Ever since the advent of the wide-format printing market from the late 1980s/early 1990s, the vast majority of the output devices in the marketplace have already been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled to the device, rather just like a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or another end use.
It’s not so difficult to view the disadvantages of these kinds of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking additional time and reducing productivity) and uses more materials (the printed substrate plus the mounting material and adhesive), incurs more consumables costs, increases waste, and decreases productivity. Therefore the solution seems obvious: cut out the middleman and print right on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers appear to be a fresh technology, but they are actually greater than a decade old in addition to their evolution is swift but stealthy. A seminal entry within 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. As with most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the quality of [those initial models] would be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years ago, the very best speed was four beds an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm offers the Acuity and Inca Onset series of true latte printer.
(“Beds per hour” is really a standard way of measuring print speed from the flatbed printing world and is essentially similar to “prints hourly.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mix of printhead design and development and the evolution of ink technology, in addition to effective methods of moving the substrate beyond the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads over the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical size of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and 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 the way to move anyone to the next floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is always to offset presses, particularly web presses, which in turn would have to be installed first, then the building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is a consideration for almost any shop hoping to acquire one-and it’s not just how big the device. There also needs to be room to advance large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings include the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series and the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
And so the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers continues to be the capability to print entirely on numerous types of materials without having to print-then-mount or print on the transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed via a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, po-ker chips,” says Nelson, are one of the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went along to Home Depot and gathered 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, along with other thick, heavy materials.”
Is one, shall we say, unique application: customized printed coffins. Truly a technology to die for…
This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to become adopted by screen printers, as well as packaging printers and converters. “What is 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 was advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks should be versatile enough to print on a wide variety of substrates without a shop being forced to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which could increase expense and decrease productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments being put on the surface to help improve ink adhesion, while some make use of a fixer added after printing. The majority of the printing we’re accustomed to relies on a liquid ink that dries by a combination of evaporation and penetration into the substrate, but most of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the necessity to offer the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are specifically helpful for these surfaces, as they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, so they don’t should evaporate/penetrate how more conventional inks do.
A great deal of the available literature on flatbeds suggests that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, although there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, virtually all units in the marketplace are UV devices. There are actually myriad advantages to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the cabability to print over a wider selection of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to your UV workflow is not a decision to get made lightly. (See an upcoming feature for any more detailed examine UV printing.)
Every one of the new applications that flatbeds enable are wonderful, but there is however still a substantial number of work best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store are able to use one particular device to make both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or led uv printer. These devices may help a store tackle a wider variety of work than can be handled using a single type of printer, but be forewarned which a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may lag the production speed of, a genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes refer to the rollfed speed of the device, as the speed from the “flatbed mode” could be substantially slower. Look for footnotes-and also get demos.
As it ever was, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This can range from the usual trinity of technology-better quality, faster speed, higher reliability-in addition to improved material handling as well as a continued expansion of the amount and kinds of materials they can print on; improvements in inks; improved simplicity; and much better integration with front ends along with postpress finishing equipment. As a result, all the different applications increases. HP sees expansion of vertical markets like a growing wave of the future, “Targeting signage, and packaging is increasing 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 having a rollfed printer and wish to relocate to something such as an Acuity.”
It’s Not Just About the Printer
One of several recurring themes throughout many of these wide-format feature stories is the collection of printer is just a means for an end; wide-format imaging is less about a printing process and a lot more about manufacturing end-use products, and the choice of printer is absolutely regarding what is the easiest method to make those products. And it’s not simply the textile printer, but the front and rear ends from the process. “Think about the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How can you manage your colors, how reliable will be the press, and look at the finishing equipment. Nearly all of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are actually great revenue opportunities about the finishing side.” (For additional on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is Where the genuine Work Begins.”)
It’s not just the productivity ecosystem, but 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 all about the ultimate output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is additionally important,” adds HP’s Gasch. “Adding more features, add a roll-to-roll option, add beds, add white ink, it needs to 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 want higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the reply is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there is certainly more to success in wide-format than only getting the fastest device available. “It’s not about top speed although the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You need to be continuously printing.”