Since the advent of the wide-format printing market in the late 1980s/early 1990s, nearly all the output devices on the market have been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled in to the device, rather such as a web press. The completed graphic was then often fitted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or some other end use.
Since the development of the cafe printer inside the late 1980s/early 1990s, the vast majority of the output devices on the market have already been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled in to the device, rather just like a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or some other end use.
It’s simple enough to see the disadvantages of this kind of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking more hours and reducing productivity) and uses more materials (the printed substrate plus the mounting material and adhesive), incurs more consumables costs, increases waste, and decreases productivity. So 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 brand new technology, but they are actually greater than a decade old and their evolution has become swift but stealthy. A seminal entry inside the flatbed printer market was the Inca Eagle 44, and early limitations of wide-format flatbeds were the typical trinity of speed, quality, and expense. Your fourth member of that trinity was versatility. Similar to the majority of 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 one hour. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm offers the Acuity and Inca Onset combination of phone case printer.
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mix of printhead design and development and the evolution of ink technology, as well as effective methods for moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads over the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical dimensions 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 how you can move someone to the second floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is to offset presses, particularly web presses, which often needed to be installed first, then the building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is certainly one consideration for just about any shop hoping to acquire one-and it’s not simply the dimensions of the machine. There must also be room to move large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings are the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series as well as the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
Therefore the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers continues to be the cabability to print right on numerous materials without having to print-then-mount or print over a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed by way of a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, poke.r chips,” says Nelson, are among the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went 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 substrate versatility have led flatbeds to become adopted by screen printers, along with 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.
UV or Not UV, This is the Question
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 be put on the outer lining to help improve ink adhesion, while some make use of a fixer added after printing. A lot of the printing we’re used to uses a liquid ink that dries by a combination of evaporation and penetration to the substrate, but many of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow iaddzf penetration, hence the need to give the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are specifically helpful for these surfaces, as they dry by being exposed to ultraviolet light, so that they don’t have to evaporate/penetrate the way in which more traditional 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, the vast majority of units on the market are UV devices. There are myriad advantages to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print on a wider range of materials, faster drying times, the ability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow will not be a decision to become made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature for any more detailed look at UV printing.)
All of the new applications that t-shirt printer enable are excellent, there is however still a considerable amount of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop can use one particular device to create both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or hybrid printers. These devices will help a store tackle a wider variety of work than may be handled using a single kind of printer, but be forewarned that the combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and might lag the development speed of, a genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes refer to the rollfed speed of the device, while the speed from the “flatbed mode” might be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and also get demos.