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Flat by Design

Embrace Flatbed Inkjet Printers

By Gretchen A. Peck

In a relatively short span of time, the digital printing world unveiled a plethora of new flatbed printers to enable print service suppliers (PSPs) to produce a wide array of large format graphics with improvements in speed and quality.

This April, Agfa Graphics announced the first North American installation of its :M-Press Tiger at Cameron Advertising Displays Ltd., based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Co-developed by Thieme and Agfa, the printer prints up to 102 inches wide at 17,000 square feet per hour (sf/h).

“With the :M-Press Tiger, we have the fastest system on the market and produce higher print quality with improved productivity,” reports Reid Mason, VP, Cameron.

In the past year, Durst Image Technology US LLC introduced three new flatbed solutions to the U.S. market—the Rho 800 HS, Rho 900, and Rho 1000, built for high-volume operations, according to Christopher Howard, VP, sales and marketing, Durst. Each prints up to 96 inches wide, at high rates of speed—2,350 sf/h from the Rho 800 HS and 900 models, and 6,240 sf/h from the Rho 1000.

The new generation of Quadro Array printheads are key to allowing these printers to run quickly,” suggests Howard. “And the continuous-board feeding systems on the Rho 900 and the Rho 1000 allow the machine to run like a roll-to-roll device. It never has to stop printing.”

“Think about it,” he adds. “If you print a board in 30 seconds, but it takes you twice that time to load the material, you’re cutting into productivity.”

At IPEX 2010 in NEC, Birmingham, UK, which took place in May, Hewlett-Packard (HP) introduced the HP Scitex FB500 printer. The device simultaneously loads up to four sheets of media with an automatic alignment bar, which helps quickly position substrate sheets. It measures the thickness of the substrate and automatically adjusts the height of the printheads. The printer accepts media up to 64 inches wide and reaches speeds of up to 398 sf/h in express mode. A white ink option is available. HP offers an optional roll-to-roll upgrade kit for the HP Scitex FB500 as well.

When Donnie Nicholson founded Louisville, KY-based The Color Place, Inc. in 1987, he became a prepress supplier of high-quality color separations and contract-level proofs. But by the 1990s, when digital workflow rendered those services less essential, Nicholson knew his business needed a makeover to survive in the long term.

He hired a consultant, Debbie, to study the market, who recommended that The Color Place morph into a large format graphics business. The consultant not only changed his business, she changed Nicholson’s life. Today, they’re married and manage the business together.

Approximately four years ago, the Nicholsons began thinking about change again and adjudicated flatbed printers. Of the utmost importance was quality, and after seeing demonstrations of the potential solutions, they decided on Inca Digital’s Spyder 320, distributed by the Graphic Systems Division of Fujifilm North America Corporation.

Debbie Nicholson says the printer met two essential requirements; printing beautifully and quickly. “As a print supplier, what we do today is no longer just-in-time delivery; it’s truly print on demand,” she asserts.

The Spyder 320 is a workhorse for The Color Place. Its owners marvel at its speed. “In the early days of flatbed technologies, if you didn’t have speed, you had quality; and if you had quality, you had to sacrifice speed. Now, you can actually get speed and quality,” notes Nicholson.

The Color Place prints on most substrates—constrained only by customer imagination and budget. Recently, the Nicholsons printed to wood and created 3D lenticular prints on their Spyder.

“We print on anything we’re able to lay on the bed,” she affirms.

Great Gamut
Speed is only one attribute that distinguishes flatbeds. Another is ink quality, and most recently the introduction of white ink.

While at the International Sign Association’s (ISA) International Sign Expo this past April, Agfa introduced the new :Jeti 1224 UV High Definition Color (HDC) inkjet printer. This is the first printer developed by Agfa using the :Jeti line of printers from newly acquired Gandinnovations.

Designed for three-shift operations, it uses Ricoh Gen 4 variable grayscale printhead technology and :Anuvia HD inks—four color plus white, standard. Agfa begins shipping the :Jeti 1224 UV HDC in June 2010.

CET Color’s X-Press FK512/8 UV flatbed printer is equipped with 12 Konica 512 printheads, allowing for CMYKx2 or CMYKLcLm+W ink sets. It accommodates media up to six by ten feet, and three inches thick; achieves 1,400x720 dpi resolution; and reaches speeds of up to 450 sf/h.

