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Inkjet invaders

Sep 1, 2006 12:00 AM


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"Inkjet Invaders" published in the September 2006 issue of AMERICAN PRINTER features detailed product listings of hybrid and flatbed digital inkjet devices. To see these charts, please refer to this PDF.

In your busy days of satisfying customer expectations and making the most of your bottom line, you've likely heard of UV digital flatbed systems. These state-of-the-art inkjet printing devices and digital inks have opened new doors for commercial printing operations — doors that previously were locked shut.

“Digital flatbeds changed all the rules of graphics, from what you can print to what you can print on,” says Michael Robertson, president and CEO, SGIA (Fairfax, VA).

Flatbeds are an excellent addition to an already vibrant business and can widen market horizons. But like any new technology, you need to fully understand their uses and capabilities to know how they fit your operation.

Where no printer has printed before

A flatbed inkjet device uses a flat platen to hold and jet an image onto rigid substrates.

Sometimes, the platen moves the substrate through the press and under the print heads. In other flatbed types, the platen stays still while the print head shuffles back and forth across the substrate. Some systems also handle rolled media.

All flatbeds are capable of printing varying sizes (up to 350.5 cm — 138 inches — on one model) on a wide range of substrates that includes traditional rigid substrates such as foam board, Sintra, Plexiglas, styrene, Lucite and polycarbonates, and more unusual substrates such as glass, ceramics, tile, metal, corrugated cardboard and leather. That's just the tip of the rigid-substrate iceberg.

“Really, applications are limited only by the imagination: Signs, displays, environmental graphics from floor to ceiling, fine art and more are being imaged with flatbed technology,” Robertson says.

Current flatbed inkjets fall into three categories:

  • “Sub and 100K”: They generally provide a smaller print area and an acceptable (not blazing) print speed. The system's quality makes it appropriate for basic jobs on lighter substrates.

  • Larger, production-focused flatbeds: Today, these comprise most of the machines on the market, are built for heavy wear and nearly constant use. They provide significantly higher printing speeds than their smaller counterparts.

  • Large flatbeds that bridge the gap between digital imaging technology and other applications: These machines can offer impressive speed for direct printing onto corrugated cardboard and other packaging materials, and can be designed to work inline with screen printing equipment.

Flatbed capabilities continue to expand as its inks become more flexible. These systems normally use UV-curable inks, which adhere to a wide variety of substrates. Instead of adhering to the substrate via heat or evaporation, UV-curable inks cure, or “bite,” into the substrate's surface after being exposed to intense shots of ultraviolet light.

UV-curable inks — particularly for companies dealing with the challenges of environmental regulatory compliance — also are leading the flatbed inkjet market because of their little-to-barely registering emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), an issue for any solvent inkjet printer.

For more information on digital inks, visit www.sgia.org, keyword “comprt.”

Another big benefit of digital flatbeds: Before digital flatbeds, print shops had to rely on laminating and mounting rolled inkjet media if they wanted the end product on a rigid surface. The lamination protected the print from moisture and other environmental hazards. The mounting attached the print to a hard surface such as a board, depending on its weight, rigidity and durability.

Then, flatbeds came along and changed everything. Suddenly, innovation within the printing community allowed imaging companies to expand their revenue potential. Plus, the UV inks in the digital flatbeds gave the prints high durability against sunlight, rain and even fingerprints, thus eliminating the need for extra lamination at the end of the printing process. The device also allowed facilities to print numerous products, such as publications, signs, banners and wallpaper, all on one machine.

Market and revenue snatchers

With so much capability packed into one device, the digital flatbed is seizing new markets, adding value to more printing businesses and attacking the status quo.

While commercial printing companies have not been the biggest buyers of digital flatbeds, their presence as digital users is coming online, says Patti Williams with I.T. Strategies (Hanover, MA).

Part of the shift has come from print shops traditionally focused on document printing, annual reports, books and other paper-based output, which are feeling market pressure from the Internet and, to some extent, digital presses.

