Large format prints grace billboards, wrap buildings and vehicles, and create trade show booths with impact. The machines behind the action deliver output either by roll-to-roll or flatbed with high-impact results. Digital Output refers to printers producing output 95 inches or wider as grand format printers.
"Overall, I think the entire market is really exploding for grand format," says Chuck Dourlet, VP of marketing, EFI VUTEk. "It isn’t just about banners and billboards anymore. New and creative applications are emerging everywhere in the market—in retail, interior design, all sorts of different places." Dourlet also notes a shift in traditional roll-to-roll solvent applications moving over to UV. "The VUTEk QS3200r printer really addresses that need," he adds.
"In the short amount of time grand format printers have been available, they continue to make significant progress. Yet, we are still at the beginning of the development curve," states Lou Laurent, business development, Triangle Digital INX Co. "Just as it took decades to develop fully automated prepress systems, digital printing technologies continue to evolve well into the future. Hardware, software, ink, and finishing systems respond to changing market demands. These demands are significantly driven by customers who view digital inkjet as a replacement technology for many applications currently produced using traditional printing methods."
"Quality, resolution, and speed improved a lot in the last year; and price is lower than ever," says Fiorella De Fina, representative, Aeromatrix, Inc. Aeromatrix produces Infiniti digital printers in China specifically for the American market. These grand format printers are available in three versions—the Infiniti Fina320SW with eight and twelve printheads, and the top of the line Infiniti Fina3360SW.
Closely viewed applications produced with grand format printers are growing popular, while in the past these printers were primarily used for graphics viewed at a distance. "While the demand for this type of outdoor advertising is still increasing, retailers and advertisers look to maximize their message in front of as many customers as possible," states Andrew Oransky, director of product management, Roland DGA Corporation. "Grand format graphics today are often displayed in high-traffic areas up close, making image quality more important than ever. New advancements in grand format technology address this demand as well as the growing need to print on a wider variety of substrates."
The Roland printer line-up features two grand format models—the 104-inch SOLJET Pro II V SJ-1045 with ECO-SOL MAX ink and the 104-inch AdvancedJET AJ-1000. The AdvancedJET AJ-1000 achieves a print speed of up to 968 square feet per hour (sf/h) and a precision print mode of 484 sf/h, making it one of the fastest printers in its class. Roland recently introduced VersaWorks 3.0 RIP software for the entire printer line, which was the winner of a Partner Award from the DPI Product of the Year competition held at SGIA in Atlanta, GA this year.
The capabilities of grand format printers are remarkable. "I have seen everything from the world’s largest digitally printed image on a billboard in Buenos Aires, to a 150x20-foot dye-sublimation (dye-sub) project hung in a Minneapolis, MN skyway, to vibrant, eye-catching point of purchase (POP) displays," notes Ziki Kuly, director and general manager, large format industrial solutions, Hewlett-Packard (HP) North America.
HP recently broadened its grand format portfolio with the introduction of the HP Scitex FB7500, a robust digital UV printer designed for close-view, high-quality applications, such as POP. The company also introduced the HP Scitex XP2300—the first 126-inch wide UV outdoor signage production printer, as well as the HP Designjet L65500, which uses environmentally friendly HP Latex Inks.
Sabratinna Pan, representative, Teckwin Development Co., Ltd. highlights some of the exciting media printed on in grand format today, "High-speed UV grand format printers are printing on furniture and glasses." Teckwin manufactures solvent and UV flatbed and hybrid printers, including the TeckStorm and the TeckSmart.
"We have customers using our UV flatbeds printing on glass, doors, and even coffins," notes Tom Reilly, VP of marketing, Gandinnovations. A Gandinnovations customer is also responsible for printing the world’s largest ad, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. London-based Ad-Air created a mammoth ad space just outside of the Dubai airport. The approximately 24,000 square yard graphic was printed by Golden Neon for a residential-property developer. Golden Neon used EuroBanner TR 510G outdoor grade material to output 42 panels on a Gandinnovations Jeti 5024 roll-to-roll solvent ink printer.
