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The Flatbed Market Ignites

Digital Flatbeds Produce Masterly Results

By Gretchen A. Peck

According to the InfoTrends report, North American Wide Format Professional Digital Graphics Study, the 2005 retail value of wide format digital graphics in North America came in at approximately nine billion dollars. The figure represents print output from solvent, aqueous, and UV-curable digital technologies, and the figure is expected to grow to 13 billion dollars by 2009. It’s no wonder that print suppliers across the board are considering digital inkjet—if they haven’t already made the investment.

Technologies Behind the Output
Digital flatbed printers come in two basic categories—solvent (and eco-solvent) and UV-curable solutions. There are arguments for both types of technologies; what you choose is largely dependent upon the types of services your company offers.

There are still plenty of manufacturers selling solvent solutions. The InfoTrends study says that, out of 400 print suppliers polled, 40 percent suggested that they plan to soon invest in a solvent or eco-solvent inkjet device.

The newer kid on the flatbed block—the UV-curable printer—is garnering a lot of interest, however, with 16.7 percent of the print suppliers saying they’re more likely to invest in this category.

By their very nature, these systems print on a wider variety of substrates than their solvent-based cousins. They print directly on both flexible and rigid media; they can accommodate considerable dimensions; and they can often eliminate the need for pre- and post-processing labor and materials.

Many users appreciate UV technology for its indoor/outdoor versatility. Durst US offers the Rho 600, which utilizes the company’s Quadro Array Technology, a proprietary ink supply and drying technology. According to Durst, the overall design of the machine is suitable for every application because the modules can be combined in any number of configurations. The Rho 600 prints on both rigid and semi-flexible panels up to 40mm thick. In addition to this, a motorized unwinding and winding system enables the printing of flexible panels on rolls up to 19cm in diameter. The panels are fed into the printer over fixed platforms at exactly the right angle, and their transport is precisely monitored by sensors.

Raster Printers, Inc. announced the release of its new RP-720UVX flatbed in February 2006. The company tells us that the machine’s UV-curable ink technology offers quality indoor and outdoor graphics. Printing at true 800 dpi, it meets the high image quality requirements of most indoor graphics. At the same time, the UV curable inks offer excellent fade resistance for outdoor applications.

Gandinnovations reports that it’s seen a spike in sales since the introduction of its JETi 3150 UV Flatbed printer. According to Hary Gandy, the manufacturer’s CEO of worldwide sales, revenues from both flatbed and roll-to-roll printers have exceeded his expectations—but the flatbed solutions are seeing, "faster growth."

According to Raster Printers, in addition to the flexibility of being able to print on just about any media, "UV systems generally require less maintenance and offer higher reliability due to the fact that these inks do not dry in the print heads, and at the same time, offer instant drying on the media by curing the ink with UV light."

Agility Matters
Flatbed inkjets are lauded for being equally astute at printing on traditional printing and paperboard stocks as they are when printing on less traditional substrates, such as fabric, ceramics, wood, glass, and metal.

For even greater flexibility, print suppliers may also consider a digital wide format hybrid—a convertible printer that accepts both roll-fed and flat-served media.

"The beauty of our VUTEk/EFI PressVu flatbeds is that it’s a quick switchover, offering such ease of use," notes Jane Cedrone, marketing manager, VUTEk/EFI. "The PressVu 200 prints on a broad range of applications, allowing shops to be a full service provider to existing customers, as well as expanding into new avenues."

Agfa, Mutoh, Vutek, and Zünd America also manufacture hybrid printers, and NUR America and Leggett & Platt Digital Technologies both offer flatbed models with roll-to-roll options.

It’s the flatbed’s versatility that’s enabling print business’ agility. These digital inkjets are finding new homes in virtually every type of print shop known to the U.S.—screen printers, photo labs, commercial printers, in-plants, and sign specialists.

New Vista Image reports that it has grown its business by investing in a VEEjet+ from HP/Scitex Vision. The technology, the supplier reports, allows the business to move beyond its historic specialties—window and vehicle graphics and building wraps—and tap into a new market—fine art.

HP/Scitex Vision is but one of the digital print manufacturers vying for the rich international market for large format print.

"The shift to digital technology is driving the greatest growth in the graphics printing market, representing a ten billion dollar market opportunity for HP," according to Vyomesh Joshi, executive VP, Imaging and Printing Group, HP.

Digital print technology is undeniably enabling print companies to meet the growing demand for big print, all the while, expanding their market reach.

Late last year, Inca Digital reported that it had sold its first Spyder 320 to Belaire Displays, a print supplier that had specialized in screen printing, but wanted to expand its offerings to include short-run point-of-sale print.

Leader All Surface Printing has found its Leggett & Platt Virtu printer to be quite agile in its ability to serve customers’ every whim.

According to Betty Leader, salesperson for Leader All Surface Printing, this single printer recently printed very different jobs for a single client—one that required imaging on plexiglass; one printed on cardboard; and one that was printed directly on brushed aluminum.

Digital flatbed printers are popping up across the U.S., enabling production of all kinds of print, including some non-traditional forms—like 3D signage, an emerging application for owners of Océ’s Arizona T220 flatbed solvent printer.

