Flatland: The Wide-Format Flatbed Printer Landscape Expands and Evolves as the Market Grows

In 2001, the Inca Eagle 44 swooped down into the wide-format market. It was the first successful flatbed wide-format printer and its killer app—the ability to print directly on rigid media—kick-started a whole new class of equipment and whole new application categories. When coupled with the ability of UV (ultraviolet) inks to print on virtually any surface, flatbeds juiced up wide-format printing in exciting new ways.

Those nascent flatbed models were hampered by perennial first-generation issues of speed, quality, and cost, but within a decade those limitations had been largely overcome. The flatbed market has grown and today offers more variety than ever, all the while improving upon the speed-quality-cost trinity. Today’s models offer something even more important: versatility.

At the same time that the technology has improved, flatbed wide-format digital printing has been muscling in on territories once strictly the purview of analog printing technologies.

First They Came for Offset…

At FESPA London back in 2013, a major theme among flatbed printer exhibitors was “quality as good as offset,” an indication of the types of applications the latest generation of equipment was intended for: high-end retail, POP displays, and the like. However, it’s not stopping at offset.

“Flatbed printers are becoming more and more valuable in the sign and display market,” said Xavier Garcia, Vice President and General Manager of HP’s Large-Format Sign and Display Division. “Customers can fulfill a variety of high-value applications using one device, with the savings on finishing.” After all, you can print on rigid substrates and skip the postpress mounting process, the earliest value proposition of flatbed printing.

HP’s latest entry in this space is the HP Scitex 15000 Corrugated Press. As its name indicates, it’s designed for printing on corrugated materials for packaging, displays, and other applications. It prints at maximum speeds of up to 6,456 square feet per hour and incorporates HP’s High Dynamic Range (HDR) Printing Technology, a combination of new printhead design, inks, and software algorithms that improve the quality and resolution of fine details and eliminate problems such as banding. HDR had made its debut last year in the 63 x 126-inch, 6,727 square-foot-an-hour flatbed HP Scitex FB10000 Industrial Press.

With the HP Scitex 15000 Corrugated Press, corrugated packaging applications are, said Garcia, “the next frontier for flatbed devices to conquer. High productivity delivered by one-pass systems, producing near offset quality in jobs that have been traditionally printed in flexo technology will disrupt the industry.”

Pump Up the Volume

Productivity, productivity, productivity. Allowing shops to pump out more prints in a shorter period of time is also continuing apace in the flatbed printer market. At last June’s FESPA Digital 2014, Fujifilm unveiled its new Acuity F series UV flatbeds, featuring an 8.2 x 9.8-inch bed size and production speeds said to clock in at more 1,600 square feet per hour.

“The Acuity F maintains all the advantages of the popular and successful Acuity Platform, including near-photographic image quality, versatility and ease of use,” said Becky McConnell, Associate Product Marketing Manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division, “but has specifically been designed for volume sign and display print service providers who have a high demand for rigid media.” The new series supports a broad range of rigid media, including irregularly shaped, heavy, smooth, or pre-cut materials, and allows for the production of multi-layered, double-sided, or large images tiled over multiple boards. It also offers edge-to-edge printing.

Also at FESPA Digital 2014, Fujifilm and Inca Digital showed for the first time the Inca Onset R40i, a new UV flatbed that prints a maximum sheet size of 123.6 inches x 63 inches at a rate of up to 80 full-bed sheets per hour, depending on print mode. The Onset R40i also features a new automation system, that allows for continuous printing onto a variety of material types and sizes.

The new model brings the number of flatbeds in the Onset series to a full dozen, offering wide-format printers a great range and variety of systems.

By the Time We Get to Arizona

In May, Canon Solutions America (CSA) announced the Océ Arizona 6100 Series, a new printer platform targeted toward sign and display print service providers. The latest in its Arizona line, the new series comprises the six-color Océ Arizona 6160 XTS and seven-color Océ Arizona 6170 XTS. Productivity is the word of the year, and the new series is said to run at up to 1,668 square feet per hour. Like many of its brethren, the Arizona 6100 series is capable of printing on a wide range of rigid media applications—those odd-shaped, heavy, smooth or pre-cut media, as well as multi-layer and double-sided prints, and large prints tiled over multiple boards. Also, too: edge-to-edge printing.

Another trend in flatbed wide-format printers is increasing versatility, or being able to handle as wide a variety of applications as possible.

