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Grand times

Jan 1, 2008 12:00 AM


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At one time, wide-format production was restricted largely to screenprinters, sign makers and digital service bureau markets. But in recent years, the technology has expanded beyond these niches. With Drupa (www.drupa.com) representing a major worldwide platform for new developments, we can expect new inkjet machines and technologies to be shown in Düsseldorf this spring.

Trends include a growing shift to UV-curable ink technologies for both roll-fed and flatbed printers across all price brackets, as well as wider options for aqueous-based printers. We also anticipate more environmentally friendly products.

Looking back

Wide-format inkjet initially faced a hostile reception. Certain sectors within the industry at large perceived digital print as a threat. Some screenprinters feared it would spawn fierce competition for short-run work.

Historically, wide-format inkjet was limited to aqueous-based technologies with Epson's piezoelectric printheads being challenged by thermal options from HP and Encad (now owned by Kodak). With the development of digital techniques, inks and processes, today's machines can handle everything from photographs to point-of-purchase to building wraps.

Solvent-based products, followed by UV-curable inks, were instrumental in providing the wide-format digital print market with added durability and an expanded range of substrates. Pundits who predicted the demise aqueous-based printers, however, have been proven wrong, particularly if you consider office and home markets.

On the larger format front, manufacturers such as Epson, HP and Canon all have remained firm believers in aqueous-based printers. These vendors recently have added faster and wider models to their portfolios, suggesting a strong demand across the photography, fine art, proofing and display sectors.

The proliferation of solvent-based machines also has been sustained. Inks range from eco- through mild- and low- to full- and hard-solvents; each contains its own specific properties and suitability for different types of work. The level of adhesion or “keying” with the material depends on the amount of solvent present in the inks but, in general, this technology has remained popular on flexible media where greater durability and color fidelity are required.

Nonetheless, UV-curable machines' popularity has escalated during the past few years and is challenging the roll-fed sector as well as being the only viable production method on flatbed machines, with the exception of HP Scitex's FB6700. which incorporates Aprion print-heads and uses aqueous-based technology. Early attempts to print to rigid materials using solvent-based inks failed — heat assisted drying is incompatible with some substrates.

Growth of UV-curable technology

UV-curable inks — long established in the screen-printing sector — progressed to digital print for both flatbed and roll-fed machines.

New inks, coupled with the continued development of printheads across all sectors, have advanced the adoption of wide-format digital printing. Epson's piezo printheads are used in some Roland, Mutoh and Mimaki machines; HP and Canon opted for proprietary technologies. Early conversions of aqueous printers to accept solvent-based inks were remarkably successful, and the divide between the low-end machines and the grand-format printer specialists began to narrow. Manufacturers such as NUR, VUTEk and Scitex Vision (now HP Scitex) already were producing billboard machines that used solvent-based inks, but the market need for lower-cost production solutions challenged these capital-intensive systems.

Similarly, while the main manufacturers of production machines were the first to introduce printers using UV-curable inks, the demand for entry-level and midrange systems soon became apparent and, in the past two years, this sector has seen a massive number of new products. Océ, Agfa and Screen joined established players, such as Zünd, Mimaki and Gerber. While the prices for high-end machines remain steep, low-cost options start at $250. (Caveat emptor: Evidence shows you get what you pay for!)

Environmental pressures

Solvent-based printers' relatively cheap output makes them an attractive choice for posters, banners and point-of-purchase applications. The price advantage is tempered by the technology's distinctive odor, a smell that lingers on finished jobs. Also, because solvents are heavier than air, they tend to fall and taint in-store goods. Moreover, as pressure mounts on all manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprints, ink and waste are coming under closer scrutiny, in some cases to the detriment of solvent-based output. For short-term point-of-purchase work, aqueous printers are making a comeback; if durability is a priority, UV-curable inks have the edge.

