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Versatile Flatbeds

Updated Technology Produces Creative Output

By Kim Crowley

Flatbeds make it possible to produce print jobs beyond simple papers and vinyl; breaking limitations on traditional large format printers and broadening substrate options to creative imaginations. Everything from ceiling tiles to doors, wine crates, mobile phone cases, laptop covers, furniture, leather, and wallpaper are acceptable substrates for a flatbed.

Recent technological advancements include speed and high image quality. Streamlining workflow, flatbeds eliminate the once tedious task of mounting printed material to rigid board. Direct to print capabilities enable print service providers (PSPs) to bring fresh ideas to the table.

Application Range
Flatbeds print directly to rigid, thick surfaces that were not feasible in the past. Jason Metnick, VP operations, Digital Equipment Company, lists various media choices, “everything from foam boards and Coroplast to tabletops and doors.”

Agfa Graphics’ customers are creating interesting applications, says Michael White, wide format manager, Agfa. “This includes printing directly onto glass or customized promotional printing. On demand, theme-based printing includes signage with cut-out appliquŽs and three-dimensional decorative party dŽcor.”

“With 76 different qualified materials for our flatbed printer line, our clients and operators always find different applications to suit customers,” notes Cory Brock, director of marketing, Gandinnovations. “A lot of our clients are moving toward outdoor applications as well as keeping pace with indoor projects, such as POP. With the market the way it is, advertisers want and need to take risks. They find that the cost of a flatbed job is just right.”

The flatbed table on the Arizona 350 XT from Oce North America is large enough for users to print on oversized items such as garage doors. “It also prints on irregularly shaped or non-square items, heavy substrates such as glass, or materials with an uneven surface such as wood. This is an advantage over competitive rigid-capable printers that use belt or friction-based media feed systems, as they can only print on square-cornered, lightweight materials of uniform thickness,” explains Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager, Oce.

The Rho 800 flatbed printer from Durst Image Technology US LLC primarily targets large format graphics, the environmental graphics segment, and industrial manufacturing. “Our industrial segment utilizes a number of unique applications, from printing on metals for license plates, to companies printing on PE materials and glass for integration in various products,” says Christopher Howard, VP of marketing and sales, Durst.

“More people look to UV flatbed printers for industrial applications, not just the graphic arena,” admits Sabratinna Pan, marketing manager, Teckwin. “Industrial printing requires automation to shorten the process and improve the quality rate.”

EFI Rastek developed specialized, flexible ink for flatbed use in the membrane switch market. “Control panels are very difficult to print on because the material creases and expands to create a raised button,” says Darrell Etter, director, product marketing, EFI Rastek.

GCC runs a StellarJET Application Lab where substrates and applications are tested, printing on everything from mobile phone covers to bamboo dining mats. The StellarJET Application Lab serves, “to dig out customers’ needs, expand more applications, and find solutions for customers to increase profit,” explain Michelle Chang, product manager and Lisa Hsu, senior specialist, GCC.

Technology Advances
Flatbed printers are more accessible than ever. “Remarkably, entry inkjet models improved substantially in terms of output and quality—like our :Anapurna M4f,” states White. “UV inkjet printers offer the flexibility of short runs and the ability to print on a wide variety of substrates. In response to this, output goes way beyond standard sign applications.”

Printhead resolution has greatly advanced in the last decade. “In this industry, ten or 15 years ago 30 dpi was a high resolution for outdoor graphics and indoor was 300, 600, or 720 dpi. Now, these two markets are merging to create grand format machines producing output at 1,080 dpi. This leads to a versatile product, which customers are asking for. They want one machine that is outdoor, indoor, high-quality friendly,” states Etter.

Ken Van Horn, product marketing manager, EFI VUTEk, notices a migration from solvent to UV. “EFI VUTEk leads the movement in a number of ways, especially with the number of placements of our QS printers. There is an analog to digital transition going on as well. The EFI VUTEk DS and the GS flatbeds are both positioned to be on the forefront of that transition.”

“UV continues to expand with flexible ink and better adhesion and is proving to be a more environmentally friendly solution,” says Jason Kammes, product marketing manager, Fujifilm Graphic Systems U.S.A., Inc. Kammes predicts higher-end UV digital wide format presses will take over the short-run packaging market due to ease of use, flexibility, and quality.

“We cannot forget the tremendous effort placed on inks and curing technologies,” notes Lou Laurent, hardware business development, Triangle Digital INX Co. “Triangle is developing new ink formulations integrated with printhead and curing technologies to improve quality and printing speeds, reduce maintenance issues, and provide low-cost printing sub-systems. We are still in the testing stage, but viable, hardened systems will appear in the near future.”

