By Cassandra Balentine
Digital flatbed printers enable imaging onto a variety of substrates, from common media like foamboard to atypical items like wood and glass. In addition to wide format solutions—which we consider equipment 24-plus inches in width—smaller format, reduced footprint options exist. These “tabletop” flatbed printers provide an excellent opportunity for businesses to invest in an in-house printing solution for promotional or industrial printing purposes.
“As direct-to-substrate printing continues to evolve and broaden its scope of printing surfaces and influence in the industry, more businesses are switching their product lines to digital printing from other methods to revolutionize operations and ultimately evolve their product to meet consumer needs,” says Sachelle Thompson, print and applications specialist, LogoJET.
The versatility of these smaller format flatbed presses are a big attraction. Continued advancements in ink sets, primers and coatings, drying/curing technology, and printheads further the appeal. Today, printing to ceramics is possible.
Above: The GCC JF-240UV comes with high throughput and a superior working area—up to A2 plus size and 30 millimeter media thickness allowance, which is designed to satisfy diverse needs in all types of print applications, such as printing directly to drinkware.
UV Advances for Ceramics
Direct-to-object flatbed printing is appropriate for printing to ceramics, including glass. Recent advancements in UV inks and curing technology further the ability of products in this arena. However, primers and adhesion promoters are often required to print onto many ceramics. Additional hardware advancements include print height capability, color management, and media handling/hold down.
Evolutions in print technology aid in the continued expansion of product applications and printhead enhancements. “For example, having various printheads available allows for flexibility in customized ink configurations along with increasing print speeds while maintaining overall comparable quality,” explains Thompson. Additionally, the way printheads are configured—such as the availability of CMYK plus specialty colors and finishes like clear and gloss—provide even more opportunities.
UV printing technology is established and mature. Printheads with smaller picoliters are available to produce high-resolution and color-rich print output. This continues to show dynamic growth as a textured feature that creates a tactile sensation for more unique products. The proper combination of ink and printhead with a well-developed ink jetting control technique are crucial to obtaining the best results. “To optimize the offering of a print service, some optional items like foil are developed to fulfill diverse needs in personalized applications,” shares Keira Lee, product manager, GCC.
Automated color profiling technologies are an important advancement, which helps add color into the gamut for better color accuracy while conserving ink costs for the end user, comments Thompson.
Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, adds that among direct-to-object flatbed printing advancements, printer throat and media clearance has increased throughout the market.
While flatbed printing is commonly used in signs and graphics, the demand for shorter runs and increased customization entice its use in industrial settings as well.
Roberts points out that niche modifications to benchtop flatbeds are developed to attract specific markets. “Most commonly, these are changes in size and throughput as well as ink delivery and chemistry. The niche market for industrial printing applications brings about a need for product volume, but not at common sizes,” he explains. “We’re seeing an increase in digital printing within these markets—for example on small board stock for flooring and smaller products, but at a much higher volume. These applications require both higher print speeds and specialized ink to suit the production needed.”
The adoption of state-of-the-art printheads and scratch resistant and color vivid ink enables a small flatbed printer to create the desired print quality with uncompromised throughput, suggests Lee. To further optimize production there is a move towards more automation in regards to both the process and development of automated hardware. For example, certain automatic feeder options enable users to handle sheet material from media loading and spot varnishing to collecting in a continuous, unattended, and efficient manner.
When it comes to advancements in direct-to-substrate printing, industry wide standards and improvements alongside similar technologies—whether customer or otherwise inspired—are always considered. “Innovations tend to make things faster, better, and neater when using direct-to-substrate printers. This includes faster printheads that offer more control in every capability; inks that are versatile in what they print on, easy to replace, and have a long-lasting shelf life; and RIP software that continually adapts to the printer’s ever-advancing modifications and increases usability while being informative for customers to integrate and evaluate return on investment,” notes Thompson.
Benefits of the Small
The ability to create textured print and the flexibility of producing custom, short-run items are advantages of a digital printer compared to screen printing equipment that may not be financially feasible. “Besides being flexible for short run on demand printing, small flatbed printers require smaller footprints, so even limited space is enough to accommodate a smaller printer,” says Lee.
Thompson believes tabletop or entry-style flatbeds present a great way to introduce digital printing processes into a business. “Aside from having a smaller footprint for a given space, ease of transport for a trade show, or setting up in a storefront, if shifting a product from another printing process, an entry-style or tabletop printer can be a great way to introduce digital printing.”
For those who already have large format printers, adding on a small format printer can help shift small run orders without interrupting large orders, as well as help diversify into other product applications, adds Thompson.
Benchtop-sized flatbed printers give users the ability to cost-effectively customize and personalize a variety of substrates and three-dimensional objects with vibrant, detailed graphics without taking up a lot of space. “Benchtop flatbed printers are also affordable when compared to larger UV flatbed models so they’re priced to suit the limited budgets of smaller shops and businesses,” says Roberts.
There are many considerations to take into account before investing in any digital press. For small format flatbed printers, productivity needs should be factored into the decision.
“Productivity is critical to every business as it directly affects revenue. Bigger machines have the advantage in mass production, while smaller flatbed printers show flexibility for short run, on demand needs. Productivity cannot be ignored when talking about company’s profits. A well-designed, automated unit—such as an auto-feeder system—can be a great tool,” shares Lee.
Perhaps most importantly, consider the surface that the machines will be used to print onto, as many may require some type of primer or adhesion promoter. Roberts admits that adhesion can be a challenge when printing on some materials, including ceramics.
Thompson agrees, noting there are some cases where a promoter should be used including ceramic with glazed surface, surfaces that will encounter cleaners, or surfaces planned for outdoor use that will be exposed to weathering or sunlight. Promoters may not be required if ceramic is porous in nature and will be kept indoors for décor or other purposes.
According to Lee, UV printing can handle the most commonly used materials, yet when strong ink bonds are required, the use of primer is suggested to enhance ink adhesion on the surface of the material to prevent inks from peeling off.
Direct digital printing to a range of substrates is achieved with the latest in tabletop or benchtop flatbed presses.
Oct2019, Industrial Print Magazine