“Commercial printers have begun adopting wide-format inkjet printers for proofing as well as other applications,” Williams says. She notes UV flatbeds are a good possibility for commercial printing companies, especially those that concentrate on indoor applications such as point-of-purchase, retail graphics and posters. “Some of these commercial printers will be good candidates for digital flatbed technology because it would speed up their productivity, add value and strengthen connections with their clients.”

According to a 2005 I.T. Strategies survey, commercial printing operations made up just eight percent of the specialty imaging industry. About 57 percent of those print shops said they bought their first inkjet printer in the past six years, and almost 40 percent of them plan to buy another wide-format inkjet printer in the future.

Ultimately, it's up to you to see how digital flatbed capabilities can expand your markets. This insight often comes only with experimenting and creating new ways to deliver top-notch products and services in a timely, cost-effective manner.

Here are just a few markets where digital flatbeds have created a life of their own:

  • Retail Signage — Inkjet printing for retail signage surged with the use of digital flatbeds. Inkjet printing offers full color at a low cost, making the process ideal for image diversity associated with today's retail industry. And the retail market — the “bread and butter” for many businesses — shows no indication of reducing that diversity.

  • Point-of-Purchase Display — Point-of-purchase displays work with retail signage by highlighting a product — they might be digitally imaged “shelf hangers” emphasizing a sale, or an elaborate display that advertises a product's features.

  • Exhibit Displays — Inkjet printing's economical procedure allows for frequent changes to exhibit graphics (printed on rigid substrates such as boards, fabric and vinyl). It also eases the process of customizing graphics to fit the needs of a specific product launch, location or event.

  • Architectural Signage — Moving beyond the billboard frontier, architectural signage now includes building wraps 100 m (328 ft.) tall, giving graphics a larger-than-life feel. But it's also growing on a smaller scale, such as directional signs or ads inside public arenas and private buildings. These smaller signs are popular because they are easily changeable, affordable and placed in unique spots that pique audiences' interest.

  • Interior Design Projects — Digital flatbeds have expanded the options available for interior design jobs. Now, imaging facilities can print any kind of image on upholstery, curtains, tiles, wallpaper, glass and other indoor elements. It allows the interior designers to offer customers a specialized interior look.

Inside the evolving flatbed universe

As with all printing, digital flatbed printing continues to be refined, resulting in better, more diverse and more reliable imaging. One of the main development areas for the technology is ink.

One new ink option ties in beautifully with the positive qualities of what flatbeds can do: The addition of opaque white ink as part of the basic color set.

Opaque white inks allow the user to perform color-correct printing on many substrates. The opaque white ink acts as the substrate's base coat, with the other highly transparent color inks following during the printing process.

Of similar benefit is clear varnish. It can be jetted on top of the printed surface to add increased protection or to present a glossy overcoat that makes an image pop. Similar to the white ink, the varnish is jetted from an additional, integrated print head.

For years, flatbed printing has been a sheetfed process. Machine operators manually loaded and unloaded the substrate before and after printing. But more recently, manufacturers have added automatic load or take-off features that cut down on the mandatory physical labor and streamline production. These features speed up the number of jobs a digital flatbed system can produce in a given time slot, accelerating the machinery's return on investment. Material handling systems also help flatbeds integrate into a larger workflow — whether that is solely for graphics printing or as a part of a large manufacturing process.

Another recent development in flatbed technology is in the print heads; they are categorized as “binary” and “grey-scale.” Binary print heads operate by applying dots to the substrate, working in a manner similar to binary code. The print head sends a dot or no dot to the substrate, just as binary code processes on a basis of ones and zeroes.

In contrast, grey-scale print heads allow for more digital options because they can supply a variable dot size. This can give the print head a greater level of print tonality, i.e., smoother color blends and a higher degree of image and color accuracy.

