By Olivia Cahoon
Advancements in inkjet technology allow direct printing to water bottles, USB drives, and lunch boxes—also referred to as promotional or award-type applications. For direct to object printing, vendors offer desktop-type digital flatbed printers as well as specialty solutions.
Above: The Roland VersaUV LEF-300 Benchtop UV-Flatbed Printer prints up to 95 sf/h, creating personalized items like golf balls.
In manufacturing, digital printing significantly impacts promotional and awards production with features designed to enable fast turnaround times and customization.
“The ability to add color and to mass customize objects enables promotional product printers to take on short runs and custom color jobs that were not financially feasible using screenprinting methods or even engravers,” says Josh Hope, senior manager, industrial printing business development and marketing, Mimaki USA, Inc.
David Conrad, director of sales and marketing, Mutoh America, Inc., agrees and says it’s much more economical to print short runs on items using digital printers than it is with screen presses. However, he points out that digitally printed specialty and promotional applications are different in the industrial space. “Digital printing can impact the industrial space for badges, name plates, labels, circuit boards, prototypes, and machine plates the same way it does the promotional and award market space,” he explains.
Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, also notices growth in production and sales for customized and personalized products. He believes retail and light industrial businesses can now see how desktop and benchtop digital printers promote the sales of diverse specialized and customized products. “The ability to print directly on blank products to create customized and unique gift items, promotional items, and awards creates value-added sales opportunities for many businesses,” he adds.
Desktop-type flatbed printers and specialty solutions can be operated in small environments without the need for films or printing plates. “There’s no messy ink mixing or clean up between print runs,” says Tiffany Tilley, account manager, LogoJET USA.
Promotional and award applications are traditionally printed using screen devices, engravers, and milling devices. Tilley says this requires large quantities of material and multiple steps like ink mixing, film and plate making, and multiple presses to achieve additional colors.
According to Hope, both screenprinting and engraving imposed limitations on material types. “Screenprinting has a print run minimum to cover setup costs and it’s best for large quantities, though, personalization is usually not part of the mix,” he explains.
After the introduction of desktop and benchtop digital UV printers, Roberts believes customers quickly realized the benefits of integrating inkjet into existing workflows. “More often than not, we see businesses adding UV printers to other applications rather than replacing them, as doing so seems to complement the process,” he offers.
Desktop-Type Digital FlatbedS
A key feature for desktop-type digital flatbed printers is the ability to handle thick materials. Hope suggest printers look for a maximum thickness around six inches that can be adjusted lower if necessary. “A printer that also jets primer is a real bonus, as only the areas that require primer are coated,” he adds. Jetting primer eliminates manual application from non-printed areas.
Mimaki’s flatbed printers, including the UJF-3042 desktop UV flatbed series, offer the ability to jet primer for improved ink adhesion on challenging substrates like glass and plastics. Released in 2017, the UJF-3042 MkII EX features a print area of 11.8×6 inches. It has a maximum speed of 27.8 square feet per hour (sf/h) and can reuse product jigs from earlier Mimaki models.
Desktop flatbed printers typically offer white ink capabilities. White ink is used as a base for objects that are already colored, while clear ink is used as an overcoat for vibrant colors. The Roland VersaUV LEF-300 Benchtop UV Flatbed Printer prints white and primer for textured effects.
“As each model has four printheads, including dedicated printheads for white and clear channels, users can build up white opacity as well as multilayered designs and textures in special effects gloss modes,” says Roberts. The VersaUV LEF-300 prints up to 95 sf/h and is priced at $29,995.
Some desktop-type flatbed printers offer features like vacuum tables to ensure materials are held in place during printing. “The ability to adjust the height to accommodate various sized prints is important to ensure the proper printhead height for maximum ink coverage and image quality,” says Conrad.
Released in 2017, the Mutoh ValueJet 626UF features a vacuum table and 5.9-inch thickness capability. The printer has a 23.9×19-inch print bed with speeds up to 89 sf/h. According to the company, it’s priced at $27,995.
Inkcups Now offers the X2 flatbed UV printer, which is specifically designed to serve the industrial printing promotional product marketplace. A 20×24-inch print area can be printed in 90 seconds. It is equipped with CMYK plus two opaque white inks. The UV LED curable consumables are available in one liter bulk ink containers.
At Print 17, Xanté Corporation announced the UV4000 UV-curable inkjet flatbed printer. With a print area of 36×24 inches and maximum material thickness of 11 inches, the device is ideal for printing onto items like golf balls, pens, and even custom parts. The printer is equipped with six Ricoh printheads, CMYK and two devoted to white ink.
Specialty printers generally focus on the printing of one product in a single pass. Tilley says specific features can include specially designed inks or preloaded artwork selections. “There is minimal set up since the printer is always on the same product,” she adds.
According to Eric Henzie, director of marketing, Engineered Printing Solutions (EPS), specialty printers often include automated parts handling, inline pretreatment, and vision systems to ensure consistent image quality.
The EPS XD070 multi-color industrial inkjet offers continuous multi-color printing in a single pass and reaches high production volumes with print speeds of up to 15 inches per second. It’s intended for multi-color printing on flat and semi-flat surfaces for a variety of substrates.
Specialty solutions range in size depending on the printer’s targeted product. Because specialty solutions typically handle one product, the limited number of streamlined options offers cost savings to those who print one or two specific items. “If a buyer has a streamlined business and is not interested in expanding into other markets, a specialty printer can address those specific needs and do it with expertise,” explains Tilley.
