Considering that the advent of the Coffee Printer in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the majority of the output devices on the market have been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled into the device, rather like 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 see the disadvantages of this type of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an extra step (taking 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: reduce the middleman and print directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers look like a whole new technology, however are actually over a decade old along with their evolution has been 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 usual trinity of speed, quality, and cost. The 4th person in that trinity was versatility. Just like most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the quality of [those initial models] would be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years back, the best speed was four beds an hour. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour.” Fujifilm offers the Acuity and Inca Onset combination of true UV flatbed printers.
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mix of UV Flatbed Printer and development as well as the evolution of ink technology, along with effective means of moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads on the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical scale of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also 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 the best way to move someone to the next floor of the industrial space.” The analogy would be to offset presses, particularly web presses, which frequently needed to be installed first, then the building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is just one consideration for virtually any shop seeking to acquire one-and it’s not only the dimensions of the equipment. There must also be room to maneuver 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 has become the opportunity to print right on a wide variety of materials while not having 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, po-ker chips,” says Nelson, are the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone visited Home Depot and found 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.”
This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to become 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.
UV or Not UV, Which is the Question
It absolutely was advancements in ink technology that helped the T-Shirt Printing Machine, and inks have to be versatile enough to print on numerous substrates without having a shop having to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which may increase expense and decrease productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to get placed on the outer lining to assist improve ink adhesion, while others make use of a fixer added after printing. A lot of the printing we’re used to works with a liquid ink that dries by a combination of evaporation and penetration into the substrate, but most of these specialty substrates have surfaces untyft don’t allow ink penetration, hence the necessity to give the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are particularly helpful for these surfaces, since they dry by contact with ultraviolet light, therefore they don’t have to evaporate/penetrate just how more traditional inks do.
Most of the accessible literature on flatbeds suggests that “flatbed printer” is synonymous with “UV printer” and, although there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the vast majority of units on the market are UV devices. You can find myriad benefits to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print over a wider range of materials, faster drying times, the opportunity to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow is not really a decision to become made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature for any more in depth take a look at UV printing.)
Each of the new applications that flatbeds enable are excellent, however, there is still a substantial amount of perform best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store can use one particular device to generate both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or hybrid printers. These devices may help a shop tackle a wider number of work than can be handled with a single type of printer, but be forewarned which a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and might lag the production speed of, a genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes refer to the rollfed speed in the device, while the speed of the “flatbed mode” may be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and constantly get demos.