Rigid reasons for buying a flatbed
Sophie Matthews-Paul looks at the latest developments in flatbed printers.
Printers have become faster and users have generated their own methods of optimising throughput with a flatbed printer. Established units, such as those from Inca, have always worked on a vacuum table principle and found this design to be sturdy in an industrial environment. At the other end of the scale, there have been options coming to market where the zone vacuum principle has been maintained on machines which are relatively low cost or entry-level models. Oc?'s Arizona family, also marketed as the Fujifilm Acuity, has adopted this build with the result being a solid table with a moving gantry which passes over the material. Whilst there's no reason why flexible materials shouldn't be used in a dedicated flatbed system, many potential purchasers stick with their belief that printers coming into this category excel primarily on rigid substrates, adding the benefits of stability and higher production speeds.
Clearly manufacturers also see there is sufficient market at all levels to produce machines which concentrate more on the criteria used purely for printing direct to sheets. Whilst this is evident at the top end of the market with systems such as the Inca Onset and S20 and the HP Scitex FB7500, the speed and throughput potential are geared for a different type of end use.
Commonly, these machines are designed to compete with screen-printing and offset litho and offer users industrial strength production at rapid rates. Nonetheless, there is obviously demand from those wanting entry-level machines which are built on the principle of rigid table. This is evidenced in units from manufacturers such as EFI Rastek, Spandex/Gerber and Mimaki as well as from Oc?. But, despite these systems being best suited to rigid sheets, it's still possible to print onto flexible materials with some units having the capability of moving the gantry to one end of the bed where it remains static, printing onto a roll-feed attachment.
The improved performance of UV-curable inks and associated curing have upped the numbers of different substrates which can be used with a flatbed printer. Sign-makers and display producers moving into inkjet production for the first time can see the benefits to be gained by skipping other ink formulations but many have had a production history of working with rigid sheets and understand the set-up and workflow involved. Users further up the digital scale, who have passed through other ink technologies en route to UV-curable chemistries, have also favoured this ink because of its ability to work direct to rigid substrates and, historically, it was this capability which heralded the arrival of flatbed ink-jet systems.
As a move sideways from roll-fed machines printing aqueous-based inks or those from the solvent-based families, the ability to work with rigid substrates was quick to gain popularity even though the very early printers had neither the speed nor the quality achievable today. The initial rush to market of machines using UV-curable inks aroused the interest of those who, formerly, either had to screen print or to find a compromise by mounting print output onto flexible materials. Today print service providers have the choice of opting for a true flatbed device or choosing a hybrid printer which should provide the best of both worlds but the primary type of production should be the deciding factor.