Because the introduction of the Cafe Printer in 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 like a web press. The finished graphic was then often mounted onto a rigid material for display, installation, or other end use.

It’s not so difficult to see the disadvantages of this sort of workflow. Print-then-mount adds yet another step (taking additional time and reducing productivity) and uses more materials (the printed substrate as well as the mounting material and adhesive), incurs more consumables costs, increases waste, and decreases productivity. So the solution seems obvious: cut out the middleman and print directly on the rigid material itself. Enter flatbeds.

Flatbed wide-format printers look like a new technology, however they are actually more than a decade old along with their evolution continues to be swift but stealthy. A seminal entry within 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 fourth member of that trinity was versatility. As with most things technological, those limitations were quickly conquered. “Today, the caliber of [those initial models] will 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. Now, it’s 90 beds an hour or so.” Fujifilm provides the Acuity and Inca Onset number of true UV flatbed printers.

The improvements to flatbed printers were largely a combination of UV Flatbed Printer and development and the evolution of ink technology, in addition to effective methods for moving the substrate past the printheads-or, conversely, moving the printheads over the stationary substrate. Other challenges have involved the physical scale of the printers; large flatbed presses dwarf rollfed wide-format printers and also a substantial footprint. “Manufacturing, shipping, and installation have been significant challenges,” says Oriol Gasch, category manager, Large Format Sign & Display, Americas, for HP. “Such as how to move anyone to the next floor of the industrial space.” The analogy is to offset presses, particularly web presses, which often had to be installed first, then this building constructed around them. The Bigfoot-esque footprint of flatbeds is just one consideration for virtually any shop seeking to acquire one-and it’s not just how big the machine. There must also be room to maneuver large rigid prints around. HP’s flatbed offerings are the entry-level HP Scitex FB500 and FB700 series and also the high-end HP Scitex FB7600.

And so the killer app for flatbed wide-format printers has been the ability to print right on a wide variety of materials without needing to print-then-mount or print over a transfer sheet, common for printing on 3D surfaces that can’t be fed by way of a traditional printer. “Golf balls, mittens, po-ker chips,” says Nelson, are the objects his customers have printed on. “Someone went to Home Depot and acquired 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 get adopted by screen printers, in addition to packaging printers and converters. “What keeps 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 Not UV, This is the Question

It was advancements in ink technology that helped the T-Shirt Printer, and inks have to be versatile enough to print on a multitude of substrates with no 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 be applied to the top to aid improve ink adhesion, while some make use of a fixer added after printing. The majority of the printing we’re familiar with works with a liquid ink that dries by a mixture of evaporation and penetration to the substrate, but a number of these specialty substrates have surfaces untyft don’t allow ink penetration, hence the requirement to provide the ink something to “grab onto.” UV inks are especially helpful for these surfaces, as they dry by exposure to ultraviolet light, so that they don’t must evaporate/penetrate the way in which more conventional inks do.

Much 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. You can find myriad benefits to UV printing-no noxious fumes, the ability to print over a wider variety of materials, faster drying times, the opportunity to add spiffy effects, etc.-but switching to some UV workflow is not a decision to be made lightly. (See a forthcoming feature for a more detailed look at UV printing.)

Combos

All the new applications that flatbeds enable are excellent, however, there is still a substantial level of work most effectively handled by rollfeds. So for true versatility, a store may use a single device to produce both rollfed and flatbed applications due to so-called combination or hybrid printers. These units will help a shop tackle a wider variety of work than may be handled with a single type of printer, but be forewarned which a combination printer isn’t always as versatile as, and may lag the development speed of, a genuine flatbed. Specs sometimes reference the rollfed speed from the device, as the speed in the “flatbed mode” might be substantially slower. Always look for footnotes-and always get demos.