Oransky sees retail, office, and residential wall graphics and wraps growing in popularity. "Grand format printers are increasingly used for specialty graphics as businesses look for opportunities to differentiate themselves from competitors." In addition, he says customers continue to focus on the growing vehicle graphics market as well as backlit displays. He adds, "Indoor and outdoor backlits are now used by retailers and other businesses to promote their products and services at night. New LED lightboxes that minimize energy consumption are driving some of this growth."
Interior offices are another area for grand format prints. "Rather than buying fine art or reproduced art and hanging pictures on the walls, people are tying together their own branding elements into wallcoverings. They’re producing backlit displays,with the creative use of white ink. They manufacture creative window coverings that are see-through or one-way," says Dourlet. "Successful shops invest in these new creative applications and then achieve a higher margin—higher dollars per square foot from their customers."
A wide variety of available media enhances grand format applications. Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA, Inc., notes that solvent textile medias are now available in many finishes. "These are excellent for display graphics used in retail and even for flag applications." The JV3-250SPF is currently Mimaki’s most popular grand format printer and the company’s newest product is the JV5-320S.
"I see building wraps, airplane wraps, and wall graphics for murals that look amazing. The media really makes a difference in what a sign shop can produce. There are so many colorful applications printed in the grand format industry," says Crystal Baus, assistant marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
Oransky notes that mesh and other fabrics are increasing in popularity for grand format applications. "This is primarily due to the media’s light weight, making it easy to handle, install, ship, and store. In addition, fabrics can be draped into interesting organic shapes, adding drama to backdrops and displays." The Roland AdvancedJET AJ-1000 is equipped with an optional mesh printing unit that supports economical unlined mesh media.
Triangle Digital is focusing on new inks that optimize printhead technology and low-energy curing lamp developments. "These ink sets optimize printer performance on surfaces such as glass, wood, and woven media, as well as media currently being developed for new printing applications," says Laurent.
Equipment Efficiency and Advances
Advances in printhead technology continue to dramatically change the face of grand format printing. Dourlet notes, "Printhead technology enables higher speeds and greater resolution—more photorealistic output. The DS is a fixed array printer that never would have been possible five years ago." Available in 2009, the VUTEk DS Series is a high-speed digital UV flatbed printer for indoor and outdoor signs, POP, trade show graphics, and backlit displays. The printer delivers output at up to 6,000 sf/h and up to 1,200 dpi.
"We’ve seen a rise in the need for reliable printing on heat sensitive media—without sacrificing productivity—that’s the next big technological challenge that wide format system integrators need to address," says Mike White, wide format manager, industrial inkjet systems, Agfa Graphics. "Our customers also need UV ink with similar flexibility and stretchability characteristics as solvent inks for textile or vehicle graphics applications."
The :Anapurna XL and XL2 are Agfa’s most popular grand format printers, "but the new :Anapurna XLS will turn lots of heads," predicts White. The new :Anapurna XLS hybrid UV printer with eight printheads offers superior color quality and detail rendering. It is targeted at graphic communications companies, photolabs, high-end sign shops, commercial printers looking to expand production capabilities, and for digital graphic screenprinting applications.
Productivity is a key factor when considering equipment investments. "I believe this a trend that relates to the large format printing market. A culmination of a few key factors revolve around true production speed tied to the quality that is needed at those speed levels, as well as the operational cost of running the printer as it relates to labor and consumables," notes Christopher Howard, senior VP of sales and marketing, North America, Durst Image Technology U.S., LLC.
Howard says Durst’s most popular grand format printer is the Rho 800 Presto UV flatbed. Durst’s new Rho 320R UV roll-to-roll printer is the winner of a DPI Product of the Year award in the grand format UV-cured output device category, presented at SGIA 2008. Howard believes the Rho 320R sets the quality standard in roll-to-roll 126-inch printing. He adds, "The efficiency that our roll-to-roll UV printers offer proves to be of great benefit to our customers’ printing operations, which is a trend that will accelerate throughout the industry."
"Increased productivity and automation in terms of speed and throughput are key to succeeding in this market and will continue to grow in importance," states Kuly, highlighting the new HP Scitex FB7500. It features one of the highest rates of productivity in the industry for digital printers in its price class due to high speeds and automated loading.
