By Elizabeth Quirk
Wide format digital flatbed printers produce a range of material for retail signage, trade show displays, courtroom graphics, and even vehicle wraps. Today, there is a focus on the latest and greatest ways a print service provider (PSP) can differentiate themselves within the marketplace.
In order to do so, PSPs have started looking at wide format digital flatbed printers for printing on non-traditional materials such as wood, metal, and corrugated board. This trend is great for tapping into new markets and revenue streams, in addition to reclaiming outsourced work.
Above: Fujifilm distributes the Inca Onset X3 flatbed which can be used to print directly on glass with white ink.
Who’s Doing It
Virtually everyone with a flatbed has the ability to experiment with, promote, and sell products produced on non-traditional materials, which makes tracking who’s printing to non-traditional materials particularly difficult. However, PSPs are always trying to push the limits and create new products that are not just a commodity.
Anecdotally speaking, many flatbed users eventually end up printing to non-traditional materials. It’s a question of whether to accept a wide variety of jobs—and out-of-the-ordinary jobs occasionally come in—or if you specialize in printing on non-traditional substrates. The incredible flexibility of some modern flatbeds allow PSPs to have this option, without having to differ much in terms of equipment, explains Dan Johansen, senior marketing manager, wide format solutions, commercial and industrial printing business group, Ricoh USA, Inc.
“In the past few years, we have seen a rise in the number of requests for non-traditional materials to include untreated metal, glass, leather, and raw wood. The manufacturing sector has adopted flatbed technology in its manufacturing process as well. They are looking for ease of use, durability, and repeatability,” says Rick Mitchell, demonstration manager, swissQprint.
Based on Canon Solutions America’s research, approximately ten to 15 percent of its Arizona flatbed installed base print on non-standard materials, but in recent years that’s changed. “As many as 25 percent of printers sold in developed markets have been intended for specialty or industrial applications,” shares Patrick Donigain, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America. He defines specialty as decoration on non-standard media or objects or non-standard printing processes such as textured surface creation. Industrial applications refers to the use of the printer in an intermediary production step.
Intent to Purchase
There are a reasonable number of businesses that buy flatbed printers with the intent of solely using them to print on non-traditional materials, for things like promotional products and unique point of purchase displays, and they make that part of their marketing appeal and business model.
“In our experience, the majority of businesses who invest in flatbed technology are doing so because of their unique ability to print on a broad variety of materials, regardless of shape, whether or not the materials themselves are particularly unique,” advises Johansen.
Becky McConnell, product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division, says from the accounts she has talked to, the purchase for a machine isn’t driven with the intent to print on non-traditional materials, but instead these applications are driven by customer demand or a PSP’s desire to diversify their product mix.
“And by customer demand, I mean that often clients have ideas of something they need to satisfy a campaign or situation and when a print provider is willing to do anything within its reach to satisfy a client, it can lean on new, different applications achievable with its existing equipment,” she continues.
In some situations, the PSP might suggest something to complement a campaign that involves a non-traditional material and that could significantly increase revenue, as well as the impact on the end user.
According to Dani Alkalay, product manager, EFI, EFI customers are building business by being open and versatile to new opportunities that come to them, and that is part of what is driving new opportunities for flatbed printing. Much of it likely comes from printing companies consulting with customers.
“We are in a time where someone who is buying print will walk into a shop and simply ask, can you print this and usually no matter how outlandish the idea is, a resourceful print professional looks for reasonable ways to get it done,” offers Alkalay.
Mark Rugen, director of product marketing and education, Mutoh America, Inc., believes that PSPs will buy a flatbed that is designed to meet their specific requirements. Many of these machines cannot be reconfigured after installation and can limit them in the range of applications.
“That said, we have noticed at some of the trade shows more consumers are looking for a machine for a very specific need such as leather or other more non-traditional media rather than just signage,” admits Rugen.
“Our experience has been that large flatbed customers are still largely utilizing traditional materials such as PVC, corrugated plastic, and acrylics. These customers are typically upgrading their older technology, or adopting UV LED flatbeds to reduce labor processes demanded by roll-to-roll printers,” says Michael Maxwell, senior manager, Mimaki USA, Inc.
