The world’s biggest print show will see a heap of wide format developments, reports Sophie Matthews.Probably the fastest area of growth in the entire printing spectrum is the sector for wide-format ink-jet production. A decade ago, this type of digital process was still in its infancy but, since that time, it has passed through many formats to become an accepted technology and not, simply, a novelty whose ultimate value was questionable. Today’s machines cover all budgets and a vast range of end applications and ink technologies and, currently, there are few print companies which do not use digital output in one of its many forms.
Formerly segmented into the screen-printing, sign-making and digital bureau markets, wide-format production has now become a relevant part of any printing event which looks at current and future trends across all disciplines. With drupa representing a major world-wide platform for new developments, manufacturers in the ink-jet sector will also be using the event to introduce new machines and technologies which serve to confirm its importance within the offset and packaging sectors as well as those in which it is known traditionally.
Notable trends which will be in evidence include the increasing move to UV-curable ink technologies across all price brackets, and encompassing roll-fed and flat-bed printers, as well as the continuance of aqueous-based printers which are now becoming available in wider options. This is not to say that solvent-based production is being compromised, and ink and material manufacturers are striving to produce more environmentally aware products, with drupa representing an international launch-pad for ever more eco-friendly solutions.
In addition the increase in superwide-format attendees such as EFI Vutek, NUR, and HP Scitex at drupa confirms the maturing of this sector of digital ink-jet.
The background of wide-format ink-jet has not always been easy. Certain sectors within the overall industry initially viewed digital print as a threat and, for the screen-printing arena, some considered it be fiercely competitive particularly within the short-run sector. The traditional proofing market, too, was amongst the first to be challenged by output which was comparable to conventional methods.
Historically, wide-format ink-jet was limited to aqueous-based technologies with Epson’s piezo-electric print-heads being challenged by HP and the former Encad, both of whom offered thermal options. Since those early days, and with the development of digital techniques, inks and processes, we have advanced to the machines which are in use today and which cater for most eventualities from photographs through point-of-purchase to building wraps and all sizes in between.
In terms of technologies, the development of solventbased products and, thence, UV-curable inks were instrumental in providing the wide-format digital print market with added durability and a greater range of end materials which can be used. Pundits who believed that the era of the aqueous-based printer was long gone have been proved wrong, however, and this ink type still outsells all others.
Moving onto larger sizes, manufacturers such as Epson, HP and Canon have all remained strong believers in aqueous-based printers. With faster and wider models being added to their portfolios in recent times, market trends still show a strong demand across the photography, fine art, proofing and display sectors and this is likely to continue.
The proliferation of solvent-based machines has also been sustained, with many users now driven by the types of end application they need and which type of output is best suited to their purpose. Inks have become complex in their formulations and their descriptions which range from eco- through mild- and low- to full- and hard-solvents; each contains its own specific properties and suitability for different types of work. The level of adhesion, or keying, with the material depends on the amount of solvent present in the inks but, in general, this technology has remained popular on flexible media where greater durability is needed and colour fidelity is important.
Nonetheless, the move across to UV-curable production has escalated during the past few years and is now challenging the roll-fed sector as well as being the only viable production method on flat-bed machines, with the exception of HP Scitex’s FB6700 which incorporates Aprion print-heads and uses aqueous-based technology. Early attempts to print to rigid materials were not successful using solvent-based inks, with heat assisted drying proving to be unsuitable on many substrates.
Growth of UV-curable technology
Thus, the introduction of printers incorporating UV-curable technology was an inevitable choice as a method of printing onto most rigid media, with the output being cured to produce instant dry results. Not a new process in itself, UV-curing inks have been established in the screen-printing sector for many years and it was a natural progression for them to make the transition to digital print, both with flat-bed and roll-fed machines.
The different ink types have driven the wide-format digital market to position it is in today, assisted by the continued development of print-heads across all sectors. Whilst Epson’s piezo print-heads were incorporated into printers from Roland, Mutoh and Mimaki, HP and Canon both chose to continue with their own proprietary technologies, with Kodak Encad also opting for thermal heads. Early conversions of aqueous-based printers to accept solvent-based inks were remarkably successful and the divide between the low-end machines and the grand-format printer specialists began to narrow. Manufacturers such as NUR, Vutek and Scitex Vision (now HP Scitex) were already producing billboard machines which used solvent-based inks but these capital-intensive systems were certain to be challenged by the market need for lower cost production solutions.
Similarly, whilst the main manufacturers of production machines were the first to introduce printers using UV-curable inks, the demand for entry-level and mid-range systems soon became apparent and, in the past two years, this sector has seen a massive leap in introductions to the market with printers being announced by producers coming from all sectors of the industry. These include Océ, Agfa and Screen as well as the established players, such as Zünd, Mimaki, and Gerber. Whilst the prices for the high end machines remain in the upper level, low cost options vary tremendously with many being available at less than Euro150,000 but evidence shows that users get what they pay for in this sector. Whilst even the cheapest printer produces quality which can be deemed to be fit for purpose, finer standards are achievable but at greater cost.
The drive towards UV-curable technology and the renewed interest in aqueous-based printers has also occurred because of environmental pressures and changes in attitude. The attraction of the relatively cheap output achievable from solvent-based printers for posters, banners and point-of-purchase applications has a major disadvantage in the odour which lingers on finished jobs and the fact that, as solvents are heavier than air, they tend to fall and taint in-store goods. In addition to being hazardous products for the printer to work with, this makes them unsuitable for use in food and fashion stores.
