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The New Normal: Untraditional Applications

Capture Customers and Expand Profitability

 

By Melissa Donovan

 

Roll-to-roll (R2R) devices are popular for print service providers (PSPs) looking to efficiently produce signage. The capabilities of today’s hardware allow for a broader range of applications. These services are not of the traditional nature with the latest generation of R2R devices. PSPs add fine art, textile printing, and personalization to their existing portfolios.

 

Advanced ink sets, durability, and widths mean that print providers looking to expand their business with additional services do so with in-house equipment that they know how to use. The result is a transformation into a full-service company, aimed to satisfy customers’ needs.

 

Percentage Points

The market saturation of R2R printers makes them more affordable. Greg Lamb, CEO, PrinterEvolution, LLC, believes the number of R2R devices is higher compared to flatbeds due to cost of entry. Many PSPs want to enter into flatbed printing, but are limited in funds—thus relying on R2R.

 

“The majority of core and growing applications are achieved with a R2R printer, only with added labor cost. They tend to prove a much higher quality print, making small sign shops require more justification to transition to a flatbed,” explains Reed Hecht, product manager, professional imaging, Epson.

 

Larry D’Amico, VP digital imaging, Agfa Graphics, admits while the company offers both hybrid and dedicated R2R devices, it finds that more than 50 percent of those purchased include a R2R option. He believes this has to do with the ability to print on fabric and other textile mediums.

 

The How and Why

PSPs embrace dedicated R2R devices for a number of reasons. “Today’s wide format printers provide greater speed, reliability, simplicity of use, lower cost of operation, and more versatility,” shares Noel Mareno, national channel manager, Teckwin.

 

Productivity is an essential component. Features such as unattended printing attract many to these devices. PSPs take comfort in knowing they can send jobs to the printer before going home for the night and come in the next morning with everything completed.

 

“They can print simultaneously on two or three media rolls, increasing productivity and production flexibility. Others appreciate features like on-core collectors, which collect media as it gets printed during unattended overnight printing, or options like vertical cutters for inline media cutting as printing occurs, providing significant time savings,” says Oriol Gasch, signage category manager, Americas, Hewlett-Packard (HP).

 

Ink type plays a role in this attractiveness as well. Latex, UV, eco-solvent, solvent, and aqueous all bring features to the table that allow for the introduction of new applications. Each ink provides a range of capabilities inviting to PSPs at all levels.

 

“Latex technology offers two big services, which are higher productivity and eco-friendly applications. Lamination right after printing is possible without degassing,” cites Shinji Uchida, sign and graphics promotion supervisor, Mimaki USA, Inc.

 

UV inks adhere to almost anything and eco-solvent is moving into new markets due to enhanced print quality.

 

While white ink opens up clear media opportunities and metallic ink niche markets, light black is another feature enhancing certain applications. Roland recently introduced a light black eco-solvent formulation.

 

“Light black ensures the smoothest gradations, better neutral colors, and more natural skin tones for prints that require a high level of image quality,” continues David Hawkes, group product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.

 

It isn’t just the devices and ink that have changed the way and what PSPs offer. Outside factors such as media advancements continue to propel the R2R market into applications apart from traditional signage.

 

“The ability to perform color/white/color ink lay down allows print providers to offer more sophisticated applications on clear media such as clear cling. This new media opens new markets for both the small and large shop,” explains Christopher Guyett, sales and marketing coordinator, Durst Image Technology US LLC.

 

New Markets

Markets such as interior/exterior design, fashion, and personalized gifts are possible with R2R digital print technology.

 

“Applications like wallpaper, RV decals, and specialty coverings are now accessible to shops that have as little as two hours a day of run time,” highlights G. Scott Wood, product manager, EFI. The combination of media versatility and productivity enhancements allow for this.

 

Due to the ability of these devices to print onto a variety of fabrics and clear films, and provide short-run variable printing, the offerings for PSPs are unlimited.

 

In the design space applications such as wallpaper, door decals, floor graphics, and window clings are all possible. Hawkes points to one of the fastest growing applications—custom cut digital wall graphics for an example. “The combination of new ink formulations, repositionable adhesive fabrics, and the ability to customize contour cut graphics has turned the wallpaper industry around,” he adds.

 

Untraditional materials are also utilized thanks to dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printing. Once printed on transfer paper, the design can be set onto tile, glass, plastics, and stone.

 

“There are large growth opportunities in the interior design market. Those in a higher income bracket are willing to spend more to decorate offices or homes with a unique design. With the use of coating, ink, textiles, and other substrates a R2R printer can print or apply print to various materials. People match their design to swatches making one-of-a-kind style,” explain Alson Leung, assistant sales and marketing manager, and Margie Ching, marketing executive, Gunsjet by Digitex Printing Technologies Co., Ltd.

