Platemaking and Related Services

SIC 2796

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in making plates for printing purposes and in related services. Also included are establishments primarily engaged in making positives or negatives from which offset lithographic plates are made. These establishments do not print from the plates they make, but prepare them for use by others. Engraving for purposes other than printing is classified in SIC 3479: Coating, Engraving, and Allied Services, Not Elsewhere Classified.

Industry Snapshot

In 2008, the U.S. prepress services industry, including platemaking, had revenues of $3.0 billion, according to Supplier Relations US LLC. This was only a slight decrease from sales in 2007, which totaled $3.1 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of all plate shipments, approximately 40 percent were lithographic plates, 35 percent were flexographic plates, and 14 percent were gravure plates. All other printing plates made up the remainder. Computer-to-plate systems (CTP) and digital technology had a significant impact on the industry at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and traditional platemaking was increasingly replaced by newer technologies.

Organization and Structure

Most companies in the platemaking industry served lithographic printers. Lithography was a printing process whereby ink was applied to a flat printing surface (plate) that was treated with grease. Blank, or non-image, areas of the surface repelled the ink, while the greased areas held it. The inked surface could then be transferred directly to paper by means of a press. In the popular offset (planographic or litho-offset) process, the inked image was first printed on a rubber cylinder and then transferred to other materials.

Platemaking companies created the templates that printers used to transfer images to the rubber cylinder or other printing media. The plate cylinder was usually zinc, aluminum, or a special alloy. Its porous surface was coated with a photosensitive material. When exposed to an image, the coated area hardened and the coating on the non-image areas was washed away. Ink, which was continually deposited on the plate cylinder by inking rollers, was accepted by the greasy image on the plate. Modern offset printing plates were usually cylindrical, allowing them to provide a continuous transfer of ink to a rubber-covered, or blanket, cylinder.

A variety of plates were used for different offset printing processes and print jobs. Basic mono-metal plates were made of zinc or aluminum and functioned as described above. The plate was usually exposed to an image by covering it with a negative of text or illustrations and exposing it to intense light, after which the coating on the unexposed areas was washed away. A slight variation was the presensitized plate, which had a coating with a longer life span and could be made of paper or plastic for short print jobs.

Deep-etch plates, in contrast to mono-metal, exposed the plate to a positive of the text or illustration. The nonprinting areas were hardened and the printing areas were washed away. A mild acid bath etched the metal of the printing areas. The plate was then treated with an ink-receptive lacquer. Deep-etch plates were used for longer print runs of 250,000 or more copies. Bi-metal and tri-metal plates were more durable and could dependably endure runs of 500,000 copies or more. They were created using two or three metal plates, one or two of which covered the primary plate as a microscopic film. A photoengraving process partly removed the thin metal layers.

In addition to conventional offset plates were several other platemaking processes. Electrostatic (xerographic) plates, for example, were electrically charged plates that absorbed images. A negatively charged powder (stuck to the positively charged image) was heated and hardened to act as the ink-receptive printing surface. Similarly, immediate offset plates incorporated a polymer layer that responded to heat, as opposed to light.

In addition to lithography, other types of printing processes used plates. Rotogravure, for example, transferred fluid ink contained in the cells of the printing cylinder, or plate. Non-print areas of the plate were kept ink-free through constant wiping. Rotogravure plates were made in a process that utilized carbon tissue paper soaked in an emulsion and exposed to an image. The carbon-imprint was then transferred to a cylindrical plate, typically made of copper. Rotogravure was often used to produce high-quality color illustrations. In addition to plates for rotogravure printing were plates for collotype printing, which generated high-quality color photo reproductions; flexographic printing, used for large-scale commercial printing (for newspapers and magazines); and other miscellaneous processes.

Background and Development

During the second century A.D., the Chinese were capable of printing on paper using ink on stone surfaces with carved impressions, precursors to modern day printing plates. In about 1040, Chinese alchemist Pi Sheng designed a crude printing plate consisting of an iron plate coated with a mixture of resin, wax, and paper ash. Other rough printing plate forms were used in subsequent print processes, such as xylography (fourteenth century), metallographic printing (1430), typography (fifteenth century), and stereotypy (eighteenth century).

Czechoslovakian Alloys Senefelder envisioned the lithographic printing process in 1796. The first mechanized lithographic printer, complete with a plate cylinder, was built in 1850. Importantly, technological advancements during the early 1800s related to etching and photosensitivity made Senefelder's design possible. Gravure and rotogravure platemaking processes were first used in the 1890s.

