The PlateMaser Debut at DRUPA 1995 – Creo’s debut to the prepress world
The pressure on the software group to have some kind of front-end system that could drive the Creo 3244 Platesetter was incredible. Simply put, in 1995, the hardware, software, disks, and memory costs made it incredibly difficult to turn a PostScript file into 4.4 billion pixels and deliver them continuously to a laser capable of 25 megabits per second. Hard drives could not deliver that data rate, and memory cost $30 per megabyte1 (today’s price is less than 1 cent). The only viable way to meet our speed requirements at that time was to have the Postscript RIP 2(Raster Image Processor) directly connect to the laser imaging head, providing the highest possible data rate.
Even so, the funnel of gathering Postscript data from the various desktop tools and getting them to flow smoothly into the RIP and onto the laser imaging the plate was pushing the state-of-the-art on many fronts. This need for speed drove us to choose the Harlequin RIP over the industry-standard Adobe version, and to run Windows/NT on a DEC Alpha, at the time the fastest CPU we could buy. Even so, it was quite a stretch to keep up with a Creo Platesetter 3244.
DRUPA is a world-side printing trade show that takes place every 4 years, at the Düsseldorf Messe, and is the showcase for new print technology. Creo was determined to launch our CTP Computer-To-Plate machine there in 1995, and the window was tight – miss it and it would be four year before we could try again. When we started planning the demo it was clear as a bell to me how the demo had to look. The vision came, as many beautiful insights, in a flash and spilled out as I described it to my colleagues. “We are going to take a picture of the audience with a digital camera, the demo person will hand the camera to the prepress team, then go deeper into explaining the 3244 technology, plate emulsions, 240 simultaneous writing heads, and generally regale them with technology, then in about 3 minutes reach behind them to the plate processor, and show the audience a press-ready printing plate with the picture of the audience that was taken a few minutes before.” Stunned silence followed. Live demos are notoriously risky. One wrong button-push or technical glitch and you have 20 already dubious audience members becoming convinced this new fangled technology was not ready for prime time. But I could see the upside – that if we pulled this off, every one of those 20 people would start telling their colleagues about this new company Creo, who every hour were showing a viable computer-to-plate system in operation when the existing film companies were telling them that computer-to-plate was still a future dream.
It’s hard to imagine the time when disks were slow, ram was expensive and the world wide web was a nascent technology connected by dial-up modems. Apple was in a mess, with a CEO who didn’t understand the essence of what Apple was, and a product line of beige aging PowerMac machines with names like Performa, Centris and Quadra. But I had attended my share of Apple Developer Conferences when they were still small and had to struggle to fill the San José convention center, and learned the craft of the demo from Steve Jobs, and I knew that this would be the kind of demo to launch Creo. We had six months to prepare the demo, and set up our Drupa booth in the large foyer of the building at 3755 Gilmore Way, and got to work. The first challenge was actually finding a digital camera! In 1995 Kodak had already created one but was holding back for fear of damaging their film revenue, but they did co-venture with Apple and I got my hands on a QuickTake 100, a 640×480 handheld that would be perfect for this demo. After taking the picture of the audience, the demo person (Michele Kramer) would hand the camera to the prepress operator, (Bob Cook) who downloaded the image using an adb cable onto a Mac Quadra, into Photoshop, where he converted it to B&W, saved it as a specifically-named file, then placed the color image in QuarkXpress on the monitor so all could see it. He then generated “thin” Postscript, which did not include the images in the Postscript code itself, but created file references that would be substituted down the line by a piece of software called an OPI server, in our case a nice piece of software called Color Central created by an Adobe spinoff Luminous Corp. The pages that would be imaged on the plate were imposed through Preps, imposition software that positioned each page suitably for the press the plate would be used on, then OPI software inserted the actual high-resolution image into the PostScript data stream and relayed it to the PostScript RIP which would then turn all those image and text elements into a 4-billion 1-bit pixels for the laser engine to expose on the printing plate. The laser was a bright green color that came from a frequency-doubled YaG and exposed plates made by Polychrome. Creo also had a unit in our booth with a YaG laser that did not frequency-double, so produced infrared energy that held the promise of creating plates that needed no chemical processing, which would become the standard in printing plates in a few years.
Many people stood by the booth to ensure demos ran smoothly. The 3244 sometimes needed a tweak, and one engineer had wired a potentiometer to be outside the unit to make adjustments if needed. The folks who kept the processor running had to contend with fumes and variations in temperature, and the service engineer would stand by the processor to make sure the plate didn’t get stuck in a conveyor, and was also in-charge of giving a discrete thumb-up to the demo person if the plate and image looked ok.
Watching the first few demos was nerve-racking. While the audience was entranced with the details of Creo and how this small company from Canada had developed a multiple-beam computer-to-plate machine that could expose an entire 8-up 32” by 44” plate, when the other major players in the industry were saying it was still years away, booth staff had to look cool and collected while hoping any of the dozen-or-so things that had to happen to make the demo work were working. When the demo person finished their presentation and turned to take the developed plate and show to the first row of the audience that their image was actually on that plate, that made it all worthwhile. Incontrovertible proof that this was a live demo of actual data, imaged in real-time and exposed and developed before their eyes. When other booths had plates that had taken minutes or hours to create in their labs, and hung on their booth walls, the risk we took to go live in real-time took the show by storm. While we had scheduled for hourly demos, Amos told us we had to run every 30 minutes, a gruelling schedule for the team and for the demo speaker. When our twenty-seat mini-theatre filled up, people stood in and around the booth to watch, and neighbouring booths started to complain that people watching our demo were encroaching on their booth space.3
Another amazing thing about Drupa 95 was how Creo managed to be almost everywhere. By working with the manufacturers of printing plates, each asked for a Creo Platesetter in their booth, so by the time we had to ship the machines to Germany (by ship) six Creo CTPs were headed for Germany, pretty well our complete production line until then. Each partner booth had the big grey Creo platesetter in them, but none were set up to run the complete demo that we had in our booth.
A couple days into the show, someone at the booth said there was someone who wanted to speak to me. A very tall guy introduced himself as Rick Littrell, World Wide Product Line Manager for Agfa. I was a bit start-struck by this knowing Agfa was a very large film company (I remember using Agfa photo paper in my high school darkroom) and Rick’s accent was southern US, something I found surprising for Belgian company at a German trade-show. Rick then explained to me exactly how our demo was working, complete deconstructed it into its smallest risk-reducing parts, and the couple clever things we did to save a few minutes or seconds here or there. Agfa had been working on their own CTP device, but like many large companies with a vested interest in the status quo, were slow in bringing their CTP to market as it meant a reduction to lucrative film revenue.
Creo had nothing to lose – as a new player in the market, and one that sold hardware, that did not rely on a revenue stream from film or from plates, we could disrupt the prepress industry by bringing out a fast computer-to-plate device, eliminating the time and material waste of film. By putting ourselves on the line to run this demo with live data, we set a very high bar, and lept over it. Most vendors had learned to avoid live demos, relying on their track record and sales people to be the reliable supplier they have been know to their customers. DRUPA is a long show, 14 days, and had a history of live demos of press equipment, where the proof is visible to discerning customers and a magnifying loupe was a standard show giveaway. By stepping up as a prepress vendor to join the live demo ranks we achieved a level of credibility that no amount of advertising or promotion could have matched. I’ve no doubt that by committing to a live demo and running it 200 times for thousands of conference goers, Creo made its presence as the innovator in Computer-to-Plate hardware known world-wide at DRUPA 95.
We would do the same for Creo software, but I didn’t know then that it would take four years…