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Wide-Format Ink-Jet — Digital Printing Goes Flat

September 2008 By Mark Smith Technology Editor
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FLATBED MODELS are currently a hot trend in the wide-format ink-jet printer segment and were spotlighted by exhibitors at Drupa 2008 earlier this year. This technology puts the emphasis on volume production for more everyday applications, not the spectacular building and vehicle wraps done roll-to-roll.

Particularly with dimensional point-of-purchase (POP) materials, productivity is enhanced by the capability to print directly on rigid substrates, rather than mounting/laminating printed sheets to a backing material in a separate production step. Teaming a flatbed printer up with a digital cutter further speeds turnaround of completed pieces.

UV ink-jet technology dominates this product category because of the substrate flexibility it affords and the quick “drying” via UV curing. The focus on productivity is also reflected in many of the devices being CMYK printers, rather than the up to 12-color or more configurations available with roll-to-roll models. Some are dedicated flatbed machines for rigid materials, while others offer an optional roll-to-roll unit that can require repositioning the imaging unit to use.

Due to their shear size and raw square footage, the superwide machines that cap off the roll-to-roll ink-jet printer product category are an impressive sight. They don’t come close, though, to matching the “Wow!” factor of seeing one of the fully configured, top-end flatbed systems. These machines can fill a large room when configured with an automated materials handling unit, making it impractical to display complete systems at a trade show. Examples include the M-Press from Agfa and Thieme, Inca Onset and EFI VUTEk DS series.

Complement to Offset

In broad terms, such devices are being positioned as digital replacements for traditional screen printing presses, but as potential companions to large-format sheetfed offset presses used to produce long-er runs of POP materials. Ink-jet technology provides the capability to produce short runs, while building multi-printhead arrays into a robust support system greatly extends their competitive run length range.

The M-Press was an early entrant in this product category and is categorized as a hybrid printing line because it is based on piezoelectric ink-jet heads from Agfa, but can incorporate Thieme screen printing units for the application of spot colors, coatings and varnishes. It’s a modular system, so the product specifications depend on the configuration. The CMYK, UV ink-jet engine prints a maximum 720-dpi resolution and 63x102.4˝ sheet at speeds exceeding 5,950 square feet per hour.

Agfa also offers systems in its Anapurna printer line that support rigid and roll media, including the recently introduced Anapurna XLS, Mv and M4f models. Anapurna XLS prints media up to 100˝ wide at 1,440x720 dpi and 474 square feet per hour. Anapurna M4f is configured as an entry-level, CMYK printer for rigid materials only, while the Mv adds spot and flood varnish capabilities to the 62˝ wide, 1,440x720 dpi and maximum 161 square feet per hour platform.
 
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