Since the introduction of the wide-format printing market within the late 1980s/early 1990s, nearly all the output devices on the market have been rollfed devices, printing on flexible substrates like paper or canvas that unfurled into the device, rather just like a web press. The finished graphic was then often fitted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or some other end use.

Considering that the development of the coffee printer inside the late 1980s/early 1990s, nearly all the output devices on the market have already been 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 other end use.

It’s simple enough to find out the disadvantages of this type of workflow. Print-then-mount adds an extra step (taking more time 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. And 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 whole new technology, however they are actually greater than a decade old along with their evolution has been swift but stealthy. A seminal entry inside the flatbed printer market was the Inca Eagle 44, and early limitations of wide-format flatbeds were the typical trinity of speed, quality, and expense. The 4th part of that trinity was versatility. As with most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the caliber of [those initial models] could 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 an hour or so. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour.” Fujifilm supplies the Acuity and Inca Onset series of uv flatbed printer.

The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a mix of printhead design and development and the evolution of ink technology, along with effective ways of moving the substrate beyond the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads over the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical dimensions of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also 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 the best way to move one to the 2nd floor of an industrial space.” The analogy would be to offset presses, particularly web presses, which regularly needed to be installed first, then the building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is certainly one consideration for any shop looking to acquire one-and it’s not just the size of the equipment. There also needs to be room to move large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings are the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series as well as the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.

So the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has become the ability to print right on a wide variety of materials without needing to print-then-mount or print on a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed through a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, poke.r chips,” says Nelson, are some of the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone visited 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, as well as other thick, heavy materials.”

This substrate versatility have led flatbeds to become adopted by screen printers, along with packaging printers and converters. “What is 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 UV, Which is the Question

It was 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 needing to stock myriad inks and swap them out between jobs, which would increase expense and reduce productivity. Some inks require primers or pretreatments to become applied to the outer lining to aid improve ink adhesion, and some make use of a fixer added after printing. A lot of the printing we’re familiar with works with a liquid ink that dries by a combination of evaporation and penetration to the substrate, but many of these specialty substrates have surfaces that don’t allow iaddzf penetration, hence the necessity to give the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are especially great for these surfaces, since they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, so they don’t need to evaporate/penetrate just how more traditional inks do.

Most of the available literature on flatbeds shows that “flatbed printer” is symbolic of “UV printer” and, even though there are solvent ink-based flatbeds, the majority of units on the market are UV devices. There are myriad advantages to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the opportunity to print over a wider selection of materials, faster drying times, the opportunity to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to a UV workflow is not a choice to get made lightly. (See an upcoming feature to get a more in depth take a look at UV printing.)

Combos

All the new applications that dtg printer enable are excellent, however, there is still a large volume of perform best handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store can use just one device to produce both rollfed and flatbed applications thanks to so-called combination or hybrid printers. These products may help a store tackle a wider selection of work than may be handled using a single form of printer, but be forewarned that a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and could lag the production speed of, a real flatbed. Specs sometimes refer to the rollfed speed from the device, whilst the speed from the “flatbed mode” may be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and constantly get demos.