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Focus on Flatbeds

Impressive Versatility from Reliable Workhorses

By Amber E. Watson

Many print service providers (PSPs) turn to flatbed printers for optimal productivity and quality. These devices produce high-quality output at high-production speeds. Various enhancements position flatbeds as worthy predecessors to their analog counterparts, in particular automated handling features and advanced ink sets.

 

Efficiency, automation, and versatile inks allow for imaging onto a variety of materials, from more traditional substrates such as foamboard to the untraditional—glass, metal, and wood. The ability to print directly to rigid media, in many instances up to two inches thick, makes a flatbed a reliable workhorse in any print shop.

 

Peak Production

Flatbed devices allow PSPs to produce multi-faceted projects more efficiently. Since a flatbed prints directly onto a rigid substrate, there is a faster turnaround and lower cost to produce a rigid graphic compared to mounting a roll-based print onto a board and finishing it to size. “The minimal setup involved allows users to profit from micro-runs and one-off jobs, which can be time consuming and cost prohibitive with other printing processes,” continues Steven Tu, product manager, Roland DGA Corporation.

 

“If a true, stationary flatbed printer is used, PSPs cost effectively offer a greater range of applications, such as printing onto irregular shaped items that typically generate higher profit margins,” agrees Randy Paar, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America.

 

Christopher Guyett, sales and marketing coordinator, Durst Image Technology US LLC, adds that the productivity and quality is ideal for longer runs as well. “New technologies offer higher print speed with smaller droplets, which allows for high-end graphic applications in more than just a one-off or short-run situation.”

 

Productivity is a key part of the equation. Typically, flatbed printers feature a stronger vacuum since the bed does not move and step accuracy is not a factor. “Flatbed vacuum tables effectively secure substrates to the print bed, and registration points on the bed enable double-sided printing,” explains Steve Cutler, marketing product manager, inkjet, Fujifilm North America Corporation.

 

In addition, Noel Mareno, national channel manger, Teckwin International LLC, points out that a fixed bed allows for accurate dot placement and the option to use a range of media sizes, weights, and thicknesses. It also allows for accurate nesting on a variety of sizes, accurate printing on pre-cut media sizes, and a high degree of image placement repeatability.

 

Hybrid printers are worth considering when a print shop is looking to expand services, yet requires a machine with a smaller footprint. “Hybrids allow for both rigid and roll printing, so users can print trade show graphics, packaging prototypes, point of purchase (POP) signage, vehicle wraps, and stickers off of one machine,” notes Michelle Johnson, marketing coordinator, Mutoh America, Inc.

 

Automated Handling

PSPs should consider investing in a platform that includes automated features. Media handling is critical to productivity.

 

“A unit that handles multiple images simultaneously automatically feeds larger media, then ejects and stacks when the print is completed, all while staging the new media for the next print,” explains James Cain, director of sales, Polytype America Corporation.

 

MTL Print Ltd.’s NURStar portfolio presents a two-bed, interchangeable table system that allows users to set up the next job while the current job is printed. A new substrate may be loaded, multiple substrates laid down, and printing begun ten seconds after the current job is printed, with the beds changing automatically.

 

Fujifilm’s Acuity Advance HS X2 is equipped with an extra-large table. This is ideal for continuously printing 4x8-foot boards by alternately loading and unloading material on the 8x10-foot print bed.

 

Regardless of the level of automation, there is typically less media handling with a flatbed since the final product is often produced in one step. This reduces the chance of damaging a print and lessens the overall labor required to create the final product.

 

Flatbed Inks

Regarding ink sets developed for flatbeds, Jim Lambert, VP/GM, digital division, INX Digital International Ink Co., believes PSPs are interested in a standard ink that works well with a number of different materials. This includes inks that adhere to plastic, paper-based products, glass, and metal. “PSPs should look for a flatbed with strong ties to the chemistry/ink used in the device,” he suggests.

 

Almost all flatbed printers utilize UV ink due to its ability to cure instantly. This is ideal for printing at high production speeds, as well as for on-demand applications. Paar mentions that with UV, prints are immediately ready for finishing and shipping, reducing waste and shortening the overall order-to-billing cycle.

 

“UV inks for flatbed printers provide optimum adhesion to a range of substrates and ink flexibility adds efficiency to post-print finishing. Some flatbed inks offer a choice of finish from low-glare satin to high-impact gloss, and white and clear inks further enhance graphic display impact,” shares Cutler. Fujifilm’s new Acuity Advance Select UV flatbed enables customers to add clear as a design element.

