Wide format printing is enjoying a steady upswing, led by double figure growth rates in out of home advertising, but followed by the growing innovation of companies supplying the technology and those using it.

Flatbed UV printers can be used to print on almost anything and many are doing so, producing wall panels for hamburger chains, printed splash backs in acrylics, wooden doors and so on. The ultimate expression of this was how Agfa printed the doors to the Byodo-in, an historic Buddhist Temple near Kyoto in Japan. It had to understand the colours used in what was left of the now protected doors before printing on the slightly misshapen 400 year old cypress wood chosen for the replacements. An Agfa Anapurna 2050i flatbed produced a final result good enough to impress the chief priest. Few jobs will ever be as daunting, though reproducing artworks for museum displays holds its own challenges, but it shows that wide format inkjet printing can produce work that simply was not possible only a few years ago.

Even roll to roll printers are being used to print fabrics, where new types of stand are eating into a market that has been dominated by pull up PVC banners. Wall coverings, whether films or papers, are increasing in importance, and best printed on mid width machines, not the widest.

Flatbed inkjet printing is producing thermoformed plastics on the one hand and printing on corrugated for free standing display units on the other.

This is a market that is exciting equipment providers from across the spectrum. There is huge growth in shelf ready packaging, where a printed corrugated tray loaded with boxes of cereal or other product can be slotted into space on a supermarket shelf. Even when the products have been sold, the tray remains with a logo and brand message as a reminder to the shopper. Larger outer corrugated cases are increasingly used to carry a brand and promotional message, printed using inkjet in small batches rather than with flexo in large volumes.

EFI has estimated the global opportunity for inkjet in printing corrugated materials to be more than $9bn, $7bn from consumables alone. This of course takes in longer run packaging using inkjet to print top liners to be laminated to the corrugated material as well as direct to board printing which is within the scope of flatbed printers like some of those that EFI sells, the Vutek HS100 Pro for example.

The company has had no presence in this market until the purchase of Corrugated Technologies in October as a workflow software that becomes part of EFI’s Enterprise packaging Productivity Suite. Currently, the company’s interest is restricted to the lower end of the market with 70 boards an hour output from the HS100 at point of display resolution, up to 100 beds an hour for less sensitive outer case packaging.

It is up against HP’s flatbed Scitex machines, where the FB15000 has features specifically to cope with the sometimes uneven nature of the boards. This can reach 120 beds an hour in the fastest of four print modes from 60 beds an hour at the highest resolution. Durst has equally created a corrugated version of the Durst Rho 10000 flatbed machine.

The most focused supplier to date however is Inca Digital which reckons that its new Onset X3 can achieve the productivity needed for established corrugated converters to take it seriously as a production machine while also offering the quality needed for point of display bins.

The Onset X series machines are the latest version of the high performance flatbed machines sold through FujiXerox. The company has designed the machine to be completely upgradeable, from a single array of print heads in the Onset X1 to a triple array of four colour heads with space to add a white for underprinting the four colours or an orange to extend the colour gamut in the X3, giving 14 heads in all.

As a user expands, it will be able to add to the number of inkjet heads to increase throughput and add automation for materials handling. Inca will also enable an upgrade to the inkjet heads as new technology renders the existing heads out of date or uncompetitive. The ink delivery and bed movement will remain the same.

The company has changed the bed design to ensure that it is completely flat and has increased the number of vacuum zones to cope with different formats. and rather than having to mask off each zone, performance is unaffected provided that the substrate covers at least 
75 per cent of the zone.

The features were included following consultation with 200 customers. What is needed says Inca is less high throughput on every occasion, but to cope with rush orders ‘when someone needs 2,000 sheets by 5pm the same day.’ The clincher was the need to be able to upgrade in a couple of years without needing to replace the entire machine.

John Mills, chief executive at Inca digital, says, “Customers investing in inkjet for corrugated packaging so have have been adding digital alongside offset or flexo. We think the costings make sense, but it depends on the type of work.”

The Onset X also has a new interface designed to both speed up throughput by being able to lay multiple versions of the same ripped image to the bed instead of having to process the whole bed in the rip and to make it easier to set up and run a job.

Another inkjet printing opportunity, scoring highly in EFI’s research is textile where EFI has been acquisitive in order to attack a sector worth more than $4bn a year. The recent ITMA exhibition in Milan was the drupa of the fabrics world and inkjet was everywhere, both in terms of very high volume machines intended for highly specialist printers like the Konica Minolta Nassenger-1. But equally, it saw multiple dye sublimation machines for printing lower volumes of textiles that open opportunities for printers to produce promotional sportswear alongside point of sale and other marketing collateral.

It is the one-stop shop approach that makes investment in wide format appealing. In a litho market where margins remain tight, it makes more sense to introduce an innovative approach through being able to print different products rather than installing additional litho capacity to squeeze margins further. An investment in wide format need not be expensive. There are entry level flatbeds from Mimaki and RolandDG which extend opportunities for printing rigid materials to litho printers taking a first step into wide format or for rollfed printers to expand their repertoire. The Canon Arizona machines extend upwards from these machines to the likes of the Inca Onsets and Dursts, as does Agfa’s Anapurna family.

A mark of the increasing maturity of the sector comes with the interest in colour management, typified in Agfa’s Asanti workflow. This shares a common technology base with the Apogee workflow used in litho printing and can match colours across the technologies and materials that might be used. Colour management will be a key requirement for inkjet printers to tackle when moving into packaging where reproduction of brand colours and consistency across substrates are crucial.

At the lower ends of the scale, architectural practice Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners has chosen the Océ ColorWave 910 as the standard output device for plans for representations and creative graphics for its office across the world, from Sydney to London. The aim is consistent output regardless of the office and that each able to output plans from another of the RSHP offices.

The ColorWave 910 is one of a number of high speed single pass machines reaching the market. Until recent developments, this was dominated by the KIP LED printer, sold here by Konica Minolta. Now Memjet engineered printers like the ColorWave 910 are offering high speed throughput thanks to pagewide inkjet arrays. It is suited to indoor applications, though the use of dye inks limits opportunities for outdoor applications and the range of substrates. Nevertheless, the speed makes printing on wallpapers for example at 1600dpi resolutions a valid proposition.

HP’s three strong PageWide XL machines are also single pass printers using page wide arrays, but printing with pigment inks rather than dye inks. The thermal print head is the same core technology as that used on the high speed T series web press and the wide format Latex printers. Dr Ross Allen, inkjet head at HP , says, “It breaks the boundaries and limitations of scanning print head systems.”

The XL units are aimed at the cross over point between AEC, moving from mono printing to colour, and graphic arts as a high speed low cost way to print simple indoor posters.  He adds, “It will print hundreds of pages before it needs to stop for automatic servicing.”

The XL machines have quality and speed advantages over LED printing and various advantages over the Memjet machines, around the productivity and robustness of the HP technology.

Epson offers the same ability to print indoor posters with its new P series rollfed inkjet machines.They use aqueous inks, but are fired by Epson’s Precisioncore piezo MEMS head.

There is a new colour management model and the option of additional black channels to print ultra high photographic quality images or an extra violet to extend the colour gamut to print even more of the PMS swatch book. It is aimed at the hard copy proofing market, which while diminished through online technologies, is driving to higher accuracy for proofing packaging and high end work.

And the same machine will happily produce posters, canvasses and other products to broaden the scope of a print business.

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