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Why Buy an Imagesetter?
May 02, 2018

Why Buy an Imagesetter?

With all the talk about the digital platesetter, the imagesetter is often overlooked. Should an investment even be made in an imagesetter when so much enthusiasm and technology are being placed in the conventional and thermal CTP direction? Does the imagesetter still remain a staple, smart investment for prepress environments poised for eventual full-tilt digital workflows?

Make no mistake.

The answer is YES.

Imagesetting systems are logical, savvy steps to make on the eventual road to a computer-to-plate environment. Today's imagesetters answer a variety of workflow questions and productivity demands, while employing high-tech automation to change the direction of a more mundane prepress environment.

Recent imagesetter launches from prepress vendors the likes of Fujifilm and Screen (USA) continue to illustrate that the very forces driving CTP prepress technologies are not exactly steering away from the ever-faithful imagesetter.

In fact, during the past year, the imagesetter market has seen nothing short of a remarkable commitment—from Agfa's Avantra family to ECRM's Mako to Purup-Eskofot's Maestro to Scitex's Dolev family. Ultre, the capstan division of Heidelberg Prepress, is continuing to launch new products as well. Heidelberg Prepress, beyond its Ultre technology, is itself focusing on the imagesetter, with strong marketing power currently going to its eight-up Signasetter and its new flagship imagesetter for the four-up market, the Herkules Elite with Delta-Technology 4.2.

Why? Quite simply, while direct-to technologies are rapidly increasing in popularity and implementation, there are and will continue to be significant numbers of commercial printing operations for which CTP and direct-to-press are not yet cost-effective, realistic options. Despite all the hoopla about the dissolution of film in commercial printing, there is still a healthy number of printers that rely on film imagesetters—and plan to remain loyal to these output devices for the next several years.

For these printers, the mission is to produce high-quality work with imagesetting devices that offer speed, strong RIPs, flexibility and a host of hot button trends, ranging from Adobe PostScript Level 2 and Level 3 compatibility and Adobe PDF support to a plethora of eight-up output options.

"Imagesetter sales were supposed to be close to nothing by now, if we were to listen to futuristic expectations touted at DRUPA years ago," states Stan Najmr, product line marketing manager at Scitex America. "Today, Scitex is selling more eight-up imagesetters than ever, plus launching new imagesetting enhancements."

For example, Scitex's new Dolev 800V for securities printing created quite a bit of interest at trade shows both nationally and internationally this fall. The entire Dolev imagesetter family allows users to start with a straight PostScript workflow using Macintosh front ends, or users can select the Scitex Brisque, which delivers output in PostScript, TIFF, TIFF/IT-P1, PDF and more.

The Dolev 800V imagesetter connects to a high-productivity hub. This hub works as an automated production line, driving the imagesetter, contract proofing device, digital blueline proofer—all the while RIPing, trapping and imposing. This hub represents a radical change in prepress production.

"Scitex has a unique program in place. Because our workflow is open and well-integrated into any configuration, printers can start with Brisque, get the feel for output potential, automation and added capacities and then, after they get the feel for a digital workflow, decide if their next step is an investment in a platesetter or digital press," Najmr explains. He notes that an imagesetter prepares an entire enterprise for digital data handling, making the eventual switch to a traditional or even thermal platesetter little more than a simple box installation.

"Financially, this is a better proposition than purchasing a platesetter with inadequate front-end and server capabilities," Najmr contends. "In such an unfortunate scenario, a commercial printer may end up with multiple, different RIPs, each interpreting PostScript in its own way—then there is no quality control and the press becomes a proofing tool, which is the absolute last thing a printer needs."

In a perfect world, commercial printers may opt to go directly to CTP, passing over the imagesetter in a quest for high digital prepress productivity.

But in an environment that is harsh, cruel and unforgiving (just ask your toughest customer!), most commercial printers are finding the prudent move to all-digital prepress horizons starts with an imagesetter investment.

Screen's latest imagesetter effort is a new line of high-end output devices called Katana. The Katana 5040 is able to image on media up to 16˝ with a maximum imaging width of 15.7˝. The Katana 5055 can image on media up to 24˝, with a maximum imaging width of 21.7˝. The larger image area caters to the full-size film imaging of most B2 press formats and single-page broadsheet newspaper formats.

Katana imagesetters can be equipped with a choice of RIPs, including Screen's Taiga, which RIPS, traps, imposes, offers OPI and allows the user to edit the file without going back to the desktop, providing digital integrity throughout the workflow. Other RIPS that also interface with the Katana include Harlequin's ScriptWorks-based RIPs and PowerMac-based Adobe PostScript 3 RIPs.

"The imagesetter market is obviously growing. We're seeing tremendous activity in the eight-up format, which is obviously opening up new opportunities for commercial printing operations," reports Phil Kane, vice president of sales at Screen (USA). To date, Screen has an OEM agreement with Fujifilm on the Katana imagesetter for distribution to the U.S. market.

Turning to capstan initiatives at ECRM, the company recently introduced its new wide-format imagesetter called StingRay. Available in two versions, the StingRay 6300 has a 25˝ quality imaging width and the StingRay 5200, which is field upgradeable, has a 20.5˝ width. The 6300's width enables it to produce eight-up impositions for commercial printers or double-truck pages for newspapers. Both image to film, paper or polyester plates.

Key features of the StingRay include ECRM's patented lazy loop entry system, which assures precise imaging, a built-in buffer, and optional head and tail punches. Capable of achieving speeds of up to 32˝ per minute and line screens of 200 lpi, the imagesetter offers 12 resolutions ranging from 1,000 dpi to 3,556 dpi.