Demand for wide-format production varies along geographic lines, with some countries having a healthy billboard and outdoor advertising market while others have to adhere to stricter planning legislation. With today's production machines using solvent-based and UV-curable ink technologies that allow roll-fed output that's hundred of inches wide, there also has been growth in the popularity of scaffold and building wraps.

Sophie Matthews-Paul is an independent consultant concentrating on wide-format digital print. The former editor of Signs, Screen & Digital Printer, Matthews-Paul is an associate consultant and analyst for InfoTrends. Contact her at sophie_matthews_paul@infotrends.com.

Know your wide-format technology

Many commercial printers create proofs using a roll-to-roll inkjet device running CMYK, or perhaps an expanded color set, with water-based ink. Such aqueous systems are restricted to a relatively narrow range of specially coated substrates, and they have limited use for outdoor, long-term applications — even when laminated.

To make a serious move in the sign and banner markets, you'll need equipment that produces output with outdoor durability. Common options include solvent-based and UV-curable ink systems.

In today's wide-format digital imaging markets, solvent-based inkjet is the go-to technology for the production of vinyl banners, allowing access to a great number of markets at a relatively low investment. The solvent — the base of the ink — eats into the surface of the substrate, making the ink become part of the substrate. The result is a much more durable print that is capable of weathering storms and intense sunlight. Based on the aggressiveness of the solvent used, the inks can be used on a wide variety of substrates, including vinyls and plastics, regardless of special coatings.

Like an aqueous-based proofer, most solvent inkjet systems are roll-to-roll systems. To create a sign (which is rigid, by definition), you have to print the image on a flexible substrate and mount it — perhaps by using a pressure-sensitive, adhesive-backed vinyl substrate or by sandwiching a layer of double-sided adhesive film between the print and the mounting board. A simple cold lamination system will do just fine and can be relatively inexpensive.

Flatbed inkjet technology allows users to print directly on rigid substrates, effectively eliminating the need to mount the print. Nearly all flatbed inkjet systems use UV-curable inks. While most sign producers' UV systems print on surfaces such as foam board, Coroplast and Sintra, some users are pushing the envelope of imaging by printing directly on glass, stone, wood and other surfaces that would not be possible with solvent or aqueous inks.

While signs and banners remain market champions in wide-format inkjet, the industry offers incredible market diversity — solvent and UV-curable inks are allowing access to markets not even imagined five years ago.

Some degree of finishing typically is necessary to complete the job. In addition to lamination and mounting, sign production can include steps such as cutting, trimming, routing or diecutting. Banner production requires specific finishing steps, depending on the final product, such as seaming and edge welding (vinyl), sewing (fabric) and grommetting.

Source: “It's a sign,” by Kate Achelpohl, Marguerite Higgins and Dan Marx (www.sgia.org), AMERICAN PRINTER, January 2007.

One-stop shop

RP Graphics Group (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada), recently installed an Inca Digital Spyder 320+ six-color flatbed printer. “The third day after it was installed, we were making money,” says George Mazzaferro, president of the commercial printer. “Some of our retail customers were using our resources along with those from another printer. We knew that by adding a flatbed digital printer we could become a one-stop shop, printing and distributing all of our customers' materials. We were printing sheets and mounting them separately, but the ability to print finished products using the Spyder 320+ seemed like an excellent idea.”

The Spyder 320+ fills an important gap for RP Graphics for oversized work from 20 × 28 inches to 36 × 72 inches. RP Graphics is leveraging existing relationships for smaller sized work to win new jobs.

“Recently, one of our customers bought a continuous graphic to wrap around their entire [chain of] super stores,” reports Mazzaferro. “It looks amazing.”

On the cover

Herb Zebrack bought Lithographix in 1980. Founded in 1953, the company has transformed itself over the past decade from a $27 million printer serving Los Angeles to a $120 million, 380-employee operation with a national client base.

