By Cassandra Balentine
Wide format flatbed printers enable many advantages such as direct-to-substrate printing on rigid media. Manufacturers of these devices consistently advance features to further their appeal.
A variety of enhancements in ink and hardware aim to improve print quality, productivity, and versatility on flatbeds. “Manufacturers are adapting their flatbed presses to deliver better overall interaction with the types of jobs their customers currently print and the jobs they intend to print in the future,” states Thomas Giglio, strategic accounts manager, HP Inc. “These incremental improvements can collectively increase customers’ productivity.”
The market has witnessed many changes as flatbed equipment evolves. “Items that used to be cumbersome or costly options are well thought out and standard features. These have paved the way for a better performing and more production-oriented machine and mean more profitability for print service providers (PSPs),” says Jim Peterson, founding partner/co-COO, Vanguard Digital Printing Systems.
PSPs of all concentrations drive demand for continued productivity and quality improvements, producing a range of applications from promotional graphics viewed at a distance to fine art and luxury subjects requiring up-close-and-personal detail. Popular enhancements include advanced ink sets and printheads as well as curing technology, registration, media handling improvements, and waste management tools.
PSPs benefit from a range of evolving options in terms of flatbed ink sets, including the addition of light inks, white ink, spot colors, and clear ink and varnish.
Randy Paar, marketing manager, display graphics, Canon Solutions America (CSA), explains one of the biggest improvements among wide format flatbed printers are ink sets that enable new or better address existing applications.
Ink advancements open the door for higher quality output and increased production speeds. Fine art and luxury applications that are meant to be viewed up close particularly benefit from light inks.
For example, the newly launched Acuity Select 20 series of printers from Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division offers the ability to configure light inks for those with a fine art printing focus, according to Heather Roden, associate product marketing manager, Fujifilm.
Light inks provide a better overall tonal range and smoother transitions. “The ability to print with light inks appeals especially to higher end boutique applications, such as backlit graphics, architectural graphics, and even printing to various composite metals,” suggests Giglio.
Most importantly, this quality improvement is achieved without a reduction in productivity. “This allows for more application versatility in producing high-quality point of purchase (POP) for luxury market segments like fashion, liquor, automobiles, promotional items, awards, and recognition items,” shares Paar.
Ken VanHorn, director, marketing and business development, and Hugo Gonzalez, application specialist, Mimaki USA, Inc., say that light inks increase available quality for printers producing photographic images on rigid substrates. “The commonplace was to print on vinyl and laminate it onto a rigid substrate, but now it is becoming more popular to eliminate the lamination process and print directly onto the rigid material.”
Direct-to-substrate printing on rigid media continues to be one of the highest value segments of the graphics market. Thomas Krumm, product marketing manager, EFI, suggests that for many POP applications, there is an even greater need for premium quality. “Unlike other areas of the graphics market, there is demand for the higher end imaging possible with light inks and margin in the work to use it. Many of our customers utilize it as a competitive advantage,” he shares.
On the other hand, Terry Amerine, director of product marketing, Durst Image Technology US, LLC, comments that as print quality has improved due to smaller ink droplet size and greater precision in drop placement, the need for light colors is reduced.
Peterson agrees, “with drop size jetting capability of printheads and ink formulations becoming more refined, flatbed manufacturers can achieve amazing gradients, skin tones, and near continuous tone images. Legacy printheads that jet a larger single drop size compared to that of a more advanced printhead technology require the light inks to achieve a high-quality print.”
In addition to light inks, vendors offer colors such as orange, violet, and green. Packaging and branding applications benefit from these.
“The introduction of some spot colors like orange, green, and violet are used in color matching of corporate logos and image details requiring extreme color saturation to meet some Pantone compatibility specifications,” says Paul McGovern, director of marketing and business development, Inkjet Technology, Inc. (ITI).
Clear ink and varnish represent another milestone, giving PSPs the ability to print on dark substrates and clear acrylic media. “Black or darker color substrates can be imaged with both white and clear inks together to create enhanced image quality for advertising and media applications,” continues McGovern.