Many environmental issues have been generated to an extent by the consumer instead of application suitability and cost. There is mounting pressure on industry as a whole to reduce its carbon footprint and to exercise better policies relating to all areas, including print and packaging. Within the display sector both ink type and waste are coming under judgment and this has seen a move away from solvent-based output where alternatives can be implemented. For short-term point-of-purchase work, aqueous-based printers are making a come-back whilst, for durability, UV-curable inks are growing in demand.
Similarly, as soft signs, flags and banners increase in popularity, so there is an upsurge of demand for digital textile printers. Formerly restricted to dye sublimation, which is only suitable for materials which have a polyester construction or coating, present day machines also print direct to the fabric. These usually have the capability of using acid dyes, typically used on silk and nylon, reactive dyes which are best suited to cottons and disperse dyes, which are designed to work with polyesters.
In terms of materials, in general, wide-format digital print has evolved to be able to cater for the majority of media types, ranging from straightforward papers and display products through to specialist substrates whose end use might extend beyond the field of conventionally considered print. Whilst coatings and profiles need to be considered to get the best results, solvent-based and UV-curable inks are also able to output to uncoated satisfactorily.
Materials have grown to accommodate all sectors of wide-format print, starting with the transition within the photographic market to digital and its requirement for high quality papers and canvases. Proofing, too, now able to be produced easily in large sizes, is also well looked after by the main machine manufacturers as well as independent suppliers.
The biggest range of products covers the sign-making and display areas, with sizes and quality all priced accordingly. The argument that a premium product isn’t needed for short-term jobs can be defended by some of the very low cost imports now coming onto the western market. Whilst manufacturing in China, India and other eastern countries can be cost-effective there are many producers whose quality control standards aren’t the same as they are in other countries and, as a result, there can even be discrepancies from batch to batch of identical media which should have matched densities and coatings.
In line with the push for environmentally-friendly products, materials are also being challenged for their eco aware properties, with demand for recycled and recyclable media on the increase. A growing trend throughout the entire printing industry in an effort to reduce waste, pressure is now being placed on wide-format applications with the extra considerations that many jobs are sizeable yet only used for the short term, thus making sensible disposal even more crucial.
With the growing range of options now available in wide-format digital, and its increased sophistication, it’s not surprising that its use in the graphic arts arena has extended far beyond the production of signs and posters. Early machines, particularly in the grand-format sector, were only really suitable for output viewed from a distance as the dot quality wasn’t good enough for close scrutiny. Extra-large applications are still very much the forté of ink-jet, with many jobs simply not able to be produced practically using any other process, and this technology has also extended to more diverse areas, including packaging, interior decoration and theatre back-drops.
Displays which formerly were the province of screen-printing can now be handled efficiently using wide-format printers, with one-offs and short-runs being easy to produce without the need for time-consuming and costly make-ready. The break-even point between the screen process and digital print still varies from user to user but, whereas a few years ago volumes as low as 25 might be deemed more appropriate for analogue production, it is not uncommon these days to find runs lengths of more than 500 being handled on high-end flat-bed and roll-fed ink-jet machines.
In terms of workflow, it’s easy to appreciate how a single file can be ripped simply and sent to one or more printers, perhaps outputting in different sizes or using different ink technologies. However, there is now growing demand for true variable data options and versioning to be incorporated as an option, enabling different text to be incorporated into individual prints whilst still maintaining the same graphic elements. Point-of-purchase has been one the biggest arenas for wide-format digital production and is estimated to continue that way, although printed displays are now being challenged in some areas by flat-screen technologies. However, the ability for users to be able to incorporate individual details into a promotion adds a further strength to digital production’s armoury.
Different countries find their demand for wide-format production varies, with some having a healthy billboard and outdoor advertising market whilst others have to adhere to stricter planning legislation. With today’s production machines using solvent-based and UV-curable ink technologies which allow roll-fed output up to 5m wide, there has also been a growth in popularity for scaffold and building wraps.
Such is the variety of wide-format ink-jet options now available, that even the smallest company can benefit from its inclusion as a value added service. But this type of digital output should be regarded as a complement and not a threat to existing processes. In theory, the end customer isn’t interested in how his job has been produced. The important elements are that it is completed on time, at the required quality and at the right price.
But some trends suggest that there are too many machines currently in the market-place, particularly in the grand-format sector, for the numbers of jobs coming in to print companies. At the upper end of the sector, where fast throughput is vital, it’s now possible to invest more than Euro1m in options such as Inca Digital’s Onset, Augend’s RF20 or the Agfa M-Press. Whilst these challenge both the screen process and offset litho for point-of-purchase and advertising markets, they are unlikely to be adopted as mainstream products for smaller to middle-sized companies.
Print houses need to make certain that there’s a market available for their output before making the decision to invest for the first time, and niche sectors are more likely to thrive than those areas which are already covered competitively. Nonetheless, manufacturers and suppliers of wide-format equipment remain confident that their segment will continue to thrive but, for many users, much will depend on how they can develop new and interesting applications which can’t be produced using alternative production methods.