An Opportunity Not to be Missed

Many print service providers are recognizing that the sooner they get into flatbed printing, the sooner they’ll see higher sales, revenues and profits.

And that makes perfect sense. One of the fastest growing segments of the wide-format market is point of purchase and retail signage. At the center of that market is flatbed printing technology. This month, Wide-format Imaging takes its annual look at the flatbed printer market, and how shops can leverage this rapidly evolving printing revolution to reap the greatest sales and profits.

Among the many good reasons for the increasing prevalence and importance of flatbed printing is its flexibility, says Ken Van Horn, Alpharetta, GA-based category manager for Hewlett-Packard Co.

“Flatbed has actually become more important in the last two years, as the printers have become more versatile,” he says. “[PSPs] can do something as broad-based as a national campaign, and on the other hand do something like producing a local tchotchke or award. It is versatility that allows them to do that. It gives them the ability to print on fiber, wood, plastic. The range of substrates is so broad, as is the ability to use UV inks to print on various substrates.”

The growth in flatbed printing also has much to do with efficiency, says Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager with Oce North America in Itasca, IL. Flatbed printing, he observes, cuts out the huge and time-consuming step of mounting and laminating. “You’re eliminating a number of steps, but you’re also eliminating waste,” he notes. “When you look at a conventional process of mounting on to a board, the print can be ruined in that process. You’re not only wasting the board it’s mounted upon, but the print itself when you have to go back and print again. [With flatbed] you’re printing directly on to the board, [so] you’re eliminating that risk and the waste associated with it.”

One Device, Many Functions

Palo Alto, CA-based Hewlett-Packard Co. offers mid-range devices with flatbed and roll-to-roll printing in the FB500 and FB700. The company’s high-volume true flatbed, the FB7600, takes on both rigid and flexible substrates.

“PSPs have the ability to use one device for a wide variety of functions, letting them handle any printed piece a campaign might call for,” Van Horn says. “It might be a static cling, decal, sign, free-standing display unit, or floor graphics.”

Flatbed printing has become more viable in the past two years because UV inks have evolved to the point where they can print on a wide range of substrates, including canvas, paper-based, plastic based, wood and fiber, without changing the ink set. That’s a big change from the days when it wasn’t possible to cut to the edge of the ink without the ink chipping or cracking. In those old days, the ink cracked when the piece was bent. It also had an odor.

“All that’s gone away,” Van Horn says. “Now you have a chance to use it indoors or outdoors. So it doesn’t matter where your application is going to go, UV meets the requirements and goes well beyond the alternatives, like solvent and dye sublimation. You have the ability to quickly turn around a job, and go directly to the substrate without additional finishing.”

While the cost of the equipment has come down, the real economies in today’s flatbed printing have resulted from greater efficiencies, he adds. Printers have grown faster, cost per copy of the ink has come down significantly due to better coverage, and the reliability of the equipment makes it possible to print more copies and get more consistency than possible even four years ago.

What’s more, UV inks used with flatbed printing provide the ability to print white. That enables PSPs to sell a wider range of products and become more efficient. “You don’t have to use a preprinted white substrate,” Van Horn says. Or you can print to a static cling or a styrene, and do a spot white behind it, getting opacity where you need it without having to lay ink down across the substrate.”           

Wide Open Possibilities

Oce North America offers the Arizona platform, with a number of models built on that platform, Paar says. The GT supports a 4-by-8 full bleed print size, while the XT supports an 8-by-10 full bleed size. The GT is the everyday production model for shops that don’t need to handle over-sized materials and don’t have a need for high volume. The XT is the high-productivity model. The 8-by-10 area of the XT can be split into two 4-by-8 vacuum zones, letting PSPs print one sheet while setting up the next one, for a non-stop process, Paar says.

What’s possible? “It’s pretty much wide open,” he responds. “The possibilities are pretty much endless in what you can print on to. For instance, you can take a pre-manufactured item and customize it with a name, logo or graphic to increase the value of that item. We’re creating a high-margin application, compared to someone just doing traditional printing on foam board. It becomes a specialty graphic application, which tends to result in higher-margin products, compared to traditional graphics like foam board.”

The Arizona platform is a stationary flatbed. Substrates stay stationary during the printing process, for very accurate registration printing on both sides of the material. “If you had to print on two sides of, say, a piece of cardboard, it would be more difficult to get it aligned mounting roll prints,” Paar says.

Because it’s a digital process, industrial applications that are moving to digital, become new profit opportunities for PSPs. One application is membrane switch overlay printing of, for instance, pushbuttons on a microwave oven.

“It’s a totally new business, which is nice,” Paar says.

 Another new opportunity will likely be found in retail. PSPs have always served that market with posters and banners, but flatbed printing allows them greater labor efficiencies. What’s more, with the Arizona platform, image quality is extremely high, allowing PSPs to sell point-of-purchase materials that will be seen at a shorter distance, making them higher-end, more profitable items. 

