By Cassandra Balentine
Print service providers (PSPs) come in all shapes and sizes. Depending on particular needs, a smaller scale solution may fit the bill when it comes to direct-to-object printing. A variety of flatbeds offer widths of less than 36 inches and their ability to print directly to a range of objects make them versatile and cost effective for applications including trophies and awards, promotional products, signage, and point of purchase.
There are many reasons smaller format flatbed printers are attractive. “The majority of products requiring customization are small in comparison to the bed sizes offered by most tabletop printer models,” shares Rachel Tindal, art director, LogoJET. “With a more conservative upfront investment, these small format printers allow for a range of capabilities while maintaining a compact footprint.”
Above: One example, from Mutoh, of the possibilities of direct-to-object printing, a sign for a hotel room that features braille lettering.
The footprint of smaller flatbed machines enables them to fit into many environments.
Michael Perrelli, marketing director, Innovative Digital Systems, notes versatility as the biggest selling point. “Not only does it allow owners to print on range of products from bottles and signage to promotional items and acrylic awards, but operators can easily bounce between these. There aren’t many other technologies—if any—that match the versatility of small format UV printers and many in this segment have z-height clearances that the large 4×8-foot models don’t have,” he points out.
“Most larger tables are designed for large sheet goods. Even though the ink technology may be the same, the smaller units are designed to receive different size objects. When a print provider is interested in producing batched personalized goods, the small table devices are a better investment,” says Michael Maxwell, senior manager of corporate strategic development, Mimaki USA, Inc.
To differentiate direct-to-object devices from large format signage printers, Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporation, says it is important to provide flexibility and diversity. “There can be A3, A2, and A1 size for direct to object and 700×900 millimeters is an adequate size to cover applications like surf boards, wood panels, glass trophies, ceramics, artificial leather, metal signs, t-shirts, pants, as well as general signage substrates like foam boards and acrylic panels. The height of the printheads needs to be adjustable to at least 20 centimeters high to print on bottles, balls, and accessories,” he explains.
While smaller format flatbed printers tend to have a lower upfront price tag when compared to larger flatbeds, the total cost of ownership is a consideration.
According to Tindal, depending on the size and manufacturer of the model, pricing can range from $20,000 up to $60,000 for a small format direct-to-object printer. The cost of accessories like printing jigs, as well as supplies like ink and consumable parts should also be factored in.
Table size, z-height clearance, and accessories drive the various prices within the segment. “Potential owners should have no shortage of options that fit their budget. In terms of additional costs beyond the actual printer, owners need to take a close look at cost of ownership. Join some social groups, connect with other owners and get a feel for the costs associated with maintaining and operating the unit,” shares Perrelli.
Cost, speed, and quality are basic check points. To expand the range of application, you need to check the ink performance—compatibility with various kinds of substrates, like PET, PP, PC, flexible film or leather, acrylic, metal stone/ceramic, glass, and wood. “It is also important if the printer supports special color or effects like white, spot varnish, metallic color, and fluorescent color,” says Kim.
For those particularly interested in glass, there are several considerations, including the need for adhesion promoters and whether a cylindrical attachment or a dedicated cylindrical printer is best.
With glass printing, Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, says adhesion is the most crucial requirement for success. Applying an adhesion promoter on glass items is essential, and it’s important for the user to set realistic expectations with the customer when it comes to durability and longevity. “Glass is always difficult—it looks beautiful, but customers need to understand that the printed graphics may only have a short lifespan without the use of adhesion promoters,” he adds.
Kerrie Mallory-Thompson, application specialist, Mutoh America, Inc., admits that printing to glass and ceramics can be tricky. “Adhesion promotors help, as does laying down a thin layer of clear ink to help the inks adhere better. Any ink applied to glass or ceramic is not intended to be dishwasher safe.”
“These non-porous surfaces are notoriously difficult when it comes to ink adhesion, especially if they will be subjected to repeated dishwasher cycles,” says Tindal. “Most will require an adhesion promoter—which can be easily wiped over the surface before printing—and/or specialized print settings to maximize imprint durability.”
Perrelli also stresses the importance of adhesion when printing to glass. “Understanding the steps, promoters, or additional pieces of equipment needed to achieve proper adhesion should be top of mind when analyzing equipment if decorating glass and ceramic. Our team conducts adhesion and wash testing across a range of models and ink formulations. The answer—not all ink formulations are created equal. Get samples printed.”
Several adhesion promoters work well with glass. Ken Parsley, UV product manager, Mutoh, points out that a flame treatment can also improve adhesion on glass.
In addition to adhesion, there is the question of whether or not a smaller flatbed printer, outfitted with a specialty jig for cylindrical items makes more sense than a dedicated cylindrical printer.
Going the small format route clearly centers on cost savings, as the cost of entry is much lower. Dedicated rotary and cylindrical printers not only step up overall capability, think mirror printing where the color of the print shows through the inside of the glass—but they are in a different ballpark when it comes to print time. Perrelli says speed is the name of the game and many of the dedicated models fly.