 

Guyett foresees these emerging markets creating a new type of PSP that offers ample design services for architects and interior designers.

 

Fashion is another consideration. As textiles find a home in digital, retailers offer a more personalized print to their customer base. “Textiles are a rapidly expanding market as consumers look for an upgraded perception of the products they promote. Consider luxury retailers and especially major clothing retailers; fabric offers a very high-end look and feel with the added benefit of being extremely lightweight,” shares Lamb.

 

Out On the Lines

R2R printers used for untraditional and traditional applications are highlighted below. These devices range from 24 inches to mega widths in the grand format arena.

 

Agfa’s :Jeti 3324 AquaJet water-based textile printer allows for fabric printing to be completed all in one device. The heating element is built into the equipment, making heat press hardware or transferring unnecessary.

 

The Durst P10 series of printers includes the 126-inch Durst Rho P10 320R, a ten picoliter UV printer. A 1,000 dpi resolution allows PSPs to create niche products in the fine art space, ensuring high quality—something this particular market is dedicated to.

 

EFI offers the EFI R3225 printer. At 3.2 meters the solution allows customers to print on flexible, specialty, and low-cost substrates. It is a fit for a variety of environments from production, franchise, and commercial.

 

Epson recently announced the SureColor S-Series of R2R solvent printers. Both the SureColor S50670 and S70670 offer metallic silver and white ink to allow PSPs to expand into new applications. With higher print quality and faster speeds the fine art market is in reach.

 

Gunsjet’s latest R2R model is the T7-WB series, a belt-type digital textile printer. Designed for fine textile printing, it offers eight-color printing up to 1.8 meters in width on a range of substrates including cotton, linen, silk, wool, acrylic, spandex, and polyester.

 

HP provides its Scitex XP5500 dedicated R2R printer, which outputs cost-effective wide format prints on inexpensive certified media using HP Scitex Specialty Billboard ink and inline cutting. Gloss and matte appearances and an optional double-sided printing kit are available.

 

Mimaki’s TS500 is a dedicated dye-sub paper transfer printer using water-based inks for apparel and textile markets. In addition, its UJV-160 R2R UV-curable device offers white ink to create untraditional graphics like membrane switch overlays for example.

 

“R2R devices have a much lower initial cost, less moving parts, and a smaller footprint, allowing more people to expand into new markets,” says Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc. The company’s ValueJet line of printers is configured to address a number of markets from textile to packaging.

 

From Polytype America comes the Virtu RR50. Its speed, multi-job capabilities, and ability to print high-end graphics at 900 dpi or higher makes it ideal for application versatility.

 

“Higher speeds at higher resolution, the ability to handle multiple rolls on larger units, run several substrates at once, and print multiple files simultaneously are all attractive feature sets,” explains Jim Cain, director of sales – digital, Polytype.

 

PrinterEvolution promotes its Evo33 dye-sub printer. Using water-based inks in four or six colors it runs all day with minimal maintenance. The 126-inch wide device prints in production mode at up to 1,285 square feet per hour (sf/h).

 

In Fall 2012, Roland introduced its SOLJET Pro 4 XR-640 64-inch printer. It prints up to 528 sf/h, offering integrated print/cut technology and white, metallic, and light black Eco-SOL MAX 2 ink. The Pro 4 fires droplets of seven different sizes for smooth gradations, detailed photographs, and flawless solid colors.

 

The TeckPro series from Teckwin is available in both 3.2- and five-meter widths. With UV ink it prints on a variety of flexible, uncoated media up to 990 sf/h for the TeckPro 3200 and 1,614 sf/h for the TeckPro 5000.

 

Experiencing the Untraditional

M2 Displays, Inc. of Santa Fe Springs, CA regularly outputs the untraditional. Defining its projects as “weird stuff” they include the printing and creation of skateboards, surfboards, lamps, and signage onto metal, wood, and more. This capability is what drew Bryan Mehr, owner, M2 to the business in the first place. Six years ago he was working as a broker selling wide and grand format graphics and recognized a gap in product offerings.

 

“I found that there were companies providing great service, but not willing to risk creating an application that was out of the box. Conversely, the businesses that could and would print untraditional applications offered long wait times that didn’t fit the quick turnaround a client required,” explains Mehr.

 

In response, M2 was created. The premise of the company is to offer crazy applications at a great price and with great service. Today it operates in a 25,000 square foot space with 30 employees. Business is so successful that in December 2012 it officially acquired a screenprint company with automated finishing and packaging capabilities. With the purchase, the PSP inherited an Inca Digital Printers’ Onset as well.

