New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman coined the phrase "the world is flat" to describe globalization, but he easily could have referred to an increasing interest in flatbed printers.
"The UV markets—flatbed and roll-to-roll—are the newest sectors of the wide format market and have the highest growth rates with perhaps the most interesting potential for an entirely new wide format market," remarks Mark Hanley, president, I.T. Strategies. The UV print market could reach the size of the entire digital market today, Hanley suggests.
Demand for flatbed printers is spurred by a general growth in point of purchase (POP) and point of sale (POS) advertising, notes Chris Howard, VP of sales, Durst Image Technology US, LLC. Another reason, he says, "is the increased capabilities and productivity of the latest machines."
"2008 is truly a tipping point year for digital UV technology. Print speeds are now driving analog to digital transition like never before. Print quality and white layering capabilities are opening up new and exciting applications in areas ranging from POP graphics to photorealistic output. For printers everywhere, the next purchase decision is ‘which’ UV printer, not ‘if,’" agrees Chuck Dourlet, VP, marketing, EFI/VUTEk.
The cost savings associated with no longer having to mount and laminate is also luring print providers, says Randy Paar, display graphics product manager, Océ North America.
The list of compatible substrates that a flatbed is able to tackle is voluminous—foamboard, Sintra, Plexiglas, styrene, Lucite and polycarbonates, glass, ceramics, tile, metal, corrugated cardboard, plywood, and even leather. "We’ve had people print on doors from Home Depot, laminate flooring, you name it," shares Tom Riley, VP, sales and marketing, Gandinnovations.
Due to the growing use of low heat LED curing lamps—compared to traditional mercury lamps—flatbeds now accommodate heat sensitive materials as well.
The seemingly pervasive phenomenon of "green" marketing is also pushing flatbed growth, observes Howard. UV inks popular with most flatbed printers propel the eco-friendly message as well, says Riley. "UV is the winning format for flatbed because there is no waiting for the ink to dry, no ink-based printhead failures, and no volatile organic compounds (VOCs)," says Paar.
Mutoh America, Inc., manufactures a solvent flatbed, which is compatible with its third generation eco-solvent ink just for this environmentally friendly reason, notes Gary Rudnick, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
The Rise of Hybrids
The ability to pull double duty, printing on both rigid and flexible roll-to-roll media is increasing the flatbed’s popularity—creating greater versatility.
"More and more print providers, as well as advertisers, are looking for one stop shops where they can produce anything they need for their campaigns," explains Hanan Yosefi, president/CEO, Matan Digital Printers.
"We see the demand for our roll-to-roll UV printers growing even quicker than the flatbed market. This has to do with the productivity of the UV machines we offer, along with efficiencies designed into them, giving the owners a competitive advantage in the market," shares Howard. A very high percentage of Durst customers add roll-to-roll capabilities to their flatbeds, he adds.
"We think the market demands a true flatbed and a true roll-to-roll, not a hybrid," counters Riley. "Customers don’t want anything less than the full capability of the machine." "Plus," he continues, "if one part goes down, a customer loses two machines."
Having roll-to-roll capability attracts more entry level customers to flatbeds, says Rudnick. For smaller shops, it not only helps them enter into direct-to-rigid opportunities, but also provides them with a spare, flexible printing capacity should demand swell, he says.
"Combination presses are primarily targeted at companies just entering a new market who are unsure of how their business will develop," says Heather Kendle, director of marketing, Inca Digital Printers. "Companies with a more mature understanding of the market are now deciding whether to specifically invest in a flatbed or a roll press depending on where there is a better business need."
Hybrids attract customers due to their ability to minimize footprint while adding capacity, says Paar, but he adds that there are "pros and cons to any hybrid solution—when printing roll-to-roll, rigid board printing is on hold, and vice versa. Hybrid systems offer versatility, though some productivity is sacrificed."
"This can be managed as each shop finds its rhythm," explains Paar. Before diving into a hybrid solution consider the application and appropriate ink type you envision the roll option tackling. "For example, for vehicle wraps, a standalone solvent-based roll-to-roll printer is still best," he concludes.
Where Flatbeds Fit
The variety of printable substrates compatible with flatbeds opens up a diversity of markets, including, but not limited to, retail POP, indoor/outdoor advertising, trade and exhibit displays, banners, and billboards.
The retail value of UV flatbed output is expected to reach $4.06 billion worldwide this year out of a total market for wide format graphics measured at $38.3 billion. While still a niche in the larger market, UV flatbeds will enjoy a compound annual growth rate of 23 percent to settle at $9.02 billion in 2012—outpacing the growth in aqueous and solvent technologies due to its relative immaturity.
