Considering that the coming of the wide-format printing market from the late 1980s/early 1990s, the majority of the output devices on the market happen to be rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled into the device, rather such as a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or some other end use.
It’s not so difficult to find out the disadvantages of this type of workflow. Print-then-mount adds one more step (taking additional 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: remove the middleman and print entirely on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers look like a fresh technology, but are actually over a decade old as well as their evolution has become 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 cost. The fourth part of that trinity was versatility. As with 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 in the past, the very best speed was four beds 1 hour. Now, it’s 90 beds one hour.” Fujifilm supplies the Acuity and Inca Onset number of true coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” can be a standard measure of print speed from the flatbed printing world and is also essentially comparable to “prints per hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a combination of printhead design and development as well as the evolution of ink technology, and also effective ways of moving the substrate beyond the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads across the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical measurements of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also 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 a person to another floor of any industrial space.” The analogy is to offset presses, particularly web presses, which often would have to be installed first, then this building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is one consideration for almost any shop looking to acquire one-and it’s not only how big the machine. There also needs to be room to move large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings range from 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 capability to print directly on a wide variety of materials without having to print-then-mount or print on 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 some of the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone traveled to Home Depot and picked up 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.”
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 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 absolutely was advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks need 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 would increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to get used on the surface to aid improve ink adhesion, while others work with a fixer added after printing. Most of the printing we’re accustomed to works with a liquid ink that dries by a combination of evaporation and penetration into the substrate, but several of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the necessity to provide the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are particularly ideal for these surfaces, as they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, so they don’t have to evaporate/penetrate how more conventional inks do.
A lot of the available literature on flatbeds shows 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. There are actually myriad advantages to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the ability to print with a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow is just not a conclusion to be made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature for a more descriptive look at UV printing.)
All of the new applications that flatbeds enable are fantastic, however, there is still a large volume of perform best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop can make use of a single device to create both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or phone case printer. These units may help a store tackle a wider variety of work than can be handled by using a single kind of printer, but be forewarned that a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may even lag the development speed of, an authentic flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed from the device, whilst the speed in the “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 may include the usual trinity of technology-better quality, faster speed, higher reliability-and also improved material handling plus a continued increase of the amount and kinds of materials they are able to print on; improvements in inks; improved convenience; and better integration with front ends along with postpress finishing equipment. As a result, all the different applications improves. HP sees expansion of vertical markets like a growing coming trend, “Targeting signage, and packaging is increasing 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 having a rollfed printer and would like to proceed to something like an Acuity.”
It’s Not Merely Concerning the Printer
One of several recurring themes throughout many of these wide-format feature stories is the fact that collection of printer is merely a means to a end; wide-format imaging is less regarding a printing process and more about manufacturing end-use products, and deciding on a printer is actually in regards to what is the easiest method to make those products. And it’s not merely the textile printer, but also the front and rear ends in the process. “Think concerning the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How would you like to manage your colors, how reliable is definitely 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 on the finishing side.” (For additional on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is the place where the actual Work Begins.”)
It’s not just 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 all about the final 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.”
As in any part 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 is more to success in wide-format than just receiving the fastest device out there. “It’s not about top speed however the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You should be continuously printing.”