Considering that the development of the wide-format printing market in 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 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 see the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds yet another step (taking more hours 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. And so the solution seems obvious: eliminate the middleman and print entirely on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers seem like a fresh technology, but are actually greater than a decade old in addition to their evolution continues to be swift but stealthy. A seminal entry in the flatbed printer market was the Inca Eagle 44, and early limitations of wide-format flatbeds were the standard trinity of speed, quality, and expense. The 4th person in that trinity was versatility. Similar to the majority of things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the quality of [those initial models] would be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten yrs ago, the most notable speed was four beds 1 hour. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm offers the Acuity and Inca Onset number of true latte printer.
(“Beds per hour” is a standard measure of print speed within the flatbed printing world and it is essentially equal to “prints per hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a variety of printhead design and development as well as the evolution of ink technology, in addition to effective methods of moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads on the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical measurements of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and have 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 how to move one to the second floor of an industrial space.” The analogy is usually to offset presses, particularly web presses, which regularly must be installed first, then this building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is a consideration for almost any shop looking to acquire one-and it’s not simply how big the equipment. There must also be room to move large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings include the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series and also the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
And so the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers is the opportunity to print right on numerous materials while not having to print-then-mount or print on 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 one of the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went along to Home Depot and acquired 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, and 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 be adopted by screen printers, as well as 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 should 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 to become used on the surface to help 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 requirement to give the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are especially ideal for these surfaces, since they dry by contact with ultraviolet light, so that they don’t must evaporate/penetrate how classical inks do.
A great deal of the accessible literature on flatbeds signifies that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the vast majority of units in the marketplace are UV devices. There are actually myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the capability to print over a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the ability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to your UV workflow is not really a determination to get made lightly. (See a future feature to get a more detailed look at UV printing.)
Each of the new applications that flatbeds enable are excellent, there is however still a substantial level of work best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store may use an individual device to generate both rollfed and flatbed applications as a result of so-called combination or phone case printer. These products may help a shop tackle a wider variety of work than can be handled with 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 true flatbed. Specs sometimes refer to the rollfed speed of your device, even though the speed of your “flatbed mode” might be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and constantly get demos.
As it ever was, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This may include the usual trinity of technology-top quality, faster speed, higher reliability-in addition to improved material handling along with a continued increase of the quantity and types of materials they can print on; improvements in inks; improved simplicity of use; and integration with front ends and also postpress finishing equipment. As a result, the plethora of applications increases. HP sees expansion of vertical markets as being a growing coming trend, “Targeting signage, and packaging is growing 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 having a rollfed printer and are looking to relocate to something such as an Acuity.”
It’s Not Just Regarding the Printer
Among the recurring themes throughout many of these wide-format feature stories is that the range of printer is merely a way to an end; wide-format imaging is less about a printing process and more about manufacturing end-use products, and the option of printer is very regarding what is the easiest method to make those products. And it’s not merely the textile printer, but also the back and front ends of your process. “Think concerning the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How are you going to manage your colors, how reliable is definitely the press, and check out the finishing equipment. Almost all of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are actually great revenue opportunities about the finishing side.” (For additional on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is the place where the Real Work Begins.”)
It’s not just the productivity ecosystem, but also 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 around the ultimate output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is additionally 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 in any facet of printing, there is certainly inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you want better quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the answer is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there is more to success in wide-format than only having the fastest device around. “It’s not about top speed but the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You have to be continuously printing.”