Tindal points out that a dedicated cylindrical printer is a highly specialized machine that does one thing, and does it well. “While the small format flatbed printers outfitted with rotary attachments may not be able to keep up in terms of speed, they still provide high-quality imprints on drinkware. Although requiring slightly longer setup and print times, the advantage to the smaller flatbeds is their flexibility in accommodating a wider range of products.”
If you are printing a lot of bottles, a dedicated cylindrical printer may be a good option to choose, shares Kim. He says some printers use single-pass fast printing on the cylindrical surface by rotating the object under the fixed printheads. “However, if you are running at top printing speeds and you need maximum flexibility and compatibility, it’s better to choose a flatbed plus cylinder/ball jigs as an option,” he shares.
“If you are looking to do mass production of drinkware and only mass production of drinkware, the small format UV LED might not be the best way to go. If you are looking to do drinkware, signage, awards, and golf balls, you will then want the versatility of the UV LED printer,” agrees Mallory-Thompson.
The need for skilled labor and design are other considerations. Even those with knowledge of wide format digital printing should expect a learning curve for using smaller format flatbed devices—with or without cylindrical printing attachments.
“Although they may be ahead of the game when it comes to understanding RIP software and ink management, one of the biggest learning curves with direct-to-object printing is understanding ink adhesion on different substrates,” shares Tindal. PSPs should be prepared for a lot of experimentation to determine the best settings and techniques for each product.
Consistency is key, especially when sourcing items. “Any changes to the product, even if it looks the same, can cause adhesion and quality issues resulting in loss of repeat work,” suggests Maxwell.
Parsley says there may be a learning curve for understanding the many ways to utilize white and varnish. “The basic printing concepts are similar but the applications of the concepts can be widely varied.”
According to Perrelli, while there will always be some level of a learning curve with a new piece of equipment, it won’t be too intense, especially if the brand or manufacturer is a switch from their large format machine.
Inks and Treatments
Inks react differently to varied surfaces and sometimes pretreatments are necessary.
“Different substrates may require a different pretreatment process,” offers Kim. He points out that PSPs should learn layered printing—for semi-three-dimensional textured effect, or reverse printing for glass. They also need to control UV fixation timing for glossy or matte varnishing.
Tindal says print providers should work closely with the printer manufacturer to understand the best ink for their specific application along with submitting product samples for testing to determine if pretreatments are required.
“When it comes to inks, you pretty much have two main options—flexible and rigid,” shares Mallory-Thompson. Most will choose rigid inks due to versatility. Even with the title “rigid” inks, most rigid inks still have quite a bit of flexibility. “If you are a niche-type printer looking to print on things like on dog collars or leather handbags, you might consider flexible inks.”
With UV inks, many types of media need primers or adhesion promoters—or pretreatments, but this is not an exact science. “Because UV printers can print onto just about anything, the greatest learning curve for most is understanding the expectations of the surface and how durable the print or ink will be for each type. End users should understand the scratch resistance or adhesion of the ink in order to explain this to the customer and set realistic expectations. Dyne Level tests let us know if we need to take steps to increase the durability and life of the end product,” says Roberts.
This is when testing becomes very important. “Even if you know your inks, have pretreatments and primers available, and understand color management, unless tests are run in advance, results may not be ideal,” advises Maxwell.
“Get samples done on your own products. Ask for videos, print times, photos, and ink costs. Ask for everything that helps you understand the process that goes into achieving a sellable product,” recommends Perrelli. Maybe your products don’t require a pretreatment. Maybe a pretreatment system would work better than a chemical wipe. All of these items will show through when you have custom samples completed on your own products.
The versatility of small format flatbed printers is a great advantage, but it can also be a challenge.
“Because of the variety of products and substrates that can be printed, there is no one perfect setting for all,” says Tindal. Patience is needed to perfect the process for each new product. Also, these machines require regular maintenance and cleaning to keep them functioning in tip-top shape, and while it’s not necessarily difficult, it does require a commitment to consistency.
It is essential to keep the machine in good condition always. “Check that the printer features a good capping unit to protect the printheads,” comments Kim.
Object placement can be tricky. “Jigs play a vital role in alignment, but not all of the products to be produced are consistent with the others in the batch. When you get into ten to 20 items on a table at the same time, there are ten to 20 more places for something to happen,” warns Maxwell.
Mallory-Thompson sees the biggest challenge as learning to think in layers. “Laser engraving, eco-solvent printing, and sublimation are all one-dimensional printing processes. With the ability to print multi-layers of ink it will take time to learn the software. If you are open minded to all the possibilities of these machines, your business will profit in many ways.”
“Some materials require a specific set of processing steps. Following those steps is vital to overall print quality. I also tell people to never stop learning. Speak to your peers and consult with your dealer or printer manufacturer. There are many experts available to you and they all have great advice,” says Perrelli.
Parsley points out that the majority of these printers are configured with white ink, which means following the recommended maintenance schedule is the key to error-free operation. Finding media that works well with the ink set reduces failures. “Learning how to properly test and evaluate adhesion promoters increases success.”
Small and Mighty
A big print bed is not necessary for many product decoration needs. From trophies and awards to custom promotional items and even some display graphics, a flatbed printer under 36 inches is up to the task. However, it is important to understand how ink will behave when paired with certain surfaces to ensure success.
May2021, Digital Output