Ever since the development of the wide-format printing market within the late 1980s/early 1990s, most the output devices available on the market happen to be rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled to the device, rather similar to 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 discover the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an extra step (taking 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 directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers look like a new technology, however they are actually greater than a decade old as well as 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 usual trinity of speed, quality, and expense. The fourth part of that trinity was versatility. Similar to most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the caliber of [those initial models] would be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten in the past, the top speed was four beds an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds one hour.” Fujifilm gives the Acuity and Inca Onset number of true latte coffee printer.
(“Beds per hour” is actually a standard measure of print speed within the flatbed printing world and is also essentially equal to “prints hourly.”)
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a combination of printhead design and development and also the evolution of ink technology, in addition to effective methods for moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads within the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical scale of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers where you can substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation are already significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as the way to move a person to another floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is usually to offset presses, particularly web presses, which frequently needed to be installed first, then your 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 merely the size of the gear. There must also be room to go large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings include the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series and the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
Hence 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 over a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed via a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, pok-er chips,” says Nelson, are one of the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone visited 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 get adopted by screen printers, as well as packaging printers and converters. “What is 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 absolutely was advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks must be versatile enough to print on numerous substrates without a shop having 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 placed on the top to help improve ink adhesion, although some make use of a fixer added after printing. Most of the printing we’re used to relies on a liquid ink that dries by a variety of evaporation and penetration in the substrate, but a number 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 ideal for these surfaces, while they dry by contact with ultraviolet light, so they don’t need to evaporate/penetrate how classical inks do.
A lot of the available literature on flatbeds shows that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the vast majority of units available on the market are UV devices. You can find myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the cabability to print on a wider array of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to a UV workflow is just not a determination being made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature to get a more detailed take a look at UV printing.)
All of the new applications that flatbeds enable are great, there is however still a considerable level of are best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store are able to use one particular device to make both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or phone case printer. These products might help a shop tackle a wider number of work than can be handled by using a single sort 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 talk about the rollfed speed of your device, while the speed in the “flatbed mode” can be substantially slower. Look for footnotes-and constantly 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-and also improved material handling and a continued increase of the quantity and kinds of materials they are able to print on; improvements in inks; improved ease of use; and much better integration with front ends as well as postpress finishing equipment. As a result, the plethora of applications increases. HP sees increase of vertical markets being a growing wave of the future, “Targeting signage, and packaging is increasing 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 with a rollfed printer and are looking to go on to something like an Acuity.”
It’s Not Just Concerning the Printer
One of several recurring themes throughout every one of these wide-format feature stories is that the selection of printer is only a means 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 really in regards to what is the best way to make those products. And it’s not simply the textile printer, but the front and rear ends of your process. “Think in regards to the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How are you going to manage your colors, how reliable is the press, and look at the finishing equipment. Almost all of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are great revenue opportunities about the finishing side.” (For further on finishing, see our recent feature, “End Game: In Wide-Format Printing, Finishing is the place where the genuine Work Begins.”)
It’s not merely the productivity ecosystem, but also the physical ecosystem. “You’re handling 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 likewise important,” adds HP’s Gasch. “Adding more features, give a roll-to-roll option, add beds, add white ink, it must be flexible and scalable.”
Like in any element of printing, there is certainly inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you want higher quality or better speed?’” says Nelson, “And the answer is always ‘Yes.’”
Still, there is more to success in wide-format than just obtaining the fastest device around. “It’s not about top speed although the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You need to be continuously printing.”