Because the coming of the wide-format printing market within the late 1980s/early 1990s, nearly all the output devices available on the market have been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled into the device, rather just like a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or another end use.
It’s not difficult to see the disadvantages of this type of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking much more time 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. Therefore the solution seems obvious: remove the middleman and print entirely on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers seem like a brand new technology, but they are actually over a decade old as well as their evolution is 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 normal trinity of speed, quality, and expense. The 4th person in that trinity was versatility. Similar to most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the quality of [those initial models] will be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten in the past, the best speed was four beds 1 hour. Now, it’s 90 beds 1 hour.” Fujifilm gives the Acuity and Inca Onset series of true latte printer.
(“Beds per hour” can be a standard way of measuring print speed in the flatbed printing world and is essentially similar 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, and also effective means 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 also have a 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 anyone to the 2nd floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is to offset presses, particularly web presses, which often needed to be installed first, then your building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is one consideration for almost any shop hoping to acquire one-and it’s not merely how big the equipment. There must also be room to advance large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings add the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series as well as the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
So the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has been the opportunity to print directly on numerous types of materials and never have 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, pok-er chips,” says Nelson, are among 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, as well as other thick, heavy materials.”
Here 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, and also 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 wide variety of substrates with out a shop having to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which could increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to become put on the surface to help you improve ink adhesion, while some use a fixer added after printing. The majority of the printing we’re familiar with uses a liquid ink that dries by a variety of evaporation and penetration to the substrate, but many of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow ink penetration, hence the requirement to supply the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are particularly useful for these surfaces, because they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, so that they don’t must evaporate/penetrate the way more conventional inks do.
Most of the available literature on flatbeds indicates that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, although there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, virtually all units available on the market are UV devices. There are myriad benefits to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the cabability to print with a wider array of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching into a UV workflow is just not a determination to be made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature for any more detailed take a look at UV printing.)
All the new applications that flatbeds enable are fantastic, however, there is still a considerable number of perform best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop can use just one device to make both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or uv printer. These units might help a shop tackle a wider variety of work than can be handled using a single type of printer, but be forewarned a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and could lag the development speed of, a genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed of your device, as the speed from the “flatbed mode” can be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and also get demos.
As ever, technology improvements will expand the capabilities of flatbed printers. This can range from the usual trinity of technology-higher quality, faster speed, higher reliability-along with improved material handling and a continued increase of the amount and types of materials they can print on; improvements in inks; improved convenience; and much better integration with front ends in addition to postpress finishing equipment. As a result, the range of applications boosts. HP sees expansion of vertical markets being a growing coming trend, “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 want to go on to something such as an Acuity.”
It’s Not Just Regarding the Printer
One of several recurring themes throughout all of these wide-format feature stories is the fact that collection of printer is merely a means to an end; wide-format imaging is less about a printing process plus more about manufacturing end-use products, and the option of printer is really as to what is the easiest way to make those products. And it’s not just the textile printer, but the front and back ends in the process. “Think about the entire ecosystem,” says Nelson. “How will you manage your colors, how reliable is definitely the press, and look at the finishing equipment. Nearly all of our printer customers also 03dexqpky cutting and routing equipment. There are great revenue opportunities about 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 only 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 about the ultimate output, it’s the finished product.”
“Scalable technology can also be important,” adds HP’s Gasch. “Adding more features, include a roll-to-roll option, add beds, add white ink, it needs to be flexible and scalable.”
Like any facet of printing, there exists inevitably a tradeoff between speed and quality. “Customers are asked, ‘Do you would like higher 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 having the fastest device out there. “It’s not about top speed but the entire workflow,” says Gasch. “You should be continuously printing.”