Ever since the advent of the wide-format printing market in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the vast majority of the output devices out there have already been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled in to the device, rather just like a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or some other end use.
It’s simple enough to find out the disadvantages of this type of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an extra 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: cut out the middleman and print entirely on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers seem like a brand new technology, but are actually over a decade old along with 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 4th member of that trinity was versatility. As with the majority of things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the quality of [those initial models] will be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten yrs ago, the top speed was four beds one hour. Now, it’s 90 beds one hour.” Fujifilm supplies the Acuity and Inca Onset combination of true latte printer.
(“Beds per hour” can be a standard measure of print speed in the flatbed printing world and is also essentially equal to “prints each hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mix of printhead design and development along with the evolution of ink technology, and also effective methods for moving the substrate past 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 are already significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as how to move someone to the second floor of an industrial space.” The analogy is always to offset presses, particularly web presses, which frequently needed to be installed first, then your building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is certainly one consideration for virtually any shop looking to acquire one-and it’s not simply the actual size of the machine. There also needs to be room to go large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings range from 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 has been the capability to print right on a multitude of materials while not having to print-then-mount or print on 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 the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone visited 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, and 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 being adopted by screen printers, in addition to 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 absolutely was advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks must be versatile enough to print on a multitude of substrates without a shop being forced to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which would increase expense and decrease productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to become used on the surface to aid improve ink adhesion, while some work with a fixer added after printing. Many of the printing we’re accustomed to relies on a liquid ink that dries by a mixture of evaporation and penetration in to the substrate, but a number of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the need to offer the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are especially great for these surfaces, while they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, so that they don’t need to evaporate/penetrate the way more traditional inks do.
A lot of the accessible literature on flatbeds signifies that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, however, 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 ability to print with a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow will not be a decision to be made lightly. (See an upcoming feature to get a more in depth look at UV printing.)
All the new applications that flatbeds enable are wonderful, but there is however still a substantial level of work best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop can make use of just one device to create both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or phone case printer. These devices will help a shop tackle a wider variety of work than can be handled with a single form of printer, but be forewarned that the combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may even lag the production speed of, a true flatbed. Specs sometimes talk about the rollfed speed from the device, as the speed of the “flatbed mode” could be substantially slower. Look for footnotes-and also get demos.
As ever, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This may add the usual trinity of technology-top quality, faster speed, higher reliability-along with improved material handling plus a continued expansion of the quantity and kinds of materials they can print on; improvements in inks; improved ease of use; and much better integration with front ends in addition to postpress finishing equipment. Because of this, all the different applications improves. HP sees increase of vertical markets like a growing coming trend, “Targeting signage, and packaging is growing in importance,” says Gasch.
Fujifilm can also be 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 are looking to go on to something similar to an Acuity.”
It’s Not Simply In regards to the Printer
One of many recurring themes throughout all of these wide-format feature stories would be that the selection of printer is merely a way to an end; wide-format imaging is less about a printing process and much more about manufacturing end-use products, and choosing printer is absolutely about what is the easiest way to make those products. And it’s not simply the t-shirt printer, but also the back and front ends of the process. “Think in regards to 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 about the finishing side.” (For additional on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is when the Real Work Begins.”)
It’s not simply 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 all about the ultimate output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is likewise important,” adds HP’s Gasch. “Adding more features, include a roll-to-roll option, add beds, add white ink, it must be flexible and scalable.”
As with any element of printing, there is inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you desire better quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the answer will be always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there may be more to success in wide-format than simply receiving the fastest device on the market. “It’s not about top speed although the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You have to be continuously printing.”