By Cassandra Carnes
Flatbed printing systems provide print service providers (PSPs) with a wealth of opportunity. Productivity is increased with direct-to-board printing capabilities. The possibilities are endless and so are the choices. Potential investors prioritize features such as bed size, print speed, resolution, and application versatility. Dedicated or hybrid is another consideration.
Before investing in a flatbed it is important to consider which options best serve current and future needs. Determine the total cost of ownership by factoring in list price, cost per square foot, as well as warranty, maintenance, and supporting software. Manufacturers offer flatbed solutions at entry-, mid-, and high-levels to attract all PSPs.
For PSPs looking into all options, be sure to understand the differences between a true flatbed and a hybrid solution.
“From a definition standpoint, true flatbeds have a vacuum table and hold media in position for accurate edge-to-edge printing,” says Terry Mitchell, director of marketing, Fujifilm North America Corporation. Additionally, some flatbeds include registration pins for even greater accuracy.
True flatbeds offer users exact front-to-back print registration and a superior table vacuum. Jack Skidmore, director of sales, eastern U.S. and Latin America, CET Color, Inc., notes that this enables the device to better handle warped substrates.
Substrate compatibility is a major consideration when it comes to a flatbed investment. Dedicated flatbeds are designed to handle heavier substrates than a hybrid device of a comparable size. Hiroshi Ono, group product manager, Roland DGA Corporation, notes primary applications for wide format flatbeds include architectural signage, point of purchase (POP), and any printed graphic involving materials that require the support of a fixed table.
Many flatbeds offer an add-on roll option. PSPs have to decide between the productivity afforded with a dedicated device and the versatility offered with a hybrid. While it is an option for many, it isn’t an inexpensive one. “It is important to evaluate buying the option and spending X amount of dollars versus the cost of buying a dedicated device,” suggests Larry D’Amico, VP, digital imaging, Agfa Graphics. In his experience, every shop is a little different and it is difficult to generalize the type of PSP the option is best suited for.
A majority of low-cost hybrids are designed as roll-based printers that are fitted with a media transport and tables to accommodate the movement of rigid media through the print area. “This design was undertaken by printer manufacturers to maximize existing print technologies, enabling them to offer flatbed functionality at a low cost,” says Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager, Océ North America.
In either scenario, true flatbed and hybrid printers make it more economical to print in-house versus outsourcing, resulting in lower costs, faster turnaround time, and improved quality control, explains Oriol Gasch, signage category manager, Americas, Hewlett-Packard (HP).
Printers new to flatbed printing or not quite sure how much need there may be initially should look to entry-level devices.
Agfa addresses the entry-level segment with its :Anapurna line. D’Amico explains that the line attracts PSPs converting from roll. They are typically at the point where they can justify purchasing a flatbed that allows them to image direct to board. The cost per square foot of ink runs in the neighborhood of ten to 12 cents for the :Anapurna. Benefits include a thin ink lay down, which gives output more of an offset look and uses less ink to achieve the same amount of ink density and saturation.
CET Color’s flatbed devices are priced for an entry-level investment, however, Skidmore notes that both large and small PSPs choose them. “Our value proposition offers print quality and speeds unmatched by the competition,” he adds. All CET Color printers are unique to the industry, offering field upgradability to include additional colors, white, or varnish. Also unique is volatile organic compound (VOC) free ink.
EFI offers flatbed devices for entry, mid, and high segments. The EFI Rastek T1000 flatbed is ideal for the entry- to mid-level segment and shops looking to get into higher margin specialty applications or handle overflow printing and proofing jobs. The Rastek H652 is an entry-level hybrid printer and a good choice for the medium-sized quick print, graphic arts, production, or print shop where image quality and speed are critical. Both offer a better overall value with a lower acquisition cost, faster CMYK plus white print modes, and grayscale image quality.
Fujifilm provides a variety of entry-level flatbed and hybrid options. The Acuity Advance LT is based on a true flatbed platform, measuring four by eight feet, with optional roll-to-roll functionality. The Acuity Advance is an entry-level to low-end, mid-range hybrid with a true four- by eight-foot flatbed and an optional roll-to-roll feature. The Acuity LED is an entry-level roll-to-roll with a standard flatbed table.
