Ever since the coming of the wide-format printing market inside the late 1980s/early 1990s, nearly all the output devices in the marketplace are already rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled in to the device, rather 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 kind of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking much more time 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. And so the solution seems obvious: remove 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 more than a decade old and their evolution has become 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 price. The fourth an affiliate that trinity was versatility. Much like the majority of things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the grade of [those initial models] can be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years back, the very best speed was four beds an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour.” Fujifilm gives the Acuity and Inca Onset combination of true latte coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” can be a standard way of measuring print speed in the flatbed printing world which is essentially equal to “prints per hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mixture of printhead design and development and the evolution of ink technology, and also effective means of moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads on 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 have already been significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as the way to move anyone to the second floor of the industrial space.” The analogy is always to offset presses, particularly web presses, which in turn 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 just the actual size of the equipment. There must also be room to go large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings add the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series as well as the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
Hence the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers is the ability to print entirely on a multitude of materials without having to print-then-mount or print with a 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 among the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went to Home Depot and found 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, along with 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 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 was advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks have to be versatile enough to print on a multitude of substrates without having a shop needing to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which could increase expense and decrease productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to be used on the surface to help improve ink adhesion, and some use a fixer added after printing. A lot of the printing we’re familiar with 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 desire to give the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are specifically helpful for these surfaces, because they dry by being exposed to ultraviolet light, so they don’t should evaporate/penetrate the way in which more conventional inks do.
Most of the accessible literature on flatbeds suggests that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, however, there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, virtually all units on the market are UV devices. You can find myriad advantages to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print on the wider selection of materials, faster drying times, the opportunity to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to your UV workflow is not a choice to become made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature to get a more descriptive take a look at UV printing.)
Every one of the new applications that flatbeds enable are excellent, there is however still a considerable amount of perform best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop are able to use a single device to make both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or led uv printer. These products might help a store tackle a wider selection of work than might be handled having a single form of printer, but be forewarned that a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may even lag the production speed of, a real flatbed. Specs sometimes talk about the rollfed speed in the device, whilst the speed of the “flatbed mode” may 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 likely add the usual trinity of technology-high quality, faster speed, higher reliability-along with improved material handling and a continued increase of the number and kinds of materials they could print on; improvements in inks; improved simplicity of use; and much better integration with front ends in addition to postpress finishing equipment. As a result, the plethora of applications increases. HP sees increase of vertical markets being a growing coming trend, “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 using a rollfed printer and would like to move to something such as an Acuity.”
It’s Not Just In regards to the Printer
One of many recurring themes throughout most of these wide-format feature stories would be that the collection of printer is merely a means for an end; wide-format imaging is less regarding a printing process plus more about manufacturing end-use products, and deciding on a printer is really about what is the best way to make those products. And it’s not only the t-shirt printer, but also the front and rear ends of your 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 actually great revenue opportunities about the finishing side.” (To get more on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is when the true Work Begins.”)
It’s not merely the productivity ecosystem, but also the physical ecosystem. “You’re coping 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 around 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 needs to be flexible and scalable.”
As in any part of printing, there is certainly inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you would like better quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the correct answer is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there is certainly more to success in wide-format than simply obtaining the fastest device out there. “It’s not about top speed although the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You need to be continuously printing.”