By Digital Output Staff
Options are vast when it comes to flatbeds. There are elaborate, complex models that offer all of the bells and whistles; and then there are simpler printers with basic features and functions. When a print service provider (PSP) is tasked with the difficult decision of which to choose it comes down to a few major factors. These include the type of application(s) processed in house, as well as those that might be offered in the future.
Also, it’s important that the business goals of the vendor the printer is purchased from align well with the PSP’s own. This includes everything from maintenance and service contracts to acting as a partner in how to best utilize the printer and achieve sales objectives.
We asked vendors to help define an elaborate flatbed versus a simpler device. It’s important to note that “simple” doesn’t imply lack of technology. No flatbeds compromise on quality or productivity. They offer powerful processing speeds as well as the capability to operate with intuitive software.
Years ago, in the infancy of UV flatbed hardware, David Lopez, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, states that complex and simple models were defined by price. “Usually, a more expensive printer would have additional features than basic printers with a much lower cost. As the UV flatbed market continues to grow, manufacturers add complexity as the standard including extended ink sets, printhead configurations, ionizers, white recirculation, and vacuum zones on entry-level models.”
Simple devices comprise of what Bill Brouhle, solutions architect, digital print sales, Agfa, refers to as “critically important features.” These include automated substrate thickness detection, X and Y axis pneumatic registration pins that pop up for consistent repeatable single- or double-sided print results, shuttle safety sensors to protect printheads from bent or dinged substrates, zoned reversible air suction control to make loading and unloading a breeze, and intuitive touch screen GUI.
According to Jeff Edwards, senior business development manager, Americas, Canon Production Printing, basic systems are often built by third-party manufacturers in low labor cost markets and are not necessarily the intellectual property or design of the brand owner. “This isn’t very hard to spot since many of these systems are almost identical despite being sold under different brands.”
It’s also important to note, depending on the OEM you initially purchase a flatbed from, a basic design doesn’t mean it can’t be upgraded to a more complex model at a later time. For example, at Fluid Color LLC the majority of its printers can initially be configured with a single row of printheads—which is another element that falls under the “basic” category.
“This gives the customer the opportunity to meet their needs today—speed and cost—and add rows of printheads in the future, which translates to more speed/production. The only penalty for the end user is that a service call is needed to install and align the new row of printheads,” explains Mark Crawford, managing partner, Fluid Color.
So what is found on complex flatbeds? “Features such as thoughtful vacuum designs, rather than simple geometric divisions; intelligent, self-monitoring pin systems that allow safe media placement without risking collision with the printing carriage; and offline software that allows for simple creation of complex work are all indicators of a more complex, comprehensive approach,” notes Edwards.
To Todd Smith, manager, product marketing for wide format and specialty products, Konica Minolta Business Solutions, U.S.A., Inc., a more advanced flatbed features hybrid printing capabilities; additional print color options like spot colors, varnish, and white ink; faster print performance; and automated board feeding.
“For me the difference is speed and automated media handling. Complex systems stress productivity and automation. These systems can cost over a million dollars but provide the productivity to justify the price. The more basic systems provide a way for many shops to enter the rigid printing market for under $100,000,” admits Ken Parsley, product manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
While speed and media handling determine the difference for Parsley, Jay Roberts, product manager – UV printers, Roland DGA Corporation, says he typically looks at a customer printing CMYK only as a basic print model. “Adding gloss and white ink then makes for more complexity. The ability to print orange and red inks, or primer inks, adds yet another level. Models offering a variety of bed sizes or printhead configurations could be considered even more advanced.”
Sifting Through the Choices
With a better idea of a complex versus basic flatbed, a PSP can determine the right model for its business. Two major factors in this decision involve applications and the manufacturer.
Edwards says print providers should “put the big rocks in the jar first.” Meaning in terms of flatbeds, “first settle on an architecture based on application needs and then begin to consider the finer points from there.”
“A decision on a printer needs to be driven by the application. It is critical that print providers access their speed quality, roll versus rigid, and all other customer requirements before accessing the right printer.,” agrees Larry D’Amico, sales director, large format, Durst North America.
Outside of the physical printer, Lopez recommends working with a company that provides demonstrations. “Manufacturers provide live or virtual demonstrations where print providers can print custom files and ask questions so potential customers can get a good understanding of the product.”
“Customers should look for manufacturers with a full line of printers so that they can choose what is best for their company. They should not have to settle for options or speeds that do not fit their exact needs. In the end, the customer needs to ensure their needs are met and that the manufacturer is not just trying to sell what they have, even though it may not be the correct machine for the purchaser in the end,” adds Crawford.
The printer supplier should be outfitted to grow with your company. “PSPs should consider partnering with companies that can grow with them and help support their current wide format needs as well as their future plans,” recommends Ramona Serafino, associate product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation – Graphic Systems Division.