Craig Smith, CEO/president, Innovative Digital Systems (IDS), believes specialty printers are ideal for direct printing onto objects because of increased printheads, higher outputting LED lights that heighten speed, and the capability to handle a variety of ink formulas.
Updated in 2016, the IDS Mach 1 is a single-pass specialty printer with speeds of up to 180 feet per minute. It is equipped with a module system for a range of configurations and uses the latest Konica Minolta printheads. According to Smith, the pricing ranges between $250,000 and $400,000 depending on customization.
Specialty printers are typically one-product solutions while digital flatbed printers offer versatility. According to Tilley, as the industry evolves flatbed printers allow experimentation with printing trending items and taking advantage of new upgrades.
Compared to specialty printers, desktop-type digital flatbed printers can be more complex since they are designed to handle multiple product applications. “This can also mean that they are more expensive and complicated to operate,” says Tilley.
One of the biggest differences between desktop-type digital flatbed printers and specialty solutions for direct object printing is the printable service types. Chuck McGettrick, sales manager, Marabu North America, says specialty solutions like the EPS RotoJet allow for printing on rounded surfaces like beverage containers and glasses.
Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporation, believes that regarding costs, it’s difficult to include many advanced features in desktop-type flatbed printers. “Manual maintenance, cleaning, and pre-coating will be required,” he adds. On the other hand, specialty printers use higher frequencies for wider bandwidth inkjet printheads for speed and performance with additional devices to control temperature, pressure, and curing.
According to Henzie, buyers typically choose between desktop-type flatbed devices and specialty solutions based on production volume and quality. He says single-pass specialty solutions may cost three to four times or more than a flatbed printer depending on automation. He admits, “this is an economic consideration.”
Prospective buyers choosing between desktop-type flatbed devices and specialty solutions can determine the best printer by looking at the company’s requirements. “If the buyer is using an automated system, requires high speeds, and can integrate a single-pass system, then a specialty solution is best,” admits Smith.
“Most customers buy flatbed printers because of their versatility whereas most buyers of specialty printers do so because of the volume,” explains Roberts.
Adhesion to a range of materials is one of the general challenges of implementing a direct to object printer. According to Kim, larger droplets increase the printing distance between printheads and the object, but also limit consistency and quality.
Valloy’s TOPAZET UV 6045F flatbed printer was released in 2017. It uses Ricoh GH2220 and Gen5S printheads for speed and jetting. The TOPAZET UV 6045F has a print speed of 12 square meters per hour. It’s designed to quickly layer print by using large dots for structural layers. Kim says the TOPAZET UV 6045F is available for $27,500.
In addition to considerations for the printer itself, training is a challenge for those implementing direct to object solutions. Conrad suggests operators be trained to ensure quality output and positive printing experiences. “Understanding the application possibilities is also important and knowing what types of materials print best with and without adhesion promoters,” he offers.
Henzie agrees and says there is an understandable resistance to change and potentially a knowledge and skills gap. He believes extensive training is required to skillfully operate and effectively maintain direct object technology before purchasing.
To address technology challenges, Michael Perrelli, marketing manager, Direct Color Systems (DCS), advises prospective owners to look for vendors that provide onsite training and installation. He offers, “education, understanding print modes, and developing art files make the transition from analog to digital processes that much easier. Companies also offer technical support along with local service representatives, which are desirable options for many prospective owners.”
Printing directly to objects can be challenging if the object’s surface features low adhesion characteristics. Adhesion promoters are used to ensure ink adhesion is durable and lasting.
According to McGettrick, adhesion promoters depend on the substrate. Acrylics, glass, and metals usually require a primer that’s typically in liquid form and wiped on before printing. “There are some jettable primers but for the most part, people use a wipe-on process,” he explains.
Perrelli says DCS’ UV LED printing equipment uses promoters that are pre-wiped to avoid occupying printhead space. “This helps owners pretreat products while one batch is printing—leaving each printhead channel assigned to ink—ensuring print speeds remain high.”
Released in 2017 by DCS, the Direct Jet 1800z is a UV LED flatbed printer that prints up to 12×24 inches. The Direct Jet 1800z prints on ceramic, glass, industrial parts, metal, plastic, promotional products, and wood.
Conrad also thinks adhesion promoters are necessary for surfaces like glass, metals, stainless steel, and other slick surfaces depending on the customer’s expectations. He suggests test printing materials to ensure the best results possible before accepting jobs from clients.
Aside from glass or metal, Tilley believes that most of the time, no special pretreatments are needed for digital printing. She says some flatbed printer models offer a built-in primer in the ink channels, which can be printed as a base or inline with other inks to improve adhesion.
Released in 2014, the LogoJET UV2400 features built-in primer, clear gloss, and white inks. It is a UV LED direct to object flatbed printer with a print width of 24 inches. According to Tilley, the LogoJET UV2400 averages a full print run between three and ten minutes.
In manufacturing, digital print technologies allows customized short print runs that weren’t possible with screenprinting. Using desktop-type digital flatbed printers and specialty solutions, manufacturers have the ability to cost-effectively print directly onto objects. Before selecting a printing method, it’s important that print users select the model best suited for the company in terms of quality, speed, and volume.
Nov2017, Industrial Print Magazine