It’s been a little more than a year since Wide-Format Imaging published its last focus on flatbed printing. Not surprisingly, the intervening 12 months have witnessed lots of innovation and advancements in this exciting arena of wide-format printing.
New developments have made flatbed printers more affordable, allowing their efficiencies to be brought to a wider range of print service providers than ever before. As a category, they’re also increasingly fast, flexible, functional and energy efficient, provide improved space and labor savings, and are capable of higher quality, greater accuracy and enhanced registration, experts say. In short, they’re more productive, which rapidly translates to greater profitability for users.
Best of all, they open print service providers to entirely new markets and products they may never have considered before. That means their potential as business-building tools may be limited only by shops’ creativity and imagination.
Flatbed printing can help print shops seize on two big opportunities, said Sandy Gramley, Americas Scitex portfolio manager for Palo Alto-based Hewlett-Packard. The first is the chance to eliminate a production step. Where once shops had to print an image on adhesive-backed vinyl and mount that vinyl to a board, with flatbed they can print right on the board itself, saving a step.
The second opportunity is to print on what Gramley terms “very interesting media choices,” such as doors, mirrors, and even pool drain covers.
“The core and specialty field really opens up, and that’s a fairly large margin business,” Gramley said. “You can serve packaging converters, and those specializing in custom interior décor like mirrors and cabinet doors. These are growing by leaps and bounds, because once you tell people whose business is design what is possible, their creativity is absolutely unleashed.”
At South Windsor, CT-based Gerber Scientific Products, which just introduced its third UV flatbed printer, marketing and communications manager Heidi Luck believes flatbed printers open up new markets to print shops.
She pointed to a customer in Rhode Island who made political signs the old-fashioned way, using cut vinyl letters that had to be applied to a substrate. With flatbed, he can nest several signs on the same sheet, push “start” to run the job, and walk away to perform other tasks, Luck explained.
What Are the Trends?
Even though flatbed is theoretically a great labor-saving development, in the real world it can often require additional labor steps on the front end.
That’s because depending on the equipment and the layout of the shop, employees may have to laboriously lay the flat media down and make sure it’s adhering. “If you have to go through a lot of work before you print, you’ve simply moved your work from post-print to pre-print,” Gramley observed.
Vendors are working to sidestep this problem by introducing machines that provide continuous workflow, thus eliminating pre-print challenges.
“We at HP, for instance, have a belt technology that allows you to load your next sheet while printing your current one,” Gramley said. “That’s definitely a recognized need vendors are trying to fill.”
Gramley believes another trend is an effort by some manufacturers to offer flatbed printing to digital and screen printers, sign shops, converters and repro houses and other small providers that can’t afford $150,000 machines.
“You see growth in that entry-level space,” Gramley says, pointing to the HP Scitex FB500 printer introduced May 18, which offers full rigid-printing capabilities, starting at prices below $100,000. One of the clever features of the FB500 is that its extension tables can be folded to make the table vertical, allowing it to be pushed out of the way. “For a small shop that isn’t running flatbed all day every day, that’s important,” Gramley said. “It allows them to bring a flatbed to their business without expanding their shops.”