More Rigid, Durable Material

Jim Cain, director of sales for the digital imaging group of Polytype America in Mahwah, NJ, says flatbed printing’s ascendancy results from the desire to print oversized materials that are rigid. “Customers are now requesting more rigid material, more durable material and the use of UV inks that allow for greater outdoor durability,” he observes. “There’s also better productivity, more versatility, reduced labor costs and increased automation.”
Polytype America is a manufacturer of the Swiss-made Virtu product line and is also the North America distributor of the Swiss-made swissQprint line, consisting of the 2.5-meter Oryx and Impala, and the 3.5-meter Nyala.

Within the Virtu line, the Abacus is a 30 pl. or 80 pl print head in 2.5 or 3.5 meters. Just introduced is a new product called the Quantum, which will be unveiled at the SGIA Show in Las Vegas in mid-October. That is a 10 pl. unit offered in 2.5 and 3.5 meter configurations, Cain reports.

The Virtu line encompasses six machines that are pure roll-to-roll, flatbed, or can run a combination of roll or flatbed, handling materials up to 3.75 inches thick and ranging in size from 98 to 126 inches wide by any length, he adds.

“We can run paper, vinyl, banner material, glass, metals, woods, stone, concrete, basically anything you want to run through the printer,” Cain says.

“The way the heads are configured, they are very lean on ink consumption. The printer runs on speeds that are equal to or better than the competition. And the machines are very easy to use and easy to run.”

Those who are using the machines are turning out banners, trade show materials, posters, and event products. They’re producing exhibit displays, in-store design, outdoor awnings and virtually anything imaginable in the signage and graphics industries. “And they’re also doing interior design work, such as tile, acrylics and decorative glass,” Cain says.

Industry’s Widest Line

Flatbed printing is one of the strengths at Elmwood Park, NJ-based Agfa Graphics, says Larry D’Amico, vice president of digital imaging. The entry-level Anapurna line, which is priced from $80,000to $150,000, handles from 5 to 15 boards an hour. The mid-range Jeti line, priced from $200,000 to $600,000, will turn out 15 to 30 boards an hour. And the top-line M-Press, priced from $1.2 to $2.5 million, produces from 60 to 180 boards an hour, according to D’Amico.

“There are all kinds of products within those groups, and we have the broadest line of flatbed printers,” D’Amico says. Our inks, which we manufacture ourselves, offer the lowest cost per square foot in the industry. With that ink, we have the thinnest laydowns. They lay down a smaller, thinner layer of ink, which provides more of an aesthetic benefit, and feels more like an offset sheet.”

The ultimate Agfa Graphics selling point is breadth of product. “Because our line is so broad, we can fit the product to your application,” D’Amico says.

Field Upgradeability

At Atlanta’s CET Color, flatbed and belt-driven hybrid UV cure printers are the sole focus. “We are among the few manufacturers that offer both,” says Jack Skidmore, director of sales, adding four flatbeds are in CET Color’s line.

“We also offer an industry leading program of field upgradeability,” he adds. “A customer can purchase our entry-level printers, and can field upgrade with more printheads to increase printing speed or printing capabilities. A PSP can purchase a printer with just CMYK at an entry-level price, and in the field, their printer can be upgraded with additional capabilities like light cayenne, light magenta, and white and clear varnish printheads to meet their productivity needs. By adding another row of printheads, you’re adding the capability of an entirely new machine, at a cost less than half that of a new machine.”

Phoenix-based Mutoh America Inc. offers the ValueJet line, which features the 1608HS hybrid printer with roll-to-roll and flatbed capabilities.

Priced at less than $50,000, it’s the lease expensive hybrid flatbed solution on the market, according to marketing manager David Conrad. “If you want to make money, you’ve got to save money,” he observes.

The ValueJet 1608HS is ideal for those shops with limited space as well as limited budgets, Conrad adds. “The hybrid capability of running roll-to-roll media or rigid materials gives the shop flexibility if they can’t afford to bring in dedicated equipment to support both applications,” he says.

Flatbed’s Future

Additional advancements in flatbed printing are just around the corner, experts say. Cain believes the future of flatbed will be larger and faster.

“It’s all about how many boards per hour the sign shop or graphics shop can produce,” he says. “It’s all about productivity.”

For his part, Van Horn says PSPs are looking for equipment with better image quality, faster throughput and greater cost efficiencies.

“As we move the bar forward from an analog to a digital standpoint, we will bring higher efficiencies to more print service providers,” he predicts.

Paar believes trends are already in place, and they will continue as flatbed printing evolves. “Machines will get faster, be lower cost, and incorporate additional features, whether additional ink channels or different types of inks for different applications,” he observes. “The general population of end users does not even know what a flatbed printer is. So I think there’s still a lot of opportunity for this segment to grow, as more people become aware of its capabilities.”