Print buyers are always looking for higher image quality and printhead manufacturers comply with consistent advancements and developments. Drivers include the need for faster speeds and better output quality, as well as durability and reliability. The cost for replacement printheads is also considered.
“Newer printhead technologies have made it possible to print smaller dots, which produce finer lines and edges,” note VanHorn and Gonzalez. These small dots enable the ability to produce very fine but reliable text and also improve image quality in photographic images and the smoothness of gradients. “This appeals to those that are printing high-quality art photography onto rigid substrates,” they add.
Krumm says that similar to the use of light inks, variable drop sizes within a particular image will increase the apparent resolution of the printed piece, allowing the device to print at higher speeds with a lower dpi and achieve a higher apparent resolution without sacrificing speed.
Amerine states that while improved print quality and precision is a focus of printhead development, another avenue includes printheads developed with greater robustness and durability. “In order to print at high speeds for multiple shifts, printheads need to be reliable.”
McGovern points to new nozzle plate designs and piezoelectric printheads with stainless steel plates as improvements for durability and reliability that protect printheads in the event of a crash on the media substrate during printing. “Most can recover without a lot of damage, where the plastic printheads manufactured by some would be destroyed. This is important as some media tends to fold, swell, or bend under some hot UV halide curing lamps causing printhead strikes.”
Giglio warns that some manufacturers struggle with improving overall print quality at the expense of raising the total cost of operation and ownership. “Some printheads in the market are over $5,000 each, which can be a real dilemma for a smaller shop that has to replace even one printhead a year,” he states.
Manufacturers understand the importance of staying abreast of the latest demands. “It’s our job to continually work with the leading printhead manufacturers to ensure our clients are able to stay ahead of the pack,” says Peterson. “The clients of PSPs in each of the many market segments are driving this demand. With smaller drop sizes, grayscale variable drop printing, and more rapid firing rates, higher quality printing is demanded across all segments.”
For UV inks, a shift in curing techniques is apparent as more UV LED lamps are incorporated on flatbed solutions, enabling a wider variety of media and offering energy savings when compared to traditional UV heat lamps. LED curing also allows for flexible ink characteristics.
“One of the most notable advancements in the past few years is the transition from halide UV lamps to UV LED lamps,” comment VanHorn and Gonzalez. They explain that UV LED lamps open the door to curing variability in ink. “This enables curing at different rates for improved adhesion on different substrates and creating surface effects such as spot gloss or matte finishes.”
Further, LED lamps can be waveform specific and programmed to generate UV waves at a certain frequency. “This allows for frequency specific ink, which increases the cure efficiency and enables greater variability in ink characteristics such as flexibility,” continue VanHorn and Gonzalez. They note that while flexible ink isn’t a new concept, it has increased ink options.
Krumm says LED inkjet curing eliminates many challenges found with other processes like solvent and even traditional UV. “The energy savings—up to 82 percent with cool cure LED—is a significant change.”
Mark Schlimme, director of marketing, wide format product manager, Screen Americas, predicts that advances in LED lamps and LED-activated photo initiators will bring LED to the production-class space and break the speed barrier currently inhibiting LED technology in wide format printing.
“The true winner with LED is the customer,” adds Krumm. “UV eliminates so many variables in the makeready and printing process that the overall consistency and utilization of the printer is increased.”
As jobs transition from analog to digital, many of the process controls found in traditional methods are expected for their digital counterparts. Registration is critical for double-sided printing as well as finishing. “Image quality in any inkjet printer is a factor of droplet control—the ability to consistently place a drop of ink in the same place, pass after pass, print after print,” says Schlimme.
Giglio explains that features like registration pins, electronic edge direction, and automatic height direction not only enable flatbed devices to increase their registration capabilities, but give PSPs a boost with other processes.
Amerine suggests that it is the need for double-sided printing that drives continued improvement in registration.
Guy Cipresso, VP sales and business development, Novus Imaging, Inc., agrees, adding that advertisers want to maximize the content of messaging they can deliver per square foot of print space.
