overall print quality. By eliminating potential variants on film (dust, scratches, etc.), converters can decrease makeready time and also increase the speed at which they are able to proof an image.

Here, leading suppliers of these systems share details of their latest products for this market.

In 1995, Esko invented digital flexo with the introduction of its first Cyrel Digital Imager (CDI). Since its introduction, the system has become extremely popular.

Esko’s CDI with inline UV exposure
“Over 90% of all digital flexo plates globally are imaged on an Esko CDI,” says Ian Hole, Esko’s VP of market development. “With the CDI, trade shops are able to offer superior quality, while printers receive print consistency. All CDIs deliver a significantly extended tonal range with   smooth vignettes, exceptional highlights and shadows.”

The quality of offset and gravure printing used to be unattainable for flexo. However, with Esko HD Flexo and Esko Full HD Flexo, the company says that gap is closed. Bringing “consistency and repeatability, smooth transitions, perfect ink laydown and vibrant colors with increased print quality,” Esko says that HD Flexo and Full HD Flexo have helped raise the quality of flexo printing. These incorporate CDIs and new screening technologies.

Esko HD Flexo consists of high-resolution (4000 dpi) optics, and special screening to take advantage of the detailed imaging. It offers  trade shops and converters fine highlights, transitions to zero, sharp text and brilliant image details, which are all very important for labels and flexible packaging. A large percentage of CDI users have already upgraded to the technology and have proven that flexo quality can challenge gravure and offset quality, Esko says.

Full HD Flexo, a more recent technology, takes HD Flexo technology a step further: a patented, fully digitally controlled platemaking workflow combining the high-resolution 4000dpi imaging with an inline UV main exposure unit. The LED-array delivers UV light power strong enough to fully control the polymerization process during main exposure. For the first time, flexo plates are imaged and exposed in the CDI, and delivered directly to the plate processor. No subsequent exposure is required from an offline light frame. 

The quality and reliability of digital flexo plates are enhanced by ensuring that each square inch of the plate receives the same amount of UV light needed to fully polymerize the plate.

“It’s the only process that digitally controls the generation of a dot shape, combining highlight capabilities of HD Flexo round top dots with the solid ink lay down capability and print stability of  ‘flat top’ flexo plates,” explains Hole. “With Full HD Flexo, there is no longer a debate about round or flat top dots. A printer can have both.”

Thus, Full HD Flexo plates produce smoother, sharper images with complete 0-100 dot coverage delivering a wider color gamut, and bright gravure-like solid ink laydown. Most spot colors can be accurately matched by process color builds. In fact, Full HD Flexo users are adopting extended gamut printing with a standard set of inks, improving print quality while reducing associated costs.

“Matching the quality of offset and gravure printing has always been the goal for flexo. With HD Flexo and Full HD Flexo, many companies have been able to do just that. Full HD Flexo brings quality to label printing by delivering print consistency, highlight stability, solid shadows with no pinholes, and by reducing gear marks,” Hole says. “The best part is that Esko Full HD Flexo operates with the user’s existing CDI equipment and is supported by most major plate vendors.”

Kodak introduced its Flexcel NX System in 2008 at drupa. The introduction of high-definition flexo plate technology by Kodak dramatically increased image quality capabilities, the company says, thereby putting flexo on a much more level playing field with litho and gravure when it comes to graphic reproduction. The Flexcel NX System has driven step-change in flexography, and is designed to bring new levels of efficiency, consistency and quality to flexo printing, and has been recognized with multiple industry technology awards.

Kodak’s Flexcel NX System

The Flexcel NX System, which utilizes Kodak SquareSpot Imaging technology and dedicated Kodak flexo plate materials, won both the PIA/GATF InterTech Technology Award and the Flexographic Pre-Press Platemakers Association (FPPA) Technical Innovator of the Year Award in 2008. In 2009, it was named as the sole recipient of the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) Technical Innovation Award, and over the years, Flexcel NX System users in fields as diverse as labels, flexible packaging and cartons have captured dozens of industry awards for work produced on the system.

The platform has evolved since its launch with the introduction of imagers in a wide range of sizes, and new features to enhance plate performance, including the award-winning Kodak DigiCap NX Patterning that creates a micro surface texturization on the plate surface to improve ink transfer efficiency.

