by Sandra

Considering that the introduction 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 yet another 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. So the solution seems obvious: cut out the middleman and print directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.

Flatbed wide-format printers look like a whole new technology, but they are actually more than a decade old and 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 standard trinity of speed, quality, and price. 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] will be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten in the past, the very best speed was four beds an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds one 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 also the evolution of ink technology, along with 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 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 to move one to the second floor of the industrial space.” The analogy is to offset presses, particularly web presses, which often must be installed first, then this 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 dimensions of the gear. There must also be room to move 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.

And so the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has been the ability to print entirely on a wide variety of materials without having to print-then-mount or print on the 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 among 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, along with other thick, heavy materials.”

This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to be adopted by screen printers, along with packaging printers and converters. “What keeps 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, This is the Question

It was advancements in ink technology that helped the T-Shirt Printer, and inks have to be versatile enough to print on numerous substrates without 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 be placed on the surface to help improve ink adhesion, while others make use of a fixer added after printing. Most of the printing we’re accustomed to works with a liquid ink that dries by a mixture 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 provide the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are specifically helpful for these surfaces, because they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, therefore they don’t must evaporate/penetrate just how more conventional inks do.

A lot of possible literature on flatbeds shows 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. You will find myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print on the wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to your UV workflow is not a determination to be made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature to get a more in depth examine UV printing.)

Combos

All of the new applications that flatbeds enable are great, but there is still a considerable level of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop may use a single device to create both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or hybrid printers. These devices can help a store tackle a wider selection of work than may be handled with a single type of printer, but be forewarned that the combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and might lag the production speed of, a true flatbed. Specs sometimes make reference to the rollfed speed of the device, as the speed from the “flatbed mode” may be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and constantly get demos.

Sandra
About Sandra