Vendors should also offer high-end service and support—no matter the device. Service and support is something Brouhle feels is oftentimes overlooked during the purchasing process. “PSPs should look to a vendor that offers a comprehensive service organization with the knowledge, expertise, and response time to ensure a maximum up-time for their press. If the press is not running, the PSP is not making money.”
“These solutions can be simple or complex, however it is crucial to make sure the PSP is reaching out to OEM partners that are equipped to best align with their business goals,” notes Glenn Shull, senior technology portfolio manager, Ricoh USA, Inc.
Beyond applications and the manufacturer, Crawford says ease of use is what it’s all about. “Today companies are fighting to keep their skilled operators from leaving for other opportunities. The easier a machine is to use, the easier it is for a new—possibly new to printing—operator to learn and operate it at production levels.”
“We talk about ease of use for PSPs because certain features—although they may seem basic—make it easier on the operator and reduce downtime and quick turn of jobs. For example, automatic registration pins and operator controlled vacuum zones tailored to common media sizes, reduce the masking needed and minimize waste. This allows for quick, accurate loading of the media to turn jobs faster while maintaining consistency and quality,” adds Serafino.
A factor often overlooked is value. “Most print providers only consider a basic system because they are less expensive to purchase and unfortunately that is often where their deliberation ends. If they instead factored probable longevity into their decision, a more complex, more expensive product that will still likely be commercially relevant, serviceable, supported, and supplied by the manufacturer in seven, eight, or even ten years is a much better value than a basic system that is abandoned in three or four years due to lack of support by a third-party manufacturer with no direct interest in the branded product they purchased,” admits Edwards.
According to Parsley, speed versus cost is a determining factor. “If you are entering the market, a basic unit should handle the demand. If you have a customer base for rigid output you may want to investigate the higher end printers to increase output capacity.”
A complex device might be considered challenging or costly to operate. A simple flatbed doesn’t mean it lacks in features, it is just powerful in different ways. It’s easy to disprove what words like complex and simple imply.
Debunking the myth of expensive, complex products, Edwards notes that “when predictably amortized over a longer service life the complex, often more expensive products are cheaper to own in the long run. Furthermore, the features they incorporate for machine and operator safety often results in higher quality printing over the service life of the printer and a lower service risk while in operation.”
“Purchasing a flatbed device with advanced features certainly gives your press operator more to learn, however the productivity savings and some ability to automate workflows helps with getting more print jobs out faster,” adds Smith.
More basic flatbeds are worthy of consideration. “Choosing an entry-level flatbed from a reputable, own-technology manufacturer can be an excellent choice since it may feature software tools, ink functionality, and a support infrastructure designed to support the brand’s more expensive configurations,” shares Edwards.
“Simple or more basic machines will provide all of the features necessary to produce quality work with output speeds that will meet the needs of most print providers. The question becomes do you need to produce 500 boards a week or 50,000?,” admits Parsley.
Roberts argues that a complex device is no different than a simple flatbed printer. “Both types of machines print and are designed to deliver vibrant, detailed output. It is the needs of the customers that ‘drive’ the workflow and the complexity.”
A small business does not require a basic flatbed and a larger operation isn’t necessarily the right fit for a complex device. “A critical factor for many is the size and maturity of their business. Larger companies can justify simpler more dedicated equipment that may specialize in a doing a particular application fast and efficiently,” explains D’Amico.
Whether a complex, elaborate setup is chosen, or a simple, basic flatbed, it is important the device lasts and allows for printing every day without downtime. These are common traits that must be considered.
“Longevity and uptime are critical, which is why Canon is passionate about building quality products that last. Unfortunately, many print providers do not look beyond the basic price of the system, its stated features, and productivity without considering the long-term implications of ownership,” says Edwards.
The printer’s reliability is something shop owners depend on to keep business going. Additional features, such as white recirculation, show that manufacturers take the necessary steps to create reliable printers for customers, adds Lopez.
“Selecting a flatbed with a simple daily startup process for the press operator, basic maintenance functions with consistent print quality and performance are certainly prime considerations. In addition, having a workflow to support the flatbed device—software and finishing—is going to be critical to the success of your flatbed. I like to say the peanut butter is the flatbed, the jelly is the finisher, and ultimately the finished print application is the sandwich,” states Smith.
Whether it’s a basic, entry-level flatbed or a more complex model featuring high levels of automation, Crawford says all of the printers at Fluid Color are built to last. “They are all built on industrial, welded steel frames that are meant to run for many years,” he admits.
Best Fit for You
Simplicity or complexity—there are flatbeds out there at both ends of the spectrum. If you need heightened levels of automation or perhaps color choices beyond CMYK, you might choose a slightly more complex device. However, basic flatbeds are still equipped with many of the same features, just at a lower price point, at slightly less speeds.
Simple doesn’t mean lack of technology, this hardware is still considered powerful and operates using intuitive interfaces. PSPs need to look closely at what they’re trying to achieve in house with the flatbed to get a better idea of the model that will best fit the business.
Jul2022, Digital Output