In the small format UV LED space though, Maxwell has witnessed an increase in customers moving towards more non-traditional materials. Despite sharing the same technology as the larger flatbeds, these printers attract more creativity because of their focus on object decoration. Due to the versatility of UV LED, small format customers print on a wider variety of non-traditional materials as a result.
Driving the Trends
Over the last few years, a growing product personalization/customization trend was sparked by the consumer’s desire for products decorated with vibrant, detailed graphics that reflect their own individual preferences and styles. It’s this desire to be unique/different that’s driving demand from the end customer perspective. Print providers are responding.
That said, Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, argues that demand from both PSPs and end consumers is responsible for driving the overall market for UV printing directly onto non-traditional materials and objects.
Maxwell agrees, explaining that this movement is driven from both sides. PSPs are eager to offer more to their customers in order to differentiate themselves from the rest of the competition, and need the capabilities and delivery speeds that today’s consumer demands.
Additionally, UV LED flatbeds offer a less labor intensive workflow and help reduce overhead costs, which allows PSPs the opportunity to be more competitively priced without drastically reducing profitability.
“Customers, on the other hand, are driving the need for personalization of everyday items. Many of these consumers are now accustomed to clicking a button and having it delivered in a short amount of time. Today’s consumer also has a desire for single item personalization, which is expanding the need for UV LED curable printers. Because UV LED curable technology provides a method of delivering custom decorative goods with a quick turnaround, it has become one of the most sought after technologies in printing,” comments Maxwell.
Rugen, on the other hand, argues that primarily the customers are driving the desire for non-traditional materials to be printed on. “They will have an idea for a unique product and then go in search of a shop to produce it. This in turn is giving ideas to the print shop when they attend a trade show,” he suggests.
Johansen also believes that customers generally drive the demand for non-traditional substrates. Quite simply, if there were no customer demand, PSPs wouldn’t offer it. That said, PSPs are always innovating. One may decide to experiment with something a little outside the box, that customers may not have specifically asked for, and start promoting it to test the waters.
Bill Brouhle, inkjet demonstration manager/senior application specialist, Agfa Graphics, puts it plain and simple when he says, “I believe the desire to address this market niche is coming from print shops and their customers. They both see the need to address the ability to uniquely customize interior surfaces for applications like home and décor. There is a seemingly endless supply of things to print on, whether it be for the home or office space. For example printing on clock faces, ceramic tiles, beverage coasters, or artwork for the wall, just to name a few.”
Transitioning the manufacturing process from analog to digital is one area where a flatbed’s versatility is beneficial. PSPs are moving traditionally screen- or pad-based printing on uniquely shaped substrates to digital flatbeds, often to great effect.
According to Mitchell, however, the biggest push into non-traditional printing materials comes from the manufacturing sector. Companies are looking for ways to create on demand and variable product lines to make their items more personal to the consumer. A dedicated flatbed has the versatility to print a range of materials without a lot of setup time. This gives the manufacturer the ability to test product before going to full manufacturing.
What to Look For
Larry D’Amico, director of sales, large format, Durst Image Technology US LLC, says that because every application varies so much, it is difficult to generalize the ideal features for printing on non-traditional materials. Speed, quality, and format size can differ, in fact many times specific requirements like media thickness must be incorporated in a solution to meet a particular need. The one common component is machine reliability, these are normally real production lines that require high levels of uptime.
While speed always plays a role in production throughput, redundancy is more relevant for non-traditional materials. Because non-traditional printing workflows cater to one-off small item decoration, redundancy addresses speed bottlenecks. Mitchell claims that speed of print translates to how productive a machine can be to create an end product. This goes beyond the traditional thinking of printer throughput. Repeatability, ease of use, and versatility all come into play.
The number of passes or layering of prints repeatedly are important considerations. “For instance, if you would like to build a blockout layer that could be run at a faster speed than your image layer. Some printers have the ability to combine RIP files with different resolutions into one file. The printer prints each layer automatically. Using the pin registration, the file can be repeated across the width of the table and increase efficiency. For instance if one print takes two minutes, nine prints may take three or four minutes not 18 minutes by printing each one individually,” explains Mitchell.
