Bringing clarity to the cloudy issue of plates

Today, more than ever, printers the world over are deliberating financial decisions and pondering potential investments as they strive to survive the credit crunch and work out how to create a prime position for their businesses once the downturn in the economy swings back the other way. At the same time, they are closely examining how they can win more business and reduce day-to-day running costs. With all this on their minds, the added pressure of being ‘environment-friendly’ is perhaps not as high up the agenda as it used to be. However, tackling environmental issues often goes hand-in-hand with reducing costs, and for the enlightened, there are definite business opportunities to be gained, so the issue should remain a priority for most. Printers are in the unenviable position of trying to tackle these business issues with confusing and ambiguous guidance. Despite the fact that many suppliers have introduced solutions which help printers reduce their environmental impact, confusion still remains about what constitutes environmental best practices. To help clarify this situation, therefore, it is important that suppliers only make claims which can be substantiated with concrete evidence and clear documentation Padmakar Ojale, country general manager, Fujifilm India Pvt Ltd briefs. Padmakar Ojale In the world of pre-press, and particularly plate production, suppliers are helping printers minimise their environmental impact by reducing and sometimes eliminating the need for raw materials like water, energy and chemistry, but here, in particular, the situation is not clear. If printers are to make informed and intelligent business decisions, it is vital that they get factual information to consider.

Terminologies – what’s in a name?

Processless, non-process, develop-on-press, chemistry-free, reduced chemistry, developer-free, processed. The list of terms used to describe different plate types is almost endless, with different manufacturers employing different terms across their product ranges. It’s actually been in the last four to five years that there have been such a variety of plate technologies and related naming conventions that sit alongside ‘conventionally processed’ plates. More commonly, we seem to settle upon processless (or non-process), chemistry-free and (conventionally) processed plates. But what does each of these terms actually mean? It’s time to clarify this once for all so that printers can make intelligent business decisions that add value to their own environmental claims.

The two most clear and unambiguous terms applied to the process of plate production are ‘conventionally processed’ and ‘processless’:

Conventionally processed: Once the plate has been imaged, regardless of by which imaging technology, it is processed using chemistry in a traditional processor.

Processless: Once the plate has been imaged, it is mounted directly on the press where the removal of the plate coating takes place, something which has been cleverly integrated into the start-up operation of the press. There is complete elimination of the processor, associated chemistry, energy required to power the processor, water and waste from plate production. Even with this term, it could be argued that ‘processing’ still takes place on the press. However, the complete removal of the traditional processing step justifies its ‘processless’ naming convention, and importantly the benefits are real and quantifiable. In between these two technological extremes of plate production, there are a variety of solutions with their own advantages and disadvantages, and it is here more than anywhere, where the confusion lies.

Chemistry-free: For most plates in this category, once the plate has been imaged, it is ‘processed’ or ‘finished’ using a ‘solution’ or ‘chemistry’ in a smaller, less complex ‘processor’ or ‘finishing unit’. For one or two plates in this category, the solution used to ‘fix’ the image is water and in these cases the term ‘chemistry-free’ is appropriate. However, for the rest, there is confusion surrounding what to call the solution used to process the plate. Some argue that the solution is a ‘gum’ rather than a traditional chemical developer. The implication from the ‘chemistry-free’ naming convention is that no chemistry is involved at all. However, in nearly all cases, the solution requires what is commonly known as an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) – a legal requirement for any substance that needs advice and guidance with regards to handling. The argument about what constitutes a ‘chemistry’ can be debated at length, but these arguments miss the point. To the layman, any solution having an MSDS sheet must by default contain something hazardous and therefore naturally fall into the category of chemistry. These factors suggest that the ‘chemistry-free’ naming convention could potentially be interpreted to be misleading for some plate solutions.

In addition, it must be remembered that environmental claims are not only the responsibility of the supplier community. Printers must also be aware that once they invest in any new technology, they then shoulder the responsibility to be able to support and justify any claims that they pass on to their customers. The positive facts surrounding so-called ‘chemistry-free’ plates is that they do help printers to reduce their environmental impact as the quantity of chemistry used is much lower. This is why a new, more factual industry-standard naming convention should be introduced. Rather than the potentially misleading ‘chemistry-free’ term, a more accurate phrase like ‘low-chemistry’ would be far more appropriate.

Supporting evidence

Some supporting evidence has recently been published by independent consultant J Zarwan Partners, highlighting that a number of plates which are described as ‘chemistry-free’ actually use more chemistry than some that are classified as ‘reduced-chemistry’ or ‘low-chemistry’ solutions. John Zarwan published his report in an attempt to help printers make a more informed choice when purchasing plates, and to bring some clarity to this often confusing issue. The report analyses four main areas where plates can have an environmental effect – chemistry, energy, water, and waste - comparing the relative environmental impact of different categories of plates, as well as comparing the resources used by different plates within individual categories. If you haven’t already seen it, it’s worth a read, and the explanatory graphs make it simple to see exactly where savings can be made (http://www.johnzarwan.com/pubs/). The results may be surprising, both in terms of cost savings and reductions in chemistry.

John himself said, “While environmental consideration is only one factor in choosing a plate, it is important to be aware of the differences and the amount of chemistry and other waste involved. Even if the result is not a change in plates used, the printer can improve awareness of processes and make improvements. It is important to remember that virtually all plates work well in the correct application, and no single solution is appropriate for every printer. Plates have different characteristics on press, different run length capabilities, and may not be suitable for all applications.”

Surprising results

One surprising outcome from the report that supports the argument to re-categorise some of these plate solutions was that the combination of an ‘intelligent’ processor, which automates and carefully controls the correct delivery of chemistry and water, with the appropriate plate, actually uses less chemistry than a so-called ‘chemistry-free’ solution. Chemistry is still used, but at much lower levels, adding further support for the label ‘low-chemistry’ as a way of providing printers with clearer facts on which to base their decisions.

We all recognise that ‘non-process’ or ‘processless’ plates are the most effective plates to buy when considering the environment, as they completely eliminate the processor and chemistry (and the related manufacturing resources), and associated water, energy and waste. But, consideration needs to be given in clarifying the impact the other plate technologies have on the environment in order to complete the picture.

Where do we go from here?

Ideally, the next stage would be to perform a carbon footprint analysis of all the different plates and plate processing solutions from cradle to grave, and this is definitely the future. However, in the meantime, suppliers, printers and the industry in general have to be clear as to what is currently being claimed.

If all printing plate manufacturers were to adopt consistent and clear classifications with regards to their different plate solutions, printers would be able to make more informed decisions. At best, businesses (suppliers and printers) that adopt the term ‘chemistry-free’ are potentially misleading their customers. At worst, there is a risk they might be in contradiction of local trading laws in terms of misleading environmental claims.

We owe it to the credibility of our industry to market products in a clear, non-ambiguous way. We would therefore urge all suppliers to market their products in a more meaningful, factual way, making it absolutely clear what is involved in their use. Surely the time is right to drop the term ‘chemistry-free’ from mainstream use and we look forward to seeing the term ‘low-chemistry’ adopted in its place as the industry norm.

Group Publications