Considering that the introduction of the Cafe 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 find out the disadvantages of this type of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an extra step (taking more hours 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. So the solution seems obvious: eliminate 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 along with 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. The 4th member of that trinity was versatility. As with most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the caliber of [those initial models] will be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years back, the top speed was four beds one hour. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm offers the Acuity and Inca Onset series of true UV flatbed printers.
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a combination of UV Flatbed Printer and development as well as the evolution of ink technology, in addition to effective means of moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads within the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical scale of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also have 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 how to move one to the second floor of the industrial space.” The analogy is always to offset presses, particularly web presses, which often had to be installed first, then your building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is certainly one consideration for any shop seeking to acquire one-and it’s not only the size of the equipment. There also needs to be room to go large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings are 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 been the opportunity to print right on a multitude of materials without having to print-then-mount or print over a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed through 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 picked up 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, and other thick, heavy materials.”
This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to be 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 otherwise not UV, Which is the Question
It had been advancements in ink technology that helped the DTG Printer, and inks need to be versatile enough to print on a wide variety of substrates with no 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 become applied to the top to assist improve ink adhesion, and some utilize 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 in to the substrate, but many 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 especially ideal for these surfaces, since they dry by being exposed to ultraviolet light, therefore they don’t must evaporate/penetrate the way in which more traditional inks do.
Most of the available literature on flatbeds suggests that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, nearly all units on the market are UV devices. There are myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the ability to print over a wider selection of materials, faster drying times, the opportunity to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow is not a decision to become made lightly. (See a future feature for a more descriptive take a look at UV printing.)
All the new applications that flatbeds enable are excellent, there is however still a large volume of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store can use a single device to generate both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or hybrid printers. These units will help a store tackle a wider selection of work than can 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 development speed of, a real flatbed. Specs sometimes refer to the rollfed speed of the device, while the speed of the “flatbed mode” could be substantially slower. Look for footnotes-and constantly get demos.