By Cassandra Balentine
Flatbed printers enable users to print to a range of materials. From foamboard to metal and wood, these workhorses provide versatility. However, while the conversation often shifts to what new and unique items the devices can print to, it is important to recognize their reliability on traditional mediums that make up much of the workload for many print service providers (PSPs) like foamboard, PVC, styrene, polycarbonate, and acrylic.
These devices are well equipped to handle a variety of substrates due to features like a strong vacuum, fast curing, and registration pins.
Above: Traditional signage material printed with a Canon Oce Arizona flatbed.
Targeting Traditional Material
PSPs primarily use dedicated flatbeds to print to traditional substrates, but enjoy the ability to expand services by printing to more untraditional materials.
Michael Maxwell, senior product manager, Mimaki USA, Inc., says PVC sheeting, foamcore, acrylic, and composite metal continue to be popular materials for flatbeds.
“From our point of view, PSPs are printing on both traditional and non-traditional substrates,” shares Deborah Hutcheson, director of marketing, Agfa Graphics. She says the most commonly produced inkjet graphic applications include posters and point of purchase (POP) displays, and the markets for these product categories have become very price sensitive.
Kaz Kudo, associate marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division, estimates through its customer demonstrations and demands that about 80 percent of users are focused on traditional media while 20 percent of work done on flatbeds is non-traditional.
Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, believes PSPs are equally printing on both traditional rigid stock and untraditional materials. “Some shops tend to focus on traditional stock while others print more on three-dimensional objects, but in general, most operations are printing on both types of substrates regularly.”
Printing to traditional materials is an easy and consistent business for PSPs to obtain, which can cover the machine and operation costs as well as create the foundation for the return on investment, offers Mark Swanzy, COO, Xanté Corporation. “These traditional jobs may be lower profit margin, but higher volume. However, printing to non-traditional materials typically has much higher profit margins due to these jobs being lower volume or one-offs and more unique and customized, allowing for higher sales price.”
Kudo believes PSPs initially invest in flatbed equipment with the intent to print on traditional materials, but also try to print on non-traditional materials to help expand their business.
“In general, the focus is still on traditional materials, as they are versatile for a number of end uses. However, as the market becomes more competitive, PSPs are stepping out of this zone and moving into some unique materials such as wood, doors, tiles, and flooring to expand offerings and grow the business,” adds Tom Wittenberg, large format segment manager, sign and décor, HP, Inc.
In addition to new investments, PSPs generally look to upgrade to flatbeds with features that support both traditional and non-traditional media. “When it comes time to upgrade, it is usually for the right combination of production and image quality to better serve the market the PSP is in, which is usually traditional materials, suggests Kevin Currier, business development manager, Novus Imaging, an M&R Company.
Randy Paar, marketing manager, display graphics, Canon Solutions America, points out that conventional substrates can require higher volume devices as PSPs grow. He often sees customers upgrade or add more productive or larger bed size flatbed printers. “When acquiring stationary flatbed printers, the added benefit is that PSPs can easily print onto both the traditional and untraditional substrates,” he adds.
Hutcheson says the key is to evaluate what customers will buy, in what volumes, and how to sell them. “PSPs looking for profitable growth may want to consider high-margin applications on non-traditional materials if the extension makes sense for their business.”
Swanzy shares that based on customer feedback, PSPs upgrading existing flatbeds are typically looking for more production speed, higher print quality, or more features than their current flatbed offers. “Many are looking to expand into new markets such as printing to non-traditional materials. For example, if their current flatbed is CMYK only, they may want their next UV flatbed to have spot channels, white, or clear varnish for added capability. They may also want a printer to accommodate thicker materials or allow many non-traditional materials to be printed.”
Customers typically have a particular business case in mind when looking into a flatbed equipment purchase, whether it is to serve a large account for POP signage, or a specific décor application. It could be a business that already has some sort of roll-to-roll printing capability. “Our customers can really hit the ground running taking on the types of traditional jobs and applications that fit within their existing signage and graphics offering. Once they do that, they have the opportunity to develop and sell new applications on unusual substrates,” says Ken Hanulec, VP, inkjet marketing, EFI.
PSPs consider several factors when searching for or upgrading wide format flatbed printing capabilities, including cost, media handling, registration, curing speed, versatility, and quality.
“The first thing to consider are consumable costs, because that impacts profitability in the long run,” says Hutcheson. She explains that when pricing a job for a dedicated flatbed, knowing the ink usage and cost is half of the equation.
Sophisticated media handling, including a strong vacuum hold and registration pins that ensure accurate printing on double-sided jobs help enable quality output.
