Ever since the advent of the wide-format printing market within the late 1980s/early 1990s, most the output devices available on the market have been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled in the device, rather similar to a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or other end use.
It’s not difficult to discover the disadvantages of these kinds of workflow. Print-then-mount adds yet another step (taking more hours 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. Therefore the solution seems obvious: eliminate the middleman and print right on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers seem like a fresh technology, but they are actually greater than a decade old as well as their evolution continues to be swift but stealthy. A seminal entry within the flatbed printer market was the Inca Eagle 44, and early limitations of wide-format flatbeds were the typical trinity of speed, quality, and price. The fourth member of that trinity was versatility. Much like most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the grade 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 an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour.” Fujifilm supplies the Acuity and Inca Onset number of true latte coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” is a standard way of measuring print speed in the flatbed printing world and is essentially equal to “prints an hour.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a combination of printhead design and development along with the evolution of ink technology, as well as effective methods for moving the substrate beyond the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads across the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical scale of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also 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 the way to move anyone to the 2nd floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is always to offset presses, particularly web presses, which in turn needed to be installed first, then the building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is a consideration for virtually any shop trying to acquire one-and it’s not simply the size of the device. There also needs to be room to maneuver large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings include the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series as well as the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
And so the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers continues to be the capability to print directly on a multitude of materials while not having to print-then-mount or print on the 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 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 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 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 could increase expense and decrease productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments being used on the surface to help improve ink adhesion, while some utilize a fixer added after printing. The majority of the printing we’re comfortable with relies on a liquid ink that dries by a combination of evaporation and penetration into the substrate, but many of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the desire to provide 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 need to evaporate/penetrate how classical inks do.
A lot of possible literature on flatbeds indicates that “flatbed printer” is synonymous with “UV printer” and, although there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, nearly all units in the marketplace are UV devices. There are myriad advantages to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print with a wider selection of materials, faster drying times, the opportunity to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching into a UV workflow is just not a decision to get made lightly. (See an upcoming feature for a more descriptive have a look at UV printing.)
All of the new applications that flatbeds enable are fantastic, however, there is still a substantial amount of perform best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop can use just one device to create both rollfed and flatbed applications as a result of so-called combination or uv printer. These products might help a store tackle a wider number of work than could be handled by using a single kind of printer, but be forewarned which a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may even lag the development speed of, a true flatbed. Specs sometimes refer to the rollfed speed in the device, while the speed of the “flatbed mode” might be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and always get demos.
As ever, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This will range from the usual trinity of technology-higher quality, faster speed, higher reliability-in addition to improved material handling as well as a continued increase of the number 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, the range of applications increases. HP sees increase of vertical markets being a growing wave of the future, “Targeting signage, and packaging keeps 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 would like to move to something such as an Acuity.”
It’s Not Only About the Printer
One of many recurring themes throughout many of these wide-format feature stories would be that the range of printer is only a method with an end; wide-format imaging is less about a printing process plus more about manufacturing end-use products, and the choice of printer is absolutely about what is the best way to make those products. And it’s not only the t-shirt printer, but the front and back ends of your process. “Think in regards to the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How will you manage your colors, how reliable is definitely the press, and look at the finishing equipment. Almost all of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are actually great revenue opportunities around the finishing side.” (To get more 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 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 last output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology is also important,” adds HP’s Gasch. “Adding more features, put in a roll-to-roll option, add beds, add white ink, it needs to be flexible and scalable.”
As in any aspect 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 will be always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there may be more to success in wide-format than just receiving the fastest device out there. “It’s not about top speed although the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You need to be continuously printing.”