EFI recently debuted the Rastek T1000 wide format flatbed printer, capable of creating true grayscale graphics, sharp text, and photographic-quality images, using UV-curable CMYK+W inks.

One attribute that distinguishes Gerber Scientific Products, Inc.’s Solara ion series are GerberCAT cationic inks. They dry fast, resist abrasion, and are compatible with most substrates. The Solar ion series comprises the ionv and ionx —a hybrid.

Mimaki USA, Inc.’s UJV-160 UV printer offers a hybrid configuration for maximum flexibility, and features UV LED curing technology, an energy-efficient alternative to first-generation UV-curing printers. Users choose from two CMYK+W ink sets, including 3M Graphics Market Center LF200 flexible UV ink and LH100 hard UV ink.

WP Digital AG showcased the Oryx flatbed at ISA. The device is manufactured by swissQprint and distributed by WP Digital. At 99 inches wide, it comes with a roll-to-roll option. Standard on the device is CMYKLcLm+W. To prevent the white ink from forming sediments, the Oryx uses technology to keep the ink agitated for guaranteed reliability regardless of how frequently white ink is used.

Patrick Yates recalls how his Menomonee Falls, WI-based Fastsigns came by a flatbed, through in-depth research regarding cost. “We looked at how we did things using roll-to-roll technology. The flatbed offered an opportunity to reduce our cost of goods, labor expenses, turnaround time, and allowed us to take in higher volume jobs.”

“If we were ever going to be able to really take a shot at those and be competitive, we needed a flatbed,” surmises Yates.

When he scoped out the flatbed market for the right fit, quality was priority number one.

“We also thought long and hard about the white ink option, and whether that was important to us,” recalls Yates. “We didn’t have a lot of demand for it, but our suspicion was, if we had the capability—and tried to sell the option to our customers—we would find people who needed it.”

Yates chose the Arizona 350 GT from Oce North America and installed it a little more than a year ago. Its white ink feature became indispensable, including during a recent project that required printing direct to 24x36-inch mirrors—several hundred of them.

Oce announced the Arizona 550 GT flatbed in February. It prints point of purchase (POP) prints at 433 sf/h and in express mode, outputs at 721 sf/h. That is three times the speed of the 350 GT. Both the Arizona 350 and 550 GT printers feature a flatbed measuring 98.4x49.2 inches.

Fastsigns’ Arizona 350 GT enabled Yates to print directly to more exotic materials. “We printed on an electric-guitar body,” he marvels. “Some testing occurred first, to figure out how to treat the raw wood and ensure it was optimal for printing. So we worked with different woods—treated, untreated, and coated.”

Yates notes the flatbed enables his company to not only produce a more diverse product catalog, it changes the sales process and puts more emphasis on creatively partnering with customers.

To exemplify the profound impact of the flatbed on his Fastsigns franchise, Yates recalls a time when he lost a bid for POP prints for one of his largest customers.

“We lost out simply because they liked the fact that another vendor was able to print direct to substrate. When we finally made the decision to buy this printer, we reached out to the customer and said that we would love the opportunity to take a run at the bid the next time they were doing POP work. Five minutes later, I had the request for proposal in my email box. Long story short, we got the contract.”

Yates also confides that it was a little frightening to make such a significant capital investment. “We started by analyzing how much of our work was rigid versus flexible, and asking, ‘Does this really make sense?’ When I looked at it on paper, the answer was, ‘No.’ But my gut was telling me it would, and our instincts were correct,” he recalls. “We ended last year up over 20 percent, and so far, year-to-date, we’re up more than 70 percent.”

Playing with the Big Boys
Superwide printing is no longer just a roll-to-roll ideal. In fact, there are several flatbed solutions that provide PSPs with the ability to leverage large tables and print at impressive widths.

As their names imply, Teckwin International’s TeckStorm XL and XLR systems—which accommodate both rigid and flexible media—produce jumbo prints up to 118x78.7 inches. Both systems offer 1,440 dpi resolution and three modes of varying speed and quality—up to a maximum rate of 396 sf/h.

EFI reports that it installed more than 70 of its VUTEk GS3200 hybrid UV printers. “With EFI’s VUTEk GS3200, we were able to match the color across various substrates and come in at a substantially lower price point than screenprinting, which carries much higher makeready costs,” notes Ford Bowers, GM, MillerZell Retail Design Company. “Additionally, the speed of the VUTEk is such that we produce high-quality digital prints faster and less expensively.”

