21 November 2016 Digital Printing Technologies

Flatbed inkjet has strong appeal for commercial printers

Flatbed inkjet technology is no longer an expensive arcane investment for commercial printers, but one that make a lot of sense for litho printers looking to diversify into new business areas.

The most versatile piece of production equipment a printer can have is not a fully featured B1 sheetfed press, not even the latest automatic set up machines with coating and UV curing inline. Look instead to inkjet and flatbed UV inkjet in particular.

These machines can print on the sorts of materials that will not even feed through an offset press; at formats that few offset presses can contemplate and on surfaces that litho can only shiver at. More and more commercial printers, struck perhaps by the limited potential for growth in leaflets, brochures and magazines, are investing in flatbed capability.

This can come through the purchase of the machinery to form a standalone unit, as BCQPureprint has done with the acquisition of Imprint at the end of last year. It may be through farming out print work until volumes justify the investment, which is the route that Taylor Bloxham subsidiary Fastant chose. It now runs HP Scitex flatbed printers.

There is also plenty of scope for investment in a machine that can sit alongside or close to existing litho or cut sheet digital presses.

The business case is about being able to offer existing customers additional services that they are starting to buy elsewhere. A retailer will need point of sale posters, perhaps free standing display units or even ‘retail theatre’ alongside catalogues and brochures.

Any customer will attend business exhibitions and will need to promote itself. Then there are untapped opportunities through adding images to completely new surfaces, mobile phones cases perhaps, to create new lines of business.

The major display printers, the likes of Delta Group, Augustus Martin, Linney, ImageData Group, Cestrian and so on, have the large retail chains sewn up and have invested in heavyweight machinery to cope. These are the customers for the large Inca, HP Scitex, and Durst machines.

These companies also produce smaller machines while the likes of Agfa, Canon, Fujifilm, Screen, InkTec, Mimaki and Roland DG are producing flatbed inkjet presses that are an affordable first purchase for a commercial printer.

Some will have tested the waters with a rollfed machine, perhaps a Mimaki, Roland DG or Mutoh, to produce pop up banners. But this is a sector where trade producers are able to use their muscle to keep production costs to a minimum.

It makes no sense to compete against this, rather a printer should outsource this type of product to these companies, argues Robin East, managing director of CMYUK. The business handles sales of flatbed Mimaki and EFI Vutek machines as well as providing the training to operate them effectively.

“We have sold a lot of machines to litho printers over the years,” says East. “They will have a lot of the core skills, experience in prepress, for example, that is needed. And they understand the importance of finishing very well.

“I’m delighted when we take an inquiry from a litho printer because they will understand what is needed and we talk the same language. We will tell them that if they want to offer banners they should outsource this to Venture Banners or Superwide while the flatbed kit is not as expensive as it used to be. The Vutek is not a £380,000 investment. Think instead about £80,000 to £180,000 while the Mimaki JXF200 is £60,000. Add in a JV3 as a fantastic 3.2 metre rollfed printer for a great value for money package.”

The Mimaki and Roland DG flatbed set new price points for an entry level investment. There is no pretence from Roland DG that this can match more expensive machines, at least for productivity. It is a low volume machine, while the supplier concentrates on the quality of output. Both have been in the market for little more than two years.

Stuart Cole, sales director of Mimaki distributor Hybrid Services, says: “The JFX200-2513 has become the market leading 3.2x1.6m printer. Importantly it has LED UV curing which appealed to commercial printers who have scoped the market thoroughly. We have been about to counter claims that the LED technology does not work, by showing people the machine in operation.

“Commercial printers seem more alert to environmental considerations than established large format printers and sign makers. LED UV uses less energy and does not generate ozone and creates less CO2.”

The original machine has been joined by the JFX500-2131, a version with additional print heads and LEDs, but using the same basic approach. It will print with a white only where needed to underpin four-colour printing on a tricky surface. There is no need for a flood coating to deliver adhesion, says Cole. Inks can include the LUS 120 ink which offers greater stretchability.

Those claiming to have the dominant market share must contend with the Canon Arizona family, most of whose models are also available from Fujifilm as the Acuity range. The latter uses Acuity across its large format printers including rollfed and hybrid machines.

These are, however, the machines that others must inevitably be compared to. The range of machines spans entry level to high productivity printers, almost pushing against the high productivity machines from Durst, Inca or HP.

They have proved popular with commercial printers, there being numerous examples with either Arizona or Acuity machines in use, from Reflex to print on plastics to Jolly Big for display printing and Hunts for creative printing. It means that any supplier wishing to make a mark in the sector needs to eat away at the market share of these flatbed printers.

Agfa perhaps has greater opportunity than most given that it is a trusted brand among commercial printers. And it has installed flatbed inkjet machines at commercial printers across the country. Last year Johnsons of Nantwich moved into large format printing at a separate production unit down the road at Crewe.

It also installed Agfa’s Acorta cutting table and the Avanti workflow. A key attraction was the colour management Agfa offers and the ability to tie in with the company's litho focused workflows.

“It was not a small undertaking by Johnsons, but it has paid off for them. Companies like this are now jumping in with both feet, but not irresponsibly. Johnsons did a thorough business plan first. Now they are starting to think about a second machine,” says Agfa marketing manager Steve Collins.

