By Melissa Donovan
In addition to printing on media used to create displays and other applications, flatbeds also print to three-dimensional (3D) objects. One method is running multiple items at once by constructing a jig and placing it on the flatbed. These include flash drives, golf balls, and lunch boxes—to name a few. Larger untraditional pieces can also be placed through a printer, like doors and guitar cases.
A flatbed printer allows for large batches of these products to be printed in a short amount of time. It positions a manufacturer to meet quick turnarounds and customization requests. New offerings present another way to profit. Specific features make a flatbed ideal for printing onto multiple items at once or larger untraditional pieces. Advanced ink technology allows for adhesion onto a number of materials, raised heights of printheads accommodate 3D objects, and table beds are designed to accurately hold down complex items.
There are devices that print over 24 inches in width and others considered tabletop flatbeds are smaller in dimension. For the purpose of this article, we focus on flatbeds over 24 inches in width.
Manufacturers considering purchasing a printer or using a current flatbed device for printing unique applications recognize the opportunity of a new revenue stream. Customized products are in high demand and buyers spend good money for them.
“Personalizing and customizing all kinds of objects is a huge trend right now. People pay more for these types of products. This is having an effect upon markets in various industries as well as buying behavior. Each person has a natural desire to create his or her look, and UV flatbeds make it simple to transform all kinds of things to suit individual preferences and styles,” explains Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation.
According to Tom Wittenberg, Americas large format market segment manager, sign and decor, HP, Inc., niche markets where large volumes aren’t the standard—school basketballs with logos, personalized lunch boxes, or one-of-a-kind art on a guitar case—are unique in nature, achieving both higher pricing and higher margins. “The key is getting enough of the small volumes to support the return on investment on the printer,” he adds.
Since the cost to personalize a product—or multiple pieces—through digital printing is minimal, says Josh Hope, senior manager, industrial printing, Mimaki USA, Inc., it all comes down to reduced costs and increased profit due to the ease of customization.
Diversifying offerings increases net profitability, agrees Randy Paar, LFS marketing manager – display graphics, Canon Solutions America.
“A lot of print shops incorporate flatbed printers into their shop for add-on purchases. For example, if someone is purchasing a banner for the high school soccer team, they may want an award or water bottle for the players too,” shares Michelle Johnson, advertising and events manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
Offering these services means what was once a rare occurrence becomes standard. “By saying yes to the difficult, unique, one-of-a-kind work, a print provider can get their foot in the door for more attractive and regular program work,” admits Mark Schlimme, director of marketing/product manager – wide format, Screen Americas.
With the capability to print onto a range of materials, a number of unique applications can be produced digitally. The variety means a range of buyers request them, from repeat customers manufacturers to newer clients.
Wittenberg lists printed doors, wooden panels for artwork, and decorative tiles for kitchens, to stereo speakers thin enough to appear as artwork on a wall, blank wrapped canvases, and jewelry boxes as examples of unique applications customized by digital flatbed printers.
“At this point, it is anything and everything. Customization of an already premium item can make all the difference in standing out in what can be a very crowded and competitive market,” shares Hope.
Stone blocks, smashed metal pipes, broken recycled glass, refurbished oak planks, lunch boxes, shipping pallets, electrical fixtures, and toilet seats are some of the “craziest” items seen by Roberts.
Javier Mahmoud, VP of sales and marketing, CET Color, suggests anything in the industrial gamut, from skateboards to phone cases.
“Everything from window shades to doors to furniture to lamp shades to advertising premiums such as jump drives, golf balls, and phone cases. Demands for fast-turn prototyping are also driving innovative uses of flatbed printers,” shares Schlimme.
The demand is primarily driven by people in the know about the capabilities of a flatbed, according to Paar. These include graphic designers, interior designers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs.
Consumers, corporations, schools, and hospitality also look to create unique environments or unique experiences for individuals, says Wittenberg.
“I have heard providers say they’ve received requests from architects, exterior and interior designers, movie and play set designers, advertising agencies looking for odd items, customers who want to create a unique point of purchase, and even artists looking for a new canvas medium,” adds Roberts.
