SIC 2796

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.

NAICS Code(s)

323122 (Prepress Services)

Industry Snapshot

The platemaking and related services industry was comprised primarily of companies that made printing plates used in offset lithographic printing processes. It also encompassed platemaking for numerous miscellaneous printing processes, such as gravure and letterpress. Lithography was introduced in 1796 and became popular during the 1900s. Offset printing, first applied in 1902, came to represent about 40 percent of all U.S. printing.

Steady demand growth for lithographic and related printing boosted platemaking service industry revenues throughout the late 1990s. Sales and employment are forecast to continue growing through the early 2000s, bolstered by new printing technologies and greater demand.

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 nonimage, 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 nonimage 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 rubbercovered, or blanket, cylinder.

A variety of plates were used for different offset printing processes and print jobs. Basic monometal 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 monometal, 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 trimetal 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 and acted 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. Nonprint 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 (usually copper) cylindrical plate. Rotogravure was often used to produce high-quality color illustrations. In addition to plates for rotogravure printing were plates for collotype printing, which generated highquality 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 in which this industry was separately classified, platemaking companies garnered about $2.4 billion annually and employed a workforce of more than 30,000 people. Industry sales expanded to more than $3 billion annually in the 1990s.

Current Conditions

The continual increase in revenues is stimulated by a general increase in demand for printed materials as well as technological advancements that increased 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. And higher quality, faster, and less expensive printing processes, such as waterless sheetfed printing, boosted demand. Likewise, new computertechnologies improved the platemaking process. Advanced desktop publishing software, for example, was integrated into digital platemaking processes to quickly produce relatively inexpensive, high-quality plates.

In the late 1990s, lithographic platemaking services accounted for about 57 percent of industry sales. Color film platemaking represented the large majority of the lithographic segment, followed by various noncolor plate services. Deep-etch metal plates accounted for less than 0.5 percent of industry receipts, as did multi-metal plate processes. Aside from lithography, gravure cylinders made up almost 6 percent of industry revenues, and flexographic plates represented about 3 percent. Miscellaneous services, such as letterpress and electrostatic platemaking, comprised the remainder of sales.

Commercial printers of consumer packaging, marketing materials, and aplethora of other media accounted for roughly 75 percent of the demand for platemaking services in the late 1990s. The balance of the market was comprised of newspaper publishers, book printers, and publishers, magazines, and numerous smaller markets.

The mid-1990s saw an exciting development 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 offers. Film-based work was rapidly becoming obsolete.

However, the change from conventional methods will be slow. DuPont Printing & Publishing projects that, by 2003, the percentage of pages printed via conventional means will fall only 30 percent from its 1996 level of 95 percent. Graphic Arts Monthly reported plate manufacturer expectations that CTP will account for 15 percent of all printing plates by 2001 and that conventional plates won't disappear for "some time. In addition, in 1999, plates made from polyester rather than from metal were coming into use. The polyester material is more flexible and less expensive than its metal counterparts."

Industry Leaders

More than 1,700 U.S. companies provided plate-making services in 1996. The industry was highly fragmented, consisting mostly of small, localized manufacturers with just a few employees. Polychrome Corp., of Fort Lee, New Jersey, was the largest industry participant, with $500 million in sales and about 1,700 workers in 1996. Eastman Kodak followed with 1996 sales of $260 million from platemaking services. The companies were combined by 1999 into Kodak Polychrome Graphics. Another industry leader was Matthews International Corp. of Pennsylvania, which had sales of around $50 million in 1998.


Contrary to employment prospects for most U.S. manufacturing industries, job growth in printing trade services was expected to be robust between 1990 and 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall employment for platemaking laborers was forecast to rise 30 percent by 2005, despite anticipated productivity gains resulting from automation. Even positions for general managers and executives should rise an estimated 20 percent.

Further Reading

Dun's Census of American Business 1996, Bethlehem, PA: Dun & Bradstreet, 1996.

Duschene, Stephanie. "A Running Start Into Computer-to-Plate." American Printer, 22 February 1999.

Esler, Bill. "Conventional Plates Hold Their Ground." Graphic Arts Monthly, July 1996.

Employment, Hours, and Earnings, United States, 1990-95. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 1995.

Hilts, Paul. "CTP for the Rest of Us." Publishers Weekly, 15 April 1996.

"Hoover's Company Capsules." Hoover's Online: The Business Network, 1999. Available from .

Johnston, Peter. "CTP: Poised on the Brink of Success." Graphic Arts Monthly, April 1996.

O'Brien, Katherine. "Polyester Becomes Fashionable." American Printer, 9 March 1999.

"Prepress Workers." 1998-99 Occupational Outlook Handbook, 1999. Available from .

Shepherd, Gary. "Pre-Press House Skips a Generation, Goes Digital." Tampa Bay Business Journal, 22 July 1996. Available from .

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

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