Ever since the coming of the wide-format printing market from the late 1980s/early 1990s, nearly all the output devices out there have been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled into the device, rather similar to a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or another end use.
It’s simple enough to find out the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking more hours and reducing productivity) and uses more materials (the printed substrate as well as the mounting material and adhesive), incurs more consumables costs, increases waste, and decreases productivity. Hence the solution seems obvious: cut out the middleman and print entirely on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers seem like a whole new technology, however are actually over a decade old and their evolution has been swift but stealthy. A seminal entry from the flatbed printer market was the Inca Eagle 44, and early limitations of wide-format flatbeds were the typical trinity of speed, quality, and expense. The fourth part of that trinity was versatility. Just like the majority of things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the caliber of [those initial models] will be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years back, the most notable speed was four beds an hour. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm offers the Acuity and Inca Onset series of true latte coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” is really a standard measure of print speed within the flatbed printing world which is essentially equal to “prints an hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mix of printhead design and development and also the evolution of ink technology, as well as effective ways of moving the substrate beyond the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads across the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical scale of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also 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 the way to move someone to the next floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is always to offset presses, particularly web presses, which in turn had to be installed first, then the building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is certainly one consideration for virtually any shop seeking to acquire one-and it’s not only how big the gear. There also needs to be room to advance large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings add the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series along with the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
So the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers is the opportunity to print entirely on a wide variety of materials and never have to print-then-mount or print on a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed by way of a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, pok-er chips,” says Nelson, are 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 diverse 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 get adopted by screen printers, in addition to packaging printers and converters. “What keeps growing 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 have to be versatile enough to print on numerous types of substrates without having a shop being forced to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which will increase expense and decrease productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to be applied to the top to assist improve ink adhesion, while others make use of a fixer added after printing. The majority of the printing we’re accustomed to uses a liquid ink that dries by a mixture of evaporation and penetration into the substrate, but a number of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the requirement to give the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are particularly ideal for these surfaces, as they dry by being exposed to ultraviolet light, so that they don’t need to evaporate/penetrate how more traditional inks do.
A lot of the accessible literature on flatbeds shows that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, even 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 on the wider selection of materials, faster drying times, the ability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to your UV workflow will not be a choice being made lightly. (See an upcoming feature to get a more detailed examine UV printing.)
Each of the new applications that flatbeds enable are fantastic, but there is still a large level of perform best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store may use one particular device to produce both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or phone case printer. These devices can help a store tackle a wider assortment of work than might be handled by using a single sort of printer, but be forewarned that the combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may lag the production speed of, a real flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed of the device, even though the speed of the “flatbed mode” can be substantially slower. Look for footnotes-and also get demos.
As it ever was, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This may include the usual trinity of technology-better quality, faster speed, higher reliability-and also improved material handling plus a continued expansion of the amount and kinds of materials they are able to print on; improvements in inks; improved simplicity; and integration with front ends and also postpress finishing equipment. As a result, all the different applications improves. HP sees increase of vertical markets as being a growing wave of the future, “Targeting signage, and packaging keeps growing in importance,” says Gasch.
Fujifilm is also bullish on commercial printing. “Our largest growth area is commercial printers,” says Nelson. “They’re expanding into wide-format graphics, or they started having a rollfed printer and want to proceed to something like an Acuity.”
It’s Not Only Regarding the Printer
One of the recurring themes throughout all of these wide-format feature stories is the fact that collection of printer is merely a means to a end; wide-format imaging is less with regards to a printing process and more about manufacturing end-use products, and choosing printer is really as to what is the simplest way to make those products. And it’s not merely the dtg printer, but also the front and back ends in the process. “Think concerning the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How are you going to manage your colors, how reliable is the press, and look at the finishing equipment. Almost all of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. You can find great revenue opportunities on the finishing side.” (To get more on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is Where the true Work Begins.”)
It’s not only the productivity ecosystem, but also the physical ecosystem. “You’re handling 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 about the final output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is also important,” adds HP’s Gasch. “Adding more features, put in a roll-to-roll option, add beds, add white ink, it must be flexible and scalable.”
As in any facet of printing, there may be inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you want higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the reply is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there is more to success in wide-format than simply receiving the fastest device out there. “It’s not about top speed nevertheless the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You need to be continuously printing.”