At ISA, EFI paired the GS3200 with the VUTEk MediaMaster, a fully automated material-handling system that accommodates boards up to five by ten feet.

Fear No More
One common concern among PSPs is the investment in a flatbed. Many of these printers come with a fairly large price tag, which can be intimidating. Others are concerned about the quality of the print.

“For years, I avoided the flatbed,” explains Maggie Payette Harlow, owner, Sign-A-Rama Downtown, based in Louisville, KY. “I was buying flatbed prints from others and was disappointed in the output quality. Or I was hearing stories of other vendors struggling with their printers. I had one tell me he was up all night and wasted 12 sheets of material before he was able to get me what I needed. I kept hearing these horror stories, so I wasn’t anxious to own a flatbed myself.”

That all changed a couple of years ago for Harlow. “We had some corporate clients looking for unique displays, and the only way to achieve those was to print direct to substrate. In addition, we looked back over our 2008 fiscal year, and found that we’d spent $100,000 outsourcing this work. I knew we had to make a change.”

Harlow set out to find the right solution through attending industry trade shows and relying on colleagues’ advice based on their own experiences.

“Once I saw the Fujifilm Acuity Advance, and that it could give me intense, high-resolution imaging and white ink—and I saw it in action—it was a no brainer,” she recalls.

“I have to admit, we picked the Acuity Advance without really understanding the wide scope of work that it could do for us,” she continues. “It was a very pleasant surprise. In addition to being able to fulfill the needs of our larger corporate clients who wanted some unique jobs, we also found that it was great at doing the everyday pedestrian sign products. And we were able to maximize productivity.”

Fujifilm announced the newest member of the Acuity family in February, the Acuity Advance HS. In express mode the Acuity Advance HS features speeds of up to 700 sf/h. The device utilizes the Sericol Uvijet ink set. Both Fujifilm Sericol and the Graphic Systems Division offer the product; although it was announced that Sericol would join the Graphic Systems Division of Fujifilm North America Corporation, effective April 1, 2010.

The Acuity Advance’s ability to leverage white ink was also a welcome addition to Harlow’s workflow. “You don’t realize what white ink means until you start playing around with it, layering images, and trying different materials. It opens up a whole new dimension,” she exclaims.

Sign-A-Rama relies on the Acuity Advance to produce compelling jobs, including a trade show display that required printing blueprint graphics direct-to-substrate, and a particularly challenging job for an international aircraft company.

The customer created images of their cockpits, which are used to train pilots who may be moving from one type of aircraft to another. The project was detailed, as all of the buttons and switches required tiny text on them.

“They came to us and said that they couldn’t find anyone else who could do this short-run job in an affordable manner and provide the level of resolution required,” Harlow adds. “We did many test prints and prototypes, and now we do hundreds of them every month.”

Though Harlow has no plans to add another flatbed to her equipment stable anytime soon—the Acuity seems to be handling the workload just fine—she would like to add some finishing equipment to complement it.

“Any piece of equipment you bring in to support a flatbed printer will exponentially add to the products you’re able to produce,” she concludes.

To Buy or Not to Buy
The latest generation of flatbed and hybrid technologies puts to rest the idea that one must sacrifice quality or speed. Wider color gamuts and the addition of white ink allow PSPs to create eye-catching graphics for their customers at speeds and top-notch qualities that were once impossible.

However, as Fastsigns’ Yates points out, not every digital print supplier should invest in one. It really comes down to a single question—what kind of supplier do you want to be? If your print business thrives on making traditional signage and graphics—largely on vinyl-based materials—then perhaps it doesn’t make sense to purchase a flatbed system.

A new hardware purchase can make you stand out from your competitors. This is one of the benefits of investing in a flatbed printer. It shows customers that you are willing to grow with the industry.

“We bought our flatbed to differentiate ourselves from the competition. In the face of the economic downturn, we figured we could lower costs. This would put us in a position to do what other print suppliers wouldn’t be able to,” Yates continues.

If you’re a PSP who wants to expand your product line, gain some production efficiencies, and forego outsourcing flatbed-style jobs, the time is now to see some of these impressive machines in action

Jun2010, Digital Output

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