The availability of white and varnish options enable dynamic and creative visual effects though multi-layer printing on a variety of substrates. “Registration is critical in these types of applications,” comments Matt Meany, senior application specialist, Agfa Graphics.
Because accurate registration is so important to a variety of applications created on flatbed printers, registration systems are more robust than what they once were. “Today, cumbersome screw in or manual registration guides along with the need to manually input the thickness of media into software are being replaced with more robust features like push button registration guides and automatic media thickness detection. These features ensure operators are achieving the utmost accuracy in their output,” says Peterson.
Automation is essential. “Wide format printers that use digital encoders to control movement will demonstrate significantly better and repeatable image quality than belt-driven movement,” agrees Schlimme.
Improvements in media handling on the latest flatbeds allow for increased productivity as well as a wider variety of compatible materials. Advancements in this area are largely driven by the overall need for speed and productivity as well as the need to minimize labor costs.
David Conrad, director of sales and marketing, Mutoh America, Inc., suggests that the ability to incorporate hybrid technology to run rigid or roll material has made it easier for print shops to bring flatbed capabilities in house. “Space-saving designs and flexibility to print boards and roll material at an affordable price point has made it easier for smaller print shops to add this technology to their product mix and affordable enough for them to remain competitive in the marketplace.”
Wide format print providers are looking for the ability to handle and print to an expanding universe of unique substrates and surfaces. “Printers need to be able to handle everything from thin films to paper to metal to glass and stone,” says Schlimme. “The ability and flexibility to handle different substrates enables a printer to pursue new applications and new markets and then, more importantly, leverage a specialization in a niche market once they find it.”
Meany agrees, adding that the printhead height from the substrate is often within tenths of a millimeter and influences the variety of substrates that can be printed to on a flatbed. “Without proper vacuum controls, deformed or warped media can contact the printheads causing irreparable damage and costly replacement,” he warns.
Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, says the company incorporates a range of features including a pin registration system and a laser-guided media/crash sensor on its VersaUV LEJ-640FT. “In addition to protecting the printhead this feature enables the printer to more accurately sense the height of irregular, 3D surfaces.”
For larger volume operations, automated board loading is an attractive option. “We have reached the point where it is not possible to manually feed many of the top-end devices,” notes Amerine. “They are simply too fast.”
Productivity improves with advanced material handling, which means labor costs can be reduced. “The materials used on flatbeds can be as large as 5×10 feet, and are awkward to move manually on and off the bed without introducing contamination, damaging edges and corners, and images. Automation ensures accurate placement of material on the bed and safe unloading of the printed piece,” offers Cipresso.
The cost of consumables is an important consideration that every PSP deals with daily. Advancements that help control waste are in demand. “PSPs know that ink management directly impacts their production costs,” comments Giglio.
Meany compares the ink management functions to that of the circulatory system of a human body. “It needs to be free of air so it can flow freely and perform properly.”
Ink delivery systems enable non-stop job performance capability with bulk ink receptacles and auto switchover capability. McGovern says some bulk systems are configured using degassing modules to remove the air before it reaches the printhead, resulting in missing jet nozzles and having to purge and cycle inks to regain nozzle integrity. “Air ingesting is the single worst problem with inkjet printhead performance as a factor,” he notes.
Amerine stresses the importance of printhead and ink compatibility for effective waste management. “Ink management systems ensure that the ink is in optimal physical condition to be jetted. They also allow operators to add ink without interrupting production. The ability to maximize productivity and minimize cost are the two major driving forces for inkjet technology and all of the component systems.”
Peterson admits that ink management systems are critical for white ink. “Given the chemistry of white ink, keeping the ink in constant motion is necessary. Purchasing a flatbed printer that features an automated white ink recirculating system in conjunction with some minimal user maintenance ensures service providers are free from issues once associated with white ink printing.”
Small equipment upgrades can lead to major benefits for wide format flatbed users. Depending on the need—quality, volume, or versatility—the latest advancements target PSPs across the print industry.
Click here to learn more about specific flatbed printers.
Jun2016, Digital Output