Other successful commercial print to flatbed moves have come from Spin Offset and Urban Print & Design in Southend. It has also sold equipment to ProCo in Sheffield. “Some are spending more on ink with us than they spend on plates,” he adds. “In the last year we have had a greater volume of inquiries from litho printers than from sign and display sector because in commercial print we are known for the quality of our prepress products.”

Like Canon and Fuji there are a number of Agfa machines, including machines that can print on a roll as well as on the flatbed. It avoids the waste that must occur when the roll of material is stretched over the full bed, by having the unwind and take up spools on the same side of the machine and passing the substrate beneath a print bar which is locked in position.

Agfa further showed off its Anapurna and Jeti flatbed printers at a recent Open Your Eyes event in Leeds to show the wide range of products that are possible using the technology. The company has also adopted LEDs for curing the UV ink that is developed by Agfa to match the machines.

There is a drop in energy consumption compared to printers using mercury vapour lamps, partly because LEDs intrinsically use less energy and partly because they can be switched on and off when not needed with no warm up period. They will also last the lifetime of the printer.

The challenge has been to develop the inks that match the UV wavelengths that the LEDs are tuned to. This is now happening with impressive results for Agfa. However, this matching means that for highest speed machines, mercury vapour will remain for the immediate future at least.

The first machine with the LED technology are the Anapurna H 2500i, the ideal machine for a commercial printing diversifying into flatbed printing. “It is more expensive to start with,” says an Agfa spokesman, “but the ROI is better.”

InkTec and its distributors like Premier Colours also have eyes fixed on the Arizona/Acuity market, ready to pounce where an upgrade is in the offing. InkTec is the UK ink maker that handles sales of the Korean made Jetrix flatbed machines. It targets these users with the 2.5mx1.3m Jetrix KX5 flatbed and the LX5, a machine that introduces LED UV curing.

In the display print world, LED UV enables a wide range of substrates to be printed as there is no heat delivered to the surface of the substrate. It means machines can be confident of printing on thin plastics, say for window films, with no risk of unexpected distortion. A white and clear ink option will also allow many machines to print on both sides of a film. What a shopper inside a store sees on the window may well be different to what is seen from the outside.

Plastic, especially rigid plastic substrates, may need any ionising systems to reduce the risk of static which can affect the way that ink adheres to non absorbent surfaces.

The Jetrix range begins at £75,000 for the KX5 model rising with larger beds and greater productivity. The printer can cope with the usual board, Correx, Dibord, PVC, PET films materials through to glass, textiles, wood and metal up to 100mm deep.

Head of national sales Ben Woodruff explains: “The strength of large format flatbed printing is its flexibility. The ability to print on a wide range of applications, alongside offering the capability of short runs and quick speeds means that large format printing can offer a vast number of revenue opportunities for a printer wanting to diversify.

“The realities are that most printers are likely to already have a large business customer base, much of which is likely to need a large format product of some sort, which can easily be tapped into.”

Others have used large format flatbed machines to print on mobile phone cases, using a jig to hold the cases in place. If it can be held flat on the vacuum bed, the chances are that it is possible to print on it. Hunts has printed promotional messages on pitta breads, Rapidity has printed on cream crackers for the same reason. Eating these is not advisable.

Quality is another factor to consider. Speed of printing is often quoted at the highest speed, usually for draft quality printing, which is scarcely saleable. There may be other quality/speed steps before the highest quality is reached where printing is only in one direction to avoid the risk of slight differences when using bi directional print modes.

The SwissQPrint machines, named from African antelopes, are not questioned in terms of quality. They are sold through Spandex in the UK to print businesses looking for the highest quality. Steve Pridham, specialist sales manager, says: “Flatbed offers accuracy, diversity of media and speed of media. And a true flatbed will offer more flexibility than a hybrid machine.”

Productivity is necessary he argues because turnaround times in large format are being compressed as they are in commercial print. An investment ought to take account of rapidly changing demand. “SwissQPrint is not a budget solution, as a ten-year parts guarantee indicates,” he says. The company employs engineers with the cliched Swiss outlook allied to precision of watch making.

Machines begin at £150,000 rising to £360,000 for the most productive and highest resolution machines in the range. This has not prevented sales to photo producers like Photobox, Loxleys or CeWe.

When printing on backlit light boxes for high end fashion or beauty work, there can be no compromise on quality. The SwissQPrint machines slot into this category, though are equally at home in more commercial applications where speed can deliver the returns.

“We are very much getting interest from commercial printers,” says Pridham. “They are more in line with the future than perhaps the sign market and can see the value in the R&D, the engineering quality and the investment value of the press.”

This is not a volume machine, yet there are around ten installations a year in the UK, he continues.

The entire machine, save the print heads, is built in Switzerland. There is no compromise between the mechanical elements and the electrical. There are close relationships with ink provider Sun Chemical and Rip provider Caldera.

Some of the engineering team was previously employed at Zund, another Swiss engineering specialist. Unsurprising that there are close links between the two. Flatbed print needs finishing and Zund, along with Esko and Agfa, has the lion’s share of the market. The choice here is just as interesting as selecting a press.

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