By Olivia Cahoon
Flatbeds are primarily purchased when the need to print direct to board arises. At that time, volume or productivity needs may be addressed, specifically how to combat high volumes. Flatbeds designed to manage high volumes of work are advantageous to print service providers (PSPs) looking for fast speed and productivity, high-quality graphics, and reduced turnaround time. Several factors influence how these printers operate at high volumes, such as the number of printheads, drop size, color capabilities, and ink consumption efficiency. High-volume devices are ideal for large print shops, as well as small- to mid-sized PSPs seeking reliable and consistent output.
Above: Roland’s IU-1000F UV LED high-productivity flatbed is used in the creation of a variety of applications.
Classifying a flatbed printer as high volume is a broad term that most often points to speed. However, it also entails other features that are just as important, such as quality, cost efficiency, and productivity.
“A high-volume printer is a relative term defined by printing shops because not all are in need of the same workflow,” share Luis Garrido, director of Equipamientos, an authorized Polaroid licensee. Today’s high-volume market comes with a variety of demands, including high speed, quality, affordable productivity, and cost efficiency.
According to Garrido, high-volume printers should be prepared to deliver all job types on demand. “A regular print shop knows the workflow has high pickups, and that is when speed becomes a crucial feature.”
Categorizing a high-volume flatbed printer based on speed generally includes production speeds higher than 7,000 square feet per hour (sf/h) and up to 12,000 sf/h. Steve Lynn, director/GM, new markets, North America, Durst Image Technology US, believes that in addition to high production speeds, a high-volume flatbed must also be capable of achieving high levels of print quality and maintain a high level of uptime to provide reliable, high-quality, high-speed production.
There are extreme high-volume flatbeds capable of achieving maximum speeds of up to 15,000 sf/h. These press-like models are designed to replace or complement large screenprint setups and typically cost millions of dollars—putting them out of reach for most PSPs, shares Jay Roberts, product manager, COTO/UV business, Roland DGA Corporation. Fortunately, high productivity flatbeds are available that offer an affordable, effective alternative in the $150,000 range.
Michael Maxwell, senior manager, Mimaki USA, Inc., considers high-volume as the optimum production throughput to support an individual PSP’s business. “A printer with high speeds doesn’t return value if there isn’t enough business to keep it busy—too big. A flatbed that prints slowly but can’t keep up with demand is not a good solution—too small. The only device that fits the individual PSP’s workflow is just right,” he points out.
Thomas Krumm, product marketing manager, display graphics, EFI, agrees that there are many ways to quantify what a high-volume printer is because it is based on the customer’s application, volume, and quality needs. However, he does define high volume in regards to square feet per month. “Generally speaking, demand for a high-volume printer comes from a 100,000 to 450,000 square feet per month capacity for an eight hour shift, based on average volume per month or peak load capacity.”
Meet the PSPs
A variety of PSPs and businesses request high-volume flatbed printers, each for different reasons. Smaller and mid-sized PSPs utilize flatbeds to reduce turnaround time while large shops use high-volume flatbeds to complement screenprint lines and lithographic printing.
The term high volume is often relative to the observer. “Every PSP at some point or another will be faced with a seemingly impossible deadline regardless of the size of their business,” comments Maxwell. While there are many factors to consider, one of the most important is if the printer will deliver consistent, repeatable results and if it can meet the business’ demands.
As a result, many PSPs start their equipment search based on advertised speed as the primary focus. Maxwell believes this is a flawed singular decision for a purchase and in many cases, a costly one. “The printer itself doesn’t need the fastest print speed to successfully deliver high volume. Identifying a solution with enough productive capability and room to grow is important, but if the product addresses potential pain points—while being reliable and consistent—then that product proves itself as high volume for that shop.”
There is a misconception that the need for high-volume flatbeds is limited to only the bigger PSPs with consistently high levels of production. While that group of PSPs do require high-volume flatbeds, Lynn also sees companies with lower total production needs choosing a high-volume printer so that they can reduce turnaround time on jobs to meet their customers’ demands.
“Many users are commercial print businesses established in offset or sheetfed digital printing but find superwide format printing a complementary, growing, and profitable offering. Dedicated signage and display graphics providers represent another large segment of the user base. Many of them are companies that specialize in visual merchandising and point of purchase graphics or architectural design and décor,” adds Krumm.
In many cases, high-volume flatbed printers replace or complement large screenprint lines and lithographic printing. The bulk of jobs assigned to these presses are not small and usually consist of hundreds of pieces. Typically, these graphics are printed on 4×8-foot sheets, which are then cut to size or sometimes the sheets are cut down prior to printing. When printed at final size, Roberts says delivery is easier and the production flow is greater.
PSPs of all sizes select high-volume devices for flexibility, fast speeds, ink capabilities, and burst capacity. By using these devices, PSPs reduce turnaround times, increase capabilities, and produce high-quality graphics.
In general, digital printing allows PSPs to be flexible. Often times high volumes are needed when providers have several jobs from different customers in the queue—including samples and rush jobs—in order for delivery dates to be accomplished. “Today, the industry increasingly requires more flatbed printers capable of covering short-run customer needs, while still accounting for high-volume production,” offers Garrido.
