Since the development of the wide-format printing market 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 in to the device, rather such as a web press. The completed graphic was then often installed onto a rigid material for display, installation, or any other end use.

Because the development of the coffee printer in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the majority of the output devices on the market have already been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled to the device, rather such as a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or any other end use.

It’s not so difficult to see the disadvantages of this kind of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking more hours 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. 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 new technology, however are actually greater 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 standard trinity of speed, quality, and cost. The 4th part of that trinity was versatility. Similar to most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the quality 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 best speed was four beds an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm provides the Acuity and Inca Onset number of uv printer.

The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mixture of printhead design and development and also the evolution of ink technology, in addition to effective ways of moving the substrate past 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 also 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 next floor of your industrial space.” The analogy is always to offset presses, particularly web presses, which frequently must be installed first, then this building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is certainly one consideration for any shop looking to acquire one-and it’s not just how big the gear. There also needs to be room to maneuver 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 opportunity to print entirely on a multitude of materials without needing 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, pok.er chips,” says Nelson, are among the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went along to 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, and other thick, heavy materials.”

This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to become adopted by screen printers, as well as 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 Not UV, This is the Question

It was advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks need to be versatile enough to print on numerous substrates with no shop needing to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which would increase expense and decrease productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to be placed on the top to assist improve ink adhesion, while some make use of a fixer added after printing. A lot of the printing we’re accustomed to uses a liquid ink that dries by a mixture of evaporation and penetration in to the substrate, but most of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow iaddzf penetration, hence the need to offer the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are especially great for these surfaces, as they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, therefore they don’t have to evaporate/penetrate the way in which more conventional inks do.

A lot of the available literature on flatbeds suggests that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, nearly all units on the market are UV devices. You can find myriad advantages to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the cabability to print over a wider selection of materials, faster drying times, the ability to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to your UV workflow is not really a choice to get made lightly. (See an upcoming feature for a more in depth examine UV printing.)

Combos

All the new applications that t-shirt printing machine enable are great, but there is still a substantial volume of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store are able to use one particular device to create both rollfed and flatbed applications because of so-called combination or hybrid printers. These devices will help a shop tackle a wider variety of work than could 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 true flatbed. Specs sometimes make reference to the rollfed speed from the device, while the speed in the “flatbed mode” might be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and always get demos.