Equipment highlights at the 280,000-sq.-ft. facility include eight Mitsubishi presses: five 40-inch sheetfed presses; two 38-inch web presses and one half-web. Lithographix was among the first to install KBA's Rapida 205 81-inch press.

Three years ago, the company leveraged its strength in the entertainment and automotive markets and created an out-of-home division, Visiongraphix.

In 2005, the company installed two VUTEk (EFI) (Meredith, NH) Ultra VU 5330 machines — 17-ft.-wide solvent-based, eight-color digital inkjet printers. Eight months later, the company added two 10-ft. VUTEk 3360s and, shortly thereafter, two more 5330s.

“When we got our UV-equipped KBA Rapida 205 press in December 2005, that really put us through the roof in the entertainment industry,” says Layne Morey, vice president of sales for Lithographix. “We can handle the whole campaign, from one-sheets and outdoor billboards to building wraps, transit graphics and shelters and bus signs.”

Lithographix already had strong relationships with agencies and corporate accounts. George Wolden, Lithographix's senior vice president of manufacturing and a 40-year veteran of the print industry, gave the company a solid production foundation. Technical director of sales Jeff Henke and grand format manager Darren Anderson contributed extensive outdoor application and retail photographic knowledge.

See www.lithographix.com.

Big news at Drupa

Drupa's emphasis on wide- and superwide-format confirms digital inkjet's maturation. “We view the wide format market, particularly the superwide segment, as an extremely exciting and dynamic space,” says Chuck Dourlet, EFI's (Foster City, CA) vice president, marketing. “The entire printing industry is undergoing an analog to digital transition and, as a result, we see significant developments and growth opportunities emerging in the superwide field.”

Dourlet cites several key market and technology trends fueling the superwide format transformation: “Print engines continue to improve, both in terms of print quality and output speed. Image quality, once a barrier for many applications, is no longer an issue with today's printing machines delivering high-definition output that satisfies even the pickiest buyers. In addition, the overall productivity of the engines continues to drive profitability, with breakeven points for digital printing continuing to climb.”

Superwide applications have expanded beyond banners and billboards. “New inks, substrates and applications continue to open up new and exciting products and revenue streams for service providers in this market,” says Dourlet. “These machines now offer new capabilities in terms of the number and variation of substrates that can be used, as well as innovative new inks and techniques for applying and using them.”

As we go to press, HP (Palo Alto, CA) has announced it will acquire NUR Macroprinters (Moonachie, NJ), a leading proponent of UV-curable ink technologies. Thibault Dejaiffe, NUR Europe's marketing director, notes the ink technology isn't new, “[but the] revolution in inkjet production started with the advent of flatbed printers and has now proved itself across rigid and flexible materials because of its versatility and productivity. Drupa is certain to show an increase in wide-format inkjet printers of all sizes which use UV-curable technology.”

Dejaiffe predicts Drupa will feature lower emission machines in response to heightened environmental awareness. He adds: “NUR was prominent in the early stages of UV-curable developments, and our current flat-bed, roll-fed and hybrid machines all confirm the growing market demand for durability, speed and quality. We see Drupa as endorsing the changes which are taking place in the wide- and superwide-format sector regarding ink technologies.”

HP views Drupa as an all-encompassing platform for its wide-format printing solutions. Francois Martin, marketing director for HP EMEA graphic arts, says HP's wide range of digital offerings “enables customers to expand their business opportunities continuously by being able to offer more and do things differently. We see Drupa 2008 as a landmark show. The question is no longer about the future of digital output, but what applications and new areas of growth can be supported by innovative digital solutions.”

Agfa's (Ridgefield Park, NJ) unique portfolio includes UV-curable wide-format printers as well as the M-Press hybrid digital and screen-printing system, and the single pass Dotrix system. According to Jan Vangeel, Agfa's vice president of industrial inket solutions, “Drupa 2008 will consolidate and support Agfa's ambition in the wide-format UV-curable market and we are already planning to announce a new family of products at this particular exhibition.”