 

UV inks continue to improve. For example, Hewlett-Packard (HP) FB225 Orange and Light Black Scitex Inks for the HP Scitex FB7600 Industrial Press are compatible with plastic substrates without the required corona treatment, while also flexible enough for paper-based applications such as packaging and corrugated displays. These inks are durable so that during finishing a PSP can cut to the edge of the print without worrying about ink chipping, cracking, or peeling.

 

Ken VanHorn, category manager, Scitex division, HP, highlights the ability to expand beyond six-color process and provide enhanced or specialty colors such as white inks. “Quickly and efficiently turning around a multi-piece campaign, on a variety of substrates, with gloss, spot gloss, and in many cases, special effects like metallic or five-layer, double-sided images using white ink, gives PSPs the ability to book more jobs and keep up with customer demands for short runs,” he says.

 

Expanding the realm of ink colors continues to change what PSPs can do with digital, making it possible to hit Pantone and other brand-specific hues. CMYK is often not enough in today’s market. “Some printers offer up to four times CMYK to increase speed. Others offer CMYK, Lc, and Lm to expand the color gamut. A few offer spot colors such as orange, green, or violet to gain Hexachrome, which is good for vibrant colors, flesh tones, and fine art reproduction,” shares Cain.

 

A high-quality white ink is essential for flatbed printing. “Unlike flexible media printing, many jobs are not printed on white substrates,” explains Ken Hanulec, VP, marketing, inkjet solutions, EFI.

 

Ink adhesion properties also improve. For instance, EFI recently introduced two new ink sets, including one for corrugated plastics, a segment previously difficult to address in digital printing due to adhesion problems. The second allows PSPs to image directly to a substrate for thermoforming applications, eliminating costly and time-consuming post-process decorating.

 

Return on investment comes down to ink consumption and ink price. “The grayscale technology with variable drop size used on some flatbed machines offers reduced ink consumption compared to past ink systems,” states Ran Emanuel, CEO, MTL Print.

 

With a decent ink price, the cost per square foot makes flatbed systems worth the investment. It is important to keep in mind that ink cost per square foot varies greatly between different printing devices.

 

The Value of Versatility

Innovative flatbed applications are often related to new media. Not only can an entire room be outfitted in graphics on windows and walls to floors and ceilings, unique and personalized objects can be placed throughout.

 

“Applications expand from advertising to basically anything that can be printed on,” says Emanuel. This pushes equipment developers and opens up new market opportunities. One MTL Print client, for example, developed a special material for custom and branded furniture.

 

Several manufacturers are working on advancements that benefit versatility. Cain sees a clear trend towards printing on aluminum, glass, wood, plexi, coroplast, and sintra, as well as specialty applications such as thermoforming. This creates more entries into the POP, trade show, and event markets, to which some print providers are reluctant to venture.

 

Lambert sees industrial-level digital decoration as an explosive growth area over the next five years. “Companies that previously decorated products with a label now seek more versatility from digital decoration,” he explains. The result is unique applications printed on commemorative coins, luggage tags, water bottles, beverage cans, promotional products, glass, acoustical panels, and a range of consumer products.

 

The emerging trend of package prototypes is consistently incorporated into the average print shop and flatbed devices affect the transition. “With the ability to print directly onto corrugated materials and folded cartons, packaging is exploding,” says Larry D’Amico, VP digital imaging, Agfa Graphics.

 

“PSPs now have the opportunity to look at short-run packaging production as consumer packaged goods companies plan to adopt targeted, multi-SKU approaches to boost sales,” adds Hanulec.

 

The Future of Flatbed

Each year brings improvements in speed, productivity, and quality. Manufacturers agree that PSPs can expect to enjoy added improvements in these categories and more in the upcoming years.

 

Today, all grand format printers are offered with one ink set—UV, solvent, or latex. Kevin M. Sykes, founder and SVP, sales, Novus Imaging, Inc., anticipates that as new ink types are introduced, the same printer will be available with different ink set options.

 

Since flatbed printers are moving into retail environments, there is the added requirement for color matching. “The trend for accuracy in color is increasing across the board and flatbeds are no exception,” shares D’Amico. “PSPs not keeping up with the latest devices in color technology fall behind. New printhead technology and smaller ink droplet sizes increase quality standards for all flatbeds.”

 

“Some flatbeds will become faster and offer new grayscale printheads and longer roll-to-roll features, while others will offer cost value solutions,” predicts Mareno.

 

Tu agrees that lower price points; higher resolution output; lower ownership and maintenance costs; more efficient, easier workflows; and improved, wider gamut UV inks, position UV flatbed printers for significant growth. He also expects to see a wider adoption of LED lamp technology that outperforms conventional UV lamps in terms of longevity, safety, and energy efficiency.