For sign shops, the retail value of output is only one side of the equation. Cost savings is another. "Our flatbed simplified our production process," says Ed Yang, owner, Fast Signs based in Sunnyvale, CA. Yang purchased the Océ Arizona 250 GT flatbed printer to, "give my customers better value."
He expected to save time and money on mounting and laminating, but was surprised by just how liberating the entire experience was. "Just placing the order, doing the receiving, and checking invoices is time consuming for a small business owner," he says. "With the flatbed, you have the ink and the substrate, and you’re in business."
The flatbed market truly runs the gamut with entry level models starting in the $50,000 and under range. Most major wide and grand format printer manufacturers support the flatbed market with families of products capable of meeting a variety of end user needs. The following is a review of the most recent introductions to this rapidly growing market.
Agfa introduced new UV flatbeds at drupa. The new :Anapurna XLS employs the company’s Universal Print Head (UPH) technology for 1,440 dpi resolution. It features borderless and dual board printing and accepts Agfa’s :Anapurna XLS ink. The company also debuted two iterations of the :Anapurna M flatbed with the Mv—which adds a spot of flood varnish capability, and the M4f, which is a rigid-only model with a roll-to-roll option.
DuPont ramped up the speed on its Cromaprint 22UV with the new 22UV speed enhanced (se). The 22UVse clocks in at 47 percent faster than the original Cromaprint 22UV, the company shares. It contains most of the specifications of the original model, including a five zone vacuum bed. The system handles a very wide variety of media up to two inches thick. It uses DuPont Cromaprint UV ink in four liter containers. Existing Cromaprint 22UV customers can upgrade their unit.
Durst Image Technology US, LLC attracts entry level customers with its Rho 600 Pictor, the newest edition to the Rho family. It uses the company’s Quadro Array printhead for delivering droplets between 30 and 55 picoliters on substrates up to 1.58 inches thick. It accepts the Rho ink flexible and ink rigid sets.
EFI/VUTEk announced four and six color updates to the VUTEk QS2000 and VUTEk QS3200 flatbeds this past winter. EFI/VUTEk now offers flatbeds with four or six colors or six colors with white ink. Four or six color models are field upgradeable. Both models print on substrates up to two inches thick, support six variations of white printing, and use EFI/VUTEk inks in 3.25 liter containers. At drupa, EFI/VUTEk introduced the VUTEk DS Series digital screenprinter. Using UV-curable inks, this flatbed is capable of producing output at 6,000 sf/h. Both a controllable zoned vacuum table and optional advanced material handling system are available with the printer.
FUJIFILM Graphic Systems U.S.A., Inc.’s Acuity HD 2504 flatbed UV printer prints on substrates up to 1.8 inches thick with droplet sizes between six and 42 picoliters thanks to its grayscale printhead. The four color flatbed uses Fujifilm Sericol UVijet KO series UV-curable inks. The company recently added a field upgradeable roll-to-roll option for the Acuity for $25,000.
Gandinnovations’ six color Jeti 3150 X-2 UV true flatbed uses 48 spectra printheads and supports printing on substrates up to two inches thick. A white and clear varnish ink set option is available. The printer uses a three-zone vacuum controlled system and sports a 15-inch LCD flat panel display. At drupa, Gandinnovations announced the NanoJet UV True Flatbed digital printer. With 24 spectra printheads it creates output in up to six colors using UV-curable ink.
Gerber Scientific Products’ new Solara ION handles substrates up to one-inch thick on its vacuum table with sensors that automatically detect media thickness. The printer takes new GerberCAT cationic UV inks, cured by Gerber’s new Gerber Cold Fire Cure UV lamps—which are lower in temperature than conventional mercury lamps. The ink cures at approximately room temperature, allowing for printing on heat sensitive materials.
Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) family of flatbed printers expanded considerably with the acquisition of Colorspan and Nur. Among the company’s flatbeds is the four color HP Scitex FB910, which uses a vacuum belt media driver to print up to six sheets of rigid materials simultaneously. It handles substrates up to one-inch thick, delivers droplets as small as 25 picoliters, and uses HP Scitex FB240 UV-curable, pigmented inks in three liter containers.
Inca Digital Printers updated its Columbia flatbed with speed, aptly naming it the Turbo Plus. The Turbo Plus sports 96 printheads compared to its predecessor’s 64, offering the ability to print white, light cyan, light magenta, orange, or violet. It supports substrates up to 1.5 inches thick with ink droplet sizes as small as 28 picoliters. It uses Fujifilm Sericol UVijet inks housed in five liter containers.
Leggett & Platt Digital Technologies’ newest flatbed is the VirtuHD8, joining the Virtu 130, 72, and 36 series. Capable of printing on substrates up to 2.5 inches thick, it accepts the company’s BioHueV UV-curable inks in five liter disposable, collapsible cubes. It employs MEMS printhead technology to deliver ink in droplets as small as eight picoliters.
