by Cassandra Balentine
Many stand-out graphics for retail stores, restaurants, and events require more of a landscape than 24 inches in width. Therefore, wide format inkjet is a large and exciting segment of the digital print market.
For continuous deep dives on wide format, we refer readers to the experts at our sister publication, Digital Output. However, for this issue we look at the trends, advantages, and limitations of three areas—roll-fed, flatbed, and hybrid in the 24- to 64-inch wide format space.
The application range of wide format inkjet printing is unmatched, especially if you’re looking at both roll and flatbed configurations.
“Trends in wide format printing continue to evolve based on market needs. Typical outdoor/indoor signage is growing in large and narrow formats on coroplast and foamcore. Printing on clear acrylic with layering for viewing from either side is popular in wide format printing,” suggests a Ed Bokuniewicz, product marketing manager, Konica Minolta.
While not all signage requires photographic-level printing, it is critical for certain applications and end clients. “Today, print service providers (PSPs) expand applications as their clientele add wide format photographic, graphic art, and poster products to their requests. The products expected to grow fastest in demand over the next three years include photographic enlargements, posters, and presentation graphics/marketing collateral. With some planning and the integration of an aqueous-based production printer, print shops expand offerings to include high-quality indoor signage, posters, and marketing graphics,” shares Aaron Brill, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America.
David Lopez, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, adds that wide format printing clients have loyalty to print shops. Demands are increasing and expectations rising for print quality and longevity. “Print shops are looking for output solutions that are versatile and can handle a variety of substrates for applications such as indoor and outdoor signage, vehicle wraps, fine art, fabrics, wallpapers, and more to diversify product offerings. When purchasing new equipment, versatility and reliability have been essential. No longer are print shops purchasing separate printers for differing applications, but rather spending more for one printer that can produce high-quality, sellable output with revenue-building and application expanding capabilities to meet the changing customer demands.”
Michael Litardo, marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc., points to growth in direct-to-film applications, which is gaining attention due to its ability to apply to a wide range of materials. The technology is primarily used with garments and fabrics.
Lopez feels roll-fed printers provide several advantages for PSPs, including the ability to produce high-quality, sellable output. “The quality on roll-fed printers is exceptional and they can produce high-quality images with smooth gradients and consistent, repeatable color, ideal for graphics. Additionally, many include additional ink colors outside the traditional CYMK to expand color gamut, ideal for color matching and essential to matching client brand colors.”
The disadvantages of roll-fed printers, when compared to flatbed printing, include the multi-step process required to print to rigid substrates. “When looking to print to a rigid substrate a print shop must first print on vinyl and transfer that image. Also, there is a learning curve with roll-fed printers, and print shops want employees knowledgeable about RIP software and color profiling to ensure high-quality output,” admits Lopez.
Wide format inkjet technology reaches beyond signage into décor, packaging, and industrial manufacturing.
“The expansion into non-signage applications, including areas like wallcoverings, interior décor, and membrane switch applications is motivated by profitability. These emerging applications can offer substantial profit margins, and once the production processes are mastered, they can become relatively straightforward to manufacture,” states Patrick Donigain, senior manager, marketing, Canon U.S.A., Inc.
The packaging industry also realizes the benefits of digital print, which extends to wide format capabilities. Bokunitewicz notes that customized, short-run packaging applications on corrugated and folding carton stock are finding their way to wide format printing. Printing on other media types is a driving force for wide format printing such as leather, vinyls, textiles, plastics, wood, aluminum, and steel.
Textiles are also covered by wide format. Daniel Valade, product manager, digital print, Roland DGA, sees growing interest in textile printing for applications like apparel, soft signage, and interior décor.
Automation and Other Trends
Automation is making digital print attractive from an efficiency standpoint.
“Automation is a prominent trend in response to the challenges of workforce availability and high turnover rates. Automating various tasks is increasingly vital to help maintain efficient production operations,” states Donigain.
Wide format printing workflows are simplified with automation and digitization. “Innovative software solutions and integrated systems are streamlining the design-to-print process, reducing errors, and improving efficiency,” says Valade.
The ability to add customization is one key benefit of digital print.
“Digital inkjet advancements, especially when it comes to UV printers, make it easy and cost effective for print providers and companies to enhance and add value to an ever-widening range of products with these types of graphics,” shares Valade.
Digital print also brings a certain element of sustainability, especially in the context that it is on demand and reduces or eliminates the need for makeready.
Valade says it’s also worth noting that both UV-curable and latex inks are gaining popularity due to their durability, versatility, and ability to print on a wide range of substrates.
Roll-fed wide format printers excel in certain areas of wide format, including banners and print-and-cut applications.
Lopez sees a variety of trends within the roll-fed printer space. “One trend is digitally printed wallpaper. Designers are looking for unique options, and with the ability to digitally print wallpapers they have complete control over the design, pattern, color, and amount created, providing a unique, personalized design for clients.”
Roll-fed wide format printers are also a top choice for producing vehicle graphics, notes Litardo.
Valade adds that wide format roll-fed printers allow for easy customization and personalization of prints, catering to specific customer requirements.
“In the roll-fed aqueous printer space, as we’ve seen for years, canvas prints and photobooks continue to drive the industry,” comments Brill. “With everyone taking hundreds of photos a month on their phones, families are looking to make their digital images become tangible with photobooks that can be shared endlessly and high-quality glossy, luster, and matte prints that can be framed and hung on the walls as art.”
