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 simple enough to see the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional 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: 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 more than a decade old and their evolution has been swift but stealthy. A seminal entry in 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 part of that trinity was versatility. As with the majority of things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the caliber of [those initial models] could be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years ago, the very best speed was four beds an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds one hour.” Fujifilm provides the Acuity and Inca Onset series of true UV flatbed printers.
The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mixture of Phone Case Printer and development and the evolution of ink technology, along with effective ways of moving the substrate beyond the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads over the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical size of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and 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 to move one to the second floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is to offset presses, particularly web presses, which frequently had to be installed first, then the building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is one consideration for any shop hoping to acquire one-and it’s not only the size of the machine. 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 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 entirely on a wide variety 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 by way of a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, po-ker chips,” says Nelson, are the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went along to Home Depot and acquired 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, as well as 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 UV, That Is the Question
It was advancements in ink technology that helped the T-Shirt Printing Machine, and inks must be versatile enough to print on a multitude of substrates without a shop being forced to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which may increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to be placed on the top to aid improve ink adhesion, while others use a fixer added after printing. The majority of the printing we’re used to uses a liquid ink that dries by a mix of evaporation and penetration into the substrate, but many of these specialty substrates have surfaces untyft don’t allow ink penetration, hence the need to provide 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 the way more conventional inks do.
Much of the accessible literature on flatbeds shows that “flatbed printer” is synonymous with “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the vast majority of units on the market are UV devices. You can find myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the ability to print over a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to a UV workflow is not a decision to get made lightly. (See an upcoming feature for any more detailed look at UV printing.)
Each of the new applications that flatbeds enable are excellent, but there is still a substantial amount of work best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store can use just one device to produce both rollfed and flatbed applications because of so-called combination or hybrid printers. These products may help a shop tackle a wider selection of work than can be handled with 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 genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed from the device, as the speed of the “flatbed mode” might be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and also get demos.