Giant strides made by superwides
This year has seen important additions to the 5m-wide printer offering. The added versatility of these big beasts now makes them a worthwhile investment argues Sophie Matthews-Paul.
With the emphasis continuing to be on high-speed flatbeds and combination systems, it's easy to overlook the latest entrants into the superwide-format market. Not everyone believes the types of output produced on these machines are relevant to many markets but their versatility is often underplayed in terms of productivity and flexibility of use.
In general terms superwide-format machines tend now to fall into the 5m roll-fed category, one of the earliest sizes ever to dominate the types of printers used for outdoor graphics. Considering the size of the end print together with distance viewing, producing the highest quality was never really the superwide printer's fort?; their strengths lay in their ability to output giant images onto a single width or, at least, with minimal joins. This gave them instant popularity amongst those wanting the benefits of output size without the inconvenience of seaming or welding.
Many early machines are still in use today, with printers such as the old NUR Blueboard and HP Scitex and EFI Vutek 5m solvent-based series still producing jobs of a quality that suffices. Fine dots and impeccable results aren't the object of the exercise with these applications; it is axiomatic that size and speed sit comfortably with fit-for-purpose viewing. Many of the printers in this category have served their purpose for a decade or more and will continue to do so for many years to come. With exterior applications being viewed from a distance, often well away from people, problems incurred with odours produced by solvent-based inks have been less of a consideration than for interior sites.
Compared with the more popular sizes of roll-fed printer, overall worldwide sales of 5m machines are unlikely ever to overtake their 3.2m counterparts but, in some countries, their popularity abounds. This is particularly evident in areas where billboards and large hoardings are par for the course, with fewer restrictions in terms of planning and a greater freedom for the use of apparently indiscriminate outdoor advertising. Travel some of the American freeways and there's a proliferation of large posters, each one dominant in its own right despite being quickly surpassed in viewing terms by the next.
Where short-term messages are all that's required, print customers in some countries have been known to take the risk and install giant graphics in the hope that the message they portray will have taken effect before local planning authorities insist on the structure's removal. Even in the UK we're all party to large 'installations' on the sides of redundant vehicles and trailers seen in fields alongside many of our motorways. At 70mph motorists and their passengers will have the chance to see what's being offered but no-one will be able to quibble about resolution of print quality!
In this country we lack some of the size of the more permanent hoardings but, instead, we excel in other areas where superwide-format graphics are proving to be the best method of production. In recent times there has been a growth in the use of scaffold and building wraps, whilst curtain-sided vehicles can also benefit from being produced on 5m printers. Theatres, studios and film sets are also taking advantage of extra large output and, although we have relatively few sites compared with other countries, one-off hoardings and posters are ideal output opportunities.
Vehicle graphics at giant sizes are definitely one of the UK's strengths. Many of those which, formerly, showed ungainly joins and seams can now be produced at full width on a 5m wide printer and, combined with digital print's unrivalled ability to be able to produce one-offs, such mobile advertising provides real potential.
Similarly, wrapping unsightly buildings and scaffolding has been another boon to users of superwide-format printing machines. Apart from offering concealment from works and refurbishments, there's also a safety element involved by keeping the necessary accoutrements literally behind wraps. Meshes, too, have the advantage of filtering through sufficient light so that workers inside can see what they're doing yet retain sufficient opacity for images to be displayed prominently on the outside. And, of course, there is a choice of graphic element which can be complementary to the finished job or used as a giant advertising site.
As manufacture has become more refined, so have other benefits been revealed for 5m inkjet printers, one of the most logical being the ability to print two or three jobs simultaneously on narrower material. The design of present-day machines has shifted to UV-curable ink, and concentrates on making multiple applications an integral feature. With no fewer than three new arrivals to the market this year, it's a logical move that all should recognise this a major advantage in the production process.
Durst's new Rho 500R, which was launched at Fespa Digital, is a classic example of where width and versatility meet. The machine manages high throughput speeds with the ability to print three rolls of 1.6m each - which don't necessarily have to be the same material or the be printing from the same file. Similarly, EFI Vutek announced its 5m GS5000r at the same show and this, too, concentrates on the fact that quality needn't be compromised on a machine of this size.
A third entrant making its inaugural appearance this year is the Virtu RR50 from WP Digital (better known as Sp?hl to the wide-format cognoscenti). This 5m printer comes in a choice of loading options and, in common with the others, is able to print to meshes as well as other materials used in the superwide sector.
Matan, too, has been eager to promote its Barak5 which uses UV-curable ink, although this company is probably better known for its thermal transfer systems.
The move from solvent-based to UV-curable superwide-format machines has also been a logical step, very much in keeping with the general shift in ink types. The first of note to make its presence felt was the printer now known as the HP Scitex XP5100 or the XP5300 depending on the option selected. Known back in the NUR days as the Expedio 5000 series, this printer not only blazed the way forward in the UV-curable technology stakes at a width of 5m but gave HP Scitex an instant platform where it could inherit and improve upon the quest to save on ink usage and to employ lower cost materials.
Machines of this size will never be purchased in the same large numbers of their narrower counterparts because, for a start, 5m jobs don't tend to be flooding the order books. Also, a unit capable of outputting a single giant piece of print will occupy a sizeable amount of floor space - and, the element potential users often forget is that storage and manoeuvring materials of the maximum size is going to be neither easy nor convenient. And, of course, there is the question of justifying investment in such a system. Trade houses that have specialised in superwide-format print since the early air-brush and solvent-based days have built up a strong client base and have geared their businesses specifically to cater for these sizes, including basics such as software and workflow, through to handling, logistics and installation. Many have detailed knowledge of client requirements, the best types of material to use and are geared up for the specialist type of installation which jumbo-sized print often needs.
But, today's new tranche of superwide-format printers are very different beasts from their predecessors. In the early days, printing multiple jobs across the width of the machine was something of a hit or miss affair with only repeats on the same media being feasible. Now, manufacturers of printers have realised the benefits which can be gained by incorporating this capability. The quality of build has become so sophisticated that pinpoint accuracy on a roll-feed can guarantee precision from start to finish without alignment problems, even when two or three applications are printed simultaneously on different materials. For these reasons, you should certainly consider the options gained by installing a single 5m printer instead of multiple narrower models; increasing versatility in the roll-fed market surely has been a dominating factor behind the number of new solutions coming into this sector.