Thermal plate processing is not a new technology—the original process for developing photopolymer plates using heat and an absorbent material was patented nearly 20 years ago. But as time passes, technologies, processes and products improve. Problems that plagued early thermal processors may have been addressed, but improvements in other parts of the plate making process have introduced new demands that also require improvements.
It is also worth noting that, in recent years, the number of thermal plate processors on the market has increased dramatically. This means a greater number of options for potential buyers, but it also complicates the decision-making process.
By this point, most plate makers are familiar with the concept of thermal plate making, and the general advantages and disadvantages of that process over more traditional systems (specifically solvent- and water-washable plates). There are, however, some important differences between the systems currently on the market. With that in mind, for those who are considering a move to thermal processing, or for those who are looking to upgrade their existing thermal processor, here are eight important questions to ask or concerns for your prospective thermal system vendors.
Maximum Processed Plate Size
Some new presses on the market need unusual-sized plates, such as a 65-in. width. While a large 50-in. by 80-in. sheet accommodates this size, there is a considerable amount of waste. And processing sheets that large requires the largest-format thermal processor available and necessitates a larger amount of available floor space, potentially without any added benefit other than the ability to process plates that are only slightly larger than the next-smaller thermal processor (42-in. by 60-in.).
Admittedly, that is a very specific example. However, the key point to take from this question is to consider common finished plate sizes, sheet sizes and processor capacity carefully—you may find a better option with one thermal processor over another!
As a follow-up to this question, consider how scalable thermal processors are—that is, the minimum and maximum plates sizes, the corresponding floor space requirement and other factors, such as available sizes of consumables. If you’re thinking about increasing your maximum sheet size down the road, there may be a benefit to considering that expansion while looking at thermal processors, especially if there is a negligible difference in footprint between the right size currently and a larger-sized unit.
Is Auxiliary Equipment Required for the Plate Processor?
Additional equipment, like condensers, chillers or filtration systems, may add to the processor’s footprint. While this may not be a big deal for some users, those with limited floor space will want to keep this in mind. Also, some of these auxiliary devices will require additional maintenance and upkeep, which, in turn, may increase downtime on the processor, affecting plate making productivity.
Another factor to consider with additional/auxiliary equipment is energy consumption. A device that is constantly running may increase the total cost of operation in terms of energy usage.
How Much Do Developer Rolls Weigh?
Next to the plate material, thermal developer rolls (also known as blotting or wicking material, take-up rolls, etc.) are the largest consumable in thermal processing. The developer roll is responsible for removing unexposed photopolymer from plates to create the desired relief depth on the finished example. Since rolls cannot be reused over and over, they must be changed out regularly for new, clean versions—depending on production loads and plate sizes, this can potentially occur daily.
Traditionally, developer rolls have been relatively heavy—depending on the width of developer roll required for plate processing, rolls could weigh up to 50-lbs. when clean, and considerably more when laden with unexposed polymer. Considering wear and tear on plate makers, the savvy consumer would be wise to ask how much the developer rolls for any given thermal processing system weigh.
A follow-up question environmentally conscious customers might ask, is how developer rolls impact the environment, keeping in mind the whole lifecycle of the material, from manufacturing, through usage and post-use processing. A unique benefit of lower-weight developer rolls is there is physically less material required in manufacturing, with a trickle-down improvement throughout the rest of the material’s lifecycle.
Thermal Processor Running Cost
When it comes down to it, running a plate making shop is a numbers game. Balancing revenue in and costs out, it is beneficial to consider everything, including energy consumption.
To that end, it is definitely worth talking to any potential thermal plate processor vendor about energy costs associated with their equipment. A penny saved is a penny earned. Enough of those pennies, and you’ll be raking in the Benjamins instead!