HP to acquire NUR

In December 2007, NUR Macroprinters Ltd. (Lodi, Israel) signed a definitive agreement with HP (Palo Alto, CA) under which HP will acquire substantially all the assets of NUR for $117.5 million in cash.

Vyomesh Joshi, executive vice president of HP's imaging and printing group said the move is another milestone the company's strategy to accelerate the transition from converting analog pages to digital pages. In September 2007, HP acquired MacDermid ColorSpan. See www.hp.com.

Agfa opens new inkjet demo center

Agfa Graphics has opened a new inkjet demo center in its Branchburg, NJ facility. The Agfa Competence Center currently features the :Anapurna M and :Anapurna XL: printing systems. Dealer partners, Agfa executives, industry press and local VIPs attended an October 2007 open house.

Agfa Graphics' Tom Saggiomo, president, North America; Julian Robledo, GM, Inkjet Solutions, North America; and Jeff Aurichio, director, Branchburg Operations, all helped cut the ribbon at the ceremony.

“The Agfa Compentence Center is part of the company's C3 strategy for inkjet, in which we see tremendous opportunities for growth. The Competence Center makes it easier for customers to experience what C3 is all about,” said Robledo.

C3 refers to integration of UV-curable inks, printheads, workflow software and the inkjet printer or press; services (installation, maintenance, spare parts, training and financing); and quality and productivity benefits.

The Competence Center will feature two of Agfa's newest inkjet printing systems: :Anapurna M and :Anapurna XL. The :Anapurna XL provides a print resolution of 727 × 363 dpi and can print up to 98.5 inches wide. Its borderless printing and dual board printing capabilities save time and materials, and its automatic ink refill system notifies operators of low ink levels, ensuring that quality production is maintained.

The :Anapurna M has a maximum media width of 63 inches/160 cm and, like all models in the :Anapurna range, can handle both roll-to-roll and rigid substrate printing. Fourteen picoliter printheads and Agfa-made UV-curable :Anapurna inks provide photo-quality output.

See www.switchtoC3.com.

Sign here

The Sign Center (Brentwood, TN) installed a Fujifilm Acuity HD 2504 UV flatbed printer in September 2007. “The flatbed allows us to print direct to substrate, which saves us enormous amounts of time and money,” says owner Dave Gruenke.

An eight-employee company with less than $1 million in annual sales, The Sign Center caters primarily to builders and developers; other clients include churches and furniture companies.

The Acuity HD 2504 provides photographic-quality printing at speeds to 174 sq. ft. per hour on flexible or rigid media up to 1.9 inches thick.

“With the flatbed, there's just a huge gain in productivity,” states Gruenke “We have one job that we do periodically for a customer. It involves about 10 double-sided 4 × 4-ft. signs. It normally takes two guys two days to do that job. With the new printer, it took one guy 312 hours, and he spent some of that time working on other jobs. Being able to lay two 4 × 4 panels on the bed, turn it on and have it printed in just 12 minutes is absolutely incredible.”

Gruenke also praises the Acuity's print quality. The printer achieves smooth skin tones, fine line definition and spans of dense solid colors.

The Sign Center expects to do more point-of-purchase and trade show displays. “We're now gearing up to go out and build new customers in new markets that we couldn't be competitive in before,” concludes Gruenke. “I'm very optimistic that it will be a very quick return on our investment.”

See www.fujifilmsericol.com.

Bring your skis

With more 200 digital exhibitors, FESPA Digital 2008 will be 50 percent bigger than the 2006 inaugural event. The show will be held in Geneva, Switzerland, April 1-3, 2008. See www.fespadigital.com.

What's new?

SGIA 08 will be held Oct. 15-18 in Atlanta. The association's “Wide-Format Output Device Guide” at www.sgia.org (keyword “COMPRT”) allows users to create listings of machines by specifications such as manufacturer, print width and ink system. Highlights from SGIA 07 follow.