PSPs select high-volume devices to keep up with production volumes, utilize digital capabilities, and produce vivid graphics. “These printers can switch from job to job almost instantly,” explains Roberts. With screenprint jobs—which are typically longer runs—the pre-print setup can take hours.
The need for burst capacity also influences PSPs to adopt high-volume devices. According to Lynn, burst capacity is becoming more common as brands demand quicker turnaround times and faster delivery. “Companies who only run one shift choose a high-volume printer to ensure they can be competitive and deliver jobs on time.” The ability to deliver jobs in a short timeframe can determine whether or not a print provider is competitive and wins the work.
However, Maxwell warns PSPs of selecting a device based solely on speed or a single job’s requirements. “This is also all too often a costly reason to add a new piece of equipment.” In these cases, he believes PSPs also gravitate towards the highest priced device with the perception that they will get more because they spent more. “PSPs should pay attention to the features and benefits.”
Another misconception during the purchase cycle is the cost per cubic centimeter of ink in the bottle. While the ink in the bottle may be cheaper, Maxwell says if the printer requires more of it to produce a graphic than any perceived savings are lost. When looking to adopt a new printer, he thinks PSPs should pay attention to the drop sizes at equivalent fractions. “In many cases the faster printer will need a larger drop to sustain that speed, sacrificing quality and cost.”
Inside High Volume
High-volume flatbed printer performance is based on a variety of innovative features, such as larger numbers of printheads and a wider color gamut.
Electronics, state-of-the-art printheads—which should be aligned according to the shop’s needs, and solid components are factors. Further, Garrido finds that a hybrid flatbed printer is faster than a regular flatbed because it allows users to load media sheets one after the other without wasting time to replace—helping print providers complete more jobs.
High-volume machines often have more printheads than medium production devices, paired with a robust substrate handling mechanism to ensure a range of materials can be loaded and printed in a short time. According to Lynn, printheads are typically arranged in a large print carriage that holds the printheads and covers a sheet of substrate in a short time with maximum accuracy to ensure perfect registration and drop placement for excellent quality.
Flatbeds in the $150,000 range have up to 12 printheads and typically achieve speeds of 1,000 to 2,000 sf/h in production, says Roberts. These high-volume printers also have large ink reservoirs—allowing them to perform longer runs.
Because the market’s quality requirements have increased over the years, high-volume printers need to have more than standard CMYK ink options like light cyan, light magenta, orange, green, violet, or even white, shares Lynn. Orange, green, and violet supply a large color gamut to match brand colors while white is used for special applications.
While printheads speak to speed and color speaks to output, there are other considerations like swapping out boards or jigs. According to Maxwell, flatbed printers featuring a twin independent vacuum pump system that enables operators to position boards, multiple jigs, or smaller pre-cut pieces onto the table for continuous printing help keep production running smoothly.
Other elements effect these high-volume machines’ efficiency levels. This includes manufacturer support, software, and ink consumption efficiency.
Aside from build quality, reliability, and good uptime, PSPs should also select a high-volume printer from a manufacturer that provides excellent levels of both remote and on-site technical support. “The need for a high-volume printer is driven by a need for uptime, which must be matched by the ability to provide service if there is ever an issue,” recommends Lynn.
Another factor is ink consumption efficiency. In order to provide high-quality prints with quick turnaround times, PSPs should have quality ink used efficiently by the printer. “Excessive levels of purging or wasted ink can reduce the efficiency of the print process on a high-volume printer,” explains Lynn. Ink efficiency and cost per square foot of not only the printer ink, but also any ink needed for printhead maintenance should also be considered.
Typically, high-speed flatbed printers ensure the media stays perfectly flat during printing, including no curling or skewing. For example, select devices offer six flatbed zones that are automatically and independently controlled and a reverse-vacuum assist option is available for easy post-print substrate removal, shares Deborah Hutcheson, director of marketing, North America, Agfa.
A moving gantry design ensures absolute precision printing on X and Y axises. “Plus, registration pins on every corner of the flatbed guarantee a precise positioning of substrate even for double sided or imperfectly cut media,” says Hutcheson. The pins are operable via a user interface or from a conveniently located set of activation buttons at each of the corners.
With wide format and flatbed printers, the software typically plays a key role in production. For example, Roland’s IU-1000F UV LED high-productivity flatbed features Roland Print Control Center (RPCC), which controls print modes, placement, step-and-repeat functions, as well as cropping without having to resend files from the RIP. “RPCC doesn’t replace the RIP—what it does is add to the RIP’s process, controlling many of the features,” explains Roberts. Software such as RPCC simplifies many steps for PSPs, which is integral in a high-volume environment.
According to Garrido, additional elements that effect high-volume machines’ efficiency levels include the device’s stability and its components combined with the RIP, media, shop workflow, good maintenance, and room temperature.
High-volume flatbed printers present a variety of benefits to all kinds of PSPs with the ability to reduce turnaround time, improve cost efficiency, and offer fast printing speeds. However, it’s important for PSPs to remember that speed is only one component to a high-volume device and other factors should be considered before purchasing, including ink usage and drop size, total production requirements, and color capabilities.
Jun2020, Digital Output