Mimaki USA, Inc. recently introduced the UJV-160 LED UV and JFX-1631 flatbed printers. “Heat is the enemy to many substrates and the ink itself—creating head strikes, warped media, and brittle flaking ink, which can fail prematurely. These new products prevent these issues by using low energy UV curing,” shares Steve Urmano, marketing director, Mimaki.

Don Knox, U.S. director of sales, large format printing, Hewlett-Packard (HP) believes more knowledgeable end users are entering the market. “Our customer base is becoming more sophisticated and knowledgeable about flatbed technologies and applications. Now, when visiting successful PSPs, an added level of creativity is visible as customers embrace the ability to print to a variety of materials with the versatile, high-quality solutions now available.”

Knox points out one popular use of flatbeds, the ability to eliminate mounting and laminating processes. “There is an increased adoption of entry-level flatbed products as more customers install these technologies to print directly onto uncoated rigid substrates,” he says.

Pricing is the next issue flatbed manufacturers expect to tackle. “The price for UV-curable systems continues to decline so more companies can adopt the technology, and the systems will become more plug-and-play as the technology advances,” anticipates Metnick.

Brock also anticipates the decline of flatbed prices. “I expect to see the price coming down on a lot of flatbeds as PSPs discover how much this technology helps us profit and cut down on production time.”

Hybrid Action
Several manufacturers offer flatbed printers fulfilling double duty in the print shop. These hybrid printers come standard or customized with an optional roll-to-roll capability. “The benefit of the hybrid, and the reason why it has outsold flatbeds, is the flexibility to do roll-to-roll,” states EFI VUTEk’s Van Horn.

Hybrid options create a versatile printer, especially for a quick switch from rigid to roll-to-roll. Durst’s roll-to-roll system on the Rho 800 Presto flatbed allows for changeover in less than ten minutes. The company offers two roll-to-roll options—a standard system and a heavy duty roll-to-roll feed and take up. The heavy duty system allows for larger diameter rolls—up to 12 inches and 440 pounds—and built-in dancer bars and skew controls.

Hybrid capability is standard with Triangle’s Milano flatbeds. “The changeover from rigid to roll mode can be done in 30 seconds,” says Laurent. “Since all of our printers include roll-to-roll capabilities, service bureaus and small commercial printers print the rigid components of a customer’s job in flatbed mode and in seconds convert to a roll format. The result, the entire job’s image characteristics match.”

Mutoh America, Inc.’s ValueJet VJ-1608 is a 64-inch flatbed printer that comes standard with a roll-to-roll mechanism out of the box. It uses Mutoh’s Mubio ink, which is composed of more than 80 percent renewable, plant-derived resources. “By choosing to become ‘green,’ customers lower costs, eliminate the need to install specialized ventilation systems, and diminish the expense of harmful volatile organic compounds,” shares Brian Phipps, director of sales, Mutoh.

The HP Scitex FB950 and FB6100 convert from roll-fed to flatbed printers. Additionally, the HP Scitex XP2700, which is primarily a roll-to-roll device, offers an optional, convertible flatbed module. It is rated to switch between flatbed and roll-to-roll in less than ten minutes.

Digital Equipment Company’s Legend 720HUV offers a fully integrable roll-to-roll option. “Switching from roll to rigid is quickly and cleanly accomplished in under ten minutes. The Legend accommodates rolls up to 11 inches in diameter and up to 250 pounds for maximum production,” says Metnick.

Speed is key when changing from rigid to flexible media. Also essential is the option to upgrade an existing device. Both the Acuity Advance and the Acuity Advance X2 offer roll-to-roll options that are added in the field.

A roll media option is available on all Oce Arizona models—either factory ordered or added later as a field upgrade. “The rigid and roll printing areas do not interfere with each other. The two printing surfaces can be used sequentially—while one is printing, the other can be handled without disrupting the printing process,” notes Paar. There is no downtime when shifting from one print mode to the other.

Many Durst customers add a dedicated roll-to-roll machine as a shop’s needs expand. “This makes the ROI on a printer better and allows for business growth,” says Howard.

“Just about all of our customers opt for hybrid to receive the benefits of rigid and roll-to-roll. UV roll-to-roll provides flexibility, color consistent output, and economical costs,” says Agfa’s White.

For the entry-level user, a hybrid is beneficial. However, as business grows it may be more efficient to own two separate devices for rigid and roll-to-roll printing. “When our customers stop the machine and switch over to roll-to-roll, they lose production. Originally, people wanted a machine that could do everything. More sophisticated users like having two different products,” says EFI Rastek’s Etter.