“Kodak customers are driving production efficiencies and removing the barriers to a four-color workflow implementation with the combination of the Flexcel NX System and Kodak Spotless Flexographic Solution,” the company says. “The capabilities of the Flexcel NX System enable flexo printing with not only high-definition reproduction, but also deliver the print stability, wider color gamut, and predictability required to master the four-color challenge. The Flexcel NX System enables flexo printing with high line screens (200 lpi+), high print densities and reliable, consistent quality. The solution also is ideal for the growing shrink sleeve label market, producing gravure-like quality in both UV and solvent ink applications.”

Kodak Flexcel NX Plates are designed to deliver improved quality at current print conditions, as well as cost benefits from faster setup times, plates that last longer, and the ability to print outstanding quality with fewer colors. Additionally, label printers using Flexcel NX Plates have been able to maximize output on a wide variety of paper and film substrates, with fine detail, high contrast, and an image depth that makes product photography appear to jump off the label, Kodak says.

Xeikon Prepress, a division of Xeikon International, has been manufacturing computer-to-plate equipment for a number of years. For the flexographic market, Xeikon Prepress offers digital platemaking systems under the ThermoFlexX brand name. ThermoFlexX imagers are designed to provide high-resolution plate imaging combined with flexibility and productivity.

ThermoFlexX allows efficient CtP plate production for applications ranging from labels and tags to flexible packaging, corrugated and folding cartons. Users can tailor plate output precisely to the work being produced by selecting the most suitable resolution.

Xeikon’s ThermoFlexX
ThermoFlexX offers digital imagers for efficient flexographic and letterpress CtP plate production. According to Rick Mix, channel manager for ThermoFlexX, the system is comprised of leading-edge hardware and workflow software, and the line of imagers is based upon proven technology and both open and modular digital-workflow products. He says, “ThermoFlexX enables users to consistently produce high-quality digital flexo and letterpress plates at resolutions from 2400 dpi to 5080 dpi. With this resolution, the product is technology-ready to raise the quality level of output to the new industry standards.”

For the narrow web market, Xeikon offers the ThermoFlexX 18 and ThermoFlexX 20. The ThermoFlexX 18 holds a maximum plate size of 508 x 420 mm, and offers a 2540 ppi resolution. The ThermoFlexX 20 holds a maximum plate size of 635 x 500 mm, and also offers 2540 ppi resolution, though 5080 ppi is optional. According to the company, the 5080 ppi resolution is the highest in the market, and equally 645 gray levels at 200 lpi.

Xeikon’s ThermoFlexX digital imagers provide a range of benefits, which include ergonomic plate mounting; advanced clamping design, which enables plates to be mounted directly on to the drum; uniquely designed vacuum sliders, which offer the flexibility to use plates of any width; and a hybrid drum that holds plates in place by vacuum or magnetics.

Anderson & Vreeland
Anderson & Vreeland, a supplier of materials and technological products for the flexographic industry, has a nationwide staff of technical representatives who specialize in both digital and flexographic printing. The company supplies systems for this market from manufacturers including Screen, Esko and Xeikon.

“Flexographers have unique requirements for the markets they serve so it is important to offer a wide range of CtP solutions that address their special needs,” says Lee Zerfass, A&V’s digital business manager. “Anderson & Vreeland offers a wide range of digital imaging solutions from industry leaders.”  This portfolio includes imagers producing 12x17 up to 50x80 plate sizes, resolutions that include 4000-5080dpi and optics offering effective capacity from 7.5w to 35w in narrow web, and up to 200w in wide format CtP.

Highlights of Anderson & Vreeland’s offerings for this market include:
- Screen’s PlateRite series of high-quality and reliable digital imaging recorders, which are designed to streamline processing and improves print quality for a wide range of flexo printing applications, including labels, flexible packaging, cartons and corrugated cardboard packages.

- Esko digital imagers, which feature optics with fully variable imaging resolution between 2000 and 2540 ppi via the standard optics. Esko’s HighRes optics offer fully-variable imaging resolution between 2400 and 4000 ppi in order to deliver what the company describes as significantly extended tonal range with smooth vignettes and exceptional highlights and shadows.

- Xeikon ThermoFlexX digital imagers, which utilize proven technology along with open and modular digital-workflow solutions. ThermoFlexX enables customers to consistently produce high-quality digital flexographic and letterpress plates at resolutions of 2540 or 5080 dpi.
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