Because the advent of the wide-format printing market in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the vast majority of the output devices on the market have already been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled in to the device, rather like a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or other end use.
It’s not difficult to discover the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds one more step (taking much more time and reducing productivity) and uses more materials (the printed substrate in addition to the mounting material and adhesive), incurs more consumables costs, increases waste, and decreases productivity. Therefore the solution seems obvious: reduce the middleman and print entirely on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers appear like a new technology, however are actually greater than a decade old in addition to their evolution has been 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 expense. The fourth part of that trinity was versatility. As with the majority of things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the grade of [those initial models] would be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten yrs ago, the most notable speed was four beds an hour. Now, it’s 90 beds one hour.” Fujifilm provides the Acuity and Inca Onset number of true latte printer.
(“Beds per hour” is actually a standard measure of print speed in the flatbed printing world and is essentially equivalent to “prints per hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mixture of printhead design and development and also the evolution of ink technology, and also effective means of moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads across the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical dimensions of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers where you can substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation are already significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as the best way to move one to the second floor of your industrial space.” The analogy would be to offset presses, particularly web presses, which regularly must be installed first, then the building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is just one consideration for virtually any shop hoping to acquire one-and it’s not simply the actual size of the gear. There must also be room to move large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings add the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series and the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
Therefore the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has been the opportunity to print right on numerous types 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 via a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, pok-er chips,” says Nelson, are among the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went to Home Depot and gathered 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.”
The following 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, and also 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 was actually advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks must be versatile enough to print on a multitude of substrates with out a shop needing to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which would increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to get applied to the top to assist improve ink adhesion, while others make use of a fixer added after printing. A lot of the printing we’re used to works with a liquid ink that dries by a combination of evaporation and penetration in the substrate, but a number of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the desire 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, therefore they don’t need to evaporate/penetrate the way classical inks do.
A great deal of the available literature on flatbeds suggests that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, nearly all units in the marketplace are UV devices. You can find myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print over a wider array of materials, faster drying times, the capability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow will not be a choice being made lightly. (See a future feature for any more detailed take a look at UV printing.)
Each of the new applications that flatbeds enable are great, but there is however still a significant number of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store can use just one device to make both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or led uv printer. These devices will help a store tackle a wider selection of work than can be handled having a single kind of printer, but be forewarned that the combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may even lag the production speed of, a genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes talk about the rollfed speed in the device, even though the speed from the “flatbed mode” might be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and try to get demos.
As it ever was, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This will likely are the usual trinity of technology-top quality, faster speed, higher reliability-along with improved material handling along with a continued increase of the telephone number and types of materials they may print on; improvements in inks; improved ease of use; and integration with front ends and also postpress finishing equipment. Consequently, the plethora of applications improves. HP sees expansion of vertical markets being a growing coming trend, “Targeting signage, and packaging is growing in importance,” says Gasch.
Fujifilm is likewise bullish on commercial printing. “Our largest growth area is commercial printers,” says Nelson. “They’re expanding into wide-format graphics, or they started by using a rollfed printer and would like to go on to something such as an Acuity.”
It’s Not Just About the Printer
One of the recurring themes throughout many of these wide-format feature stories would be that the range of printer is merely a means for an end; wide-format imaging is less about a printing process and a lot more about manufacturing end-use products, and deciding on a printer is very in regards to what is the easiest method to make those products. And it’s not merely the dtg printer, but the front and rear ends of your process. “Think in regards to the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How are you going to manage your colors, how reliable is definitely the press, and look at the finishing equipment. Almost all of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are great revenue opportunities around the finishing side.” (For further on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is how the genuine Work Begins.”)
It’s not merely the productivity ecosystem, but the physical ecosystem. “You’re dealing 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 about the ultimate output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is likewise important,” adds HP’s Gasch. “Adding more features, give a roll-to-roll option, add beds, add white ink, it needs to be flexible and scalable.”
As in any element of printing, there may be inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you desire better quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the correct answer is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there is more to success in wide-format than merely getting the fastest device out there. “It’s not about top speed however the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You should be continuously printing.”