Since the advent of the Coffee Printer 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 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 kind of workflow. Print-then-mount adds yet another step (taking more time 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. And so the solution seems obvious: cut out the middleman and print directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers appear to be a brand new technology, however are actually over a decade old along with their evolution has been 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 usual trinity of speed, quality, and cost. The fourth part of that trinity was versatility. Just like the majority of things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the quality of [those initial models] could 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 an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds one hour.” Fujifilm supplies the Acuity and Inca Onset combination of true UV flatbed printers.
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mixture of UV Printer and development and also the evolution of ink technology, as well as effective ways of moving the substrate beyond the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads within the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical size of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also 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 the 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 certainly one consideration for virtually any shop seeking to acquire one-and it’s not simply the size of the gear. There also needs to be room to go large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings include the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series and also the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
Therefore the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has become the opportunity to print right on a multitude of materials without needing to print-then-mount or print on the 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 some of 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 diverse and unique substrates,” says HP’s Gasch, “such as ceramic, metallic, glass, and other thick, heavy materials.”
This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to become adopted by screen printers, in addition to 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 otherwise not UV, This is the Question
It had been advancements in ink technology that helped the DTG Printer, and inks have to be versatile enough to print on a wide variety of substrates with no shop needing to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which will increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to be placed on the outer lining to help improve ink adhesion, while some make use of a fixer added after printing. The majority of the printing we’re familiar with uses 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 requirement to offer the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are particularly helpful for these surfaces, because they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, so they don’t must evaporate/penetrate just how classical inks do.
Most of the accessible literature on flatbeds indicates that “flatbed printer” is synonymous with “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the majority of units on the market are UV devices. There are myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the cabability to print on the wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow will not be a decision to get made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature for a more detailed take a look at UV printing.)
Each of the new applications that flatbeds enable are wonderful, however, there is still a substantial amount of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop may use just one device to produce both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or hybrid printers. These devices will help a shop tackle a wider selection of work than could be handled using a single kind of printer, but be forewarned that the combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may lag the production speed of, a true flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed in the device, as the speed of the “flatbed mode” could be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and always get demos.