By Olivia Cahoon
Wide format presents an opportunity for print service providers (PSPs) looking to expand services and revenue streams. With the addition of wide format, PSPs can offer outdoor applications like banners, building wraps, mesh banners, outdoor installations, signage, vehicle wraps, and wallscapes.
Before investing in a wide format device, consider the applications it is intended for as this often affects the type of ink and printer that will ultimately be implemented. Cost, ease of use, and finishing technology are also important considerations that affect return on investment.
“Know what you want to sell and what application you are going to market,” stresses Tom Wittenberg, large format marketing manager, the Americas, sign and decor, HP Inc. “This drives the printer technology you will need, along with the options that come with the printer.” For example, if you want to sell double-sided banners, he suggests you want a printer that runs flexible media with inks that perform well outdoors, and also has the capacity to automatically register the back to the front side when printing double sided.
Above: Rolan offers the TrueVIS VG Series of wide format printers and cutters. The Fujifilm Acuity LED 3200R accommodates a ten-foot roll and features LED UV curing.
Ink for the Outdoors
Several types of inks may be used in the digital wide format space for outdoor graphics, including aqueous, eco-solvent and solvent, latex, and UV inks. Daniel Valade, product manager, color products, Roland DGA Corporation, believes the primary consideration for PSPs looking to invest in a digital wide format printer for outdoor applications is versatility. While each ink technology has its own strengths and weaknesses, some are better suited than others for outdoor graphics.
Ken Hanulec,VP of marketing, EFI Inkjet, explains that solvent is a good choice for outdoor graphics, as is UV/LED UV, adding that latex and water-based inks may benefit from a UV overlaminate/coating.
Wittenberg suggests that print providers ensure signage can withstand weather conditions for the length of time a graphic is expected to be outdoors. “For the period of time the signage will be outdoors, it’s best to set expectations with customers up front rather than after the signage has fades or is torn apart,” he comments.
Aqueous inks are offered as dye or pigment. Dyes are bright and cost effective, but may also be prone to fading, unlike pigments that are more fade- and water-resistant. Aqueous inks are often used for corrugated, indoor banners, fine art, food packaging, liner papers, photography, posters, and signage.
“Aqueous ink technology provides an excellent color gamut but is by itself not outdoor durable without protective lamination, which adds extra costs in addition to the high cost of the coated media,” says Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager, Canon Solutions America. He admits that the fade resistance of aqueous inks is generally worse than solvent, latex, or UV.
Transfer dye-sublimation (dye-sub) requires more processing and specially coated papers for printing, a heat press for post print processing, and only works with polyester substrates. Michael Maxwell, senior manager, sales promotion, Mimaki USA, says it doesn’t last in exterior environments for very long but it does make the widest and most vibrant color space.
Solvent is often used for applications like vehicle wraps and decals because it sometimes offers a warranty against fading for long-term outdoor use. Maxwell believes that eco-solvent and solvent inks are the most durable and versatile ink selection in wide format. “Solvent printers account for the largest adoption of wide format printing worldwide due to its exterior durability without lamination,” he comments. It is easy to obtain, which makes it widely supported and a good starting point for potential buyers.
Print providers that intend to offer vehicle wraps should consider eco-solvent and solvent-based inks. Fabrizio Soto, GM, industrial business unit, OKI Data Americas, says that solvent-based inks have a proven reputation for excellent outdoor durability and scratch resistance.
While eco-solvent and solvent inks penetrate the media for a durable application, they also require adequate ventilation due to the fumes produced during printing. Paar warns that as environmental rules are tightened in various jurisdictions, solvent printing is under pressure to be replaced by “greener” alternatives. “Prints produced with solvent inks need to outgas for up to 24 hours before lamination can be applied,” he adds.
Latex inks are often used to create decals, stickers, and vehicle graphics. They allow for immediate finishing due to a fast curing process.
