by Melissa Donvoan
Smaller format digital flatbed printers are instrumental in decorating pre-manufactured goods. They also are helpful when manufacturers want to capitalize on the latest personalization trends. Desktop or bench top flatbed printers are designed to serve all business sizes whether focused on achieving production levels or smaller runs and prototypes.
Above: With a bed size or print area of 30×13 inches, Roland’s VersaUV LEF2-300D is the company’s newest small format industrial printer.
Advancements related to hardware, software, and ink are responsible for the uptick in the use of digital printers in manufacturing facilities. Ease of use, the smaller footprint, and automation all play a role in maximizing the efficiency of these direct to object printers.
Seen on the Street
Small format, desktop, or bench top digital printers are used in many manufacturing environments—from the more practical use of labeling control panels to printing directly on consumer items like coolers, skis, and water bottles. These may be prototypes or full production runs.
“Small format, desktop UV printers are ideal for a range of customers due to their scalability that enables growth from a limited product line to mass production often found in larger print service environments. The footprint of the printer also lends itself to smaller environments or inline production workflows,” shares Michael Maxwell, senior manager, corporate strategic development, Mimaki USA, Inc.
Common items printed to, according to Keira Lee, inkjet product line, chief of marketing department, GCC, include leather goods, canvas bags, phone cases, key chains, wooden boxes, plastic or glass bottles, mugs, and tumblers.
While gifts, awards, and promotional items are common applications, Kerrie Mallory-Thompson, application specialist, Mutoh America, Inc., points out that direct to object printers are increasingly used for identification, marking, and serialization.
Other examples involve printing directly onto components for appliances, computers, and automobile dashboards, notes Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation. “In some cases, customers use these flatbeds to print directly onto parts that may never be seen by the end user. These include manufacturers printing barcodes or labels specific to the manufacturing process onto motor parts which, after assembly, end up not being visible.”
One reason why direct to object printers in this size range are so popular is because of their ease of use. “The skill sets needed to operate direct object printers are greatly reduced as today’s printers handle all the complex operations automatically within the printer and the software,” explains Craig Smith, president, Innovative Digital Systems.
Ease of use combined with a small footprint address the trend of bringing certain services in house to save on costs, control the entire process, and eliminate longer turnaround times. “There is a growing need to offset outsourced print production with in-house production, and most of the time this is something new. For example, a promotional products distributor normally outsources work to a supplier, but there is a growing demand for short-run orders and faster turnaround times that they would like to produce in house,” shares Susan Cox, president/CEO, LogoJET.
Consumer demand for customization also fuels interest. “Since consumers now live in a mobile-dominant world there are often products often carried with them. This ranges from keys and cell phones to water bottles and cups. There is so much potential that the product applications seem limitless,” adds Maxwell.
Smaller format direct to object printers thrive thanks to constant advancements. This includes updates to critical features like bed size, the height between the bed and printhead, and adapters for cylindrical objects. Enhancements also relate to ink sets and software.
“New features such as bi-directional printing, height adjustments, rotary adapters, along with increased speed from implementing more printheads are used more. Custom tooling such as trays that allow parts to be printed while another tray is unloaded and reloaded maximize productivity,” lists Smith.
With a bed size or print area of 30×13 inches, Roland’s VersaUV LEF2-300D is the company’s newest small format industrial printer. What makes it unique is the height between the bed and printhead—users can print onto objects up to 7.87 inches thick like shoes, motor assemblies, and other oversized items.
Cylindrical printing is addressed by either dedicated machines, or a more common feature on bench top devices is a rotary adapter. “The demand for printing onto curved surfaces like bottles is increasing. Some direct to object printer manufacturers offer a rotary attachment enabling full 360-degree printing on cylindrical items,” says Cox.
In regards to ink, Smith notes that UV LED ink is a “great improvement” over earlier days when dry times were longer. “Now you can load, print, and package without the drying wait times.” In addition, “new inks are designed to print on soft materials, along with inks that remain flexible and primer inks that increase adhesion in difficult applications.”
Inks more “universal” in their surface compatibility and feature sets are gaining popularity. “UV-curable ink works across a range of materials including flexible and rigid and natural and synthetic substrates,” continues Cox. LogoJET now offers a UV-curable ink line, H2, that provides up to a 288-degree bend tolerance without cracking.
