Considering that the introduction of the wide-format printing market from the late 1980s/early 1990s, the vast majority of the output devices available on the market are already rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled in the device, rather just like a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or any other end use.
It’s not so 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 as well as the mounting material and adhesive), incurs more consumables costs, increases waste, and decreases productivity. So the solution seems obvious: remove the middleman and print entirely on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers look like a new technology, however they are actually over a decade old and their evolution has been swift but stealthy. A seminal entry inside the flatbed printer market was the Inca Eagle 44, and early limitations of wide-format flatbeds were the normal trinity of speed, quality, and price. The fourth an affiliate that trinity was versatility. Similar to the majority of things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the standard of [those initial models] can be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten in the past, the best speed was four beds an hour. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm supplies the Acuity and Inca Onset combination of true latte coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” can be a standard measure of print speed within the flatbed printing world and it is essentially equivalent to “prints per hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a variety of printhead design and development and the evolution of ink technology, as well as 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 where you can substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation have already been 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 any industrial space.” The analogy is always to offset presses, particularly web presses, which often needed to be installed first, then your building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is just one consideration for just about any shop trying to acquire one-and it’s not only how big the gear. There must also be room to move large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings are 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 is the opportunity to print right on numerous types of materials without needing to print-then-mount or print over 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 traveled to Home Depot and found 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 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 to become adopted by screen printers, in addition to packaging printers and converters. “What is increasing 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 have to be versatile enough to print on a wide variety of substrates without having a shop needing to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which may increase expense and decrease productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to become used on the top to assist improve ink adhesion, although some work with a fixer added after printing. The majority of the printing we’re familiar with relies on a liquid ink that dries by a mixture of evaporation and penetration into the substrate, but most of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the need to supply the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are especially great for these surfaces, since they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, therefore they don’t should evaporate/penetrate how more traditional inks do.
Much of the accessible literature on flatbeds indicates that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, nearly all units out there are UV devices. There are myriad benefits to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print with a wider selection of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow is not a choice to become made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature to get a more detailed look at UV printing.)
All of the new applications that flatbeds enable are excellent, there is however still a substantial amount of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store may use one particular device to produce both rollfed and flatbed applications as a result of so-called combination or phone case printer. These products might help a store tackle a wider variety of work than may be handled using a single sort of printer, but be forewarned that a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and might lag the production speed of, a real flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed in the device, even though the speed of your “flatbed mode” may be substantially slower. Look for footnotes-and also get demos.
As ever, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This will likely add the usual trinity of technology-high quality, faster speed, higher reliability-along with improved material handling plus a continued increase of the number and kinds of materials they can print on; improvements in inks; improved convenience; and integration with front ends and also postpress finishing equipment. As a result, all the different applications improves. HP sees expansion of vertical markets being a growing wave of the future, “Targeting signage, and packaging is increasing 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 by using a rollfed printer and would like to move to something similar to an Acuity.”
It’s Not Only In regards to the Printer
Among the recurring themes throughout most of these wide-format feature stories is the fact that range of printer is just a method with an end; wide-format imaging is less with regards to a printing process and more about manufacturing end-use products, and deciding on a printer is absolutely about what is the simplest way to make those products. And it’s not simply the dtg printer, but the back and front ends in the 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. You will find great revenue opportunities about the finishing side.” (For more on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is Where 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 about the very last output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology can also be 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.”
Like in any part of printing, there exists inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you need higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the answer will be always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there exists more to success in wide-format than merely obtaining the fastest device out there. “It’s not about top speed however the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You should be continuously printing.”