Hanulec shares that dedicated flatbed printers are ideal for applications that require an extra-high level of placement accuracy and material hold down. This includes lenticular graphics, photographic backlit displays, art reproductions, membrane switches, graphic overlays, and other specialty applications.
Flatbeds used for high-speed applications should have a strong vacuum to hold the material in place, which will achieve accurate and reliable dot positioning. Lighter weight and thinner gauge rigid materials will sometimes lift, curl, or skew, causing the potential for a variety of printing issues including image quality changes and printhead strikes, cautions Hutcheson. She says vacuum strength and multiple vacuum zones increases suction for live print areas and are important features for double-sided printing or different sized jobs in the same print run.
Sufficient vacuum/hold down is critical to hold materials in place without lifting or curing. “The hold down should be strong enough for the thinner materials as well as the thermally sensitive plastics,” comments Currier.
Since flatbed printers allow material to lay flat on the table during the printing process, this enables precise dot placement on the media. “With a dedicated flatbed printer, multilayer printing as well as double-sided printing is possible since the material can be registered precisely. Additionally, jobs can vary from a series of matchbox items to large standard boards,” explains Mike Kyritsi, president, swissQprint America.
Paar says true flatbed printers offer perfect and repeatable registration of the image. “Double-sided printing in perfect register is also more practical with a stationary flatbed design as the media is held firmly with a vacuum while only the print carriage moves,” he explains.
According to Roberts, dedicated flatbeds are well suited for printing on traditional rigid materials due to their ease of set up and enhanced production capabilities. For example, many dedicated flatbeds feature a print gantry design that simplifies working with larger substrates. “In addition, true flatbeds make it easy for the operator to make multiple passes or create layers on the board without moving the substrates, which is especially important when printing multiple layers of gloss or white ink.”
Similar to hybrid design board printers, stationary flatbeds are capable of printing common graphics substrates. Paar believes stationary table design shines when it comes to printing pre-cut, non-square, or rectangular pieces of the same substrate. “This reverse, cut-and-print workflow can be especially useful in situations where a contour cut job that is reprinted on a regular bases can be pre-cut, reducing future finishing bottlenecks and/or improving turnaround times,” he comments.
Table size also plays a role. “You want a table size large enough to handle at least a 4×6- or 5×10-foot sheet coming out so you don’t need a person to stand as it comes out to catch it,” suggests Wittenberg.
Flatbed tables are fit to standard sizes like 4×8-foot sheets and vacuum zones to help keep the substrates in place, suggests Kudo. “Speeds normally do not affect printing on these types of materials, but the ability to print various thicknesses of material is important, with most flatbeds being able to print on a maximum of two inches.”
Maxwell adds that the large flatbed format with depth variability combined with the ability to set up an image and print quickly allows printers to be open to most types of materials. However, he points out that the chemistry of some materials require an adhesion promoter.
The ink set of the printer must be optimized to print to traditional materials. “Many companies now offer soft, hard, and hybrid UV inks. Customers should choose a printer with inks that are the most compatible and durable for the substrates they would use the majority of the time,” shares Swanzy.
For example, if the material will be processed or cut after printing, it’s necessary to choose an ink that will not easily chip when cut. If the material will be mounted in a curved frame or folded after printing, it’s necessary for the ink to have flexible properties to prevent cracking or potential adhesion issues.
Maxwell believes that ink advancements are broadening flatbed flexibility. “Most UV ink in flatbeds is limited to a few years of life expectancy for indoor applications and outdoor life expectancy is generally calculated in months, but that is changing as ink advances,” he explains.
He adds that even a few years ago, flatbeds were limited to materials that were not heat sensitive because of the common use of halide lamps for curing. “As technology progressed and created UV LED lamps, the ink chemistry advanced with it and was modified to cure via LED.”
LED curing can go a long way towards relieving some of the issues introduced by heat on sensitive sheets, agrees Currier.
Hutcheson recommends considering lamp replacement costs. LED curing systems are much easier for an operator to use and don’t require frequent lamp replacement, which results in jobs that don’t cure when missed.
“You want to be able to operate the unit faster without sacrificing quality. In today’s fast turnaround environment, this is key,” shares Wittenberg. Materials should come out dry and ready for post processing. “In order to respond quickly, waiting for inks to fully dry is a problem. One wants to be able to move on to post printing as soon as possible,” he adds.
While many challenges are continually addressed by flatbed manufacturers, there are concerns.
“The print buyer continues to want faster, better, and cheaper, therefore PSPs need to answer that demand as do we as manufacturers,” says Hutcheson. “Our customers have told us they want their flatbed engines to provide them with low-cost ownership, high throughput, and high-quality output. Versatility and ink color gamut are also important factors in deciding which engine to purchase.”
