Interest in flatbed printing technology is riding high. In research firm InfoTrends’ most recent survey, a majority—49.6 percent—of end users indicated they plan to invest in a UV-curable inkjet printer, including flatbed devices, as their newest capital expenditure. While sign shops and print service providers (PSPs) have prized flatbeds for their ability to print direct to board for retail signage and other graphic applications, a growing number of non-traditional or industrial applications are increasingly considered ripe for digital disruption.
Industrial printing applications are hardly new and incumbent technologies such as screenprinting, flexography, and offset are well entrenched here, but according to ink makers and printer manufacturers, there is an emerging opportunity for flatbeds to grab business in sectors such as labels, home décor/structural art, electronic devices, and flexible packaging.
“I would say that a third of my customers don’t produce a single sign,” explains David Cich, partner, CET Color. One such customer, for instance, hand painted wooden pallets for a major global consumer brand. They switched the process over to UV flatbed printing.
This form of digital cannibalization, where existing industrial players simply upgrade their technology, is one side of the coin. The other is the opportunity for PSPs to branch out into new markets that were once out of reach, especially as they master their flatbed devices.
“I would say the customers that have been the most successful with their flatbeds have cannibalized analog business and found new markets to address,” says Micha Kemelman, product marketing manager, Hewlett-Packard.
Why are flatbed inks conducive to these industrial markets? We identify three primary characteristics—media, speed, and cost savings.
As any inkjet printer owner knows, changing a printer’s ink sets is onerous. One of the virtues of flatbed ink is its ability to adhere to a range of surfaces, minimizing, if not eliminating, ink change outs. This versatility enables PSPs to explore alternative applications while satisfying core customers, but it does come with a trade off. To wit—not everything can be thrown under the nozzles and emerge in optimal condition.
Ink makers craft formulations targeted at popular applications, which means that many mainstream flatbed inks aren’t optimized for substrates at the extreme ends of the application spectrum—including some products in the industrial field. The chemical properties of an ink that needs to be heated and stretched around rivets is not the same as an ink designed to bite into glass or polypropylene, notes Rich Dunklee, global market segment manager, UV inkjet products, Nazdar Ink Technologies.
For those considering branching out into industrial applications, this presents something of a trade off, you can purchase an all-purpose ink for maximum versatility at the expense of specialization or choose a formulation optimized for specific applications and lose some of that versatility.
One idea for those who choose a more general purpose solution is to pre-treat media with adhesion promoters. Some industrial applications, such as printing on glass for interior and exterior décor that will be exposed to the elements and/or people, will require it, shares Dunklee. The virtue of these promoters is that they can be tailored to specific applications, providing the optimization that may be lacking in the ink itself.
INX Digital International continues to stay on top of the latest trends by developing several adhesion promoters used on rigid materials such as glass, metal, and plastics run through flatbeds. “This helps PSPs to create and meet demand for consistent print output quality,” explains Karla Witte, VP of product development, INX Digital.
There’s also a common misconception in the market that flexibility simply refers to the variety of different media that can pass under the printhead, but in fact, it’s a critical property of the ink itself, argues Erez Shoshani, GM, Bordeaux Digital Inc., a subsidiary of Bordeaux Digital Printink. Consider, he explains, the case of rigid material. An inflexible ink is liable to crack if the media is die cut using a router. “You’ll see teeth marks when cutting certain inks but a flexible ink won’t crack. So sometimes you want a flexible ink even for a rigid application,” he adds.
Ink flexibility is a function of the length of an ink’s polymer chain—the longer the chain, continues Shoshani, the more it will give under pressure and the harder it is to scratch.
This is a key metric for a popular industrial application—membrane switches.
For the uninitiated, a membrane switch is an electrical contact that is pressed to turn on or off a circuit. You’ll find them on vending machines, office copiers, microwaves, and retail kiosks. These are typically produced on screenprinters, which print a circuit direct to a plastic substrate. While few printer or ink vendors believe that current UV ink/flatbed technology supports the creation of production switches, there is an opportunity to create some of the graphic overlays that rest on the surface of the switch, particularly in low-volume applications such as prototypes and sampling.
“Most digital equipment cannot get the thick ink film deposit that is required for a long-term, high-durability product,” shares Dunklee. Control panels and membrane switches that are embossed need to have ink capable of being flexed more than a million times, which would tax the capabilities of current technology. Another issue, says Dunklee, is that the film for printing membrane switches is typically quite thin and susceptible to distortion under the heat required to cure UV inks.
“When it comes to making 100,000 control panels for a microwave oven, it still makes sense to use a screen press, but if you want to develop a prototype of that oven, that’s a lot of work to do using screen technology,” observes Randy Paar, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America. Printing to polycarbonates and polyester film—the typical substrate for membrane switch graphic overlays—using UV inks/flatbeds is an increasingly compelling solution for those shorter runs, he adds.
Another variable that provides flatbed inks with a leg up in industrial markets is speed. Yes, there are faster print technologies than flatbeds, but there’s more to speed than printer throughput. Thanks to its binders, UV inks cure rapidly. Media is cut, packed, and shipped immediately after printing. This is a key attribute for prototyping and product sample opportunities, which are often produced under tight deadlines.
“One thing we’ve found in our research is that 60 percent of print jobs are done within 48 hours,” says Tim Greene, director, wide format printing consulting service, InfoTrends. This need for speed is one of the key drivers of flatbed adoption, he adds.
Flatbed speed also supports another industrial trend—the move toward shorter job runs and an on demand manufacturing process, agrees Kemelman. “If you are working in an analog process, you have less time to prepare offset plates or screens,” he notes.
Customization capabilities are prevalent and require a quick turnaround time as well, which digital is accustomed to. When it comes to thermoforming applications such as vending and gaming panels, automotive, and other items ink sets must adhere and elongate properly.
EFI is addressing the trend of flatbed work in the industrial space with its specially formulated thermoforming ink, which it predominately showcased at several trade shows this past year.
“It exhibits outstanding elongation characteristics while simultaneously maintaining excellent adhesion and opacity, and contains ideal characteristics for heat bending and routing of acrylic sheets with no chipping or loss of adhesion,” explains Stephen Emery, VP, ink business, EFI.
The system, VUTEk GS Pro-TF, reduces process steps such as post-forming hand painting or applying decals. The new ink provides a faster and lower cost alternative for producing custom thermoforming applications for customers.
While flatbed inks and printer technology are hailed for eco-friendly qualities, the reality is that the often more enticing “green” factor is the reduction in costs associated with flatbed ownership.
Since UV inks don’t emit the same powerful and unhealthy volatile organic compounds spewed by solvents, there’s no need to retrofit facilities to accommodate ventilation. Since the inks require light to cure, they won’t coat or dry in a printer, reducing clean up, maintenance, and consequently, personnel dedicated to the printer.
If LED lamps are used to cure the inks, there are additional cost savings to be reaped as the lamps draw far less power than conventional UV curing arc lamps. The ink is modified with photoreceptors designed to cure at specific LED light wavelengths, but there are otherwise no differences as far as print quality or production speed, notes Dunklee.
LEDs are also cooler than traditional UV curing lamps, so there’s less potential to damage the underlying substrate in the curing process and LED bulbs can last up to five times longer than arc lamps, reducing some of the longer tail costs of hardware ownership.
These cost savings translate into an attractive proposition for industrial prototyping and short-run applications.