A Feast of Flatbeds

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.”

Gramley reported many manufacturers are working to bring production flexibility, space flexibility and lower price to small shop owners. The very real constraints of such businesses are often budgetary and spatial, “and yet they want to get on the same flatbed gravy trains as everyone else,” she said.

On the other end of the price spectrum, flatbed printer makers are also working to serve customers of $400,000 to $1 million equipment. Here, the issue is the delivery of quality, productivity and digital capabilities to a truly high-volume production-oriented space formerly occupied by screen printing, Gramley said.

Screen printing’s drawback is that set up is involved for each image. With digital, every page can be different, and set up isn’t needed before each job. “So now you can do short runs, with everything different, and get fast turnarounds, which you couldn’t easily do in an analog screen prOcéss,” Gramley said.

Few manufacturers inhabit this price range, among them HP, Durst and Inca, she adds. These manufacturers are allowing print shops with sufficient production to switch from screen printing to the efficiencies of flatbed printing.

At Océ North America, display graphics product manager Randy Paar reported incremental improvements have been seen over the past year in all aspects of technology from inks to print heads and curing systems.

The biggest improvement from Océ, he reported, has been the company’s implementation of a new printhead in the Océ Arizona 550 Series printers. The printhead features a double row of nozzles, providing greater productivity. Océ also has an improved curing system with a new reflector/shutter system that delivers more curing energy, less heat and is only half the price, he said.

Another manufacturer, Durst US, has been involved in the flatbed market since the first UV printer was unveiled at the dawn of the new millennium. It has always focused on the industrial-scale, high-end market, reported senior vice-president of sales and marketing Chris Howard with Durst US in Rochester, NY.

All of its machines are in the half-million-dollar range and above, he says.

In the past year, Durst US has introduced new platforms that increase print productivity, or sheets per hour, through both printing speed and continuous workflow. On its new models, such as the Rho 1000 and Rho 900, an automatic continuous production system allows the machine to feed boards and run in continuous printing mode, with no loading or unloading time. “The machine’s literally printing on two different boards at the same time,” Howard said.

A new print system features a greater number of nozzles in the Quadro Array, translating to higher printing speeds. This new print system is found on the Rho 1000, Rho 900 and Rho 800HS, Howard said.

Gerber Scientific Products’ new CAT|UV printer is differentiated by its Gerber Cat cationic ink, Luck reported. It offers superior adhesion and scratch resistance, a vibrant color gamut, quicker curing, great print accuracy and registration, and unattended operation and ease of use. “For someone with a solvent printer looking for a flatbed printer, this is a great option,” Luck said, noting the printer is ideal for sign making, point of sale and other applications.

Gerber Scientific Products’ trademarked technology called Cold Fire Cure cures the ink at a very cool 65 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing users to print on the widest array of substrates in the market without damaging the substrates.

Lower operational costs are another benefit, because the printer’s UV lamps use 40 percent less energy than traditional mercury vapor lamps. The result is up to 4,000 hours of use before the lamps have to be replaced.

In addition, the printer comes crated and can fit through standard 36-inch-wide doors. “A lot of solvent printers take up considerable space,” Luck said. “[Users] don’t have to do any construction if they have the room for the printer. There is no special ventilation required, which can be an added cost. Also, a lot of solvent printers require a great amount of venting, but because this uses cationic inks, there’s very little odor.”

Another important differentiator is excellent registration and accuracy. “The media is stationary and the gantry moves back and forth over the media,” Luck said. “That’s where you get the true flatbed performance. The registration and accuracy is outstanding because the media is not moving.”

Another manufacturer with an innovative curing system is Atlanta-based Mimaki USA. Its JFX-1615, introduced last year, uses a cold curing, or UV-LED curing system, said spokesman Steve Urmano. “You don’t have the heat byproduct,” he reported. “Without the heat byproduct you can print on thinner materials, and clear materials such as glass and mirrors.”

Additional benefits of the JFX-1615 include being able to use both white ink and clear urethane inks, the latter providing spot varnish effects often found on high-end imagery such as annual report materials. It’s also useful in printing a gloss on an image that’s already been printed. “We have a large manufacturer client that uses this to protect an area that’s been printed,” Urmano said. “There will be two layers printed, one the color, the second an overprint in clear.”

The biggest advantage the Mimaki JFX-1615 provides is allowing users to print on more types of materials, opening them to wider markets, he added.

EFI’s VUTEk GS3200 hybrid flatbed and roll-to-roll printer complements higher volume commercial production printers, EFI reports. The company calls it “the perfect replacement for multiple wide- and grand-format printers in a single shop. Its versatility expands the reach of super wide printing into new industries and applications with breakthrough speed up to 2400 square feet per hour and incredible photorealistic image quality up to true 1000 dpi in the same printer.”

Nicola Cracco, owner of commercial printer Segnobit in Creazzo Vicanza, Italy, recently purchased a GS3200, enabling the shop to perform shorter runs, more regionalization and to print on a wide array of rigid and flexible materials. “As these printers are becoming faster, more versatile and more economical, the gap between high-volume and digital printing continues to close,” Cracco said.

“Our new ability to economically produce shorter runs with expanded regionalization to a range of non-standard materials -- all the while carrying lower inventory—makes the GS3200 a sound investment with a brilliant ROI.”


Making Shops More Profitable

A true flatbed printer combined with a digital cutting system is a versatile, powerful tool to produce custom and short-run items that are typically too expensive or impossible to produce using other technologies, Paar said. For that reason, he encourages shops to apply imagination and creativity to produce something that is entirely new, or to tap into new market segments.

“Consider personalization of already manufactured goods, custom packaging, interior design elements, furniture, novelties and promotional items,” he urged. “Invite some creative people from different market segments to your shop, and show them the capabilities of your equipment. Ask them what they could do with it. You’re likely to get some different ideas from fresh creative minds.”