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Rigid Substrate Flexibility

Flatbeds Improve Efficiency, Provide Opportunity

By Cassandra Balentine

New equipment investments require significant analysis. Depending on the urgency and priorities of a shop, the search for a new press can take as little as a few weeks, to as long as a decade. Flatbed capabilities—whether in the form of a dedicated or hybrid solution—are on the wish list for many shops that currently don’t possess the ability to print direct-to-rigid substrates. The following four print service providers (PSPs) recently invested in flatbeds after conducting thoughtful research.

 

The Price is Right

Approximately 13 years ago, professional photographer Viani Navarrete rose from an unfortunate automobile accident and transformed his life by opening a wide format print shop. Today, Miami, FL-based ADiMATiONS Inc. is a successful operation that offers trade show displays; wall, window, and door graphics; vehicle wraps; banners and posters; and a range of specialty applications. To remain competitive, the shop is always alert to products that will improve operations and bring in new business.

 

The company had its eye on flatbed printing capabilities for quite some time. In April of last year, the shop installed the Océ Arizona 318 GL after working with Canon Solutions America (CSA) to find the optimal large format printing product. The UV device offers a maximum print size of 98x49 inches and production speeds of up to 131 square feet per hour.

 

“We were looking at flatbeds for a while, but it got to the point where the price was right,” notes Navarrete. The shop conducted thorough research in its search. “I looked at hybrids, everything,” he recalls. Several priorities factored into the decision, but quality topped the list. “We’re not a price shop, we’re a quality shop,” says Navarrete.

 

Closing in on one year since the investment, ADiMATiONS sees the device as a great addition. Color gamut, media handling, ink adhesion, and speed are all satisfactory. “I don’t run any of my machines at 100 percent capacity, so speed is not an issue. If you line machines up in order of price, you are going to see the order of productivity. I’d rather run more machines to keep up with production than rely on one machine for top production speeds,” continues Navarrete.

 

The shop calculates the machine’s return on investment (ROI) with one simple question; does it make more money than it costs monthly? For ADiMATiONS, it does. “I think we would be in a much worse financial state today if we didn’t bring in this press last year,” states Navarrete. He admits that he was initially scared of the investment, but looking back, he realizes he would be in trouble without it. “Today we’re in great shape.”

 

State of the Art

Established in 1983, Graphic Trends, Inc. is a large format PSP based out of Paramount, CA. The shop creates a range of applications including retail displays, point of purchase, and outdoor graphics.

 

Allen Gasper, VP of operations, Graphic Trends, estimates that digital print makes up approximately 30 to 40 percent of its overall business. To serve this growing base, the company operates a variety of equipment, including a Hewlett-Packard (HP) Scitex XP5300, CSA Océ Arizona 550 XT, Epson Stylus Pro GS6000, and the Epson Stylus Pro 9900 and 9890 printers. A few months ago, it invested in a 63x126-inch HP Scitex FB10000 UV digital flatbed printer.

 

The company spent a long time—nearly three years—scouting the market before making the investment. “We looked at several different brands and at that time did not feel comfortable making the capital investment because we felt that stronger, better machines were on the horizon,” says Gasper. 

 

Graphic Trends was close to making a final decision, but decided to go back to the other manufacturers one last time to ensure they didn’t miss out on a new technology that may be right around the corner. At this point, HP quietly let them know that something was in the works that they might want to see. They waited. And, at last year’s Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) show, the team got a chance to see the press first hand, and then again at another production site in Livermore, CA.

 

Finally, the company looked at the numbers, did a comparative analysis on quality versus efficiency, and decided the press offered a uniqueness that would bring something new to Southern CA. Graphic Trends purchased the HP Scitex FB10000 in mid-November 2013, welcomed it to its floor in early December, and had it installed by the first of the year.

 

Gasper is satisfied with the machine’s features. He is especially happy with the color gamut. “What helps is the ability to adjust the gloss level. It is definitely a strength,” he says.

 

In terms of speed, the company’s first job on the press was at an impressive 100 sheets per hour (sph). He admits that as a printer, they are always going to want more speed, but at 100 sph the quality is top notch.

 

Another important consideration is ink adhesion. Graphic Trends prints to many rigid materials, including acrylic, PVC, and coroplast, and is satisfied with the HP ink’s ability to adhere to this range. “People are always talking about what a machine will print, but you can only print on what the ink will adhere to,” he points out.

 

The ability to change out printheads in house was another important factor. “We’ve gone through the inconvenience of having a press down for days because only a technician could change out printheads. The HP Scitex FB10000 features 312 printheads, but they are designed for us to install and align, which is important. There is nothing more frustrating that watching a machine that is down for a printhead replacement. It is like having a Ferrari with only one guy that can change the tire,” he quips.