It was not until the early 1900s that lithographic platemaking became widespread. The popularity of lithography, and even of modern-day printing techniques, was largely a result of American Ira W. Rubel's discovery of offset printing in 1902. Rubel accidentally transferred an image from a plate cylinder to a rubber blanket, discovering that the rubber offset produced a superior image to that of the metal plate. The popularity of offset lithography spawned a flurry of advancements during the mid-1900s in the area of chemical etching, electroplating, and other technologies that were integrated into the printing and platemaking process.

Besides general economic expansion during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, new inks and printing processes bolstered platemaking industry revenues. By 1987, the first year that this industry was separately classified, platemaking companies earned about $2.4 billion annually and employed a workforce of over 30,000 people. Industry sales expanded to more than $3 billion annually in the 1990s.

The continual increase in revenues was stimulated by a general increase in demand for printed materials as well as technological advancements that drove the use of plate printing processes. For example, markets for several types of printed packaging ballooned, as did demand for direct mail and catalog printing. Moreover, higher quality, faster, and less expensive printing processes, such as waterless sheetfed printing, boosted demand. Similarly, new computer technologies improved the platemaking process. Advanced desktop publishing software, for example, was integrated into digital platemaking processes to quickly produce relatively inexpensive, high-quality plates.

Exciting developments occurred in the mid-1990s in the platemaking industry. Computer-to-plate systems (CTP) had taken over the industry spotlight. CTP promised a quantum leap in productivity for printers. It required fewer materials and less labor while offering enhanced quality and faster turnarounds. At the turn of the twenty-first century, commercial printers moved toward exclusive use of the digital technology, which included digital copy and proofing. The completely digital technology offered a better quality product because of the precision and decreased production time that CTP offered. Film-based work was rapidly becoming obsolete.

By the mid-2000s most large companies had gone digital. Although almost all of the large companies had adopted computer-to-plate systems (CTP), many middle-sized and smaller companies had not, partly because CTP plates were more expensive than traditional analogue plates. Most large companies that made traditional plates also offered chemical-free and processless plates. With the new technology, it was expected that in the future no chemicals or other environmentally unsafe substances would be involved in imaging plates, and waste would be reduced significantly.

Digital plates have a black coating, called the LAMS coating, which is only a few microns thick. The imaged LAMS coating replaced the traditional film negative. A laser beam removes the LAMS within the areas to be printed, and the black coating absorbs laser energy and literally wears away through vaporization. In addition, process-free digital and analog plates made with new coatings required no chemicals or press changes, as the images self-develop on-press within a few turns of the press cylinders.

Current Conditions

According to Dun & Bradstreet's (D&B) 2009 Industry Reports, 674 establishments operated in the platemaking services industry in the late 2000s. About 78 percent employed fewer than 25 workers, but firms with more than 25 employees accounted for 75 percent of total industry revenues. California had the most platemaking establishments, followed by Illinois, New York, and Ohio. Based on D&B figures, Illinois accounted for the largest percentage of the nation's sales, followed closely by South Carolina. Other top-producing states in terms of revenue included Tennessee, New Jersey, and California.

In terms of international trade, the U.S. prepress industry saw strong growth in exports between 2005 and 2008, with annual increases of about 19 percent. In 2008 value of exports totaled $61.5 million, based on figures from Supplier Relations US LLC. Imports equaled $30.9 million, leaving a domestic demand figure of $2.9 billion.

Industry Leaders

The platemaking industry in the United States is highly fragmented, with a few exceptions. Most manufacturers are small and local, with just a few employees.

Kodak Polychrome Graphics, a leader in the platemaking industry, was acquired by Eastman Kodak Company in 2005 and was absorbed into Kodak's Graphic Communications Group. This unit provides services for conventional, digital, and blended print production. It offers plates for conventional offset, digital offset, and flexographic printing. In June 2007, Kodak Graphic Communications Group installed its ten thousandth computer-to-plate (CTP) device. Eastman Kodak as a whole reported revenues of $9.4 billion in 2008. Due to a restructuring effort to focus on digital technology, the firm had eliminated about 30,000 positions by 2009, at which time it employed 24,400 people worldwide.


One negative effect of the increased use of new technologies in the 2000s regarded employment. Because new technology requires less labor, fewer workers are needed, resulting in a downward trend in employment. In 2007, there were 23,532 employees in the prepress industry, down from 26,747 in 2005 and 52,546 in 1997. The decline was not expected to reverse, as an increasing number of companies adopted technologies requiring less labor.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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