UV can present limitations in terms of the substrates available to print to. However, LED-cured solutions combat this challenge. Hanulec says removing heat from the curing process with cool-cure LED is important for thin and specialty materials that can warp under high heat.
Currier says material hold down, while not as difficult as on hybrid systems, can still be an issue if the material is not shipped, stored, or stacked correctly. “This can cause a range of issues including printhead strikes and lost sheets, as well as a decrease in image quality due to a wider print gap for safety reasons,” he explains.
Improved vacuum beds and reduced heat from LED systems have helped make improvements in this area. “The holy grail for flatbeds is corrugated sheets. They are notoriously known for poor sheet quality and upturned corners. This puts a great deal of stress on the system. A flatbed that can allow this material to be printed with confidence is a sign of a flatbed system that can be relied on to perform almost any task asked of it,” continues Currier.
Javier Mahmoud, VP of sales and marketing, CET Color, believes challenges are low. “More new media is coming out to accept UV ink and the adhesion is great,” he offers.
Here we highlight dedicated flatbeds on the market today.
Agfa’s flatbed engines offer six colors plus white ink. A multi-layer printing feature enables printing several colors and white ink layers in one run, saving time. The company’s flatbeds are equipped with UV LED lamps, which provideseconomical, ecological, and financial benefits to PSPs. One of its newest dedicated flatbed printers is the Anapurna FB2540i LED with a maximum print width of 100 inches.
Many features are added into Canon’s Océ Arizona flatbed models that aid PSPs in optimizing productivity, ease of operation, as well as maintaining high levels of print quality. For example, the Canon Océ Arizona XT or XTS 8×10-foot table configurations allow for continuous, two-up 4×8-foot board printing. Additionally, the flatbed line leverages Océ’s VariaDot imaging technology. Pneumatic registration pins make it fast and easy for operators to accurately line up boards on the table for precise registration.
CET flatbeds provide automatic printhead height, pin registration, and a strong vacuum, which are attractive options for PSPs printing to traditional materials. Its K2 1000 Everest is a 5×10-foot dedicated device designed with a true flatbed architecture for double-sided, full-bleed prints.
The new EFI Pro 24f is ideal for applications requiring discerning image quality and absolute dot placement accuracy. It offers a true 4×8-foot flatbed architecture with a multi-zoned vacuum system designed to eliminate masking while ensuring accurate registration for multiple overprints or panels. EFI’s cool-cure LED technology features low power consumption, minimal waste, and compatibility with thin and heat-sensitive substrates.
Fujifilm flatbed devices feature table sizes, vacuum zones, registration pins, and different ink options, which are well suited to printing on traditional media. Its Acuity F Series is specifically designed for volume sign and display PSPs with a high demand for rigid media.
HP’s flatbed devices focus on speed, media thickness capability—achieving up to 2.5-inches thick, rollers that prevent damage to the edges of the media, three liter ink supplies, and the ability to run up to four sheets at the same time with a full bleed. This includes the company’s HP Scitex portfolio, which consists of both dedicated flatbeds and hybrid devices.
Among Mimaki’s flatbed offerings is the JFX200-2531, which is an extended-bed UV LED flatbed printer featuring UV LED lamps. Users can print on two, 4×8-foot boards or one oversized sheet up to 98.4×122 inches. Twin independent vacuum pumps enable user-controllable media switching.
Novus Imaging offers its Ultra large format dedicated UV LED flatbed series available three models. It provides the ability to auto-mask the vacuum table, which allows the vacuum to focus where it’s needed and shut down where it is not.
The Roland VersaUV LEJ-640FT flatbed is designed for easy rigid material placement on the printing surface. The printheads on the device move to the front or back of the bed, enabling the operator to easily maneuver the large, 4×8-foot substrates. It also features a 64×100-inch bed size and a multiple zone vacuum system.
All swissQprint machines—including the Oryx LED, Impala LED, and Nyala LED—come with a unique pin registration system, which is ideal for printing on traditional boards, for example 4×8- or 5×10-foot boards or on smaller pre-cut sheets. The swissQprint system also offers a flip function, which in combination with the registration pins, produces double-sided prints with perfect register accuracy even if the material dimensions are subject to tolerances.
Xanté offers the X-32, which features a 24×36-inch vacuum bed that advances substrates through the printer. This allows the media to advance consistently and precisely while being held as flat as possible to enable consistent printhead height above the media.
Traditional rigid substrates represent a majority of many PSPs’ workloads. It is important that basic feature sets are offered to ensure high-quality, efficient production of these applications.
Jun2018, Digital Output