By Cassandra Balentine
Wide format digital printing enables a range of large-scale applications from banners to corrugated displays. To maximize productivity or provide seamless supersized output, grand format printers are utilized. Supporting widths upwards of 95 inches, solutions are available using a variety of ink technologies including UV/UV LED, latex, and solvent. Grand format fabric printers are also on the market, but are not the focus of this article.
Grand format printers are an attractive option for high-volume print service providers (PSPs). With a wider width, operators strategically nest jobs in multiple-up formats to push more graphics through at one time. Additionally, the width reduces the need for seaming in jobs that may require many panels on smaller format devices.
Above: Grand format printers enable seamless supersized output, like this application courtesy of Durst.
Applications and Advantages
The range of applications grand format printers produce is vast. These devices handle jobs over 95 inches in width, reducing or eliminating the need for seaming. Smaller format graphics are also easily produced quickly in multiple-up formats. To maximize productivity on grand format printers, PSPs should be equipped to nest multiple jobs in one run.
In grand format, Sohil Singh, VP, StratoJet USA, points out there are two options, roll or flatbed. The first enables a range of applications including distant viewing billboards, backlit light boxes, signage, and wall graphics; while the latter supports the production of rigid jobs like high-quality yard signs and decorating large volumes of smaller items and panels.
Wider printers allow for wider media and therefore wider prints without seams. “This is important for large banner prints that might be placed as outdoor road signage or perhaps in large arenas. “Printing with a grand format printer is great for larger vehicle wraps, such as for tractor trailer rigs, allowing for fewer seams and faster installation,” says Mark Rugen, director, product marketing and education, Mutoh America, Inc.
Some applications like billboards, building wraps, and over-sized backlit displays like those seen at airports would be too difficult to produce profitability without a grand format device because of the stitching or installation requirements, shares Becky McConnell, segment marketing manager, wide format inkjet, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphics Systems Division. She says hockey rinks are another environment well suited for grand format signage given the size of the installation.
“Obviously, the applications with format sizes that exceed the dimensions of a smaller printer make it a necessity to purchase a grand format printer,” suggests Larry D’Amico, sales director, North America, Durst Image Technology US, LLC. “Less obvious, is that fact that smaller rolls can be run efficiently multiple-up on a larger printer.”
Randy Paar, marketing manager, display graphics, Canon Solutions America, explains that for larger quantities of small pieces, a large 4×8-foot board can be fully nested and the pieces laser cut to provide the most productive approach.
Jason Hamilton, solutions architect, digital imaging segment, Agfa Graphics, believes grand format has adapted itself to cross over beyond traditional banners and building signs. “We now see customers using it to print corrugated sheet or display, fabric, leather goods, and industrial products. It enables PSPs to use their imaginations and test theories when it comes to printing applications.”
Some PSPs use grand format flatbeds to print on media that would subsequently be transferred to a flat surface, such a panel for a booth. “The ability to produce these types of graphics without additional interaction with materials offers faster turnarounds,” points out Lisa Humrich, segment manager, sign and graphics, Mimaki USA, Inc.
Quality Over Quantity
One major driver for grand format printing is the ability to trade in many, smaller wide format printers for one larger workhorse. There are clear advantages and challenges to this scenario.
Grand format devices allow users to select a range of wider materials for printing and that can result in cost savings. “These wider print materials can be used not just for a single job, but also for multiple copies of smaller jobs. So, someone printing a street flag with solvent inks can print multiple copies as well as front and back all on the same media width at a substantial cost savings,” recommends Rugen.
Floor space is one consideration. “With most grand format roll printers, multi-roll functionality can be enabled, allowing for multiple, smaller rolls to run simultaneously. And some PSPs build their operations around maximizing sheet size. For those print providers, a larger bed or print area allows for more prints/sheets, which can help maximize efficiency. When it comes to output, from an installation standpoint there could be savings with less pieces to be installed because a grand format device has the capability of printing larger sheets/panels,” advises McConnell. Whether the savings are assumed by the print provider or the client, it can help profitability.
Paar says in general, larger printers tend to be more productive as the carriage spends more time printing onto the media rather than stopping and reversing direction. “This is apparent when you compare portrait versus landscape orientated rigid board printers. If the carriage travels the same speed on each, the model that has the carriage travel eight versus four feet will finish printing the board first,” he explains.