These devices already provide other advantages like the ability to produce a high volume of sellable materials with minimal waste. They also bring versatility, cost effectiveness, and durability.
“Roll-fed printers are highly versatile and can accommodated various media types, including paper, vinyl, canvas, and more,” shares Valade. “This makes them suitable for a range of applications, such as posters, banners, signage, and even fine art prints.”
“Wide format output produced by roll-to-roll printers are often durable and resistant to fading, water, and UV damage, making them suitable for outdoor applications,” adds Valade.
Donigain believes that using the right tool for the job is important. “When dealing with roll-based media, a roll-to-roll printer usually offers advantages such as easy media loading, outstanding media handling capabilities, and the convenience of leaving it unattended while it’s in the printing process.”
“Roll-fed printers can handle long runs without frequent interruptions. This is beneficial for high-volume printing needs,” agrees Valade.
Many roll-fed printers offer high-resolution printing, resulting in sharp, detailed graphics, text, and images.
Brill comments that roll-fed aqueous-based printers are becoming more robust, offering productivity with a greatly reduced footprint, all-front operation, and a slim profile design that enables placement where other printers are not able to be installed, even against a wall or configured back-to-back. “These smaller footprint solutions offer a new level of workflow freedom to shops scaling for a new market environment.”
In terms of cost per square foot or inch, Valade says roll-fed printers can be cost effective, especially when producing large quantities of prints.
There are limitations to consider “One disadvantage is the inability to produce rigid signs without additional materials and labor,” says Litardo.
“You cannot use an aqueous printer to print directly on to wood, glass, acrylic, or fabric, limiting application use to flat, printed graphics on fine art paper,” adds Brill.
While roll-fed wide format printers have a place in the wide format print industry, flatbed printers do as well. Many popular flatbed wide format printers are UV.
Overall, Jay Roberts, UV printer product manager, Roland DGA, says UV flatbed wide format printers offer a number of advantages for businesses that need to print high-quality images on a variety of materials. “The greatest benefits these printers provide are for customization and personalization. Having the ability to print directly onto both large, thick objects and a full bed of smaller, corporate-branded promotional products and gift items provides PSPs with business opportunities.”
When it comes to UV flatbed printers, one hot trend is related to color. “The focus is on big, vibrant color. This year, we’ve seen a move toward printing with the expanded gamut inks,” shares Valade. There is also increased demand for corporate colors.
The ability to customize or personalize high-end “swag” gifts quickly, easily, and cost efficiently is a big advantages UV flatbeds. “There is a huge selection of high-quality, customizable products that can be produced on these machines. These gifts are branded and customized for all types of clients, allowing for marketing that is effective in increasing brand awareness and loyalty,” says Roberts.
For Lopez, tactile prints stand out as a growing application. “Flatbed printing offers the unique ability to create a multi-layer print, resulting in a slightly three-dimensional output with a tactile feel. This is being used frequently for bathroom signs and art canvas reproduction.”
Another important area served by flatbed printers is ADA-compliant braille, according to Litardo.
Best of Both Words
While separately, roll-fed and flatbed wide format devices are well suited for a range of applications, respective to its own capabilities, hybrid options present the best of both worlds.
Bokuniewiez says hybrid wide format printers center around the versatility of running flexible roll and rigid material by just changing the material. “There are no additional changes to the printer that need to be made. There are no media limitations, which allows you to print on virtually any media type that fits the maximum width specifications.”
In addition to the ability to print on rigid substrates and 3D objects, they can be used for printing on classic flexible materials for the sign and graphics industry, such as banners, art canvas, self-adhesive labels, wallpapers, and fabrics. “Previously, the roll stocks used were thinner materials like adhesive vinyl or banners, but over the last couple of years we’ve seen an increase in the thickness of materials. Users are seeing the value of a hybrid printer’s ability to print directly not only on rigid materials and 3D objects, but also onto roll media, including thicker roll stock like yoga mats, garage floor mats, and even thick rolls of industrial fabric and linens for outdoor furniture or coverings,” says Valade.
Bokuniewiez notes trends towards both single- and double-roll feeding capability.
The introduction of belt-driven hybrid UV printers has maximized capabilities for users. “These belt-driven hybrids not only offer expanded ink gamuts that increase the color and creative opportunities for print professionals, they also increase the range of applications that can be offered and the range of media that can be used,” says Valade.
Footprint options also expand. “Traditionally, hybrid wide format flatbed/roll-to-roll printers enable print shops with limited workspace to print graphics to take advantage of a single, space-saving device that enables the printing of both rigid substrates and flexible rolls of materials,” shares Valade.
“As is the case with high-quality UV flatbeds, hybrid wide format UV printers offer many advantages with virtually no limitations,” proclaims Roberts. “Essentially, the sky is the limit—they can print directly onto just about anything.”
Donigain admits that a drawback associated with hybrid printers often lies in their accuracy when printing double-sided materials or their incapability to handle pre-cut or irregularly shaped pieces. “If your printing tasks involve any of these requirements, a flatbed printer is the most suitable choice.”
Wide Format Potential
The benefits of wide format inkjet are well known to anyone in the print industry. Trends and advancements in roll-fed, flatbed, and hybrid options continue to expand opportunities.
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DPS Magazine, Jan2024