"The StingRay competes directly in a market previously served only by drum-based imagesetters," reveals Ken Hurtubise, ECRM's vice president of marketing. "For years, drums were thought to be the winners in the race to deliver high quality. However, of the devices introduced most recently, there have been more capstans than drum machines—and there have been significant breakthroughs with those capstan devices in quality and speed."

Hurtubise may have a point. At IPEX in September and GRAPH EXPO in Chicago last month, the industry noticed a trend toward more cost-effective capstan devices, with many of the significant new wide-format imagesetter launches being capstan machines, not drums.

"We see the wide-format area as a growing market, if the results of IPEX are any indication," Hurtubise contends. "And, while CTP is no doubt an emerging market that has made significant progress over the last couple of years, there are still more applications going direct-to-film than plate. Most customers want to get it right on film first."

Good news for the imagesetter!

"These days, most printers receive jobs in a variety of formats, from full digital files to camera-ready copy. Using film from imagesetters is a tried and trusted production technique, with a low capital investment," agrees Nick Haddon, director of marketing for printing products at Cymbolic Sciences. "It's still difficult for the average printer to completely eliminate film from its prepress department, so that's why we're providing for large-format film output on all of our CTP units. This enables a printer to have the flexibility of film for conventional production and CTP for those fully digital jobs."

Here's a closer look at more current imagesetter initiatives—many targeted at the growing capstan market—which will secure that film output remains an integral part of prepress for quite some time.

Agfa is expanding its Avantra line of high-quality internal-drum imagesetters with the new high speed Avantra 44XT eight-up device, which Agfa reports is 50 percent faster than the Avantra 44S and more than 100 percent faster than the original Avantra 44. The Avantra 44XT joins the 44.5x36˝ Avantra 44S and the economy Avantra 44E.

For four-up requirements, Agfa's 25x30˝ Avantra 30 and Avantra 30E fit even Speedmaster 74 DI and MAN Roland 300 size requirements for computer-to-imposed plate-ready film workflows.

Agfa's 18x25˝ Avantra 25 family rounds out its internal drum portfolio with the AV25E, AV25S and AV25XT models, the latter boasting a 45,000 rpm spin motor for more than 80 newspaper pages per hour throughput at 900 dpi.

"In light of all the attention paid this year to computer-to-plate, we are seeing above-budget activity for Avantra 30 sales, and phenomenally high sales of Avantra 44s this year," reports Steve Musselman, Agfa's marketing manager for CTP and Apogee workflow systems. "With Agfa's ability to prepare the customer for CTP, the market is taking us up on our offer to install a four- or eight-up Avantra large-format imagesetter along with our Apogee computer-to workflow, in order to pave the way for a seamless upgrade to Agfa's Galileo digital platesetter."

On the horizon, expect to see a whole new line of Agfa-developed imagesetters next year that will complement the company's AccuSet and Avantra lines, according to Agfa's Peter Kushnieruk, product marketing manager for imagesetters. At present, the AccuSet series, with its 14˝ AccuSet 800, 1000 and 1500 line of capstan imagesetters, is appealing to the narrow-web flexo market.

The fully automated MegaSetter ultra-large-format imagesetter from BARCO Graphics features an output area of 47.5x63.4˝, as well as BARCO's Fast-RIP technology and Adobe PostScript compatibility. BARCO's GigaSetter features an output image area of 96.5x63.5˝.

Cymbolic Sciences' LIGHTJET 2000 plots an 8x10˝ image at 2,032 dpi on transparency or negative film in 10 minutes. LIGHTJET 2000's input/output cassettes hold 20 sheets of film up to 11x14˝. FIRESETTER creates color separations and composite film up to 27x37˝ at 2,000 dpi or 4,000 dpi.

At Fujifilm, the Celix 4000 Mark II—a four-page, internal drum imagesetter featuring an advanced film handling system that boosts throughput speed by 20 percent over its predecessor—is getting much marketing attention. Five standard output resolutions range from 1,219 dpi to 4,876 dpi to accommodate a number of output screens up to 600 lpi. The unit also features a substantially larger maximum imaging area of 29.9x24.7˝ and various RIPing options, including: Fujifilm's CelebraNT v2.0 with Adobe PostScript 3, Fujifilm HQ-NT RIP and the Rampage RIPing System.

Heidelberg Prepress offers the eight-up Signasetter for complete signature output. Signasetter features DeltaTechnology, which includes trapping, print spooling and OPI capabilities, as well as Delta-List imposition.

Heidelberg Prepress also puts strong enthusiasm behind its new Herkules Elite four-up imagesetter, as well as the four-up Herkules Basic drum imagesetter, both featuring the Delta RIP.

Ultre offers UltreVISION laser diode-based imagesetting technology, which supports visible red film, as well as dry film. The Ultre 5800 extends out to a full 18.12˝, permitting output of spread-size pages and fully imposed, four-up flats.

PrePRESS Solutions has moved up market with the PantherPro/62 imagesetter. What prompted PrePRESS' development of a 24.625˝ wide capstan device?

"Users in several markets asked us to develop imagesetting and platesetting solutions for multiple-page output with high-throughput specifications similar to the successful PantherPro and PantherPro/46 HS systems, as an alternative to the much less productive and much more expensive drum imagesetters that previously offered the only solution in this larger format arena," explains David McGahey, manager of market development.

If shopping for an imagesetter is on your agenda, keep in mind eight-up models are the hot tickets—as are high quality capstan machines incorporating support for Adobe's PostScript Level 2, Level 3 and PDF. There also still seems to be an interest in dry film imagesetters, the likes of ECRM's Mako Oasis, the DrySetter from Heidelberg Prepress, Scitex's Dolev 2dry and Screen's Mojave, but the dry film enthusiasm of last year seems to have faded a bit, in lieu of support for the wide-format fervor.