Versatility is a clear priority among many print service providers (PSPs) when seeking new equipment. For those lucky enough to have the capital to invest, getting the biggest bang for the buck is essential. Dedicated roll-to-roll (RTR) devices handle a range of media and are available with several ink configurations. PSPs in the market for a new wide format printer weigh considerations such as current productivity capabilities and future growth. Media choice is ample, as RTR devices handle scrim and pressure-sensitive vinyl, fine art paper and canvas, as well as fabric and specialty media such as flexible magnetic substrates.
While the ability to print onto rigid substrates—or expand on this capability—is on the wish list of many, RTR is always a safe investment. Reed Hecht, product manager, professional imaging, Epson, admits that while many customers desire the ability to print onto rigid substrates and will invest in a flatbed printer at some point, the current price points these printers carry are significantly higher than RTR, putting them out of range for many.
When in the market for a RTR device, PSPs have options. Specific preferences help determine the best solution. Four ink sets are available for RTR printers, including water-based; solvent—low, mild, and hard; UV; and latex. Width and speed requirements are also key differentiating factors.
Application capabilities available with RTR devices are diverse. Users create anything from posters and banners to vehicle wraps, backlit displays, point of purchase (POP) signage, and exhibit graphics. Grand format RTR devices are utilized in the production of billboards and building wraps.
Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc., shares that banners are probably the most common application produced on RTR devices, followed second by adhesive-backed vinyl, and dye-sublimation (dye-sub) third. “It is easy to set up long runs for these applications and cost effective to print unattended during the work day while working on other projects or completing finishing work on previously printed media,” he adds. “Overnight printing extends production capability as well. All of this can be done at any scale, from a single printer to banks of printers, depending on business requirements and market needs.”
“In our marketspace, if it’s not RTR, it’s flatbed,” states Eric Zimmerman, product manager, Roland DGA Corporation. RTR and flatbed designs are tailored for separate applications, so choosing between the two really depends on the focus of a PSP’s business. “RTR opens up a number of applications because users can print on almost any media available on a roll,” he adds.
Notable Feature Sets
With such RTR variety, it’s hard to pinpoint commonalties across the board. A device’s primary specifications help narrow down the options. In addition to print width and ink requirements, media handling capabilities also come into play. Here, we outline a few trending, popular, or common feature sets found among wide and superwide format RTR devices.
In regards to ink, there is indication of a market shift from solvent towards durable, but more eco-friendly solutions, such as UV and latex. However, many agree that solvent’s place in the wide format market is still steady and necessary as a number of applications cannot be supplemented with other technologies.
Epson’s commitment shows solvent’s solidarity in the market. “Epson’s UltraChrome GS ink set, used in the Epson Stylus Pro GS6000 has proven to be important to the industry because it provides a high-quality, solvent-based ink with an extremely wide color gamut, which has less impact on the environment and worker health,” notes Hecht. He explains that with the improvements made to the new UltraChrome GS2 ink, which was recently introduced with the Epson SureColor S30670, the company expects the same interest and popularity within the industry.
Another solvent product, Mimaki USA, Inc.’s True Solvent SS2 and SS21 ink sets stand out due to their brilliant color and compatibility with a variety of media for the sign and graphics market, suggests Fran Gardino, business development manager, Mimaki.
UV inks are suited for a range of applications, featuring the ability to print on flexible and rigid substrates. Bill Grambsch, sales manager, Polytype America, notes that users of Polytype Virtu printers are able to print on just about any surface, assuming they have a combination flatbed/roll UV printer.
Mike Wozny, strategic product manager, EFI, suggests that high flex inks that allow end users to wrap vehicles and trucks sides are new, but will quickly gain popularity due to their flexibility characteristics.
For ink selection when digitally printing direct onto polyester textile media, Roland Biemans, sales and marketing manager, Hollanders Printing Systems (HPS), explains that high energy, water-based disperse direct ink is ideal because of its quality characteristics, but a good second is low energy water-based sublimation ink.
The media versatility RTR printing provides is an advantage. While a variety of solutions are available, substrate options can be restricted by ink compatibility and roll width.
Christian Sam, marketing manager, Graphics One, LLC (GO), says different industries have different media standard sizes. The dye-sub textile industry features a standard media width of 42 and 64 inches, while color separation film is 13, 17, 24, 36, and 42 inches.
Biemans notes a shift from two- to three-meter wide media. “Traditionally, two meter was the defacto standard, largely because digital direct to polyester printing was driven by the flag and banner market where wider material wasn’t used. Today, converging markets where traditional screenprinting meets digital sign and display production, three meter media is a primary choice,” he adds.
One notable trend in terms of RTR media is the increased use of fabric. Joseph Tsai, marketing specialist, GCC, believes the textile industry is an important market for roll media. He points to continued investment by vendors in the space as new solutions entered the market in 2011.