Some shops can afford to have a dedicated flatbed and roll-to-roll device in-house. “We believe the best quality is attained in true flatbed printers. To print roll-to-roll we offer specific machines at a very low cost. The customer has more flexibility with two pieces of equipment at almost the cost of one,” states Pedro Mart’nez, representative, Printing Imaging Technologies, S.L.

Flatbed Spotlight
Included below is more information regarding flatbeds, in particular new additions and enhancements to existing product lines.

Agfa’s :Anapurna Mv six-color printer is the company’s fastest selling printer since its introduction last year. The printer offers the option of an UV spot or flood coat varnish. “This glossy UV coating is a unique feature, which makes images pop. The :Anapurna Mv takes the photo-quality results and reliability reminiscent of current :Anapurna printers to the next level. Plus, varnish doubles the life of outdoor applications,” says White.

Agfa launched the :Anapurna M2 at ISA in Las Vegas, NV. It is a six-color printer with 12 picoliter droplets. The printer’s improved design includes crash sensors mounted on a shuttle, a stronger automatic vacuum, and balanced roller detection.

Digital Equipment Company’s Legend 72HUV is a heavy-duty, industrial-grade UV-curable printer with roll-to-roll capability and a price tag under $85,000. It prints edge-to-edge at up to 72 inches wide, has sturdy media handling support, variable-pressure rollers, and integrated media guidance. Recent enhancements include upgrades to the electronics and an ink delivery system.

The Durst Rho 800 Presto features a patented rail system and magnetic linear drive, along with the Durst Quadro Array 30 printhead system, designed for accurate drop placement. Customers may also utilize the Rho 800 in its two-pass mode, translating to more than 15 four- by eight-foot sheets per hour.

EFI Rastek offers two flatbed products for entry-level use—the T660 and H700 printers. The T660 flatbed UV is a five- by four-foot printer designed for small signage and specialty applications. The printer was recently featured at ISA. Its true grayscale printheads are ideal for specialty applications like lenticular, close view projects, membrane touch switch panels, short-run package prototyping, and variable data. The H700 combination flatbed generates photographic-quality indoor and outdoor prints in four colors, plus white.

EFI VUTEk recently added the new GS3200, a 3.2-meter hybrid printer with dual resolution capability. “The dual resolution capability allows users to select the picoliter droplet size, depending on the image quality needed. You can select 600 or 1,000 dpi. Those aren’t apparent; those are true dots per inch. The apparent resolutions are much higher, resulting in a huge leap forward in image quality,” says Van Horn. The maximum speed on the GS3200 is 2,400 square feet per hour (sf/h), an increase from 900 sf/h on the company’s QS hybrid printer.

EFI VUTEk’s seventh generation of UV inks were recently introduced, the QS Series 2. These are specially formulated for use in the VUTEk QS2000 and QS3200 flatbed printers.

Fujifilm’s portfolio of UV flatbed printers includes the Inca Spyder and Onset devices. The company also offers the Acuity family of flatbed printers.

The Acuity Advance is a UV device that features roll-to-roll and white ink. 35 percent faster than the previous model, it employs a zoned media table capable of holding various types of media.

The company recently introduced the Acuity Advance X2, which prints on substrates up to 1.9 inches thick and boasts a flatbed surface of 98.4x120.1 inches—twice the size of other Acuity devices. The Acuity Advance X2 features a dual zoning system with independent vacuum control, allowing the printing of an image in one zone while setting up another image in the second, resulting in increased throughput. It also features a white ink option.

Gandinnovations’ newly released NanoJet2 flatbed from Gandinnovations produces photo-quality images from printheads that allow variable dot sizes from six to 30 picoliters. The company invented a high-speed auto-loader, called HAL, that loads and unloads rigid materials on two flatbeds, all the while inspecting for contamination and imperfections in the media.

According to Brock, the company’s best selling flatbed is the Jeti 3148 X-2, the original version of the Jeti 3150 X-2. It has double the printheads and a five- by ten-foot table.

GCC’s StellarJET UV-curable inkjet printers are now available with optional pre-coat and top-coat solutions, in addition to optional white and varnish solutions. “GCC is not only a machine manufacturer, but also a total solution provider—of pre-coat, UV printing, and top-coat. This range enables customers to expand to broader applications that they were not capable of before,” notes GCC’s Chang and Hsu.

Gerber Scientific Products, Inc. offers the Gerber Solara ionX, ionV, and ionZ printers. All three flatbeds use GerberCat Cationic UV ink and Cold Fire Cure low temperature technology. ionX and ionV customers will be able to upgrade to the ionZ in late summer.

