Considering that the introduction of the wide-format printing market from the late 1980s/early 1990s, the majority of the output devices in the marketplace have already been 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 any other end use.
It’s simple enough to view the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds one more 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: remove the middleman and print entirely on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers seem like a new technology, however are actually more than a decade old and their evolution has been 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 normal trinity of speed, quality, and price. The 4th part of that trinity was versatility. Just like the majority of 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 in the past, the very best speed was four beds one hour. Now, it’s 90 beds 1 hour.” Fujifilm gives the Acuity and Inca Onset combination of true coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” is really a standard measure of print speed in the flatbed printing world which is essentially equivalent to “prints each hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mixture of printhead design and development along with the evolution of ink technology, along with effective methods for moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads within the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical size of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also have 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 how you can move one to the 2nd floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is usually 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 virtually any shop hoping to acquire one-and it’s not simply the size of the equipment. There also needs to be room to go 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.
And so the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers continues to be the capability to print right on numerous types of materials while not having to print-then-mount or print with a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed by way of 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 found 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, as well as other thick, heavy materials.”
This 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, 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 had been advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks need to be versatile enough to print on numerous substrates with out a shop having to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which would increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to be applied to the surface to aid improve ink adhesion, and some make use of a fixer added after printing. Most of the printing we’re familiar with works with 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 offer the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are especially great for these surfaces, because they dry by contact with ultraviolet light, hence they don’t must evaporate/penetrate just how more traditional inks do.
Most of the available literature on flatbeds suggests that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, however, there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the vast majority of units on the market are UV devices. There are actually myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print on a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the capability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching into a UV workflow is just not a choice to get made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature for a more detailed examine UV printing.)
Every one of the new applications that flatbeds enable are great, but there is still a substantial number of are best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store may use just one device to create both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or phone case printer. These products will help a shop tackle a wider number of work than could be handled having a single sort of printer, but be forewarned a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and might lag the production speed of, a real flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed from the device, as the speed of your “flatbed mode” can be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and always get demos.
As ever, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This will add the usual trinity of technology-high quality, faster speed, higher reliability-as well as improved material handling and a continued expansion of the number and kinds of materials they may print on; improvements in inks; improved simplicity of use; and better integration with front ends in addition to postpress finishing equipment. Consequently, the plethora of applications boosts. HP sees increase of vertical markets as a growing wave of the future, “Targeting signage, and packaging keeps 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 are looking to go on to something such as an Acuity.”
It’s Not Only In regards to the Printer
One of many recurring themes throughout most of these wide-format feature stories would be that the range of printer is just a means to a end; wide-format imaging is less with regards to a printing process and much more about manufacturing end-use products, and choosing printer is actually in regards to what is the easiest way to make those products. And it’s not just the t-shirt printer, but also the front and back ends in the process. “Think concerning the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How can you manage your colors, how reliable will be 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 about the finishing side.” (For further on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is Where the Real Work Begins.”)
It’s not just the productivity ecosystem, but 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 last output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is also 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.”
Like any part of printing, there is inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you would like higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the answer is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there may be more to success in wide-format than merely receiving the fastest device around. “It’s not about top speed nevertheless the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You need to be continuously printing.”