Over the past few years, a revolution has been taking place in the digital imaging industry. Flatbed inkjet units have broadened the scope of our industry, allowing new methods and new materials to come to the fore. Flatbeds represent a significant investment for most imaging businesses, but if implemented into carefully researched markets as part of a thoughtful business plan, they can open doors of opportunity for businesses like your own. The first step into flatbed inkjet printing is to develop a better understanding of the technology and its possibilities. Knowing the technology puts you in a position to better understand what it has to offer.
Technology & Capabilities
Flatbed inkjet printing systems are defined for the purposes of this article as those devices using a flat platen upon which rigid substrates can be placed, then printed upon directly. In some cases, the platen helps to move the substrate through the press and under the printheads. In other cases, the printhead shuttles across the print while the substrate and platen stay stationary. Either way, the machine is capable of printing a variety of substrate types of a variety of sizes. Some of the devices can also handle rolled media and are generally referred to as "hybrids." Varying finishing processes are then used to make the print into a desired final product.
Most flatbed printing systems use UV-curable ink sets. This inks are called UV-curable because instead of drying the way most inkjet inks do, these inks are instead "cured" using intense ultraviolet light. Once cured, the finished UV print offers high durability, even outdoors, without the need for lamination or other protective measures. Currently, UV ink is also the ink system that allows for printing on the widest variety of substrates.
Only a small number of units use solvent-based ink. While most of the systems currently on the market print using traditional CMYK, a number of systems also use expanded inksets, the most common of which includes the addition of light magenta and light cyan, which gives better print tonality. One of the most exciting recent developments in flatbed printing is the introduction of opaque white into some inksets. Using opaque white allows the printer to image directly onto other-than-white substrates by first laying down the opaque white coat, then jetting the remaining ink colors on top of the white. Spot varnish has also been recently introduced into one flatbed system. Other manufacturers will surely follow this advancement.
One of the biggest reasons flatbed printers are making such a big splash in the imaging community is that they free the user from the confines of the roll-based system. Pre-flatbed, nearly all inkjet imaging end products requiring a rigid surface were printed on rolled inkjet media, which was then mounted and laminated. The lamination served to protect the water-based ink from moisture and other hazards to the print. Mounting attached the print to some kind of board, selected by weight, rigidity or durability. With a flatbed system using today's UV-curable or solvent ink systems, the rolls or media are gone. The print is jetted directly onto the rigid material. Traditional process steps are eliminated, materials costs and labor costs are reduced. Time is saved.
The fact that flatbeds can print rigid media, either coated or uncoated, has opened a vast door of possibility for new markets and end products. Obvious rigid media types for graphic arts and signage are foam board, Sintra, Plexiglas, styrene, Lucite and polycarbonates. Other rigid substrates currently being used by inventive digital imaging companies include corrugated cardboard, glass, metals, stone, even leather. This list, believe it or not, is by no means exhaustive. As the inventiveness currently surrounding flatbed printing continues to expand, and as inks become more practically and physically flexible, the list will continue to grow. The sky may be the limit. For your business, the main concern will be whether the ink system you use will be compatible with the surfaces upon which you wish to print.
According to the Digital Printing & Imaging Association's interactive online guide to digital imaging output devices (www.dpia.org), nearly 20 flatbed devices are currently available to imaging companies. A number of companies are expected to launch their first entries into flatbed in the next year. Of those devices currently available, their size capabilities range from 19 by 23 inches to 96 by "however many you need" inches. Your company's specific size needs would help determine which machine would be right for you.
Major Flatbed Markets
Following is a listing of commercial graphics markets to which flatbed inkjet strongly contributes. The markets listed here are part of a growing number of areas where the technology has a capability of achieving a commanding presence. What's causing the number of markets to grow is the quest to stretch the possibilities of what flatbed printing can do. While the job of technology developers includes the creation of inks and equipment that work for myriad applications, it is up to the printer to fully determine and continue to stretch the capabilities of available ink sets. It is only through such experimentation and innovation that digital imagers can define for themselves profitable niches within which they operate. This following list is by no means exhaustive, but it does portray the majority of flatbed inkjet imaging work being done today.
Retail Signage This prominent market is the "bread and butter" of many companies using digital imaging technology. By allowing for direct printing onto a number of substrates, retail signage can be produced faster, and with wider visual appeal.
Point-of-Purchase Display Working hand-in-hand with retail signage is point of purchase display, or POP. POP is about highlighting a product, whether it is through digitally imaged "shelf hangers" highlighting unique characteristics or price reductions, or elaborate, constructed displays made to simultaneously display and advertise.
Architectural Signage Flatbed printing is opening opportunities for striking visual presentations in offices and public spaces. Architectural signage is now being presented in a number of innovative ways, as directional signage or advertisements in public places and private buildings become more affordable, easily changeable and unique to the space.
Interior Decoration Products The use of flatbed inkjet for interior decoration will grow significantly in the next few years. Whether the process is used to image ceramic tiles, glass panels, rugs or other interior elements, digital provides designers with a unique ability to create one-of-a-kind interior spaces only previously dreamed of by interior design professionals.
Vehicle Graphics With the help of an experienced graphics installer, digitally imaged graphics can be "wrapped" around buses, trucks and other vehicles, providing striking mobile advertising for any client. Other vehicle graphics can also include massive displays stuck to the sides of delivery vans or tractor-trailers. For transit graphics, digital imaging can provide economical short runs, allowing even small business clients to utilize the power of transit graphics.