Ever since the advent of the wide-format printing market from the late 1980s/early 1990s, the majority of the output devices available on the market are already 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 other end use.
It’s simple enough to see the disadvantages of these kinds of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking much more 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. So the solution seems obvious: cut out the middleman and print directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers appear to be a whole new technology, but are actually over a decade old and their evolution is 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 standard trinity of speed, quality, and price. Your fourth person in that trinity was versatility. As with most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the caliber of [those initial models] will be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years back, the most notable speed was four beds an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour.” Fujifilm provides the Acuity and Inca Onset series of true latte coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” is really a standard way of measuring print speed in the flatbed printing world and is essentially equivalent to “prints per hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a combination of printhead design and development and the evolution of ink technology, in addition to effective methods for moving the substrate beyond 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 and also 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 one to the 2nd floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is to offset presses, particularly web presses, which frequently must be installed first, then this building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is just one consideration for almost any shop trying to acquire one-and it’s not only how big the equipment. There must also be room to advance large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings are the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series along with the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
Hence the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers continues to be the capability to print directly on numerous materials without having to print-then-mount or print on the transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed through a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, pok-er chips,” says Nelson, are one of the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone visited 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, as well as 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 get adopted by screen printers, and also 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 actually 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 no 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 to become put on the top to help improve ink adhesion, while some work with a fixer added after printing. Most of the printing we’re accustomed to utilizes a liquid ink that dries by a variety of evaporation and penetration in to the substrate, but many 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 useful for these surfaces, while they dry by contact with ultraviolet light, so that they don’t need to evaporate/penetrate how more traditional inks do.
Much of possible literature on flatbeds signifies that “flatbed printer” is synonymous with “UV printer” and, however, there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the vast majority of units on the market are UV devices. You can find myriad benefits to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print on a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow is not really a determination being made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature for the more detailed have a look at UV printing.)
All of the new applications that flatbeds enable are great, but there is however still a considerable level of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store are able to use just one device to generate both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or uv printer. These devices might help a shop tackle a wider assortment of work than might be handled by using 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, an authentic flatbed. Specs sometimes make reference to the rollfed speed in the device, whilst the speed of your “flatbed mode” could 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 include the usual trinity of technology-top quality, faster speed, higher reliability-and also improved material handling as well as a continued increase of the amount and types of materials they can print on; improvements in inks; improved convenience; and integration with front ends along with postpress finishing equipment. For that reason, the plethora of applications will increase. HP sees increase of vertical markets being 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 with a rollfed printer and would like to proceed to something similar to an Acuity.”
It’s Not Only About the Printer
Among the recurring themes throughout all of these wide-format feature stories is the fact that choice of printer is only a way for an end; wide-format imaging is less regarding a printing process and a lot more about manufacturing end-use products, and choosing printer is really regarding what is the easiest way to make those products. And it’s not only the textile printer, but the back and front ends of the process. “Think regarding the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How are you going to manage your colors, how reliable is the press, and look at the finishing equipment. The majority of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are great revenue opportunities about the finishing side.” (To get more on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is Where the true Work Begins.”)
It’s not only 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 approximately the very last output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is likewise important,” adds HP’s Gasch. “Adding more features, add a roll-to-roll option, add beds, add white ink, it must be flexible and scalable.”
Like any facet of printing, there is inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you want higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the answer is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there exists more to success in wide-format than simply receiving the fastest device on the market. “It’s not about top speed but the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You must be continuously printing.”