By Melissa Donovan
Many print service providers (PSPs) stake their claim to fame on versatility, being the one-stop shop for their customers. To achieve this and do it well, it’s important to streamline production and workflow. One way is to operate versatile wide format flatbed printers. Today’s devices are equipped with a number of features that allow for printing to multiple substrates—both traditional and untraditional.
Untraditional includes wood, slate, glass, and ceramic. These can be native pieces or pre-manufactured objects. In either scenario, a wide format flatbed printer handles both. Markets using decorative ceramic pieces in particular are excited about what digital printing technology has offer. PSPs can address these potential customers with a UV flatbed printer.
One Offs and Small Runs
Digital flatbed printers are ideal to cost-effectively produce ceramic-based products that are one offs or small runs. Architects, contractors, homeowners, designers, and businesses are all in when it comes to the customization of living spaces and objects like mugs or glassware.
“Printed decorative items have evolved tremendously over the last few years. The improvement of the U.S.’ housing and real estate market has caused an upswing in remodeling, upgrading, and custom design work,” says Donna A. Herrmann, sales representative, American Printing Systems LLC. To impress peers, colleagues, and buyers, custom pieces are in high demand. This includes ceramic backsplashes, floors, counters, wall accents, and murals and mosaics.
The custom décor market is expanding, agrees Steve Toombs, business development manager, Canon Solutions America. “No longer are architects and discerning homeowners satisfied to select from mass produced, readily available wall and floor covering options; they want to choose something entirely unique to their property.”
Printing to cermaic tiles is a complementary service to other applications that have been printed to for sometime, such as walls, floors, and window blinds. “It fits a need that has not been addressed,” shares Thomas Giglio, business development manager, HP Latex R Series printers, HP Inc.
“Designers and graphic artists are discovering digital flatbed print technology. Once a graphic designer learns what a UV LED printer can do, they put their talents to work with brilliant designs focused around the media that the printer can print,” explains Ken Parsley, UV product applications engineer, Mutoh America, Inc.
Dedicated digital ceramic printers are available, but using a versatile wide format flatbed printer may be more ideal for a traditional PSP. Dedicated printers are designed for high-volume output and generally found right on the production floor of a tile or glass manufacturer, part of the overall manufacturing process.
“For traditional PSPs, there is a great opportunity to leverage readily available UV flatbed technology without fully committing to a new, specialized press. The UV flatbed already in your shop can produce some ceramics jobs for things like prototyping, custom samples, promotion products, and unique, project-driven applications,” recommends Dan Johansen, senior marketing manager, wide format solutions, commercial and industrial printing business group, Ricoh USA, Inc.
Herrmann points out that a UV flatbed allows for printing not only ceramic, but also wood, glass, rock, PVC, PET, ABS, acrylic, boards, metals, soft fabrics, and leathers. “It’s the flexibility of one machine for many different substrates,” she adds.
There is no need to invest in training for a new system or understanding its ink set and learning how to appropriately color manage. “Using a versatile large format printer allows traditional PSPs to expand their application portfolio using an existing printer, without the need to invest in additional significant hardware and training. Using the inks and color management system that their flatbed printer already supports allows the most possible application versatility, provided the functional requirements of tiles can be met,” suggests Toombs.
Features on the newest UV flatbed printers make them especially ideal for printing short runs of ceramic objects. Of note are specialty inks, wider distance between the printhead and object to be printed, and droplet technology.
“The addition of white and varnish inks make UV printing not just great for white surfaces but also dark as well. Laying down a white ink layer allows the printer to print color right on top. In addition, the varnish allows for changing the gloss of the final print, or for adding some texture to create even more abstract and tactile details,” shares Parsley.
Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, agrees that the biggest advantage wide format flatbed printers offer for ceramic printing is the ability to print primer, gloss, and white as desired.
The wider distance between the printhead and the object is helpful. “Many of today’s flatbed printers can print on significantly thicker media than ever before. That offers the PSP great diversity in substrate choices, whether it be actual ceramic tile or something to simulate the look and feel of ceramic tile,” advises Johansen.
Technology has advanced considerably to provide high-quality graphics on ceramics. “Some flatbeds feature variable or extremely small droplet delivery combined with light inks for near-continuous tone imagery, particularly on high grain materials like ceramics. The geometry and precision of repeatable droplet placement found on true flatbed printers that do not move the media through the print path allow for value-added printing features such as varnishes or textures that require multiple passes over the media,” suggests Toombs.
Image with Ink
Ink is also a reason why digital flatbeds are increasingly used for printing directly to ceramics. UV-curable, UV LED, and latex are options.
“UV inks are an excellent choice because they offer near photographic image reproduction, a large color gamut, excellent color stability with UV exposure, excellent repeatability—important for reprints and replacement of tiles damaged during installation, and excellent chemical resistance for the protective varnishes often required to make digitally decorated ceramic functional for their intended wall or floor applications,” adds Toombs.
Productivity increases with the advantage of instant dry time, according to Herrmann. Secondly, UV curing turns the liquid ink into a solid immediately—colors stay true and vibrant because they aren’t absorbed into the substrate.
“UV inks offer a wide gamut of colors and most also have a range of print resolutions. Include the capability to add texture and you have the right combination for just about any ceramic piece application,” adds Parsley.
In regards to latex ink, according to Giglio, now that it is capable of printing on rigid substrates, “it is a formidable and viable alternative because of its thin, smooth ink thickness—offering not only a subtle texture but a smooth surface to overcoat if desired.”
Johansen points out that dedicated digital ceramic printers use inks with a pigment base and different chemical composition, which explains why these printers are used for longer, production-type runs. The ink is designed with greater durability in mind because the curing process usually involves firing the printed object in a kiln after printing.
“Inks designed for use on ceramics differ from standard fare, both in terms of pigments used and chemical composition. For these reasons, UV based, direct to ceramic printing via flatbed tends to stick to smaller runs and custom projects. This parallels a number of industries where common practice is to use one type of printing technology for short runs and prototyping, and other unique, specialty devices for production-level printing,” he continues.
While UV ink is known for its versatility to print and cure well on ceramic, a promoter or primer supports adhesion.
“Most ceramics require adhesion promoters or surface primers and/or protective coatings to be successful in their intended application. Understanding the final application and working with the installer/client to test that the final ceramic piece meets their needs is critical for success,” explains Toombs.
Parsley suggests testing the surface first, and that means testing each kind of ceramic with various adhesion promoters to determine the best fit. He adds that an extra coating may need to be used at the end to increase resistance to surface cleaners, thus bolstering longevity.
In his experience, Roberts says some pre-manufactured tiles may not require an adhesion promoter, but on fired or glazed tiles the use of an adhesion promoter is necessary to meet the end user’s durability requirements.
“When a substrate lacks any porous surface, it tends to be difficult for the ink to bind to that surface. In that case, there are options available, such as laying down a primer coat to treat the surface and make it UV ink friendly. These treatments can enhance the durability of the print, helping to prevent erosion and preserve higher image quality for a longer stretch of time,” adds Johansen.
Printing the Same
UV flatbed printers are ideal for short runs or customized ceramic products. Dedicated digital ceramic printers are available, but they are predominately found in tile manufacturing facilities and incorporated into the entire production workflow to assist in large runs of product. Owning a UV flatbed allows PSPs to expand into new markets like promotional or décor, all while using the same device that handles signage.
Jul2019, Industrial Print Magazine