Ever since the coming of the wide-format printing market from the late 1980s/early 1990s, nearly all the output devices out there happen to be rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled to the device, rather such as a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or other end use.
It’s not so difficult to see the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking more hours 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. Hence 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 new technology, but are actually more than a decade old in addition to their evolution is swift but stealthy. A seminal entry from the flatbed printer market was the Inca Eagle 44, and early limitations of wide-format flatbeds were the standard trinity of speed, quality, and cost. The fourth member of that trinity was versatility. Much like most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the quality of [those initial models] could be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten yrs ago, the best speed was four beds one hour. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm provides the Acuity and Inca Onset series of true latte coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” is actually a standard measure of print speed in the flatbed printing world and is also essentially equivalent to “prints an hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a variety of printhead design and development along with the evolution of ink technology, as well as effective ways of moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads over the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical measurements of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also have a substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation have been significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as the best way to move one to the 2nd floor of any industrial space.” The analogy is 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 just about any shop hoping to acquire one-and it’s not only how big the machine. 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 and also the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
Hence the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has become the capability to print entirely on a multitude of materials and never have to print-then-mount or print with a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed via a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, po-ker 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 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 to become adopted by screen printers, along with 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 absolutely was advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks have to be versatile enough to print on numerous 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 become put on the top to help improve ink adhesion, while some work with a fixer added after printing. Many of the printing we’re familiar with works with a liquid ink that dries by a mixture of evaporation and penetration into the substrate, but many of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the necessity to give the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are specifically ideal for these surfaces, as they dry by being exposed to ultraviolet light, therefore they don’t need to evaporate/penetrate the way more traditional inks do.
A great deal of the available literature on flatbeds suggests that “flatbed printer” is synonymous with “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, nearly all units available on the market are UV devices. You can find myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the capability to print on a wider range of materials, faster drying times, the ability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to a UV workflow is just not a determination to get made lightly. (See a future feature for the more in depth have a look at UV printing.)
Every one of the new applications that flatbeds enable are great, but there is still a significant volume of are best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop can use a single device to produce both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or phone case printer. These products will help a store tackle a wider number of work than might be handled having a single sort of printer, but be forewarned a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and could lag the development speed of, a true flatbed. Specs sometimes talk about the rollfed speed of the device, even though the speed in the “flatbed mode” could be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and constantly get demos.
As ever, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This will include the usual trinity of technology-high quality, faster speed, higher reliability-in addition to improved material handling and a continued expansion of the amount and types of materials they could print on; improvements in inks; improved simplicity of use; and much better integration with front ends along with postpress finishing equipment. As a result, all the different applications increases. HP sees expansion of vertical markets like 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 with a rollfed printer and want to relocate to such as an Acuity.”
It’s Not Only In regards to the Printer
Among the recurring themes throughout every one of these wide-format feature stories is that the range of printer is merely a method to an end; wide-format imaging is less in regards to a printing process plus more about manufacturing end-use products, and the choice of printer is absolutely about what is the easiest method to make those products. And it’s not just the t-shirt printer, but the front and back ends in the process. “Think regarding the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How can you manage your colors, how reliable is the press, and look at the finishing equipment. Nearly all of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are actually 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 actual Work Begins.”)
It’s not only 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 last 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 is inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you desire higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the correct answer is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there is more to success in wide-format than merely receiving the fastest device out there. “It’s not about top speed but the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You need to be continuously printing.”