Dan Johansen, marketing manager, wide format and finishing solutions, Ricoh USA, Inc., says that while solvent inks are historically associated with high-quality color, in recent years latex has made great strides. “Latex is starting to overtake solvent in some places due to its greater parity for quality, low cure times, and lack of unpleasant OSHA-regulated vapors,” he explains.
However, latex inks are sometimes considered more suited for indoor applications because without lamination they may fade faster than UV or solvent inks.
UV inks are cured instantly for quick turnaround times with less need for ventilation. It offers more functionality for direct-to-substrate printing on materials like PVC and corrugated plastic. UV inks are usually offered for flatbed presses due to the ink’s rigid nature.
“This technology has become increasingly popular,” admits Maxwell. Some manufacturers have improved UV ink flexibility, which has opened the technology to roll-based media for applications like backlit or flex-face awnings.
While UV inks are now easier to obtain and operate, there are still some adhesion issues on certain substrates, many of which can be addressed by using a primer. Buyers should thoroughly test and verify UV ink compatibility to the material prior to printing.
Print providers must also determine which configuration—flatbed, roll, or hybrid—works best for them. However, these options may depend on the ink type selected.
According to Paar, in the past ten years, flatbed printers have taken a large share of printing away from roll-fed printers due to the ability to print directly onto rigid substrates. However, this capability comes with a price. “Flatbed printers typically cost significantly more than roll-to-roll printers, but you can do so much more with them,” he says.
Flatbed printers tend to be UV-curable, enabling direct printing to various flat sheet goods for quick turnarounds. “It skips several of the labor processes print providers must adopt when using a roll-based printer,” explains Maxwell.
This functionality comes at a slight cost increase for jobs that exceed the physical printing dimensions. While stationary flatbed presses support printing onto more media than roll-fed for greater application versatility, flatbed printers are typically no larger than 5×10 feet.
Roll-fed presses offer fewer print area constraints for longer width and length jobs. Roll-fed presses tend to be faster, have smaller working footprints, and print long output banners and graphics.
“Roll-fed devices are more versatile than flatbed printers, allowing shops to handle a more diverse range of jobs,” suggests Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, Roland DGA.
Johansen agrees and says that roll-fed printers are an excellent option to produce jobs on flexible materials like papers, banner stocks, and backlit substrates.
Dedicated roll-to-roll or flatbed presses achieve productivity with higher volumes of specific applications, says Hanulec.
Despite versatility, roll-fed presses are labor intensive. Instead of printing directly to rigid substrates, the provider prints the graphic with a roll-fed printer and mounts the output to a rigid substrate.
Traditional graphics providers, especially those new to the wide format space, seek presses that produce flexible banners and signs as well as rigid output. Considered the best of both worlds, hybrid presses allow owners and operators to deliver a variety of applications.
Print providers looking to offer a mix of rigid and flexible applications might want to consider a hybrid printer. “Hybrid printers offer the ability to print high-quality graphics direct to rigid and specialty items as well as roll-to-roll applications,” says Hanulec, adding that they are a good choice for screenprinters looking to make the move to digital.
According to Wittenberg, the signage business is great for a hybrid as it provides the flexibility to run both rigid and flexible materials required in the market.
In terms of workspace, hybrid presses offer solutions for compact work environments during roll-fed operation but can transform into flatbed mode and utilize more space. “Most hybrid devices have adjustable or moveable flatbed attachments that extend from the back and then the front to minimize the amount of operational space needed,” says Roberts.
“A hybrid printer is ideal for a print shop that is looking to offer both rigid and roll-fed applications,” comments Michelle Johnson, marketing manager, Mutoh. She believes shops that don’t have the footprint to grow their equipment will benefit from hybrid printers and allow them to complete various applications on one press.
However, Maxwell warns that job calibration on flat sheet goods versus roll goods is completely different. He says hybrid devices tend to fall short for being suited for both printing methods, leading to costly waste.
Industries that should consider hybrid presses include those that offer a variety of short-run applications, the interior décor market, small demand environments, and start ups.
