Ever since the development of the wide-format printing market in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the majority of the output devices on the market have already been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled in the device, rather such as a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or another end use.
It’s not difficult to view the disadvantages of this type of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking additional time 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. And so the solution seems obvious: cut out the middleman and print directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers appear like a fresh technology, however are actually over a decade old along with 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 usual trinity of speed, quality, and expense. The fourth person in that trinity was versatility. Similar to most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the standard 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 most notable speed was four beds one hour. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm supplies the Acuity and Inca Onset series of true latte coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” is really a standard way of measuring print speed from the flatbed printing world and it is essentially equivalent to “prints per hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a combination of printhead design and development along with the evolution of ink technology, in addition to effective ways of moving the substrate beyond the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads over the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical scale of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also have a substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation happen to be significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as how you can move someone to another floor of an industrial space.” The analogy would be to offset presses, particularly web presses, which frequently would have to be installed first, then this building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is a consideration for any shop seeking to acquire one-and it’s not merely how big the gear. There must also be room to go large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings range from the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series and also the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
And so the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers continues to be the cabability to print entirely on numerous materials without needing 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 some of the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went to Home Depot and acquired 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.”
This is one, shall we say, unique application: customized printed coffins. Truly a technology to die for…
This substrate versatility have led flatbeds being adopted by screen printers, along with 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 had been advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks need to be versatile enough to print on numerous types of substrates with out a shop needing to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which could increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to be placed on the outer lining to aid improve ink adhesion, while others utilize a fixer added after printing. Most of the printing we’re comfortable with uses a liquid ink that dries by a variety of evaporation and penetration to the substrate, but most of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the necessity to supply the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are especially ideal for these surfaces, while they dry by contact with ultraviolet light, hence they don’t should evaporate/penetrate the way in which classical inks do.
Most of the accessible literature on flatbeds indicates that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the majority of units out there are UV devices. There are myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the capability to print over a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to a UV workflow is not really a determination to become made lightly. (See a future feature for a more descriptive have a look at UV printing.)
Every one of the new applications that flatbeds enable are great, but there is still a significant number of work best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store can use an individual device to produce both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or phone case printer. These devices might help a store tackle a wider variety of work than might be handled with a single form of printer, but be forewarned a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may even lag the production speed of, a genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed in the device, while the speed of the “flatbed mode” can be substantially slower. Look for footnotes-and constantly get demos.
As it ever was, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This can include the usual trinity of technology-top quality, faster speed, higher reliability-along with improved material handling and a continued increase of the telephone number and kinds of materials they may print on; improvements in inks; improved convenience; and integration with front ends along with postpress finishing equipment. For that reason, all the different applications improves. HP sees increase of vertical markets like a growing coming trend, “Targeting signage, and packaging is increasing 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 using a rollfed printer and wish to move to something like an Acuity.”
It’s Not Only Concerning the Printer
One of the recurring themes throughout all of these wide-format feature stories is the selection of printer is only a means with an end; wide-format imaging is less with regards to a printing process plus more about manufacturing end-use products, and deciding on a printer is actually in regards to what is the simplest way to make those products. And it’s not only the t-shirt printer, but also the front and back ends of the process. “Think about the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How will 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. You will find great revenue opportunities in the finishing side.” (To get more on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is how the true 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 final output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is also 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 need higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the reply is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there exists more to success in wide-format than simply receiving the fastest device around. “It’s not about top speed although the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You have to be continuously printing.”