Since the development of the wide-format printing market from the late 1980s/early 1990s, nearly all the output devices on the market happen to be 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 one more 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. Hence 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 whole new technology, however are actually more than a decade old along with 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 4th person in that trinity was versatility. Similar to most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the standard of [those initial models] will be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years ago, the very best speed was four beds an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm supplies the Acuity and Inca Onset group of true latte printer.
(“Beds per hour” is really a standard measure of print speed in the flatbed printing world and is also 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 of moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads over the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical scale of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also a substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation happen to be significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as the best way to move someone to the next floor of any industrial space.” The analogy is usually 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 almost any shop looking to acquire one-and it’s not just the dimensions of the device. 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 along with the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
Therefore the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has become the ability to print right on numerous types of materials without needing 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, po-ker chips,” says Nelson, are 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 also 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 get adopted by screen printers, as well as 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 had been 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 with no 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 being put on the outer lining to aid improve ink adhesion, although 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 variety of evaporation and penetration in 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 specifically great for these surfaces, as they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, hence they don’t should evaporate/penetrate the way more traditional inks do.
Much of possible literature on flatbeds signifies that “flatbed printer” is synonymous with “UV printer” and, although there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the vast majority of units available on the market are UV devices. You will find myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print with a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the ability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching into a UV workflow is just not a decision to get made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature for a more in depth have a look at UV printing.)
All the new applications that flatbeds enable are fantastic, there is however still a substantial number of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop can make use of one particular device to create both rollfed and flatbed applications as a result of so-called combination or led uv printer. These units may help a store tackle a wider assortment of work than can be handled with a single kind of printer, but be forewarned which a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may lag the development speed of, a real flatbed. Specs sometimes talk about the rollfed speed in the device, whilst the speed of the “flatbed mode” might be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and always get demos.
As it ever was, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This will include the usual trinity of technology-better quality, faster speed, higher reliability-along with improved material handling along with a continued increase of the telephone number and types of materials they could print on; improvements in inks; improved convenience; and much better integration with front ends in addition to postpress finishing equipment. For that reason, the plethora of applications will increase. HP sees increase of vertical markets as being a growing wave of the future, “Targeting signage, and packaging is growing in importance,” says Gasch.
Fujifilm is also 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 relocate to something similar to an Acuity.”
It’s Not Merely Concerning the Printer
Among the recurring themes throughout all of these wide-format feature stories is the fact that selection of printer is only a method with an end; wide-format imaging is less in regards to a printing process and more about manufacturing end-use products, and choosing printer is very about what is the best way to make those products. And it’s not only the t-shirt printer, but the front and rear ends in the process. “Think regarding the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How are you going to manage your colors, how reliable may be the press, and look at the finishing equipment. Nearly all of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are great revenue opportunities in the finishing side.” (To get more on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is when the actual Work Begins.”)
It’s not merely the productivity ecosystem, but also the physical ecosystem. “You’re working 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 additionally 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 certainly inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you need higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the correct answer is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there may be more to success in wide-format than only having the fastest device out there. “It’s not about top speed however the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You have to be continuously printing.”