Considering that the advent of the wide-format printing market in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the majority of the output devices on the market have been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled into the device, rather like a web press. The completed graphic was then often installed onto a rigid material for display, installation, or some other end use.

Since the introduction of the coffee printer within the late 1980s/early 1990s, nearly all the output devices on the market happen to be rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled in to the device, rather like a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or any other end use.

It’s simple enough to view the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an additional step (taking more hours and reducing productivity) and uses more materials (the printed substrate plus the mounting material and adhesive), incurs more consumables costs, increases waste, and decreases productivity. So the solution seems obvious: cut out the middleman and print directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.

Flatbed wide-format printers appear to be a new technology, but they are actually greater than a decade old as well as their evolution has been swift but stealthy. A seminal entry in the flatbed printer market was the Inca Eagle 44, and early limitations of wide-format flatbeds were the typical trinity of speed, quality, and price. The 4th member of that trinity was versatility. Just like most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the caliber of [those initial models] would be subpar,” says Jeffrey Nelson, business development manager, high productivity inkjet equipment, Fujifilm’s Graphic Systems Division. “Ten years back, the top speed was four beds one hour. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour.” Fujifilm offers the Acuity and Inca Onset combination of uv printer.

The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a combination of printhead design and development and also the evolution of ink technology, in addition to effective ways of moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads within the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical scale of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also have a substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation happen to be significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as how to move one to the 2nd floor of an industrial space.” The analogy is always to offset presses, particularly web presses, which frequently had to be installed first, then this building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is one consideration for just about any shop looking to acquire one-and it’s not just how big the machine. There must also be room to move large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings include the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series and also the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.

And so the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers continues to be the ability to print entirely on numerous materials while not having to print-then-mount or print on a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed via a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, poke.r chips,” says Nelson, are some of the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went to Home Depot and found a door to print on.”

“What’s growing is specialty applications using different and unique substrates,” says HP’s Gasch, “such as ceramic, metallic, glass, along with other thick, heavy materials.”

This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to get adopted by screen printers, along with packaging printers and converters. “What keeps growing is printing on corrugated board for packaging, either primary or secondary packaging for impulse purchases,” says Gasch. “A unique item is wine boxes.” It’s all very intoxicating.

UV or otherwise not UV, Which is the Question

It had been advancements in ink technology that helped the flatbed printer market grow, and inks need to be versatile enough to print on a multitude of substrates without having a shop having to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which will increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to become placed on the surface to assist improve ink adhesion, and some use a fixer added after printing. Most of the printing we’re accustomed to uses a liquid ink that dries by a mixture of evaporation and penetration to the substrate, but most of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow iaddzf penetration, hence the need to offer the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are especially ideal for these surfaces, because they dry by being exposed to ultraviolet light, so that they don’t have to evaporate/penetrate the way in which more traditional inks do.

Much of the available literature on flatbeds shows that “flatbed printer” is synonymous with “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the majority of units on the market are UV devices. You can find myriad benefits of UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print on the wider range of materials, faster drying times, the cabability to add spiffy special effects, etc.-but switching to your UV workflow is not really a choice to get made lightly. (See an upcoming feature for any more descriptive examine UV printing.)

Combos

All of the new applications that t-shirt printing machine enable are excellent, there is however still a large volume of perform best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a shop may use just one device to create both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or hybrid printers. These units can help a shop tackle a wider number of work than can be handled with a single type of printer, but be forewarned which a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and could lag the production speed of, a genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed of the device, as the speed of the “flatbed mode” may be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and constantly get demos.