Hagai Valach, marketing director, Matan Digital Printers, sees a growing trend in grand format printer efficiency as well, noting equipment that is, "faster, higher quality, and cost effective." Matan’s latest product is the Barak5, the only 196-inch UV hybrid printer with up to 3,230 sf/h production speed, he shares.
Seiko I Infotech Inc. recently introduced a new high-speed mild-solvent inkjet grand format printer, the ColorPainter H-104s, which prints up to 104 inches wide. "Printing speeds are three to four times faster than competing models," shares Trish Kinman, marketing manager, Seiko I Infotech. The new printer creates output up to 1,075 sf/h at 720x360 dpi.
Grand and "Green"
Environmental awareness is increasing interest in non-solvent equipment. "Everyone needs to go green," states Reilly, "that’s why we developed the Jetspeed and Aquajet. The Aquajet is a 100 percent eco-friendly digital print system." Gandinnovations launched the Jeti 3348 UV Jetspeed roll-to-roll printer at drupa. The Jeti 3348 prints on PE material making it an ideal option for a green billboard applications. The Jeti 3324 Aquajet, winner of a SGIA 2008 DPI Product of the Year award in the textile output device category, uses water-based inks that print direct to fabric.
"We continue to see increasing interest in UV solutions," says Terry Amerine, segment manager, wide format graphics, Fujifilm Sericol U.S.A., Inc. "We remain convinced that UV is the fastest growing digital technology, based on it being a green technology and providing significant performance benefits in terms of speed and print quality." Amerine also expects to see development regarding bio inks.
Several Mutoh printers use Mubio ink. It is the only inkjet ink recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program. The ink prints directly on a range of rigid and roll-to-roll materials.
With a media width capacity of 98 inches and no volatile organic compound emissions, the Milano 250 UV hybrid printer circumvents the limitations of solvent printers and improves digital production workflow, notes Triangle Digital’s Laurent. "Its sixteen printheads, using customized Triangle Digital ink, produce a very high color gamut at resolutions up to 800x800 dpi and production speeds up to 431 sf/h." The company plans to introduce upgradeable hybrid and stationary bed printers in 2009 that encompass new printing technologies, additional color channels, and faster production speeds.
Companies are also considering the impact on the environment regarding ink containers. Seiko I Infotech’s ColorPainter H-104s uses 1.5 liter ink bags to eliminate the need for bulky ink cartridges and reduce landfill waste.
Profitability as Economics Shift
Print service providers are cautious about new technology purchases. Stretching the limits of current equipment to the fullest requires strict attention to customer demand.
"Through other economic downturns, we’ve always seen this as, believe it or not, one of the more stable markets," says EFI’s Dourlet. "We are all going to be effected by whatever happens in the economy, but the demand and the need for grand format applications doesn’t seem to be as sensitive or reactive."
According to Baus, many sign shops that previously outsourced grand format printing projects are now bringing them in house. She states, "It seems that people are beginning to realize the value and the ROI that comes from bringing grand format projects in house. Sad but true, the economy is not doing so well, yet the industry is still growing, this goes to show that people are realizing the benefits of grand format printing."
"Grand format printing is hot, but works best if the technology can be profitable," says Agfa’s White. He notes all :Anapurna systems feature a competitive productivity/quality/cost ratio.
More to Come
Grand format printers continue to gain ground. Expect more devices, ink, and applications related to this niche to follow. Advancements in eco-friendly products, technology, productivity, and efficiency will all push the envelope.
"We see the future of digital printing moving at a fast pace, and the need for a faster, greener product is what will drive this market forward," says Gandinnovations’ Reilly.
"Grand format printers will become increasingly affordable to purchase and operate and will offer higher productivity and require less maintenance," predicts Roland’s Oransky. "We expect future grand format printers to achieve these new performance levels while meeting ever more stringent environmental standards."
To achieve high ROI in these costly times calls for buyers to be more knowledgeable about grand format purchases. "The challenge for buyers is to make realistic purchase decisions based upon proven technologies that can meet their production needs, and not bleeding edge technologies that have yet to provide their production worthiness," states Triangle’s Laurent.
The grand format printers discussed here, as well as the ones listed in the chart, can help steer you toward the best grand format printer for your shop.