According to McConnell, depending on the application, speed may or may not be a factor. For non-traditional materials that have been printed with analog methods but are now looking to digitize, speed can often be a concern based on the typical run lengths and turnaround time. But for specialty applications on non-traditional materials, the ability to print sometimes outweighs the need for speed.
Roberts argues too that print speed is not really a factor that comes into play when UV printing onto non-traditional materials. The primary features that allow for this type of printing are the technological advancements, the clearance of the printheads, and the specially formulated, quick-curing inks that conform around corners and curves.
“Speed certainly is one aspect of productivity, but general ease of use, such as whether the press has pin registration or reverse vacuum blow back to assist in moving heavy items is just as important and certainly can impact productivity,” argues Brouhle.
The preferred table sizes vary based on the specific advertising/promotional, product customization, or interior design application. It should be noted, however, that most of the non-traditional substrates being printed on don’t have square-cut corners. Most are cut into shapes, and then printed.
For object decoration and personalization workflows, the table size becomes less relevant. In these cases, the material height is key. Because many of the objects end up in a home, business, car, or pocket, there is versatility ranging from thin material surfaces such as house keys or office name plates, to thicker such as decorating wooden, metal, or plastic structures, or cylindrical items.
McConnell argues that this, again, depends on the specific application, but it is important to note that the finishing of the non-traditional material should play a role in the ideal table size, not just sheet size of the material. In the case where a non-traditional material size might be smaller than the flatbed available for the throughput demands of that application, multiple pieces of the non-traditional material could be loaded onto a larger flatbed.
“Size is really application dependent, but having a larger bed size maximizes the number of unique applications a print provider can produce,” comments Donigain.
In regards to a ‘sweet spot,’ Brouhle claims that generally, for this kind of printing, a 4×8-foot is the sweet spot. However, for shops that need faster productivity and larger output capabilities, a double 4×8-foot bed press is the sweet spot.
Variable droplet printing has its advantages, but it also has disadvantages. The ability to utilize the multiple droplet sizes can increase overall print quality. However, this is when using printheads in a binary form utilizing the smallest droplets.
“I do not see a need for variable drop to ensure print quality, rather droplet placement is more critical,” argues Mitchell.
According to McConnell, variable drop printing doesn’t necessarily mean print quality. Image quality is derived and maintained with a number of factors beyond drop size, whether it be variable or binary. Testing printing with the non-traditional material surface would be key. As if there are a number of height differences on the surface, it may require slowing down the printer or even printing bi-directionally to achieve the required quality.
“Most prints incorporate a mixture of areas of solid color and photographic imagery, which requires smooth highlights and detailed shadows. The ability of a printer to change drop size on the fly within a single print significantly improves the print quality over fixed droplet systems,” adds Donigain.
Non-traditional materials can pose a few obstacles when it comes to print quality.
“One challenge can be the consistency of the thickness of the non-traditional material; because ink drops are precisely jetted to create a smooth image, variations in material height can cause quality to suffer. There are ways to minimize this with print speeds, print gap between the material and the printheads, and other elements, but being prepared is key. If the differences are drastic, it’s important to ensure that a print provider is also protecting their investment by doing all that they can to avoid a printhead crash,” states McConnell.
A common challenge is ink requirements, many of these industrial applications require specific characteristics in the ink to satisfy the particular application. Adhesion promoters can significantly improve ink adhesion when dealing with difficult-to-print materials or items.
“No single ink can produce high-quality finished output on every material. Inks that work well on some materials can suffer adhesion or density issues on others. This makes it important that flatbed suppliers pair the ink with the material,” shares Donigain.
Rugen argues one of the biggest challenges is overcoming the non-linear style applications, applications where the item is irregular in shape. Right now these items are best printed with a large fixed dot with a slower uni-directional carriage speed allowing for more accurate dot placement on multiple planes.
There seems to be a focus on the latest and greatest ways a PSP can differentiate themselves within the marketplace. That said, PSPs are looking at wide format digital flatbed printers for printing on non-traditional materials. This comes as no surprise, as this trend is great for tapping into new markets and revenue streams, gaining competitive advantages, and reclaiming old and possibly outsourced work.
Jun2019, Digital Output