Considerations and Tips
With many ink and press selections available, it’s easy for a print provider new to the wide format space to feel overwhelmed. They must consider potential buyers, application offerings, finishing times, print methods, and ink and media choices.
Potential buyers must first understand their application needs as well as the strengths and limitations of each technology and how it relates to the expected output. Maxwell advises buyers to speak with experienced manufacturers in multiple technology spaces to navigate the choices. “With the advances and maturity of solvent and UV-curable technologies, these are safe to start with, however, based on needs, other technologies such as dye-sub or latex may be more suitable,” he says.
Johnson agrees and thinks print providers should focus on application offerings and what the main source of revenue will be for the company—then buy accordingly. For outdoor graphics, print providers should consider ink durability and longevity.
The versatility possible today—particularly with the range of substrates that are compatible with LED inkjet—means users should use their creativity to think of new and different applications. To drum up business, those new to wide format should reach out to their existing base to let them know about their newest capabilities. “You might be surprised how much more business you will get from current clients,” says Hanulec.
The budget for wide format technology must also include finishing solutions. Johansen warns that many printers entering wide format don’t factor finishing into the budget, including sewing or welding for outdoor banners or grommeting options for boulevard signage and the hardware associated with providing the customer a finished product. “Let’s not forget the great revenue opportunity that exists in installation services,” he adds.
Laminators are popular finishing solutions included in the budget. Outdoor graphics printed on vinyl are laminated for protection against weather and abrasion. “If the application is very short term, then the need to laminate decreases significantly,” admits Valade.
Consulting the brand’s application guide helps print providers select the best offering of media as well as the correct film for the application surface. “Always make sure you start off with the correct film, trying to make a film work on a surface that won’t cooperate can result in a lot of wasted time and effort,” recommends Valade.
Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles and consumables, Roland DGA, agrees, and says when laminating a vinyl, it’s important to match like-with-like—meaning printing on a cast vinyl should also be used with a cast overlaminate. Mixing and matching films and overlaminate may result in failures in the field when films are exposed to the environment.
Media and ink compatibility is also a top concern for print providers taking on wide format. Matt McCausland, product manager, professional imaging, Epson America Inc., recommends printers review and confirm ink and media durability before purchasing. For example, 3M MCS warranty-backed products are tested and allow customers the maximum protection and performance for outdoor printed vinyl.
Regarding costs McCausland sees most entry-level customers considering eco-solvent printers for ink usage and energy savings to prepare the business for success on a platform that lasts more than a year. “It’s often difficult to justify installing a 220v hookup and continued high-energy costs when operating cash flow is so important,” he adds.
Soto agrees and points out that it’s important to compare monthly ink costs between models. “If you could save $.08 to $.10 per square foot on ink with one model over another, and you ran as little as three rolls per week, you could realize a savings of $700 to $800 per month in ink alone,” he explains.
If a printer has an excellent color gamut, consider the printer’s speed. Some machines sacrifice ink coverage at higher speeds. Although entry-level wide format printers may not be concerned with speed due to a low customer base, ink coverage sacrifices can affect the company’s future. “As your print operation grows, it will become increasingly important for your printer to maintain print quality as speed increases,” explains Soto.
Print providers interested in wide format technology for outdoor markets must fully evaluate all factors in cost of ownership. “A low capital investment usually points to an overall high consumable cost,” warns Heather Roden, Acuity marketing manager, graphic systems division, FUJIFILM North America Corporation.
Many players serve the wide format digital print space. Here are highlights from those offering entry-level options.
Canon Solutions America’s new Océ Colorado 1640 is a 64-inch wide roll-to-roll printer with CMYK UVgel inks. According to Paar, UVgel inks take the best of solvent, latex, and conventional UV inks for productivity improvements and a 50 percent cost savings. UVgel behaves like a gel when deposited onto media and the media is laid down without any dot gain prior to being cured with a cold-curing LED lamp system. “The Océ Colorado instantly provides a competitive edge to print providers competing against other providers still using solvent, latex, or UV systems,” explains Paar.
