Because the advent of the Coffee Ripples 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 find out 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 as well as the mounting material and adhesive), incurs more consumables costs, increases waste, and decreases productivity. Therefore the solution seems obvious: eliminate the middleman and print directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.
Flatbed wide-format printers seem like a new technology, however they are actually more than 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 expense. The 4th part of that trinity was versatility. Just like most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the standard of [those initial models] could be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years back, the very best speed was four beds one 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 combination of UV Printer and development and the evolution of ink technology, along with effective methods for moving the substrate beyond 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 have a substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation have been significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as how you can move someone to the next floor of an industrial space.” The analogy is always 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 just about any shop seeking to acquire one-and it’s not only how big the equipment. There also needs to be room to go large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings range from the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series and the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.
So the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has become the ability to print directly on numerous materials without having to print-then-mount or print on a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed by way of a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, po-ker chips,” says Nelson, are the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone visited Home Depot and picked up 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, along with other thick, heavy materials.”
This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to get adopted by screen printers, along with 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 otherwise not UV, Which is the Question
It was advancements in ink technology that helped the T-Shirt Printing Machine, and inks need to be versatile enough to print on a wide variety of substrates without having a shop having to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which will increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to become applied to the top to help improve ink adhesion, and some make use of a fixer added after printing. The majority of the printing we’re familiar with utilizes a liquid ink that dries by a mix of evaporation and penetration in to the substrate, but most of these specialty substrates have surfaces untyft don’t allow ink penetration, hence the necessity to offer the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are particularly helpful for these surfaces, as they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, therefore they don’t must evaporate/penetrate just how classical inks do.
Most of the accessible literature on flatbeds indicates that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the vast majority of units on the market are UV devices. You will find myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print over a wider selection of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to a UV workflow is not a choice to get made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature to get a more detailed examine UV printing.)
All of the new applications that flatbeds enable are great, however, there is still a considerable amount of perform best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop may use just one device to create 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 may be handled using a single type of printer, but be forewarned that a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and might lag the production speed of, a true flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed from the device, while the speed of the “flatbed mode” might be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and always get demos.