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Setting Precedents

The Year in Wide Format Printing

By Gretchen Peck

Digital wide format printer manufacturers are unveiling solutions for every business model. In the last year there was no shortage of news on equipment—flatbeds, roll-feds, and hybrids; upgrades to existing technologies; and even inks.

Raising productivity was a key initiator. "Digital technology is beginning to excel in its ability to increase run sizes, for which a shop can improve the cost of production, and hence, profitability. Of course, profitability for smaller print runs—and flexibility to provide variable data within signs—also favor digital inkjet technology," asserts Heather Kendle, director of marketing, Inca Digital Printers.

Expanding Success
Digital print manufacturers hope to create fast print engines that produce more affordable print. Today, manufacturers in the wide format space are strategic in the products they introduce, creating a range of print engines that fulfill a wide format print specialist’s diverse spectrum of needs. Recent product lines guarantee that no matter the business model or genre of print, print shop providers (PSPs) will find just what they’re looking for.

Summa, Inc. technologists are hard at work improving existing product lines. "Summa’s line of outdoor, durable, thermal transfer printers have seen numerous enhancements, including improvements in dpi—doubling output resolution, added print speeds to increase throughput while reducing output cost by introducing a wider range of low cost materials, and expanding application possibilities," explains Royce Owen, marketing manager, Summa, Inc.

Other manufacturers approach product development in similar ways, building flexibility into individual print engines and expanding their brand families to include a broader array of solutions.

Canon U.S.A., Inc. introduced ten new models under its imagePROGRAF brand within the past year alone. "Canon places a strong focus on R&D for large format inkjet printers and this allowed for the development of three lines of imagePROGRAF printers," explains Rich Reamer, senior manager, product marketing, large format printer division, Canon U.S.A., Inc.

"Users are able to get the right fit for their print environment. The gain for wide format customers is they can focus on what is most important for their business—whether it is a higher volume of printing each day, or detailed images and accurate color, the imagePROGRAF lineup has the right printer for them," he adds.

EFI/VUTEk continues to move its technologies away from solvents and toward UV-curable alternatives. "We continue to lead the transition from traditional solvent to UV printing," suggests Ken Van Horn, product marketing manager, EFI/VUTEk.

"Our QS family rapidly became the best-selling UV superwide format printers in the market and continue to offer quality and speed advantages, ensuring sign shop owners are capable of offering high-quality prints and faster turnaround time on an ever-increasing variety of substrates."

Other companies like Hewlett-Packard (HP) expanded their product lines due to acquisitions. In late 2007, HP announced mergers with MacDermid ColorSpan and NUR Macroprinters. "As a result of recent technology announcements and acquisitions, HP provides one of the broadest portfolios of large format technologies and solutions in the industry for the production of almost any indoor or outdoor graphic application. There is no other company that can match our offerings of piezo inkjet and thermal inkjet technologies, water-based, solvent, UV-curable, and now, latex ink technologies," shares Rudy Herrera, print service provider segment manager, HP.

In response to customer insight, Xerox Corporation produced five new systems—one B&W model and four color models—within the past 12 months, shares Karen Serrano, wide format product marketing manager, Production Systems Group, Xerox Corporation.

"Some of our enhancements in recent years included moving from aqueous inkjet to eco- and mild-solvent ink color products with the latest piezoelectric, drop on demand printheads; variable dot imaging technology; and intelligent interweaving print technology," notes Serrano. "These innovations provide customers with durable, vibrant, high-quality images at faster print speeds, and at lower operating costs."

Xerox printers with low price points such as the 8265, 8254E, and 8264E offer PSPs the ability to enter the expanding graphic communications wide format market for the first time, as well as complement their current capabilities. Additionally, the 8254E and 8264E provide sign shops with the ability to offer large format applications without sacrificing production space.

Rolling Developments
Besides introducing products into existing lines, manufacturers are also creating entirely new product lines. For some, this means entering into unknown territory. Epson joined the outdoor commercial printing industry with the launch of the Epson Stylus Pro GS6000 this past Spring.

"In introducing this printer, we took our industry-leading image quality in the photography and prepress industries and became poised to dramatically impact the professional sign making market," explains Reed Hecht, product manager, Epson.