HP announced the HP Scitex FB7500 printer at the SGIA 2008 trade show in Atlanta, GA. Designed for close up POP/POS applications, exhibition graphics, signage, backlit displays, and posters, the HP Scitex FB7500 offers speeds of up to 5,380 sf/h.

The HP Scitex FB6700 printer is best suited for screenprinters and high-production printing environments. It features a fully automated workflow and uses water-based HP Scitex WB300 Supreme Inks, which are UV-, water-, and abrasion-resistant.

The HP Scitex FB6100 converts from a roll-fed to a flatbed printer. It features fast-drying UV inks and an eight-color gamut with an optional white ink kit.

Mimaki’s best-selling flatbed is the JF-1631. The JF prints on rolled media. The Mimaki UJV-160 is a hybrid machine. The roll-to-roll large format UV-curable inkjet printer comes with a standard flatbed attachment for printing on rigid substrates.

The company’s newest release is the JFX-1631 UV-curable flatbed printer. It features a low-power consumption UV LED curing system and enhanced image quality and speed. The curing system reduces the amount of heat generated, allowing the printer to support a wider range of heat-sensitive media, such as acrylic and styrene.

Mutoh’s ValueJet VJ-1608 64-inch flatbed prints at speeds up to 120 sf/h at 720 dpi. This hybrid includes an out-of-the-box roll-to-roll mechanism. It prints on media up to ten millimeters thick with an automatic head height adjustment at a maximum resolution of 1,440 dpi. It utilizes five heaters to ensure correct media drying and uses Mutoh’s Mubio ink, composed of more than 80 percent renewable, plant-derived resources.

In February 2009, Oce introduced the Oce Arizona 350 XT printer, a UV-curable flatbed model capable of producing rigid prints as large as 98.4x120 inches and up to 1.89 inches thick. With the roll media option installed, users print onto flexible media up to 87 inches wide. The printer also offers a white ink option for under-printing on non-white media, over-printing for backlit applications on transparent media, and/or printing white as a spot color. Oce VariaDot imaging technology is designed to deliver near-photographic image quality.

Based in Spain, PIT offers the PIT-FB-UV series of flatbeds using Konica printheads with a maximum print resolution of 1,440 dpi. The PIT-FB-UV-2030-16 model offers a maximum print width of 80 inches and a speed of 360 sf/h. Recent enhancements to PIT UV flatbeds include an improved vacuum table, capability for white and varnish, and improved electronics.

Recent additions from Teckwin include the TeckStorm R, for both rigid and flexible material. The company revealed the hybrid in early 2009 due to customer demand. It has a stable, continuous roll feeding system to help avoid the moving skews that are often found on hybrid and combo printers.

TeckStorm is the company’s best-selling flatbed printer, which is fitted with Xaar 760 printhead technology. Printing speed varies, including 245 sf/h based on different print modes. A hood protects the carriage area, making it safer for the operator and the environment.

Triangle’s Milano (MXP) printer series includes the Milano 2504cS and 2054cS printers, with maximum print widths of 98 and 80 inches, respectively. The Milano MXP printers have the capability to do variable printing, for projects such as customized real estate signs. Both printers also have full bleed capabilities.

WP Digital AG offers the Virtu RS25 and the Virtu RS35 hybrid flatbeds. Both feature a maximum resolution of 1,200 dpi. Virtu RS25 has a maximum print width of 98 inches and a speed of up to 1,500 sf/h. The Virtu RS35 has a maximum print width of 137 inches and a speed of up to 2,150 sf/h. The printers are suitable for substrates up to 3.7 inches thick. Recent enhancements include an optional continuous feeding unit. A mesh kit for textiles is also available.

Getting Started
A flatbed adds speed, quality, and versatility to a print shop. Careful selection and efficient marketing develops current customer relationships further and brings diverse business. The investment is large and PSPs should be prepared. However, several companies offer financing options to help address monetary issues.

EFI VUTEk provides a financial services group to aid buyers with a delayed payment start date. “This allows them to begin building a business and a clear plan around that printer before they make the first payment,” says Van Horn.

First time flatbed owners should take the time to educate themselves. Many vendors offer training and business building tools. “Our hardware, training. and support programs are focused on first time UV print buyers who need to quickly expand the business to support their investment,” says Triangle’s Laurent. “Selling rigid jobs is different than roll applications. We provide hands-on support so customers use all of their expanded capabilities to grow sales.”

Jun2009, Digital Output

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