“Entry level, lower volume shops want an affordable entry point into the flatbed market in the $50–90K range and also want the flexibility to produce both roll and rigid applications as they build their customer base,” said Randy Paar, senior marketing specialist in Canon Solutions America’s Large Format Solutions division. “Higher volume shops appear more concerned with the ongoing operating costs and net productivity of a particular printing system and are also interested on implementing automation wherever appropriate.”

Versatility can come at a cost, though. “As productivity increases, total cost of ownership becomes increasingly relevant and while versatility is an important factor, press specialization is relevant to optimize each customer workflow and needs,” said HP’s Garcia. “The economic value proposition of these presses will allow them to compete with the equivalent analog printing processes.”

Roll Call

Versatility can provide entry to the flatbed market, and can also help alleviate one of the “pain points” of many specialty graphics shops: capacity management, or the ability to handle large fluctuations in volume. Shops don’t want to have too much capacity sitting idle during slow times, yet don’t want to have to acquire new equipment, hire more staff, or turn jobs away during those sporadic and sometimes unexpected peaks. One way of navigating production peaks and valleys is by acquiring equipment that can handle a broad range of applications. This has been the allure of hybrid units, flatbeds that can also print roll-to-roll and thus support both rigid and flexible media. Although early hybrid models tended to be a bit “jack of all trades, master of none,” the equipment category has improved dramatically, and most vendors offer a variety of hybrid models—or at least flatbeds with a roll-to-roll option.

EFI recently launched the new H1625 LED, a mid-level hybrid production printer that can print four-color-plus-white on a wide variety of rigid and flexible materials. The H1625 joins the entry-level H652 in EFI’s line of hybrid units.

Get the LED In

Speaking of EFI, virtually all of their new entries offer LED UV curing. LED curing replaces mercury-vapor lamps with LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that run much cooler, use less energy, and are more compatible with thin substrates such as plastics that can be melted, damaged, or discolored by hot UV lamps. Once a costly technology found only on the most high-end of flatbeds, economies of scale have now brought LED closer to the mainstream.

“We made a commitment to deliver LED across our platforms,” said Ken Hanulec, Vice President, Marketing, Inkjet Solutions, EFI, “because we’re hearing from the market that you save energy, you use less consumables, you have less prep time and start-up, you can print on a much wider range of substrates, and it’s a much greener solution.”

At FESPA Digital 2014, EFI also introduced a new printhead platform, UltraDrop Technology, that offers variable grayscale imaging down to 7 picoliters. The new printheads will be incorporated into all of the company’s VUTEk GS-series printers, including the 3.2-meter GS3250 UV and GS3250LX LED printers, and the 2-meter VUTEk GS2000 UV and GS2000LX LED printers.

Bigfoot Is Real

If you have seen flatbed wide-format printers in the flesh, so to speak, you know that they are big machines, which has been a barrier for small and mid-size shops that lack the floor space for such behemoths. So attempts to develop models with a smaller footprint have been, well, afoot.

Last spring, Mimaki introduced the JFX200-2513 LED UV, an entry-level flatbed printer that, said the company, “offers the same operational functions and benefits of the larger Mimaki JFX500-2131 printer in a smaller footprint size and affordable price.” The machine can handle 4 x 8-foot boards and it can print on rigid media up to 2 inches thick at speeds of up to 269 square feet per hour. It also supports white and spot inks.

Speaking of small footprints, Roland’s newest flatbed printer is what the company calls a “benchtop” flatbed, the VersaUV LEF-20. Not necessarily “wide” format, the VersaUV series (which also includes the smaller LEF-12) is designed to print on three-dimensional objects such as pens, smartphone covers, awards, giftware and promotional items, golf balls, laptop covers—you name it. It can print on objects up to 20 x 13 x 3.94 inches (the LEF-12 offers a print area of 12 x 11 x 3.94 inches). As you can tell, the machine is compact enough to sit on a table.

Roland also offers the VersaUV LEJ-640, a 64-inch LED UV hybrid flatbed that also offers a roll-to-roll option.

Class of the Titans

At ISA’s Sign Expo last April, Agfa Graphics introduced the 126-inch Jeti Titan S (for “speed”) and HS (“high-speed”) systems, flatbed UV-inkjet printers that incorporate the latest generation 1,280-nozzle Ricoh Gen 5 print heads. The new Jeti Titans are said to be ideal for high-value applications like POP, high-level art, and fashion and cosmetics markets, especially those that require high-quality imaging when viewed at very close range.

Where Eagles Soar

Flatbeds have come a long way. A growing ability to handle high-volume printing, increased automation, increased versatility vis-à-vis roll-printing options, greater variety of devices that now include smaller-footprint entry-level models, are helping to make the types of high-value specialty-printing applications more accessible to more shops.