This particular solution, according to the manufacturer, can print directly onto a number of substrates used in vacuum-form applications. The printer images onto a flat, unformed sign blank (using Océ’s specially formulated inks), which is then vacuum formed to create the three-dimensional sign.

Working the Technology
So, you’ve got the technology, now how are you going to use it? This is a question on the minds of many print suppliers as they contemplate how best to promote the capabilities of newly installed flatbed printers.

Printers are rarely known for their marketing skills; sales are most often generated by word-of-mouth. But with the wide format market becoming increasingly competitive, print suppliers can no longer rely on this old-school marketing strategy.

When Jeff Sybil joined Image Mill Inc. a little more than two years ago, he set out to rethink how the company promoted itself.

Image Mill was founded in 1996 as a full-service supplier of large format graphics—everything from retail and POP signage to wall murals and fleet graphics. "Before I came on board, we had a very simple marketing strategy, mostly based on word-of-mouth," Sybil recalls. "Fortunately, the company’s reputation had been very solid, and that’s what generated huge business."

And yet, Image Mill wanted to solidify its market share and expand beyond its core customer base in the Washington area.

One of the first projects Sybil initiated was a revamp of the company’s Web site, which the company hoped to make more user-friendly and informative. But the Web site overhaul was just the beginning of the company’s new marketing strategy. "You can’t sell everything through the Web site," Sybil suggests. "It’s simply a good introduction to a company."

With the Web site redesign complete, Image Mill turned its attention to advertising. "We know we need a solid advertising plan that will be focused more regionally than nationally," Sybil explains. "We really want to reach out to the design and retail communities here in the Northwest."

Sybil also feels that it’s essential for print businesses to really understand the technologies they deploy, and be able to evangelize it to the print customer.

Printers must not miss opportunities like these to get exposure, Sybil suggests. He also says it’s cost-effective and smart to author press releases announcing new equipment and success stories about specific jobs you’re proud of. "You want to show off examples of projects you’ve done, particularly if they’re creatively unique," he advises.

It was creativity that landed Image Mill a recent job produced for The Alaskan Brewery Co. The company signed on as a sponsor for the 2006 Iditarod and wanted a creative way to promote their participation.

"The real difference between us and the others who bid on the job was that we understood their vision. They wanted to jazz it up with something different, like voice-activated sound. The printing was easy," Sybil recalls. "We just printed it with our L&P UV flatbed, directly onto the substrate. Then, we put it through a flatbed router. The voice-activation boxes were attached, and they were out the door. The client couldn’t have been happier."

Seeing is Believing
Selling the capabilities of digital flatbed printing is as simple as show and tell, according to Bob Cahill, founder of Bolder Graphics. He started the company in 1977 and recalls it as being a humble print-and-copy shop. But the business grew, and Cahill decided to venture into vinyl sign production in 1992. The new technologies for producing vinyl signage provided Cahill with a strong foundation for his latest endeavor in large format print.

Bolder Graphics invested in a MacDermid ColorSpan DisplayMaker 72UVR UV-curable inkjet printer a little more than a year ago, and he says it’s been a huge, "money maker."

"I knew I wanted to get a wide format printer," Cahill recalls, "but I didn’t want to go out and buy what everyone else had. I wanted a printer that would set us apart. The quality is far better than I even thought it would be," he confides. "At 600 dpi, it’s just awesome!"

Once Cahill’s customers see, first-hand, the quality of the printer’s output, it opens their eyes to new print opportunities they may not have considered before, he says. "We always mention it to our existing customers, and whenever they come in to the shop, I always drag them to the back and show them the machine."

Choosing and implementing the DisplayMaker solution required a lot of research and thought, Cahill cautions. A printer, he explains, has to be the right fit for your company. And he means this both figuratively and literally.

Of course, the printer you choose should have all the specifications you desire—and must promise to help your company meet your business objectives—but also, the printer has to literally fit through the doors.

"That’s one thing you tend to forget about, just how much floor space the printer requires," Cahill suggests. "You have to factor in not only the printer’s dimensions, but also the clearance you’ll need around it in order to handle the materials. We had to knock out walls and move tons of paper. And then, we built a system of huge wall racks to store our roll-fed materials. It worked out very nice, but it required some planning."

Training was also very important to Cahill, who says that printers should expect a learning curve when implementing a new digital flatbed. For his company, installation took only a day, but the vendor remained on-site for several more days to ensure he was comfortable with the equipment.

"I probably learned a little slower than other people," he adds. "Then again, I didn’t have any background in wide format. Now, I can set up the machine in less than five minutes. That’s what I enjoy most about it. I can send a job, and get on the phone or the Internet—go about my day—and it does what it’s supposed to do. I can just sit back and watch it print."

Make it Happen
Capturing new business is a common goal among printing companies, but it’s a particularly poignant strategy today, in a market climate that’s so competitive. Investing in digital flatbed print technologies—and investing in marketing and client education—may help some companies ensure that no big print job walks out the door to a competitor.

 Mar2006, Digital Output

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