"The Stylus Pro GS6000, with Epson UltraChrome GS ink—a new solvent-based ink technology with eight individual colors—produces a wide color gamut on solvent-based media," Hecht adds. At 64 inches, it prints at speeds of up to 340 square feet per hour (sf/h) for banner quality printing, up to 180 sf/h for everyday production, and up to 91 sf/h for photographic signage output.

"We worked very closely with the industry for guidance to ensure that the Stylus Pro GS6000 exceeds the needs of today’s commercial outdoor printers," Hecht asserts. "The result is a printer that helps sign makers maximize profits while gaining competitive advantages with superior quality, performance, reliability, and with lower impact on the environment and worker health."

Another roll-fed manufacturer, Seiko I Infotech, Inc., introduced its new ColorTextiler 64DS in March of this year—created for printing directly to fabrics.

"We engineer our printers so they are easy to use and install, have faster print speeds, and are generally a good value for the money," explains Trish Kinman, marketing manager, Seiko I Infotech, Inc. "ColorTextiler, our four-color, dye-sub fabric printer, prints fast at true 720 dpi, uses less ink per print, and can produce a wide range of fabric output for customers."

The ColorTextiler 64DS uses oil-based inks and prints at speeds of up to 176 sf/h on uncoated poly and poly-blend fabrics, which Kinman notes are "more economical than coated fabrics and with a far wider selection."

Flatbeds Here and Now
New flatbed creations are also heating up. At drupa and other notable trade shows many manufacturers debuted versatile flatbed devices.

Agfa introduced three new iterations of its popular :Anapurna print engine. "Among the greatest achievements is the ability to print at photo quality with the new :Anapurna XLS printer, which is very fast," notes Mike White, wide format manager, Agfa. "To enable photo quality at production speeds, we created real innovative technology, including a transport belt to move the media. The technology found in our Universal Print Head inkjet heads is also a great benefit to our customers in high-demand graphics and packaging applications," White adds. "It all adds up to an extraordinary degree of reliability for the printer."

Some of the most promising growth opportunities in flatbed wide format print today were once considered specialties. For example, graphics printed on substrates like fabrics, tile, wood, glass, metal, and other exotic materials for fine art reproductions and indoor décor were unheard of.

"Durst introduced a number of new printing platforms over the past 12 months in the flatbed, roll-to-roll, and industrial printing categories," notes Christopher Howard, VP, sales and marketing, Durst Image Technology US, LLC.

Durst’s Rho SP60 was unveiled at drupa 2008. "It is the next product in our industrial printing, single pass platform," Howard adds. "Based on the proven Gamma 60 single pass ceramic printer, the Rho SP60 utilizes UV inkjet technology that can be deployed in the wood laminating industry. These machines run at a linear speed of 95 feet per minute and are highly focused in their applications."

Inca Digital recently rolled out three new digital print engines. The company "continues to focus on improvements addressing the most important requirements for sign and display companies—productivity," says Kendle.

Inca claims to have changed the face of wide format digital printing with the Inca Onset flatbed. "We offer a machine with remarkable ROI/business model, while providing extremely attractive, high-quality point of sale materials. Companies are now focusing on how and where an Inca Onset might efficiently replace some work on screen presses and wide format offset presses," confides Kendle.

Inca Digital also teamed up with Fujifilm Sericol to create a new wide format solution. "We embraced wide format digital technology in the mid ’90s," recalls Terry Amerine, segment manager, wide format graphics, Fujifilm Sericol. "We were at the forefront of UV-curable digital technology from its inception. Our partnership with Inca Digital and the introduction of the Acuity HD 2504 flatbed in 2007 enabled sign shops to dramatically lower their production costs and enter new markets."

Not only have flatbed manufacturers improved performance with faster, reliable, and easier to use equipment, a few manufacturers are breaking down pricing barriers as well.

For example, Raster Printers, Inc. unveiled two new UV-curable printers, the Daytona H700UV Hybrid flatbed printer in October of last year, and this Spring, the Daytona T600UV flatbed printer.

"The H7000UV printer is the first sub-$100,000 printer to offer photographic image quality—from grayscale heads—white ink support, and a vacuum belt media transport capable of handling up to 100 pounds in weight," notes Rak Kumar, founder and CEO, Raster Printers, Inc. "The T600UV is the first sub-$100,000, fixed vacuum table printer to offer photographic image quality—from grayscale MEMs heads—white ink support, and excellent dot registration down to two-point text," proudly notes Kumar.