The HP Scitex FB500 is the first true flatbed printer below $100,000, according to Gasch. Designed for low-volume production and prototypes, the HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 printers—at 64 and 98.4 inches wide, respectively—offer efficient media loading and the ability to print on materials up to 2.5 inches thick. Advanced features, such as an onboard camera, an HP Embedded Web Server, and a solid media feed system help ensure consistent results and worry-free operation.
INX Digital International Co.’s flatbed devices target all three segments, entry, mid, and high. “With the price point we offer on the MD660, we qualify for all three categories,” notes Jim Lambert, VP/GM, digital division, INX. Entry-level shops justify the cost in the decision process, so they usually elect to purchase the MD660 since it is priced under $100,000, explains Lambert. Differentiating factors for INX flatbeds include a vacuum table that ensures material does not move or shift during the printing process as well as specific inks for corrugated, porous materials; as well as those that adhere to metal and glass.
The new Océ Arizona 318 GL printer is an entry-level UV flatbed printer that offers smaller PSPs entrance into the world of high-quality, UV flatbed printing. The printer is available fully installed and operational for less than $100,000. It uses Océ VariaDot imaging technology, which produces images smoother than those printed on competitive, six-color, fixed dot printers. The technology simultaneously jets smaller, six, 12, and 18 picoliter droplets for the production of dense, uniform solid colors.
While Roland positions it across all segments due to its unique capabilities, the price point—a list price of $68,995—of the VersaUV LEJ-640 hybrid printer offers a viable entry-level solution. Based on VersaUV technology, the 64-inch printer outputs CMYK, white, and clear coat on substrates up to a half-inch thick. Layers of clear coat enable finished graphics with custom patterns and embossing effects.
For PSPs looking to upgrade or add another flatbed to their shop to keep up with moderate production levels, many mid-range printers are available.
Agfa’s :Jeti line is positioned for mid-level use. Established digital printers that want the latest technology, need more speed, and require higher quality benefit from its capabilities. The cost per square foot of ink runs between eight to ten cents.
The EFI VUTEk QS2000 and QS3220 hybrid UV printers are ideal for medium-sized shops that need a production-level printer and high image quality. VUTEk hybrid printers feature eight colors plus white and a three-layer print capability.
Fujifilm’s Acuity Advance X2 is a mid-range hybrid with a true flatbed—measuring eight by ten feet—and optional roll. The Acuity Advance HS is a high-end, mid-range segment hybrid with a true four- by eight-foot flatbed and optional roll. The Acuity Advance HS X2 is a high-end, mid-range hybrid with a larger, eight- by ten-foot true flatbed and optional roll.
INX’s MD1000 printer typically attracts mid- and high-end PSPs. The model offers inline white ink.
MTL Print Ltd. products are priced in the mid- to high-level flatbed printer segment. “Even though we are normally lower in price, we compete favorably with print systems at higher costs,” explains Sam Worley, North American sales manager, MTL. Because of its cost structure, the company places systems in any size shop that requires flatbed capabilities. Worley says placements have so far been in mid-sized shops that recognize the growth potential offered by MTL systems.
Novus Imaging, Inc. offers a hybrid solution, Synergia H/UV, which is considered an mid-level solution—targeting shops with revenue over two million dollars per year. “There really is no upper limit for revenue, as the larger shops typically just purchase multiple units,” notes Kevin M. Sykes, president/CEO, Novus Imaging. “The typical customer is either a shop trading in or replacing an older flatbed or a smaller shop upgrading from a low-level flatbed as business grows,” he adds.
The Synergia H/UV is a true grayscale device that provides superior quality and eliminates the need for light inks. “Due to this grayscale printing technology, the system utilizes 30 to 50 percent less ink for the same file when compared to other fixed picoliter binary printers,” says Sykes.
The Oce Arizona 360 models—GT is a standard sized table and XT is an extra large table—fit the mid-range production segment, and offer enhancements over previous models that enable customers to increase productivity and application versatility and open doors to technical and industrial applications.
Polytype America Corporation’s flatbed devices fall into the mid-range segment. Based on field installs, PSPs that purchase into this level are in the range of $1.5 million in annual sales and higher. Polytype dedicated flatbeds are Swiss engineered, providing excellent print quality; ten, 14, 20, and 80 picoliter printhead availability; modular and one piece construction; a versatile architecture; an up to 15 zone vacuum table; roll-to-roll capability; flatbed and hybrid option; board option for oversized formats; white ink; primer for glass, aluminum, and stainless steel; varnish for spot application; and orange, green, and violet for Hexachrome print opportunities.