 

The upgradability of the HP Scitex FB10000 was also a huge selling point. “We don’t like having to make forklift upgrades,” says Gasper. One of the shop’s first digital presses was a NUR Tempo that it operated for six years because of its upgrade ability. Gasper notes that the HP press has physical indications that it will handle upgrades when available.

 

In terms of ROI, Graphic Trends established conservative predictions based on the operational cost of the machine and anticipated sales. A few types of clients are expected to go to the flatbed. One category is based on run size. Since they do not exclusively offer digital, there is a tipping point over a certain quantity where it makes more sense to run a job on screenprinting equipment. The other clients are those willing to pay more for digital, even at a higher cost.

 

Gasper is excited about the press and what the possibilities mean for Graphic Trends. “Interest is growing because we’re not replicating what others can do. We’re raising the bar on quality expectation,” he concludes.

 

Dual Role

Capitol Exhibit Services, Inc. is a print provider with two divisions—Capitol Tradeshow Services and Capitol Museum Services. Both sides provide full-service fabrication and installation of custom exhibits. Trade show services include program management, design, graphic design and production, fabrication, logistics, install and dismantle, inventory control, and warehousing. Museum services include project management, detailing, estimating, graphic design and production, artifact mount making, fabrication, and installation.

 

Established in 1988, the company staffs 48 employees out of its primary 120,000 square foot facility in Manassas, VA and an additional satellite office in Santa Barbara, CA.

 

To produce its range of services, Barney Gault, director of graphic design and production, Capitol Exhibit Services, says about 30 percent of the company’s in-house printing is produced on an Epson Stylus Pro GS6000 eco-solvent printer and 70 percent on its new Agfa Graphics Anapurna M2500 flatbed printer with a roll-to-roll option. “Of course, this is a fairly recent thing as the Agfa has only been in operation since the first of the year,” admits Gault.

 

The Anapurna M2500 is a wide format, high-speed UV-curable inkjet system that produces outdoor and indoor wide format jobs on a range of rigid and roll-to-roll media. A white ink function creates new possibilities for printing on transparent material for backlit applications or printing white as a spot color.

 

Prior to making its latest investment in the Agfa press, Capitol Exhibit Services had a list of priorities the machine needed to deliver. “In our case, speed is the least priority,” notes Gault.

 

“Unlike a large production shop, we only print for our needs and quality trumps everything. Cost, of course, is a consideration, but we had some leeway when looking at what was out there. Again, we weren’t in the market for one of the big, super fast machines costing $500,000 and up, but we weren’t going to go for the very low end either,” he explains. “What was important to me was that we had direct-to-substrate flatbed printing as well as a viable roll-to-roll option, as we print a fair amount of wallpaper.”

 

During the research stage, the company looked at dedicated flatbed devices before Gault pointed out the importance of the roll-to-roll capability. They made the trip to SGIA last Fall to witness equipment first hand. The Anapurna M2500 was implemented shortly after in late December.

 

In terms of ROI, Gault explains that Capitol Exhibit Services often produces very large projects, some with long timelines. “We already had a backlog of projects on the books prior to installing the machine. We also had a history of procuring the output from vendors, so we had a good idea of what we expected to put on the machine from the get go,” he says. The company produced more than $50,000 in graphics in February alone on the press, and has significant backlog leading into the Summer.

 

Gault is satisfied with the overall performance of the Anapurna M2500 to date. As far as ink, Gault says the look of the printed image is what initially attracted the company. “Agfa inks do not appear as thick as others,” he explains. “We are also happy with the white ink system and the fact that we get the white along with all six colors without having to change out inks.”

 

The fact that the inks come in one-liter bottles rather than cartridges or cubes is viewed by the shop as another advantage. “The ink reservoirs are 1.5 liters, so when we hit the .5 liter mark, we get an alarm to pour the entire one-liter bottle into the reservoir,” he comments.

 

The shop also finds the printheads to be easily accessible for cleaning and the system for purging and wiping them down is user friendly.

 

In terms of media handling, the roll-to-roll option proves helpful for a number of different substrates. “We run a lot of Korographics’ Abaco Beach wallpaper, which is a heavy material,” says Gault. The device’s vacuum and transport system, as well as the tables supplied with the machine, work nicely for the print provider.

 

As far as width, the ability to bleed an eight-foot substrate is beneficial. “We are getting ready to run a sizable museum project that will require us to print to an eight-foot wide canvas. We could not have produced this job in house prior to getting this equipment,” states Gault

 

Speed, as mentioned earlier, is not a priority for the shop, as they opt for the highest quality. The print provider has the luxury of running the flatbed at its lowest setting. “We actually run most of our work eight pass, unidirectional, which of course is the slowest setting,” he explains.

 

The Capitol Trade Show Services division utilizes the machine to run many panels printed direct to PVC, in which it finds masked Palram Americas’ Palight works best. It also runs graphics on standard substrates including foam and sign board.