EFI's VUTEk QS3200 and VUTEk PV200SC UV-curing digital inkjet printers offer good image quality, productivity and connectivity. The VUTEk QS3200 represents a new category of printers that combine EFI's production and workflow management technologies with the digital print capabilities of its VUTEk superwide-format printers. With an optional second ink delivery system, the VUTEk 3360 opens new market opportunities for traditional solvent and fabric-based, dye-sublimation applications. The 3360 has been optimized for VUTEk BioVu ink. See www.efi.com.


Fujifilm Sericol (Kansas) showcased the Inca Onset, reportedly the fastest digital flatbed inkjet printer. With built-in automatic feeding and stacking, the Onset is capable of up to 5382 sq. ft. per hr. or 100+ full, 5 × 10-ft. sheets. Other highlights included the Spyder 320 with a hi-fi inks for an expanded color gamut. See www.fujifilmsericol.com.


Screen USA (Rolling Meadows, IL) debuted the Truepress Jet2500UV, an inkjet printing system that builds on the success of its Truepress Jet520 variable data inkjet printer and Truepress 344 DI press. The Truepress Jet2500UV is a hybrid flatbed/roll-to-roll printer with a maximum printing width of 98.4 inches. The Truepress Jet2500UV is compatible with a wide variety of media types, such as poster board, banners, wallpaper and textiles, up to a media thickness of 1.96 inches. It has a maximum speed of 726.5 sq. ft. per hr. Maximum output resolution is 1,200 dpi. The press uses CMYK UV inks as standard, plus optional LcLm and white inks. For the industrial printing market, Screen featured the Truepress Jet650UV. See www.screenusa.com.


The HP (Palo Alto, CA) Scitex XL2200 superwide-format industrial UV printer can output 4,300 sq. ft. per hr. in two-pass mode and is designed for 24/7 productivity. Applications include billboards and building wraps, and higher quality outdoor signage. The horizontal printhead carriage includes 128 unique HP Scitex X2 drop-on-demand piezoelectric inkjet printheads. The printer uses dedicated environmentally friendly UV-curable HP Scitex UV221 Supreme inks. See www.hp.com.


Gandinnovations (San Antonio, TX) manufactures the Jeti 3312, 3324 and 5024 grand-format solvent printers; the 3324 DS dye-sublimation printer; and the 3150 UV flatbed printer. Gandinnovations also manufactures the 3324 and 5024 UV roll-to-roll printer series. The newest addition to the Jeti line is the 1224 (4 × 8 ft.) UV flatbed and the 2030 (2 × 3 m) UV flatbed. See www.gandinnovations.com.


Mutoh's (Phoenix) ValueJet line includes the ValueJet 1204-48, ValueJet 1604-64 and the ValueJet 2606-100. The line offers printing widths up to 98 inches and print speeds of 185 sq. ft. per hour at 720 × 720 dpi. The ValueJet 100's heavy-duty media handling system can accommodate a 220 lb. roll of media, for unattended, overnight printing. See www.mutoh.com.


Océ's (Chicago) highlights included the Arizona 250 GT UV curable flatbed printer, winner of the 2007 DPI Product of the Year and 2006 DPI Vision Awards. For indoor applications, the Océ LightJet family of photo laser printers delivers photographic quality with fast imaging speeds and low consumables cost. For either indoor or outdoor graphics, the Océ CS9000 Series eco- and low-solvent printers deliver high-quality prints with outdoor durability. See www.oceusa.com.


Roland's (Irvine, CA) new SOLJET PRO III XJ-640 64-inch inkjet printer was named DPI Product of the Year for the output device poster category in SGIA's annual competition. The vendor's new AJ-740 joins the 104-inch AdvancedJET AJ-1000. The AJ-740 offers a maximum print speed of 872 sq. ft. per hr. and a precision print mode of 473 sq. ft. per hr. See www.rolanddga.com