Choosing the width of the engine you are buying has as a lot to do with the type of work you are printing as well as the ability to maximize time versus profitability. “In many cases, the largest width allows customers to maximize longer run applications and to utilize larger roll media to manage costs,” shares Hamilton.
Operating several smaller machines may require the PSP to hire multiple operators to produce the same output, meaning higher labor costs. Maintenance also multiplies with a wider range of equipment. “Although the initial investment is likely to be larger with a grand format device, the operating cost during the lifecycle of the machine is lower,” recommends Carmen Eicher, product manager, swissQprint.
Humrich says the time to consider a grand format printer is when the business seeks to maintain and reduce consumable expenses or increase its current business, and/or expand its product offerings and revenue streams. “If PSPs want to increase their ability to provide large scale graphic projects, print multiple graphics at once, or print direct to substrate on wood, aluminum, yard signs, and acrylic, than grand format is the right choice.”
Ink properties also determine the choice of a grand format printer. Adhesion, durability, and environmental/human safety concerns are all important considerations.
“The ink conversation is the same whether a PSP is looking for another wide format printer or the addition of a grand format printer. What is the final application? Will it be installed indoors or outdoors? If outdoors, how long does it need to last? Will the print require post-processing such as lamination and if so, do I have the capacity to laminate goods produced at that scale?” asks Humrich. Considering these questions helps to determine the best ink selection. “Most solvent and UV-curable jobs can be installed without lamination giving UV LED inks a considerable advantage over aqueous-based inks such as latex, which require lamination.”
Additionally, boards printed on grand format devices are generally cut to size after production. “This requires an ink that perfectly adheres to a variety of different materials. In addition, it needs to be flexible enough to endure the cutting process without chipping,” notes Eicher.
Hamilton believes that no matter what print discipline you use, everything is about the speed-to-market strategy. “The faster you can dry ink to the substrate and not lose density or quality the greater your potential to win projects and manage stronger margins.”
D’Amico points out that ink characteristics can vary dramatically. “It is critical that you make this evaluation a priority when selecting a printer. One of your most important criteria should be the ink suitability to your application requirements. The proper ink selection will than dictate the printer requirements, not vice versa. Features like LED should be a secondary consideration once the proper ink compatibility to your media and applications is determined,” he advises.
Singh agrees, adding that many manufacturers are making one ink type that will work on multiple applications. However, it is important to vet this by testing the ink on selected materials to determine if a coating is required, which he says changes the solution cycle as now more cost is applied toward putting that coating down every time before or after printing.
There are many advantages of UV inks in grand format printers, including media diversity, the ability to add varnish and light colors to expand color gamut, and instant curing, shares Eicher.
Paar adds that UV-curable inks allow the fastest production possible as they cure instantly. “Depending on the required substrate, print providers should test inks prior to committing to a printer purchase or before taking on a job with an existing solution.”
UV LED technology is leading the charge with the most change in the industry. “Its reduced costs over solvent and latex technologies combined with the instant dry characteristics—and now more compatible and with flexible chemistry—increase the speed of delivery, installation, and return on investment,” says Humrich. UV LED flexible ink sets give PSPs the ability to use them for applications that include complex curves and contours, opening the gateway to increased revenue.
McConnell believes print speed is much more critical than the size of the device when it comes to ink properties. Depending on the application, there are certain jobs where UV mercury is required, or a device prints at speeds where traditional UV curing is needed to accomplish the application successfully.
Traditional mercury vapor cured UV ink or UV LED cured ink each provide instant curing, which allows finishing to be done immediately after printing. “This reduces turnaround time and improves net productivity in the shop—reducing the need for added equipment, staff, and overtime,” says Paar.
In the right setting, grand format printers shine. With the capacity to create graphics more than 95 inches wide in one shot—or the ability to produce a variety of smaller jobs at once—the sheer width these devices provide enable a variety of benefits. In addition, ink choice is a critical consideration when making a decision to invest in grand format.
Visit digitaloutput.net in December and view our Target Chart, which details grand format printers over 95 inches in width.
Dec2019, Digital Output