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The Big Dry; Kodak sustainable water practices – magazine feature article

Thursday, 22 February 2007
By Print 21 Online Article

Australia does not need to be in the grip of drought before water scarcity demands individuals and corporations make sure they use it responsibly. The printing industry has its own challenges in developing good environmental practices and its use of water in the platemaking process has long been a source of waste and pollution. That is now about to change with the arrival of thermal processless plates.

Business decisions are rarely made in isolation from influencing social factors. Few decision makers operate solely to the bottom line when assessing their company’s options and operations. Businesses are corporate citizens with the same social responsibilities as individuals and generally more power to make a difference by their behaviour. Owners and managers are often influential members of their communities, empowered to make decisions that can have a major impact on the surrounding ecology, both social and environmental.

Kodak’s introduction of its Thermal Direct processless plate at IPEX last year proved to be the wake-up call for a dormant sense of social responsibility in the Australian graphic arts industry. In small to medium sized printing companies around the continent, the opportunity to contribute to better water practices was eagerly taken on board. Not unaware of the toll a 100-year drought was taking from their neighbours and customers, especially in regional centres, printers seized the chance to implement water saving systems.

Such was the response to the new water-saving plate, Australia is now leading the world in the adoption of Thermal Direct technology. There are more installations per head of population throughout the continent than in any comparable market. While not all adopters of the technology are motivated by ecological motives – there are plenty of self-interested reasons for getting rid of press chemistry – Thermal Direct has undoubtedly tapped into an underlying enthusiasm for ‘doing the right thing’.

High cost of water and chemical use

Conventional plate processing can be high impact part of the printing production process. The average plate processor uses 15 litres of water per minute while processing one square metre of plate. In a shop that puts through a thousand A1 plates a month, that works out at a considerable 15,000 litres per month. While the water may not be disposed of straight away – these days it is most often cleaned and recycled rather than being simply pushed down the drain – it still represents a major environmental impact.

In addition, the processing of conventional plates requires the use of chemicals that represent their own challenges in careful use and disposal. Health and safety rules, as well as stricter monitoring of waste disposal, are only going to continue with increasingly severe penalties for transgression.
As a result, for many printers, the prospect of having a ‘dry’ plate room makes perfect sense from a business as well as from an environmental point of view. Getting rid of the plate processor not only eliminates water and chemicals and the cost of disposing of them, it also produces labour savings from not having to employ an operator to monitor and clean it. In addition it frees up space in often-crowded prepress areas – not to mention the savings in actual capital costs by not having to buy the unit in the first place.

Good technology will find its place

The goal of eliminating water and chemicals from the plate developing process has been a long-term goal for the industry. With the new Kodak technology, Thermal Direct plates are imaged in any conventional thermal laser CTP platesetter and taken directly to the press. While the negative image is not as developed as that coming from conventional platesetters at this stage of the process, it is still quite readable (type to 12 pt) so that the press operator can be confident it is the correct plate. Once mounted on the press, the plate is developed when the fountain solution plus the ink tack ensure the dissolving ultra-thin coating of the non-imaged areas is transferred to the blanket, and so exits the press in the first few sheets.

Thermal Direct plates do not require rinsing, cleaning or post-imaging finishing. They are true image, mount and print plates and according to Kodak, the only ones currently available in commercial quantities to the market. According to Ross Gilberthorpe, marketing manager, GCG Kodak Australia, while there may be other plates that claim to be processless only, Thermal Direct meets the industry’s requirements.

“True processless plate technology means being able to take the plate directly from the platesetter to the press. The whole point is that it eliminates the need to rinse, or wash or whatever. Kodak has always concentrated on thermal imaging, this is our fourth generation, which has enabled us to provide the industry with the type of processless plate it wants… one that works.”

The advantage of Thermal Direct lies in the ultra-thin coating on the traditionally grained and anodized aluminum substrate. A unique polymer resin in the non-imaging area enables the coating-which is 70% thinner than photopolymer violet plates and 35% thinner than typical processed thermal plates – to lift off with no residue.

Eliminating plate processing not only removes costs and hassle from the process, it also produces a much more reliable plate. Without a processor there is no variability caused by the condition of the solution or the quality of the chemicals, by whether they have been changed and refreshed according to schedule. With processless plates, the image that is written in the platesetter is the image that is printed by the press.

The Thermal Direct process also delivers greater productivity by having a much shorter time to press. The elimination of the processor cuts the production cycle and allows more plates to be output per shift. This is especially useful in short run, quick turnaround print shops where productivity depends on being able to pump through plates when required in the shortest length of time.

Horse for courses – plates for purposes

According to Ross Gilberthorpe, the Thermal Direct combination of a better way of producing plates and being able to contribute to the environment is a winning proposal.

“If you ask most people whether they want to contribute to saving the environment they’ll say ‘yes’, but it has to make sense from a business viewpoint too,” he said. Gilberthorpe is an evangelist for what he terms Kodak’s water saving strategy. This is currently focused on the benefits of the Thermal Direct processless plate, but it also extends to water saving processes for conventional plates.

Kodak’s team of plate experts are focused on delivering the most appropriate water saving options. Most modern plate processors these days come equipped with water recovery and recycling equipment. The exact model depends on the throughput of the plate line, but all are part of the Kodak strategy aimed at cutting wasteful water use.

“Thermal Direct is not suitable for every printing process, but that doesn’t mean there are no other strategies from Kodak to minimise the use of water,” said Gilberthorpe.

Kodak CGC are bringing to market a range of water recycling products. The first generation of Thermal Direct plates are promoted as being suitable for print runs up to 100,000. While this encompasses the vast majority of jobs, it does leave a significant proportion of ultra long runs where conventional plates will be used.

“You should remember this is the first generation of Thermal Direct. There will be many more developments with the technology, expanding the range of work it will be capable of performing,” said Gliberthorpe. “But there is no doubt that it has changed the way the printing industry regards the process of plate production.”

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