The EFI Pro 16h was released this Spring. The LED hybrid flatbed/roll-fed printer offers CMYK printing, plus 2W. It features an embedded EFI Fiery proServer Core, multi-layer printing, and resolutions up to 1,200×1,200 dpi with four-level grayscale.
The Epson SureColor S80600 is a 64-inch production roll-fed inkjet printer. It produces red and optional white or metallic silver ink for solvent printing. Its Dual-Array PrecisionCore TFP printhead and precision media feeding system allow sellable output at 340 square feet per hour (sf/h). The SureColor S80600 features UltraChrome GS3 nine-color solvent ink for photographic print quality, durability, and media compatibility. “The SureColor S80600, Epson’s flagship signage printer, delivers on all the features customers consider important when seeking a quality, production-grade solvent printing machine,” comments McCausland.
The Fujifilm Acuity LED 3200R is a ten-foot roll printer with LED UV curing for outdoor graphics. The Fujifilm Uvijet LED cured inks have options for six-color and white printing. The inks require no extraction methods or additional drying equipment. “Because this device offers prints that are instantly dry off the device, it makes fulfillment time a breeze,” says Roden. The 3200R offers dual roll capability.
HP presents the HP Latex 110, 300 Series Printers, 500 Series Printers, and the HP Scitex FB550 printer for entry-level wide format printers targeting the outdoor market. The Latex printers are roll-to-roll while the Scitex FB550 is a hybrid printer.
Mimaki offers several wide format presses including the CJV150 Series. It is an entry-level, eco-solvent printer from 32- to 64-inch widths. The CJV150 has print speeds up to 605 sf/h with ten ink colors including silver for metallic effects. “Eco-solvent technology prints to the widest range of media produced for outdoor use,” says Maxwell. The price varies depending on width with the widest model under $21,000.
At $27,995, the Mutoh ValueJet 1638X is a dual printhead eco-solvent printer with a maximum width of 64 inches. Its dual printheads allow print speeds up to 1,168 sf/h. “It’s ideal for entry-level type printing but allows for size, speed, and ink capability for a higher production shop,” says Johnson. The ValueJet 1638X features Mutoh Smart Printing technology, eight ink channels, and heavy-duty take up.
OKI Data’s ColorPainter E-64s retails for $14,999. It has a print width of 64 inches and uses OKI’s eco-solvent SX inks for color vibrancy and durability in outdoor applications like vehicle wraps. “In many ways, the E-64s is ideal for new or low-volume wide format print operations, offering the top-of-the-line outdoor durability found in high-powered production printers, but with speeds and a price tag better suited for growing shops,” says Soto. The E-64s carries the 3M MCS warranty and Avery ICS warranty.
The RICOH Pro L4130/L4160 prints up to 63 inches wide with seven-color printing including orange, green, and white. It uses aqueous latex inks and is intended for banners, point of sale displays, signs, and wraps. Johansen says its environmentally friendly and outdoor-hardy latex inks can weather any storm, on almost any substrate including backlit materials, clear film, plastic, textile, and vinyl. Its user friendly interface allows operators to check settings, set favorites, and reuse past settings.
The Roland TrueVIS VG Series of wide format printers and cutters are available in 54- and 64-inch width models with four- seven-, and eight-color configurations. The series has a maximum speed width of 375 sf/h. Valade says it’s suitable for print providers new to wide format because its affordable, durable, easy to use, and features cost-efficient TrueVIS INK in 500 ml pouches. The TrueVIS VG-540 is $20,995 and the VG-640 is $24,995.
The Outdoor Market
Once a print provider considers what specific applications they intend to offer with wide format capabilities, it’s time to consider which ink and press configurations are most beneficial. For providers looking to enter the outdoor market, it’s integral they choose a durable ink with scratch and fade resistance. While both roll-fed and flatbed presses offer exceptional advantages, some providers may consider a hybrid printer for the best of both worlds.
October 2017, DPS Magazine