Specific features found on a flatbed make it ideal for printing onto 3D objects. These include the ink, coatings, or varnish; printheads; and material handling.
Ink sets designed for digital flatbeds offer versatility in a number of ways. For example, white ink and varnish can be used decoratively to draw attention to specific areas, suggests Paar. Layers of ink provide texture, which offers a unique look and feel, according to Wittenberg.
“The ability to match digital inks to the appropriate application is a huge benefit. Digital UV inks are available in a range of flexibility and durability for many applications. Add to that the ability to use clear for special effects and jettable primer for challenging substrates and there is a range of printing possibilities,” says Hope.
Printheads are designed to handle robust, industrial-type objects, while still generating high-quality images. “Drop control is a critical factor in image quality to a variety of substrates. Droplet size, shape uniformity, repeatability, and time of flight control are all factors of an engineer’s ability to address the printheads using the tools provided by the printhead manufacturer,” shares Schlimme.
Built-in printhead height ensures the correct distance between the printhead and material. If too far away, the ink won’t properly adhere, if too close, the printhead becomes damaged. Some flatbeds have sensors, like a laser, while others may use media detection bars. “Making sure the printhead height is ideal for each object is crucial,” cautions Roberts.
Flatbed tables handle 3D objects with minimal room for error. “Some flatbeds feature vacuum beds that offer a reverse air option giving media lift or blow back, which is very useful when working with heavier media that weighs 60 or 70 pounds. The vacuum bed makes it easy to slide media on and off the bed,” explains Michael La Bianca, digital imaging applications specialist, Agfa Graphics.
“One of the most useful features of a flatbed printer is the stationary table. Because the item or substrate being printed onto doesn’t need to move, this allows printing with high precision, repeatability, and quality across all types and shapes of substrates,” advises Paar.
Some flatbed printers are equipped with registration pins, which helps align jigs properly, adds Heather Roden, Acuity product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
While printing to untraditional items like guitar cases, flash drives, and golf balls opens up a new revenue stream, it does come with challenges. Manufacturers should be aware of these prior to taking on a job. Tips and tricks to ensure success include testing and being conscious of pricing.
“Printing onto non-traditional items can require testing, more testing, and testing again. Because the user may be venturing into unknown territory, there is the possibility that things won’t work during the first attempt. Figuring out the secret formula can help in retaining customers and the new revenue gained from the application,” suggests Paar.
Wittenberg recommends thinking through costing and ensuring receiving enough money for the job to profit. “Some of the jobs may have higher levels of scrap or require running the printer very slowly. These can quickly take a job into the red if not taken into consideration upfront. Are you going to need a jig if the items are small and/or multiple up? This is another cost that needs to be captured, especially if this is a one-time job.”
Don’t skimp to save. Using a cheaper base material—flash drive, water bottle, etc.—may end up costing more in the long run. “Be careful in selecting the target materials. A small savings in the raw product can cost you more if the cheaper product does not hold ink as well as a name brand item might,” advises Hope.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to printing to unique objects is ink adhesion. “Products from different manufacturers can produce different results. If you must use a certain product and the adhesion is an issue there are many primers on the market that can help. Primer must also be tested as the results will vary greatly on different materials,” explains Ken Parsley, flatbed/hybrid product manager, Mutoh.
Keeping an item flat during the printing process can also be difficult. “This controls the quality of the print and helps ensure the end result meets the customer’s expectations. The many different and unusual substrates used require some special handling. Often fixtures or jigs hold items in place and wedges level odd-shaped objects to create a flat printing surface,” shares Roberts.
Buyers from different backgrounds request customization in low volumes. Digital printing is poised to capitalize on these demands and help generate profits. Ink, printhead, and material handling technologies found on flatbeds handle unconventional items as small as a flash drive to as large as a garage door. These advancements present new opportunities for manufacturers willing to become acquainted with the nuances of printing to untraditional objects.
Aug2017, Industrial Print Magazine