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Printers Roll Out

A Look at Roll-to-Roll Printers

By Melissa Donovan

Roll-to-roll printers are still the bread and butter of many sign shops. These devices are ideal for applications that require flexible substrates, such as textiles, banners, paper-based products, and vinyl. This variety is enticing to any print service provider (PSP) looking to offer multiple services with minimal equipment investments.


Advancements in efficiency and color gamut continue to change the landscape of this specific line of products. While many debate over the benefits and drawbacks of owning a dedicated roll-to-roll or a hybrid complemented by a flatbed, either type of configuration provides production and quality for all levels of experience—from the novice to the seasoned professional.


Identifiable Features

The market is riddled with hundreds of printer models. A PSP has several criteria in mind when researching a roll-to-roll printer. For example, specific features such as multi-roll or double-sided printing might be of interest. The ability to print with white or metallic ink, or to specialty substrates such as magnets, tile, and glass, are also considered.


Reliability and automation are two important features that distinguish one roll-to-roll printer from another. “Robust and industrial engineered roll-to-roll systems are able to handle wider industrial grade substrates. This is an important distinguishing feature for higher volume shops or those looking to elevate their product offerings and take business to the next level,” explains Deborah Hutcheson, director of marketing, Agfa Graphics.


The design of a printer affects its automation. Transport systems, such as roll take up devices, keep printers running while unattended. “The transport system is the foundation of a printer’s functionality,” admits Christopher Howard, VP sales and marketing, Durst Image Technology US LLC. Properly controlling thin or pliable materials or working well with fabric and mesh are also of importance, especially as these types of substrates gain popularity.


Traditionally, roll-to-roll devices were predominately used to create billboards, due to low print quality. However, manufacturers realize the necessity of a printer that offers project versatility, producing those with a higher resolution and robust material handling. “Versatility is key for today’s roll-to-roll printers, which adds value to a PSP’s shop by providing high-quality, fast, economical work,” shares RJ Sullivan, roll-to-roll product manager, EFI.


“Roll-to-roll printers are judged more on image quality. I have not seen a flatbed that compares to a roll-to-roll printer to date,” adds Reed Hecht, product manager, professional imaging, Epson.


Output resolution has changed dramatically, allowing high-end fine art reproductions, wallpaper, and more to be created. With this evolution comes a drawback. “Creating images at the highest output resolutions can be painstakingly slow when the printhead must traverse back and forth across the same swath of media several times. Most inkjet printing systems offer a choice of print modes so the operator can lower the output resolution to gain speed,” adds Tom Leibrandt, print on demand product manager, Screen USA.


All of the above factor into productivity. Interestingly, Sandy Gramley, Americas Scitex portfolio manager, Hewlett-Packard (HP), points out that there are other printer features rarely considered that affect productivity as well, such as inline cutting or dry time before finishing, in addition to print speeds. Both are important when comparing various devices.


Dedicated Versus Hybrid

Depending on a shop’s offerings, job volume, and square footage, they may opt for a dedicated roll-to-roll or a hybrid. Many manufacturers argue the quality of each configuration is similar. “Quality is a function of a number of factors. The most important are ink gamut, drop size, curing/drying, and the media advance system. With these considerations in mind, both hybrid and roll-to-roll devices can deliver excellent quality,” shares Gramley.


Randy Paar, display graphics product manager, Océ North America, agrees. “Output quality should be comparable, and there are similar ranges of inks across the two architectures.”


Media handling, speed, and output quality are three variances between the two technologies. Ryan Buy, sales director, Teckwin Development Co., Ltd., affirms that the media handling on a true roll-to-roll printer is exceptional. David J. Cich, VP of sales and marketing, CET Color, explains in detail why this is so. “A dedicated roll-to-roll printer almost always performs better than a hybrid for two reasons. One, you can set the printhead offset so that the gantry passes as close to the material as possible, leading to less stray dots and higher dot accuracy, for a higher quality print. Two, the feed system can be built without having to compromise for a rigid substrate,” he says.


“The output quality will be less on a hybrid as the printhead carriage or platen will have to move up and down much higher. This causes more mechanical variation, and negatively affects print quality,” agrees Patrick Ryan, GM, Seiko Instruments USA – Infotech Division.


A roll-to-roll printer is optimized for long print runs and is usually equipped with a take up system, adds Robert Ozankan, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corporation. This allows for the support of long, unattended printing. Not all hybrids are able to do this.


Rolling Into the Future

New applications drive advancement. Leveraging a PSP’s wants and needs with innovation is no easy task. However, manufacturers rise to the challenge. “Different ink sets are being developed for different applications, dye-sublimation printing being one of the more popular today. Solvent is still fairly inexpensive, and has the widest range of medias, about 300 types are available today,” explains Steve Urmano, director of marketing, Mimaki USA, Inc.


The influence of UV ink sets—particularly in printing directly to rigid board—affect flexible substrates as well. More UV-curable printers are offered at lower cost for roll-to-roll. The competition is between buying a dedicated roll-to-roll or a more versatile UV hybrid. Smaller shops will need the flexibility and larger shops can have the volume in each area, foresee Bill Grambsch, West regional sales manager and Wes Kidd, East regional sales manager, Polytype America.


According to Cich, “most new printheads are engineered and built for the UV market. They include more nozzles that fire a smaller dot faster, leading to increased speeds. UV printers do not have drying issues, so speeds are really limitless.”


UV goes hand-in-hand with eco-friendly printing, which is an increasing concern between PSPs and their customers. “Improvements in the ‘green’ factor are on the horizon including more efficient drying systems, reduced ink usage, and UV LED,” comments Paar.


Despite this need for greener products, Ryan points out that these are only on a PSP’s wish list if they can offer the same color gamut, outdoor durability, adhesion to substrates, and image quality of its predecessors. Not to mention, price.