Two for the Price of One
Raster Printers’ hybrid flatbed is a timely entry into the market. Hybrids are becoming a popular choice for printers looking to expand their capabilities without sacrificing floor space. Many manufacturers offer an add-on option if a PSP already owns an existing model.

GCC recently introduced the GCC StellarJET 250UV, StellarJET 183UVK, and StellarJET K100UV.

"These printers print directly on rigid and/or flexible substrates with superior adhesion and outstanding quality. Our StellarJET series fulfills a diverse range of applications—such as backlit displays, billboard signage, fleet and transit graphics, flexible indoor prints, floor graphics, mounted indoor displays, vinyl event banners, wall coverings, window graphics, and more—providing customers the best output quality with the most reasonable price," notes Mira Wu, senior marketing communications specialist, GCC.

Building upon the successful Virtu family of large format inkjets Leggett & Platt (L&P) Digital Technologies unveiled its Virtu HD8 at SGIA 2007.

"Three machines in one, the L&P Virtu HD8 adjusts to print with a range of fine to coarse drop sizes to meet resolution needs, allowing manufacturers to select high resolution, eight-picoliter fine drop size for the finest quality—rich color and sharpness on one application, then auto-change to 16- or 24-picoliter drop volume for enhanced quality or high quality," notes Richard Codos, executive director, North American development, L&P Digital Technologies.

Roland DGA Corporation introduced five new wide format solutions including the SOLJET PRO III XC-540 printer/cutter.

"Roland’s integrated print/cut technology is unique because it facilitates both digital printing and contour cutting on one device through one seamless workflow," suggests Rick Scrimger, VP/GM, Roland Color Products Division. "This innovation is widely embraced by the market and can dramatically increase a shop’s productivity."

Color Inside the Lines
In addition to widespread enhancements to print engine performance, manufacturers are sharply focused on improving the performance and compatibility of the inks their systems use.

"We have been very busy developing and launching a number of inkjet inks for use in a wide variety of large format and grand format printers—including pigmented aqueous inks, new digital textile inks, and enhanced UV-curable inks," notes Craig T. Reid, director of marketing, inkjet inks and dispersions, DuPont. "New DuPont inkjet inks jet directly to the substrate, reducing production steps, providing faster turnaround, and further enabling digital adoption rates."

EFI continues to update models within its VUTEk QS2000 family to include both four- and six-color printers. More importantly they utilize UV ink options. "UV inks enable a safer working environment, without the harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or hazardous air pollutants associated with traditional solvent or screenprinting," shares Van Horn.

Mutoh America, Inc. developed Intelligent Interweaving, a patented technology that eliminates banding when the ink is laid down. Crystal Baus, assistant marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc. suggests that the Intelligent Interweaving technique represents a revolution in the piezoelectric printing world.

"This technique allows for increased print speeds and virtually eliminates banding, creating exceptional image quality," she clarifies. "It increases accuracy and consistency of dot size and dot release during printing, and improves the image. In addition to increased dot-gain control, it allows for more latitude in profile settings. The best part is with no banding, there is less waste and happier clients," she adds.

Océ North America’s VariaDot imaging technology reduces ink usage up to 35 percent, while maintaining image quality. "All of our Océ CS9000 printers, and our Océ Arizona 250 GT flatbed printer, utilize Océ VariaDot imaging technology," notes Randy Paar, marketing product manager, Océ Display Graphics, Océ North America. "Additionally, our Océ IJC930 eco-solvent inks allow users to enjoy the benefits of solvent printing without the associated VOCs and odors."

Expansion Satisfaction
Expansion is a major theme in technologies recently developed by wide format manufacturers. Devices mentioned here expand current product lines. They also assist a PSP in expanding options for their clients. In either case, expansion is an excellent indicator of a successful market and a sign of more good things to come.

Though timing and non-disclosure agreements prohibit Digital Output from sharing any specifics at this juncture, we can offer this teaser—in preparation for this article, at least three printer manufacturers noted that their companies intend to introduce new wide format models in the very near future, within months.

Indeed, big print is prospering, due in no small part to the crafty engineers who toil—often thanklessly and behind the scenes—at making sure sign shops and other print businesses continue to push the creative envelope and maintain attractive profit margins. 2009 and beyond looks to be promising in the wide format printer space.

Aug2008, Digital Output

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