While not widely available on most flatbed systems, LED curing is making its way into UV inkjet printing technology as an energy-saving solution. Instead of using traditional UV lamps, which generate heat and zap electrical power, LED systems use light-emitting diodes that cure the inks at a low temperature and reduce energy costs. A side benefit of LED curing is that these systems are smaller and lighter than traditional curing systems. There is some concern about LED curing being able to completely cure the ink. This might require further ink formula adjustments down the road.

In addition to improving print tonality, digital flatbed manufacturers are enhancing print detail. In the early days of inkjet printing, many of the larger machines were capable of producing only graphics applications that were viewed far away, such as billboards and large signage. But equipment on today's market has advanced so much that all prints can be produced with close-up detail. The ability to print fine detail means variable images can be printed directly on the same rigid sheet and then cut out. This simple “mass production” model means rapid, easy and visually striking products.

To increase flatbed printing's potential, computer-aided cutting or routing systems continuously cut prints in programmed shapes and sizes. Sales for these devices soared in the past few years because they simplify the production process, reduce manual labor and deliver shaped products quickly.

To pack more punch to their print finishing, some companies use liquid lamination, which provides added protection from sunlight and the elements. Instead of applying thin, transparent films to their prints, companies coat the prints with various liquid coatings. The most commonly used coatings are water-based and solvent-based liquid laminates, which can dry by air exposure. UV-curable laminates also are available.

Close encounters of the profitable kind

Digital flatbeds might be the next promising addition to compliment the technology and skills at your facility. But don't just read about wide-format possibilities; see them live and up-close at SGIA ‘06 (Las Vegas, September 26-29). The Expo floor — packed with an expected 575 exhibitors — is your chance to see the machinery in action and talk with the manufacturers and suppliers about how digital flatbeds can improve your business.

SGIA will provide a live show-and-tell of the entire digital production process at the Digital Workflow Pavilion (Booth 4824).

Digital encounters online

For more information on digital flatbed technology, visit www.sgia.org. If you're one of the first 100 AMERICAN PRINTER readers to visit the site, you'll receive a free copy of the “2006 Guide to Digital Imaging” (a $25 value). Visit www.sgia.org and type in the keyword “comprt” to get your free copy.


Dan Marx is vice president, Markets & Technologies, SGIA; Marguerite Higgins is an editorial associate for SGIA. Contact them via www.sgia.org.

One user's experience

Steve Samuel, CEO, Graphics Gallery (Glen Allen, VA), stepped into the digital flatbed universe in November 2004. That's when he bought a VUTEk PressVu 200, a UV-curing flatbed digital inkjet printer designed for grand-format jobs.

“I'm glad we bought the flatbed then because, to me, this is where the future is going,” Samuel says.

But the company faced the challenge of determining which jobs would maximize the digital flatbed printer's profit potential. “We had to figure out what jobs we would compete for, because we weren't prepared to go as low for some of them,” says Samuel. “So we started being more selective and worked at finding the right jobs for the machine.”

Now with some hindsight and a better idea of how digital flatbed technology can cater to its markets, Graphics Gallery is looking at the next generation of digital flatbed printers.

An advantage that helped Graphics Gallery take the lead over competitors was its digital routing devices. The company bought its first digital cutting machine in 1999, well before a digital flatbed was in place. When the flatbed printer came online in January 2005, the cutting device proved to be invaluable.

“It gave us a head start amongst others. Without a digital router, you could have a serious bottleneck in your production,” Samuel says. He advises commercial printing shops to consider investing in a cutting device to speed up production and profit more from the digital flatbed technology.

Samuels is investigating the latest machines on the markets through his SGIA membership. “We'll be looking at the technology at the SGIA Expo floor,” he says. “We already have appointments set up in Vegas for the next machine we're looking at buying.”

In addition to special features and ink quality, the company will focus on space planning for the new machinery. “You need to be smart about handling your facility's space, especially during installation of the equipment,” Samuel notes.

Another helpful hint: Provide an open house for print customers to see the new technology. Graphics Gallery held one just after its new flatbed was installed, drawing in hundreds of potential customers for the event. “It was great for us,” says Samuel. “Customers were able to see what our equipment could do for them.”