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Flatbed UV Production—Is There Still Room for Growth?

flatbed_uv_productionSince just after the turn of the century, when Inca Digital of the UK introduced the Eagle 44, a printing phenomenon has arisen and continues to rise – the flatbed UV printer. What does this term mean?

A flatbed UV printer is one that can print on a thick (up to 50mm or even 100mm), rigid flat substrate of considerable size (up to 3.2 metres x 2.2 metres), rather than on a flexible roll such as adhesive vinyl. Some flatbeds are ‘hybrid’ in that they offer roll-to-roll production as well as rigid. Other roll printers offer flatbed feed and delivery tables and can accommodate thinner materials, typically up to only 15mm. Hybrid models starting life as roll-to-roll printers, tend to be less accurate or productive as a dedicated flatbed UV.

All flatbed printers use inkjet as the imaging method and have UV-curable ink, which enables a wide variety of substrate materials to be printed. These materials include complete wooden doors, glass, ceramic tiles, aluminum composite panels, plastics, foam-core, polycarbonates and metals. Almost anything can be printed using a flatbed UV device.

The predominant function of a successful flatbed UV printer is the ability to churn out ‘beds’ of high image quality at commercial speeds. Real estate signage, point-of-purchase displays, hanging signs, and backlit acrylic panels—these are the ‘bread-and-butter’ products produced on flatbed UVs, but the list of possibilities grows daily. Specially built flatbed UVs are used in the timber panel and flooring markets to print ‘wood-grain’ patterns on plain MDF board to give it a natural wood look.

The flat bed itself can be either stationary, where the inkjet imaging unit moves down the length of the bed while the printheads and UV lamps ‘scan’ across in an x-y momentum that deposits the ink droplets onto the material being printed. Or, the imaging unit can be stationery with the bed moving to-and-fro while the printheads scan across.

Since Inca Digital’s debut in 2001, a torrent of flatbed UV printers have appeared—and some quickly disappeared—with dozens of manufacturers vying for a slice of a market estimated to be growing at 15.9 percent per annum, according to US research company Infotrends. That growth covers hardware, inks, software and service. Inca Digital is still there at the top of the food chain.

Reasons for growth

Any growth industry must have one common factor – demand. Flatbed UV’s demand has come from several directions. The first is the shift of existing work from screen printing, a labour-intensive process using aggressive solvents and limited in the ability to produce ‘photographic quality’ results.

The second is the elimination of the need to print on flexible media and then mount it onto a rigid material. Printing direct-to-anything eliminates another human step in the production process, although layer-mounting is still necessary in some areas such as traffic and safety signage.

The third is increased use and reduced cost for POP and other in-store advertising. With an estimated 70 percent of purchasing decisions being made inside the store itself, the ability to influence these decisions with colourful merchandisers, compelling graphics and signage is powerful marketing.

The fourth is that, being digital, flatbed UV can print a one-off as economically as 100. It can also vary the data and do different versions that, if you were making plates or screen mesh, would be financially prohibitive. It’s an on-demand business that responds to customers’ timeframes.

There’s a fifth reason for growth in flatbed UV, now in its infancy, and it promises to be the biggest—packaging. This includes short-run packaging, such as folding cartons and corrugated boxes, printed in high-quality graphics on-demand and in varied versions. Good packaging makes products jump off of supermarket shelves, and market researchers love to try different prototype designs to see what sells the most. Combined with a good flatbed cutter, vibrant flatted cartons and boxes can be ready for assembly and filling at short notice.

To make the packaging sector work, automated sheet handling and stacking is desirable. Inca already has installations where German-made Sick or Swiss Hostert automation is deployed.

No sign of slowing down

It all looks promising, verified by the fact that more and more offset printers are adding flatbed UV production to their capabilities. Fujifilm’s Acuity range is proving popular here, with Fujifilm Speciality Inks division providing the Uvijet ink know-how.

But back to Inca Digital. From humble beginnings near the University town of Cambridge, UK, and the first Eagle 44, the company, now owned by Japan’s Screen Holdings Group, continues to lead the field in flatbed UV technology. While some manufacturers consider 40 or 60 square metres per hour of production to be fast, Inca makes printers that can go up to 725 square metres per hour using automation – still producing commercial-quality resolution and image definition. In printer’s parlance, that’s 145 full beds per hour. Even the mid-level Inca Spyder 320 runs at up to 80 square metres per hour.

Fujifilm is the worldwide distributor for Inca Digital and also the manufacturer of the highly advanced Uvijet inks and Dimatix printheads used in Inca models.

To hitch a ride on the unstoppable growth of the high production flatbed UV train – it’s worth a call to Fujifilm to discuss either Acuity or Inca.

Photo caption: “The image quality is sensational for such a high productivity machine,” says Adam Middleton, owner of Civic Media in Brisbane with his Inca Onset S40Qi.

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