Matan Digital Printers recently added a second model to its Barak family of UV flatbeds with the new Barak3. Offering a 30 picoliter drop size, this hybrid is capable of printing on substrates up to one-inch thick. An optional multi-roll accessory allows simultaneous printing on three rolls. It uses Barak 200UV inks. Introduced at drupa, the new generation of Barak5 will include a multifunction vacuum table and improved head carriage elevating system.
Mimaki USA, Inc.’s JF series of flatbeds include two models, both capable of producing six picoliter droplets and printing on rigid materials up to 1.98 inches thick. Both the JF-1631 and JF-1610 use UV inks in .44 liter containers. They come standard with white ink and incorporate a pair of UV lamps for bi-directional printing.
The Mutoh America, Inc. ValueJet 1608 is a hybrid, four color entry level model that uses Mutoh’s Mubio ink in .88 liter packs. It prints on rigid substrates up to .3 inches thick with automatic height adjustment. It employs Intelligent Interweaving Print Technology, which the firm says reduces banding and mottling.
Océ North America’s Arizona 250 GT prints full bleed with droplets as small as six picoliters or as large as 42 picoliters. In terms of productivity, the Arizona can switch between rigid and flexible material without downtime. Media is held in place with a vacuum overlay, which is customized by the user for various applications. The four color printer uses UV-curable inks in two liter bags.
Raster Printers, Inc.’s Daytona H-700 UV utilizes Toshiba Tec’s CA4 grayscale printheads for drop sizes from six to 42 picoliters. Its vacuum belt media handling system supports substrates up to 100 pounds and 1.8 inches thick. It is sold in a four color version, or a version with an additional two printheads for white ink printing.
Excelsus Solutions, LLC of Rochester, NY, was built on the strength of flatbed printing technology. A 25-year veteran of the printing business, company founder Mark Laniak saw the potential of flatbed technology to provide digital printing services to his offset clients. "I traveled the country seeing how it was implemented in other shops and I saw an opportunity," he says.
Three years ago, Laniak left his job with an offset firm and launched Excelsus with a single flatbed—the Nur Macroprinter Tempo. In the intervening years, the business grew to accommodate three flatbeds—a pair of Tempos and the HP Scitex TJ8500, which the company installed this past April, in addition to a Durst Lambda. Excelsus also expanded from a 7,000 square foot facility to 25,000 square feet. "We’re already running out of space," he adds. "It’s been an exciting three years."
Coming from offset, Laniak says he was surprised that his clients accepted the quality of the images coming off a flatbed. "For the price, convenience, and timing they were more willing to accept the four color process."
Excelsus provides graphics on both a wholesale and retail basis. The lion’s share of the company’s output is from its flatbeds, and the rigid material also commands the highest margin. "We do a fair amount of flexible roll-to-roll, but it’s very competitive."
Flatbed printing is not for the faint of heart, Laniak says. "It’s a big investment. You’re definitely printing on more expensive substrates and your production liability is greater." The company paired its flatbed with a Zünd cutter, complemented by Mikkelsen Graphic Engineering’s (MGE) i-cut system. "You absolutely need to invest in a cutter, I’m surprised by how many people don’t take finishing into consideration," says Laniak.
One niche that Laniak is quite enthusiastic about is lenticular, another demanding output that nonetheless has caught print buyers’ attention. "People are sometimes caught by the price of it, but once they see it, there’s a wow factor." To date, lenticular represents about 30 percent of the company’s output, while direct to corrugated and other rigid materials for trade show and POP displays comprise the remainder.
Because a flatbed prints on anything, "there’s not a tried and true process" for many of the materials, he says. In the firm’s early stages, "we found ourselves doing research and development with just a few hours to spare," Laniak recalls. "It’s not a big desktop printer, you need to be willing to put in the time and do what it takes."
Despite the growing array of entry level flatbeds on the market, Laniak is confident that speed improvements will help firms like his retain a competitive advantage. "Realistically, I think this can stay high end for two to five years. What you’ll see is it eating into screenprinting," he predicts.
The Future of Flatbeds
Productivity is a focus for future improvements, says Durst’s Howard. "Digital print production still has headroom to move more into the long run space. This will likely entail new platforms that co-exist with current products for those production shops who currently do business in the flatbed market or possess a desire to grow into the long run market."
"You are only limited by your imagination," says Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA, Inc. "There is a high demand for flatbeds because of the wide application ability and surface printing options. End users are printing on glass, metal, doors, specialty items, and more."
"The challenge continues to be how to increase speeds and maintain quality of print," observes Inca’s Kendle.
Creating a productive working environment for the print provider and not compromising quality is the main motivation of the flatbed. Its versatile printing capabilities, in addition to roll-to-roll options, makes the print world officially flat.