 

M2 relies on a host of hardware to offer clients a mix of everything from wallcoverings, furniture, retail signage, and point of purchase to window displays, menu boards, and floor graphics. Materials such as wood—specifically from old barns, bamboo-based products, and even patio glass are regularly found in the production area.

 

With a d.gen Teleios, Epson Stylus Pro GS6000, Fujifilm North America Corporation Acuity Advance HS, HP Scitex XL1500, HP Designjet 5500, and HP Designjet Z2100 in house another printer seems unlikely, but is not the case for this growing PSP.

 

November 2012 brought with it the addition of an HP Scitex LX850 R2R device. The latex printer’s media versatility was a strong factor in the purchase, presenting the company with multiple opportunities. 

 

“For one thing, the water-based technology utilizes a cleaner ink, which many of our customers appreciate. Additionally, the print quality on vinyl and fabric is tremendous,” shares Mehr.

 

It is the fabric printing capabilities that really attracted M2 to the HP Scitex LX850. Initially the PSP was using a six-foot dye-sub device and any wider projects were a hassle to create. The ten-foot latex device fills the void.

 

Mehr comments that the new printer runs 24/7, primarily outputting banners. However he has grand plans for future specialty products. While it’s easy to foresee the printer heavily used in the fabric-based side of the business, he explains that projecting the type of application is difficult. “The problem with specialty products is you are constantly inventing and re-inventing them.”

 

The HP Scitex LX850 R2R device allows M2 do everything and anything for its customer, creating a one-stop shop. With the latex printer the ideal fit, Mehr looks to purchase more in the future. The media versatility and application capabilities make sense for this company.

 

Personalization Nation

PersonalizationMall.com (PMall.com), based in Burr Ridge, IL, was founded in 1998 by Dan Randolph. Addressing the need for high-quality, personalized gifts, the online retail store’s goal is to make personalized gift giving quick and easy.

 

Of note is the company’s preview technology, which allows customers to see what their gift will look like—personalized with unique details—prior to purchase on the Web site.

 

Operating out of a 150,000 square foot facility with 250 full-time employees, gifts for all occasions, from Valentine’s Day to engagements, birthdays, graduations, and weddings, are available. Over 30,000 square feet of PMall.com’s space is used for the digital printing of frames, mouse pads, doormats, canvas, banners, and skins that wrap and protect a variety of products.

 

In October 2011 the company added a Mutoh ValueJet 1624 to its hardware portfolio. Taking the aqueous-based printer and transforming it to fit its needs, PMall.com placed sublimation ink into the device. The company’s experience with printing allowed it to quickly adapt the device to its workflow and in turn assist Mutoh in developing its product line as well.

 

“We helped Mutoh jump into the world of dye-sub by taking the ValueJet and injecting it with sublimation ink, which they now call the ValueJet 1624W. They manipulated the firmware to ensure the ink jetted properly,” divulges Joe Baldwin, director of digital print technology, PMall.com.

 

According to Baldwin, the ValueJet printer is ideal for the online retailer. For one, it is durable enough to withstand workflow throughout the company’s busiest seasons, namely Thanksgiving to Christmas when it prints 24/7. In addition, the printer boasts heavy duty take-up units that accommodate heavy rolls of media. The dye-sub paper is a proprietary material created in conjunction with a paper mill.

 

“We pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge in technology. In every spectrum of PMall.com we are blazing the trail and beta testing. With the Mutoh printer we complement our proprietary software and production methods by keeping up with demand and making it possible to print 1,000,000 plus pieces a year,” shares Baldwin.

 

PMall.com relies on the ValueJet 1624W to keep up with the thousands of customers that order products daily off its site. With over 2,000 personalized designs to choose from each job submission is unique in its own way, making everything the company offers out of the box. The R2R device allows for the creation of each of these individual products within the same day of an order, with a 52 percent repeat customer rate as a result.

 

Adapting a Mutoh R2R device into its workflow has allowed PMall.com to take its personalization capabilities to new heights. Quick turnaround and high quality are synonymous with its brand.

 

No Limitations

Technology is available to allow PSPs of all sizes to enter into new markets. Dedicated R2R devices offer productivity and efficiency in multiple forms—from a compact footprint to printing multiple rolls simultaneously. Media compatibility with various ink sets places the bar high for what PSPs can achieve.

 

“The key to success in this market is the ability to expand your portfolio as much as possible and to exceed the customer’s expectations by showing them exceptional quality output and new applications they hadn’t yet considered. The name of the game is versatility. Shops that extend their market reach are well positioned for future success,” says Hawkes.

 

From interior décor to fashion, fine art, and personalized, custom gifts there is no limit to what digital R2R printers can create.

 

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

 

Mar2013, Digital Output

 

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