Because the introduction of the wide-format printing market within the late 1980s/early 1990s, the majority of the output devices available on the market happen to be rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled to the device, rather similar to a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or some other end use.
It’s not difficult to discover the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds one more step (taking more hours and reducing productivity) and uses more materials (the printed substrate along with the mounting material and adhesive), incurs more consumables costs, increases waste, and decreases productivity. Therefore the solution seems obvious: reduce the middleman and print directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers seem like a fresh technology, however are actually greater than a decade old and their evolution has become swift but stealthy. A seminal entry in the flatbed printer market was the Inca Eagle 44, and early limitations of wide-format flatbeds were the typical trinity of speed, quality, and price. The 4th an affiliate that trinity was versatility. Similar to the majority of things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the quality of [those initial models] can be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten yrs ago, the best speed was four beds an hour. Now, it’s 90 beds one hour.” Fujifilm offers the Acuity and Inca Onset series of true coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” is a standard way of measuring print speed from the flatbed printing world and it is essentially comparable to “prints hourly.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mix of printhead design and development along with the evolution of ink technology, as well as effective means of moving the substrate beyond the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads over the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical dimensions of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also have a substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation have been significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as how to move anyone to the next floor of the industrial space.” The analogy is to offset presses, particularly web presses, which often had to be installed first, then a building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is certainly one consideration for almost any shop seeking to acquire one-and it’s not just the size of the equipment. There also needs to be room to maneuver large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings include the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series along with the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
Therefore the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has become the opportunity to print entirely on a wide variety of materials without having to print-then-mount or print with a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed using a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, pok-er chips,” says Nelson, are some of the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone traveled to Home Depot and picked up a door to print on.”
“What’s growing is specialty applications using different and unique substrates,” says HP’s Gasch, “such as ceramic, metallic, glass, and also other thick, heavy materials.”
Here is one, shall we say, unique application: customized printed coffins. Truly a technology to die for…
This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to be adopted by screen printers, in addition to packaging printers and converters. “What is increasing is printing on corrugated board for packaging, either primary or secondary packaging for impulse purchases,” says Gasch. “A unique item is wine boxes.” It’s all very intoxicating.
It had been advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks must be versatile enough to print on numerous substrates without a shop being forced to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which will increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to be used on the outer lining to assist improve ink adhesion, while others use a fixer added after printing. Most of the printing we’re familiar with relies on a liquid ink that dries by a mix of evaporation and penetration into the substrate, but several of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the requirement to supply the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are particularly useful for these surfaces, since they dry by being exposed to ultraviolet light, so that they don’t must evaporate/penetrate the way more conventional inks do.
A great deal of possible literature on flatbeds signifies that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, virtually all units in the marketplace are UV devices. There are myriad benefits to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the cabability to print with a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the capability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to your UV workflow is not a choice to become made lightly. (See a future feature to get a more detailed look at UV printing.)
Each of the new applications that flatbeds enable are great, but there is however still a substantial volume of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store can use an individual device to make both rollfed and flatbed applications as a result of so-called combination or phone case printer. These products will help a shop tackle a wider selection of work than might be handled having a single kind of printer, but be forewarned that the combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and could lag the development speed of, a genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes make reference to the rollfed speed from the device, as the speed in the “flatbed mode” can be substantially slower. Look for footnotes-and constantly get demos.
As ever, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This will add the usual trinity of technology-high quality, faster speed, higher reliability-as well as improved material handling and a continued expansion of the amount and kinds of materials they are able to print on; improvements in inks; improved simplicity of use; and integration with front ends in addition to postpress finishing equipment. As a result, the range of applications boosts. HP sees increase of vertical markets as a growing wave of the future, “Targeting signage, and packaging keeps growing in importance,” says Gasch.
Fujifilm is additionally bullish on commercial printing. “Our largest growth area is commercial printers,” says Nelson. “They’re expanding into wide-format graphics, or they started using a rollfed printer and wish to relocate to such as an Acuity.”
It’s Not Only Concerning the Printer
One of many recurring themes throughout all of these wide-format feature stories is that the range of printer is merely a means to a end; wide-format imaging is less regarding a printing process and much more about manufacturing end-use products, and choosing printer is very in regards to what is the easiest way to make those products. And it’s not only the dtg printer, but also the back and front ends of your process. “Think about the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How can you manage your colors, how reliable will be the press, and check out the finishing equipment. Most of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are great revenue opportunities in the finishing side.” (For further on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is when the true Work Begins.”)
It’s not simply the productivity ecosystem, but also the physical ecosystem. “You’re coping with large sheets and moving large sheets of material around,” adds Steve Cutler, marketing product manager, mid-range inkjet, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. Ultimately, Cutler says, “Wide-format is around the very last output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is likewise important,” adds HP’s Gasch. “Adding more features, add a roll-to-roll option, add beds, add white ink, it must be flexible and scalable.”
As in any part of printing, there is certainly inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you would like higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the correct answer is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there is certainly more to success in wide-format than simply obtaining the fastest device around. “It’s not about top speed however the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You should be continuously printing.”