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UV curable flatbed printers are all about printing direct to rigid media. But the market is polarised between high quality and high productivity machines with price still playing an important role. Nessan Cleary reports.

The main purpose of a UV flatbed printer is to be able to print direct to rigid materials thereby saving the time, cost and general bother of having to mount the image via an additional transfer media. In addition, the UV inks cure to a hard, weather and scratch resistant finish so there’s no need to laminate the image at all. It is true that UV flatbed printers are considerably more expensive than roll-fed solvent devices, but the benefits are such that over the past decade these machines have come to dominate the sign and display market.

 So, no surprise that the most recent of Image Reports’ annual Widthwise surveys (at www.imagereportsmag.co.uk) found that over a third of printers were looking to buy a new  UV flatbed printer.

 

Although the primary market is POS, there is of course far more to these machines than just printing on standard board media like foamex or Correx. The UV inks will stick to a wide range of media and there are plenty of examples of customers printing to more unusual applications like wallpaper, wood, tin, leather and even textiles, with applications including everything from printing photographs on Perspex to making personalised coffins. Indeed, Dominic Fahy, business group director for Océ UK, speaks for the masses when he says the more creative the application, the higher the profit margins tend to be.

But the market appears to be heavily polarised. On the one hand, there are a number of high end, high productivity machines capable of churning out hundreds of square metres per hour. Here, productivity is the main criteria so these machines tend to have larger ink drop sizes, though the quality of the images is breathtaking and certainly good enough to be viewed up close for most display applications. The main players here are Durst, with its Rho series, HP Scitex with the FB7500 and 7600 printers, Agfa with the M-Press, EFI’s Vutek GS series and Inca Digital’s Onset series. Indeed, Inca has just announced the latest addition to its range, the Onset S20i. This takes rigid and flexible materials up to 3.14m x 1.6m and 50mm thick at production speeds up to 310m2/hr, equivalent to 62 full beds per hour. It has a new 15-zone vacuum table and a new auto-sensor system that constantly monitors the UV dose and informs the operator when to initiate the Onset S20i’s automated cleaning procedure.

The sheer speed of these machines has meant that digital wide-format printing has become more widespread as the machines have started to replace other processes such as screen printing, and even offset in some cases. Michael Lackner, director of marketing and sales for Durst, says that more productive machines mean that ink volumes have gone up, leading to economies of scale so that overall ink costs have fallen. He adds: “It’s becoming more like the analogue model with high investment costs and low variable costs.”

At the other end of the market there are a number of good solid machines typically costing around £100,000, such as the Océ Arizona and Agfa FB2050. In terms simply of numbers of printers sold, the main market for flatbeds is dominated by these machines, since there is a much smaller number of companies having both the money and the volume of work to justify the bigger and more expensive options.

Steve Collins, wide-format inkjet account manager for Agfa UK, says that there's not much to choose between the different vendors, noting: “I think the quality is pretty similar because the head technology is similar so it comes down to sheer volume.” He adds: “It really comes down to the bed size of the machine.”

Certainly most of these machines have similar price tags and productivity ratings, but this part of the market is very sensitive to print quality. Fahy explains that customers use UV flatbeds as a way of differentiating themselves from the competition and adding extra capabilities. He adds: “Printers say they win new business by demonstrating their quality. If you have higher quality and the same prices then the chances are that you will win that business.”

According to Lackner, the middle market is being squeezed by innovative applications below them, and more productive machines above them. This is unlikely to change without a significant breakthrough in printhead design because customers don’t want to pay higher prices at the lower end, and don’t really need the productivity in a single machine, while anything that improves the image quality at the higher end risks leading to lower speeds.

There’s a lot of room for hybrid printers at the lower end of the market, using fold out tables to hold the rigid media. These do have the advantage that you can use different sized tables so you are not limited to materials of a certain size. However, some applications lend themselves to a dedicated flatbed because the bed is always stronger than a hybrid and heavier items like Perspex are better sitting on a flat table. But vendors feel that many sign and display customers like the hybrid concept, as having the flexibility to respond to varying market conditions can be important in winning new business. Consequently a number of flatbed printers now offer roll-fed options as well.

Future trends

Lackner for one believes that the general state of the global economy is having an adverse impact on the wide-format printer market, and that it’s not as dynamic as it was before the economic crisis. This in turn is likely to slow down the pace of new development, particularly as vendors understand that there’s no room for higher prices.

Lackner also notes that the graphics market has become quite mature, noting: “Technical changes are not so fast. Productivity and quality are what has driven the market over the last ten years.” However, he adds: “I do not think that we have reached the end of this.” But he says that the real improvements will come in the form of more automation and inline finishing rather than just developing standalone printers.

Most vendors are also looking at LED curing, which is becoming more common on the less expensive roll-to-roll machines. But productivity is very important to the flatbed market and most vendors doubt that LED curing is fast enough. That said, Mimaki’s JFX 500 series, uses LED curing that allows it to run up to 60m2/hr, which is up to two and a half times faster than the previous JFX Plus.

This so-called ‘pin and cure’ approach is widely used by high speed UV label presses and it seems likely that we will see other wide format printers adopting this so as to exploit the lower cost and heat advantages of using LED light sources.

And of course there is also continual innovation for the inks. Agfa, for example, is currently using its second generation UV ink. Collins says: “This is more flexible than the previous generation and there are plans for a new generation next year. Trying to make it flexible and getting all the adhesion properties that everybody wants in one ink is quite tricky so it’s finding a balance. People want to be able to stick to Perspex or different types of materials and not have to think about using a primer to help the ink stick.”

He says that there are always some materials that are more difficult to use than others but adds: “It’s a case of developing the flexibility to give customers a wider variety of substrates they can print to as well as keeping the colour gamut as wide as possible.”

That said, there isn't much demand for extended gamut inks, beyond light cyan and light magenta, particularly at the lower end. However, white ink has become standard with most of these printers, with most vendors reporting that customers tend to order the white ink option even if they don't use it very often.

Another factor is the total cost of ownership, where the cost of the inks can make a big difference. Most vendors will argue that their ink consumption is much lower than the competition, though this won't mean much if the ink itself costs more. As a rough guide, very small fixed droplet sizes will use more ink, because the printer has to lay down more droplets to cover a given area, but printers with greyscale heads will usually achieve higher apparent resolutions with lower ink consumption. Another trend which is starting to emerge is the use of high density inks, which do genuinely produce very bright colours while using less inks and usually allow for faster printing since less ink has to be laid down.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that a flatbed printer on its own is rarely a complete solution. Vendors report that roughly one in four flatbeds are sold together with a cutting table and that many customers come back for the cutter later when they realise that the finishing is creating a production bottleneck. Fahy points out that automating the cutting adds a lot of value in producing items like cardboard cut outs for retail display, at a relatively low cost.

We are also seeing some vendors start to incorporate a solution for generating cutting paths in the printer Rip. Océ, for example, has had this for some time with the Onyx Rip included with the Arizona printers, and EFI has now added a new Cut Pass feature to the Fiery ProServer sold alongside its Vutek printers.

In conclusion, UV is likely to continue to be the dominant technology in wide-format despite the introduction of new ink technologies like latex. There are many UV roll-fed printers around, but the UV inks really make most sense when used with rigid substrates, and only a flatbed is going to be fast enough to really do this kind of work.

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