For example, Hewlett-Packard (HP) introduced two new Designjet printers, the L26500 and L28500, that both offer soft signage printing capabilities. The devices feature HP 792 Latex ink, which produces rich blacks and glossy results on over 500 media solutions. Double-sided printing is also available to provide less user intervention and more accurate registration.
Marty Silveira, VP, sales, DigiFab Systems, Inc., agrees that fabric is growing in importance and PSPs are investing in RTR to grasp this opportunity. He suggests that when printing fabrics, the end user needs to be considered before an investment in equipment is decided.
Christopher Howard, SVP, Durst Image Technology US LLC, also sees a continued trend towards fabric as well as cardstock. “Growth in the retail textile market drives this along with the fact that more offset printers are implementing machines and love the fact that they can load large rolls of their inventoried cardstock,” he adds.
In addition to current popular media options and the push to fabric, there is also a movement towards “greener” media options, which stems from end user concerns and governmental regulations.
Productivity is a major concern for PSPs. By operating a series of multiple, low-cost single roll machines or investing in solutions that handle simultaneous multiple roll capacity, PSPs are able to drive high productivity from a RTR operation.
In the case of dual-roll capability, PSPs manage the workflow in a way that gangs multiple jobs for one long, continuous print run, limiting time wasted on starting and stopping the machine. When not running in dual mode, these devices handle wider media widths, enabling PSPs to accept larger jobs that may not be submitted often, but couldn’t be accepted without extra steps such as stitching or welding.
The economical sense of implementing one wider RTR device with dual-roll capability versus investing in several lower priced smaller width devices is up for debate. The choice is largely dependent on type of job a PSP produces regularly, whether or not work can be ganged, and if the workflow favors one scenario over the other.
Many find a productivity advantage to a wide format RTR printer that handles multiple rolls simultaneously, especially for high-volume and high-production printing. However, there is also an obvious downside. If a printer with multiple rolls breaks down or a print quality issue arises, the entire production is at a halt without the availability of a backup printer. “That’s where the advantage of having a series of separate printers comes into play, PSPs can be assured that production stays running,” notes Sam.
That said, many print providers consider an investment in dual-roll capabilities for the enhanced productivity provided with a relatively low overhead cost. Oriol Gasch, Americas Scitex category manager, HP, adds that dual roll capabilities allow users to utilize the full width of the printer on the same or different substrate types and to run multiple images simultaneously.
Wozny says versatility also enters the equation for devices that handle multiple rolls simultaneously. The capability enables PSPs to take on jobs requiring the full print width of printers—3.2 meters, for example—as well as smaller width jobs that can be run on multiple or dual rolls at the same time. “In addition, full print width printers have a significantly lower total cost of ownership—by up to 40 percent—than wide format printers,” he adds.
Devices that offer multiple roll capacity enable printers to push more jobs through, largely unattended and uninterrupted. “We are seeing many PSPs do multiple rolls on various machines. The best part is they can be run unattended, even overnight, with no operator intervention necessary,” explains Larry D’Amico, VP, digital imaging, Agfa Graphics. The devices may need to be combined with a finishing equipment, but for the imaging portion they run uninterrupted for long lengths of time.
Jane Napolitano, marketing manager, and Geoff Stone, national sales manager, Paradigm Imaging Group, say that investing in a wide format RTR device that handles multiple/dual roll simultaneously versus a series of separate machines makes economical sense because the PSP only has to invest in one piece of equipment instead of multiple devices. “A single printer takes up less space, which is especially important for smaller shops. A dual roll printer is more efficient, enabling the PSP to print more quickly and efficiently,” they add.
The need for dual-roll capabilities is not always founded. Zimmerman argues that the only application fit for a dual-roll printer is in the grand format space, where handling a heavy roll of media presents challenges and safety concerns. “Beyond that, RTR devices that support dual rolls don’t offer much in the way of cost and time savings because the media handling and finishing issues offset any advantages they offer,” he shares.
When deciding between multiple smaller printers or larger, multiple-up roll printers, primary advantages include the flexibility to provide all widths from one device. Print speed is another consideration. Grambsch shares that Polytype’s Virtu RR50 prints over 2,100 square feet per hour, enabling users to print four- by eight-foot banners on three rolls of 54-inch material faster than three smaller 54- to 63-inch wide roll printers. “With a five-meter wide machine, you have one machine, one operator, one ink supply, and one set of printheads to maintain,” he points out.
Mimaki’s Gardino suggests that PSPs may opt for a device that handles dual rolls as opposed to multiple, smaller devices if they normally print extra large widths and need to use smaller dual-roll printing for a few jobs. “Many end users find that it is more economical and reliable for an end user to purchase two smaller, separate machines rather than one grand format machine. Often, the footprint of two smaller machines is easier to manage than one large printer. Finally, the print throughput of two units is usually faster and more cost effective and workflow is easier to manage,” he adds.