 

Do More with Direct to Board

Print Illusion & Graphics, Inc., based near Pittsburgh, PA, was formed in 2004. Over time, large format POP applications became its main source of business. “Most of what we ran was printed to adhesive-backed vinyl and mounted to a substrate,” explains Rich Geib, co-owner, Print Illusion. “After about six months of working this way, we decided we needed to go direct to board.”

 

The company purchased a Teckwin TeckStorm 4x8-foot direct-to-board UV device to meet demand and take on more projects. A company that produces architectural metal products approached Print Illusion with the request to print graphic elements on etched plates of metal made of aluminum, zinc, and stainless steel. The art varies from evacuation to wayfinding signs for public buildings, and quantities range from one piece to a few hundred. Some of the plates come with mounting bolts welded to the back, so that the whole piece measures approximately 1.25 inches thick.

 

Print Illusion recently purchased a second Teckwin device—a TS-600, which offers a larger print bed and faster speed with additional printheads. The product offerings continue to expand project possibilities with longer runs and even more unique metal plate projects.

 

“Offering white ink is also pretty big,” adds Geib. The use of white ink is becoming more commonplace and many projects require it, such as those printed on Plexiglas and clear vinyl where white ink is used as a highlight or backup color.

 

Print Illusion uses ink provided by Teckwin for the TS-600. Nazdar Lyson inks are used in the TeckStorm. “We have discussed the possibility of using one ink type in both machines to try to help with color consistency,” notes Geib.

 

One benefit of flatbed printing is that the material does not move when the gantry and carriage do. This, along with the ability to print to varied substrates, makes flatbeds ideal for Print Illusion.

 

Production and Profit

Grayslake, IL-based GFX International, Inc. installed its first flatbed printer in 2002, the Inca Digital Printers Eagle 44, which served the needs of the print shop for over a decade. It then invested in four more Inca printers, including the Inca Onset S70 from Fujifilm.

 

GFX recently decided to invest in the Inca Onset S70 after identifying two key areas of impact. “A fairly substantial amount of our traditional screenprint work was moving toward smaller run lengths and we felt the Onset S70 could capture and produce this run length space more efficiently,” shares Mark Taylor, COO/SVP, GFX.

 

The Onset technology also enables printing the full bed all at once, virtually eliminating digital banding. Its capability to produce a gloss print is also a recognized benefit.

 

The Inca print format fits well with the shop’s traditional screen capabilities. “The sheet registration systems are nearly identical, so switching between the two processes on the same print is a breeze,” he says. “We do this on instances where a specialty ink, such as a metallic, is needed.”

 

GFX uses the Onset S70 for a variety of applications. Press run sizes vary from a half dozen upward of 1,500 sheets. “We try to play to what we have determined is the strengths of this press. From a quantity standpoint, run lengths of 300 to 800 sheets are ideal,” notes Taylor. This allows the shop to utilize the auto feed/auto take-off feature, as well as keep the press flexible enough to service several clients in a day.

 

One client requires fast turnaround on anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 poster prints. “Once file preparation is completed, the Onset S70 prints sheet after sheet of unique imagery continuously. If color consistency is required, or if there is critical panel-to-panel color matching, the Onset S70 is our go-to solution,” says Taylor.

 

Creative possibilities are expanded by the ability of printing on a textured surface. GFX successfully outputs on rough wood panels for a coffee retailer as interior wall art and burlap material for a micro-brewery as bar promotional signage.

 

GFX prints plastics, including styrene, fluted poly, or expanded PVC, as well as flexible vinyl and board. It uses a flexible digital ink line from Fujifilm to ensure adhesion and prevent material cracking.

 

Although digital throughput speeds are increasing, they are not yet comparable to screen and offset in full-out production. Taylor sees the market trending to shorter, more targeted messaging, to which digital allows cost-effective production.

 

The combination of advanced speeds and increased visual quality allows inkjet technology to gain greater acceptance at the consumer and production level.

 

Beyond Boundaries

Speed, quality, and functionality upgrades move digital flatbeds into the mainstream as a viable alternative for screen and other analog technologies. They continue to create efficiencies that decrease waste, shorten time to market, and drive higher margin profitability for PSPs.

 

With today’s flatbeds, users apply unique images to virtually any object and add special finishes with accuracy and quality. It is clear that flatbed capabilities are expanding beyond what the industry initially intended, propelling into markets not anticipated ten years ago. 

 

Click here to view the Flatbed & Hybrid Devices Target Chart - an all-inclusive information resource!

 

Jun2013, Digital Output

 

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