In-House Printing

PSPs look to roll-to-roll printer manufacturers to supply devices with quality, efficiency, and durability. In short, everything needed to run a successful business 24/7.


ADgraphix, based in St. Louis, MO, opened in 2002 with a Roland SOLJET SC-500 54-inch roll-to-roll printer that went on to propel the business. Today, they also own a new Roland VersaCAMM VS-640 64-inch printer, which runs eight to ten hours a day, in addition to their Roland SOLJET PRO III XC-540 and SOLJET SC-540 devices. Jeff Burns and Chris Schreck, co-owners, ADgraphix, say that because of a background in photography, output quality was top of mind when looking for a roll-to-roll printer—something Roland devices provide for all the applications that come out of the shop from fleet vehicle graphics to wall murals and counter wraps.


Team One Display Services, Inc., with locations in Atlanta, GA and Las Vegas, NV, originally worked with a Mimaki JV3 printer, but replaced it with a Mimaki JV33-160 solvent printer. The device, according to William W. Groff Jr., president/CEO, Team One, produces fast, consistent, and gorgeous prints, which is ideal for busy times of the year when the company pushes trade show booths for the International Sign Association and Specialty Graphics Imaging Association. During these times, the JV33 runs seven days a week creating prints at eight pass and 720x1,440 dpi resolution.


Benicia, CA-based Crystal Clear Imaging (CCI) is the West Coast brand from headquarters in New Orleans, LA. The CA location, up and running for three years, initially started with a Mimaki JV5 and am HP Designjet 10000 printer. Currently in a growth phase, the shop handles nationwide campaigns for corporations, advertising agencies, and small designers that include point of purchase and out-of-home signage. In 2010, they added an HP Designjet L65500 printer, which a majority of their printing is done on. The eco-friendly nature of the latex printer answers the demand of CCI’s clients.


Bret Carwin, business development manager, CCI, explains that green is a necessity, being so close to San Francisco, CA. He even jokes that it is the number one reason he came to work at CCI. “What attracted me to come work for CCI is the eco-friendly printing. It was the first shop in Northern CA to receive an HP Designjet L65500,” he says.


In Manchester, NH, Spectrum Marketing Companies is no stranger to printing, having been in the business of taking a job from concept to completion for over 19 years. The shop’s six year old sign division relies on an EFI VUTEk QS3200 roll-to-roll printer for most of its large format needs. Originally, the device was purchased for fulfillment for one of Spectrum’s clients, but since installation it is used for a diverse range of customers, according to Ted Jarvis, director of business development, Spectrum. The QS3200 runs on two shifts at an average of 70 percent of the time, at around 1,080 dpi.


Between the four companies, there is varied response on the benefits of owning and implementing dedicated roll-to-roll printers and hybrid combinations. Burns and Schreck point out that all of their printers are roll-to-roll, and although they have looked into adding a hybrid to the mix, they don’t feel there is a type out there just yet that fits their niche. “We have considered adding a UV flatbed or hybrid, but we feel the UV technology is still developing quickly, and we’re holding out for more improvements,” they add.


Team One owns a variation, from the roll-to-roll JV33-160, a recently purchased JF-1631 flatbed UV printer from Mimaki, as well as a newly added EFI Rastek H650 UV hybrid. The majority of their vinyl graphics are produced on the roll-to-roll, however the Rastek, according to Groff, is an excellent addition because it assists both the flatbed and the roll-to-roll in producing jobs if timing restraints arise.


In December 2010, CCI installed an HP Scitex FB700 hybrid printer. Ideal for their shop, it saves time by eliminating mounting. Some work was moved over from the dedicated roll-to-roll to the hybrid, but Carwin doesn’t foresee a lot more occurring, and admits it is truly dependent on the job.


Spectrum is able to run a variety of substrates and roll-to-roll applications on the QS3200. Mesh, vinyl, fabric, to window clings and styrene, are just a few examples of what the printer can handle. Jarvis cites this capability as an enhancement of the viability of roll-to-roll in general.


Burns and Schreck predict that UV inks will eventually dominate the roll-to-roll market, propelled by the green push. Both Groff and Jim Connor, GM, CCI, note their hopes that speeds and output quality will continue to evolve.


Investing in new technology is something each PSP hopes to continue to do. “We are carefully watching the industry and as the Spectrum sign division grows, our plan is to increase production to three shifts, which we believe will require additional equipment,” admits Jarvis.


Some improved their printer portfolios in the past year and saw excellent results in the form of large client relationships. For example, CCI works with Oracle Arena, based in Oakland, CA, and home of the Raiders, Athletics, and Golden State Warriors. Using the HP Designjet L65500, they rebrand high-end, sponsored sports clubs located inside the facility at the drop of a hat. Graphics for these projects change immediately—the minute a corporate sponsor is dropped and another is negotiated to come in. A room originally sponsored by Smirnoff was taken over by Budweiser, and the Stella Club was born. Graphics include cement walls wrapped in media ranging from ten feet to 36 inches high, column wraps, tabletops, and elevators. Carwin says the latex printer’s speed is beneficial in this instance.


Printers Roll Out

Using a dedicated roll-to-roll device allows for unattended printing, until a roll runs out. For shops primarily working with flexible substrates, in high volumes, a dedicated device is an excellent fit.


If business is split between rigid and flexible applications, or if it favors rigid, a hybrid device is essential. The roll-to-roll speed may not compare to a dedicated device, but it is still impressive.


In both instances, output quality is exceptional. Manufacturers realize that PSPs do not want to compromise on quality if they can help it. Luckily, they don’t have to. 


Click here to view the Digital Roll Printers Target Chart - an all-inclusive information resource!

Mar2011, Digital Output

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