Requests for improved white ink configurations continue. Inkcups recently released Vivid White UV inkjet ink, part of its S1 UV inkjet ink family. “This ink is the opaquest white ink on the market, allowing for color consistency across different products and an overall more crisp, vibrant white,” explains Jessica Makrinos, marketing manager, Inkcups.
Along the same lines of ink, there is primer, which is used more often then before. “As UV printers may sometimes print on metal or glass, there is a need to apply primer before printing. Hence, ink configuration may include primer for broadened applications,” suggests Lee.
Controlling the cure rate of UV LED ink is a focus for Mutoh. On its XpertJet 661UF and XpertJet 461UF printers, Local Dimming Control is a new LED lamp that provides greater control of curing by turning on and off certain sections of the lamp. “This allows users to create matte finishes, gloss, semi-gloss, and high gloss all in one pass,” shares Mallory-Thompson.
The printer’s software is more intelligent, handling variable data. “Variable data can be loaded into the printer software enabling each imprint to feature its own customized text such as names, addresses, and serial numbers,” adds Smith.
Other software advancements center on expanding the type of shapes that can be printed to. For example, Mimaki developed LD Mode, which enables printing on more non-flat surfaces. “Offering an increased dot size, more recessed and variable surface printing is achievable, effectively increasing the resolution and capability of the printer on these surfaces,” comments Maxwell.
These advancements are influenced by customer. “They are driving these types of time saving features, with shorter lead times being the new normal,” says Smith.
Each manufacturer is different when it comes to the object being printed on their device, the quantity, and the type/color of ink. All of these factor into how often a printer is used, the load capacity, and average ink consumption. From here it’s easy to calculate the benefits of such a printer in house and plan accordingly for weekly, monthly, or even yearly costs.
In Smith’s experience, most businesses using tabletop direct to object printers are operating shorter runs. “Especially with their ability to utilize custom trays made to batch load their most popular products. This type of printer’s quality actually benefits from the device running regularly, as they have very good repeatability.”
“For our average customer, these printers are used every day. Our machines are industrial workhorses and built for 24/7 production,” notes Makrinos.
Load capacity is related to the object to be printed’s dimensions and placement. “Mimaki helps optimize each table through our RasterLink software, which offers a jig placement feature. With the overall width and length of the objects to be printed, you can quickly and precisely lay them out as close or as far as needed. Combined with a physical jig, this means that each print table is optimized for production,” shares Maxwell.
Lee provides the example of the GCC JF-240UV flatbed printer, which accommodates more than 50 keychains with a diameter of 50 millimeters at one time. Printing from one liter of ink, approximately 16,500 keychains can be produced.
To calculate ink usage, Smith suggests running a test print since the printer will tell you the print’s time and ink usage statistics. “This can be extrapolated out to calculate the costs and amount of ink required to do a job.”
To print a logo onto an entire bed of golf balls—112 on the Roland VersaUV LEF2-300D—0.25 milliliters of total ink would be used.
“The retail cost per ball would be roughly $0.11, yielding a total of 3,520 golf balls—based on the cost per milliliter of a 220 milliliter bottle of CMYK ink. Using this scenario, the customer could print about 1,000 golf balls an hour at a profit of approximately $1,500,” explains Roberts.
According to Maxwell, depending on the amount of the surface to be printed, ink yields range drastically. He finds that most personalized objects use a minimal amount of ink and often net a large amount of production.
With a LogoJET UV printer, each ink bag contains 200 milliliters of ink and can output approximately 10,000 square inches of imprinted area. “This is an average cost of less than one penny per square inch printed,” notes Cox.
While many different printer configurations are capable of printing directly to premanufactured objects, smaller format desktop or bench top flatbed printers are popular for a number of reasons. Primarily, manufacturers enjoy the smaller footprint and ability to easily use the device inline or near line to the rest of their production process.
Enhancements related to ink, primer, and curing; print bed size and height between bed and printhead; as well as software enabling variable data printing all propel digital technology to new levels. For the manufacturers that choose to leverage it, the opportunities are endless. IPM
Nov2020, Industrial Print Magazine