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Flatbed inkjet printing : progressing step-by-step

Wide-format digital printing technology has brought about a dramatic change in the production of
out-of-home advertising materials over a past few years. Digital printing offers the advantage of faster turnaround times due to quicker and more cost-effective set-up, high quality imaging, and consistent colour throughout the print run. These benefits translate to improved efficiency and increased profit margins over traditional methods. However, one segment of the printing industry that is only just beginning to reap the benefits of digital printing is traditional screen printing.

The technology screen  printers use is as old as the  printing industry itself. Among its merits, screen-printing can print on a large variety of media and that too with high quality. At this level of versatility and performance, screen-printing remains the technology of choice for much of the out-of home advertising graphics materials that are produced in run lengths of over 100 copies. On the other hand, the costly and time-consuming set-up associated with screen-printing jobs limit its use to longer print runs. The cost of set-up activities added with the reclamation after printing make it uneconomical to use screen-printing for short to medium print runs.

The trends in the out-of-home advertising market coupled with the emergence of new digital printing capabilities is set to bring out revolutionary change in the screen-printing industry. Most of the screen-printing firms have installed digital output equipments in their shops. The new generation of high productivity oriented flatbed inkjet printers that can print on both rigid and roll-fed materials are poised to become an alternative to screen-printing for short to medium length print runs.

The screen printing marketplace has started experiencing the “digital revolution” and the ensuing market upheaval it has brought in terms of stiff competition and increasing customer demand for quick turnaround, short run lengths and higher image quality.

Already, 50% of the demand from customers is for print runs of fewer than 200 copies and 95% of their demand is for print runs of 400 and fewer. Moreover, customers are looking for new products that include customisation in short runs with fast, on demand turnaround. This growing trend results in part from changes in the retail world where multi-location chain stores are becoming more prominent than the brands they sell. It is no longer a case of what customers buy, but where they buy it.

Unfortunately, traditional screen-printing requires lengthy preparation and make-ready and are better suited for economical long runs than for short run, on demand printing applications. All these demands can be addressed with a new alternative – inkjet production printing. As a result, screen printers have recently begun to encounter the difficult decisions they will have to make about the future of their production processes and the technologies that support them.

In today’s fast changing world, it’s always a good thing to be technically advanced. Unless screen printers make the transition to wide-format inkjet production printing quickly (and some are making the transformation, albeit very slowly), they will continue to lose new business to those companies who can meet the digital printing demand.

What had kept digital printing at an evolutionary stage rather than revolutionizing the screen-printing industry in the past, was the key issue of productivity. Until recently, the majority of wide-format digital printers in use at screen printing shops have been electrostatic or thermal transfer devices – that are limited by their format and the range of applications they can handle and also often require additional finishing steps that involve further variable costs – or low-cost inkjet printers capable of producing output at a speed of up to 5 square meters per hour. With such capacity, a cut-off point above which digital printing does not represent an alternative to screen-printing was in the neighbourhood of 5 to 10 copies. This limited the use of such digital devices to a small range of high price applications and certainly kept it outside the so-called production printing market. In such cases, the range of 10 to 100 copies printing has been left untapped.

It has therefore become clear that in order to challenge conventional screen-printing methods, inkjet presses must address two issues. They need to provide the quality and versatility of a screen press at an attractive cut-off point that makes a good business sense. What determines the cut-off point? It is roughly determined by dividing the screen-printing set up cost for a specific job by the total cost of printing that job digitally. The key here is to account for all variables in digital printing to calculate the cost per copy. This should include the productivity of the machine, the cost of ink, the need (or lack thereof) for further finishing, etc. Recent technological advances are promising to meet this challenge. A new generation of high productivity oriented, flatbed inkjet printers that can print on both rigid and roll-fed materials – are poised to become both complements and even alternatives to screen printing for short to medium length print runs. With the introduction of wide-format flatbed inkjet devices like the NUR Tempo, screen printers are seeing the end of a long evolutionary phase and the beginning of an unavoidable revolution.

In addition, state-of-the-art roll-to-roll oriented inkjet printing presses, such as the popular, high throughput NUR Fresco, VUTEk UltraVu-3360, Scitex Vision XLJet etc, have emerged as a high speed, high quality alternative to screen printing for many short-run, on-demand applications. Their output width of up to 10.5 feet (3.2 meters) equips screen printers to go after new business, offering wider width applications their screen presses can’t handle. As such, this mature technology has become a strong complement to screen presses in the screen-printers’ equipment roster, especially for screen printers that are not ready to invest in a flatbed inkjet press.

Inkjet production presses like these will enable screen printers to provide new and improved services to their customers based on competitively priced shorter run work and faster turnaround times which previously would have been prohibitively expensive with their screen presses.
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