 

The Capitol Museum Services division prints a lot of wallpaper since the installation of the Anapurna M2500. At press time, the shop was running ¾-inch painted MDF boards for a Smithsonian project.

 

Another recent job was for a government contractor on green-tinted acrylic that utilized spot white. “This job in years past was produced by center mounting digital prints second surface to the acrylic and text applied using cut vinyl. While this looked okay, the ones we produced this year were far superior. We were also able to render the six-point trademark logo for the first time. The sharpness of very small text has been a real plus,” adds Gault.

 

Since Capitol Exhibit Services’ investment in the Anapurna M2500 hybrid printer from Agfa, it keeps much of its work in house, as well as expands business by providing new options not achievable prior its newest addition.

 

Precision Printing

Hightech Signs is a family owned and operated print provider located in Charlottesville, VA. Established in 1989, today the company has 21 employees housed in one, 10,000 square foot facility. Since its beginning, the shop has offered signs and banners with a quick turnaround. In 1995, it brought on digital with the purchase of a three-foot inkjet printer and laminator.

 

The full-service sign and graphics print provider’s core offerings cover all types of indoor and outdoor signage, including the sale and service of electrical signs, wide format digital printed graphics, banners, cut vinyl graphics, vehicle wraps, laser and rotary engraved plaques, awards and ADA signs, trade show displays, and awnings.

 

According to David Shoemaker, manager of digital printing, Hightech Signs, a majority of the graphics the shop produces are now digitally printed. “Direct-to-rigid boards are new,” he notes, adding that a flatbed printer was just installed in January, so the team is still adjusting to the new workflow. “Currently, the majority of our digital output is roll to roll, but we expect our new flatbed to play a much bigger role in the future.”

 

The flatbed system Shoemaker refers to is a Jetrix KX5 from Seiko Instruments USA. The UV device offers a 4x8-foot steel frame and stainless steel bed to ensure accurate printing across large and small substrates. The standard configuration includes six Konica 1024 1,440 dpi industrial piezo printheads featuring CMYK and white.

 

Upon beginning its search for a UV flatbed or hybrid printer—a seven year endeavor—Hightech Signs placed quality and versatility at the top of the priority list. “Because of our diverse product offerings, we wanted a printer capable of exhibit-quality output as well as the ability to crank out a set of yard signs,” says Shoemaker.

 

He explains that the Jetrix KX5 jets very small ink droplets, producing an ideal quality image and fine detail. However, if more speed is needed, it switches to four-pass production mode and outputs a full 4x8-foot sheet in six minutes with good results.

 

White ink was also important. “Until now, we were not able to jet white ink in house. We’ve had many inquires over the years to print white on clear or dark substrates for different applications. The Jetrix KX5 provides more control over those print jobs.”

 

Throughout its research, the PSP came across a number of machines that provided great quality, acceptable speed, and white options; but it wanted a flatbed with a stationary bed and moving gantry, which seemed better suited for precision work, explains Shoemaker. “In our shop, we do a lot more than make signs, we often find ourselves creating unique specialty items for our clients, and the fixed bed design allows us to print on a range of objects and pre-cut shapes,” he shares.

 

For example, offering full-color items in its engraving department is now easier with the Jetrix because the small droplet size, stationary bed, and white ink allow for highly detailed, full-color work on clear acrylic awards and plaques.

 

Another key selling point was the company behind the Jetrix KX5. “Before this purchase we had no experience with InkTec Corporation—the manufacturer of the printer—but the distributor, Seiko, and our local dealer are both companies we know and trust,” says Shoemaker. The company also utilizes a Seiko ColorPainter solvent roll printer.

 

Since the printer’s implementation in January 2014, Hightech Signs hasn’t made a complete assessment of the likely ROI but the experience to date continues to be positive.

 

In terms of color gamut, Shoemaker notes that one of the strengths of the Jetrix KX5 is its vivid reds and oranges. The printheads also perform without issue. “The six picoliter droplet size is so small and so sharp that we have not missed having light cyan and light magenta.” He points out that since it does not jet a larger or variable droplet, the printheads need to operate quite close to the media.

 

When it comes to efficiency, there are no complaints. “Cutting down on adhesive vinyl and application labor has a big impact on our efficiency and the instant dry nature of UV-curable inkjet is huge for us. We have gotten so used to solvent printing, waiting 24 hours before we can do the finishing work, UV seems like a giant step forward,” says Shoemaker.

 

A Welcome Change

Print providers considering adding a flatbed to their operation should properly educate themselves on the features that will make a particular device the best fit for their business.

 

Both dedicated and hybrid flatbeds bring new opportunities to many shops. While specific priorities may differ from one PSP to the next, it is clear the productivity and quality achieved at each of the four shops mentioned changes how the game is played.

 

Click here to view the Dedicated and Hybrid Flatbeds Target Chart - an all-inclusive information resource!

 

Jun2014, Digital Output

 
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