By Melissa Donovan
Roll-to-roll (R2R) printers are frequently the heart of a sign shop. Options are vast. You can divide your choice by ink type, width, media compatibility—just to name a few factors. Suffice to say print service providers (PSPs) considering upgrading their workhorse signage printers must do their homework.
Above: Roland expanded the gamut of its TrueVIS VG2 printer/cutters to achieve beautiful color output.
Get Your Priorities Straight
Print providers have a lot to consider when it comes to updating their R2R printers. They need to look at size, speed, media handling/compatibility, and ink sets. The many options can be overwhelming, which makes it worth prioritizing criteria to determine the best R2R printer for their needs.
Current and intended applications to be printed must be addressed head on. “Knowing your application helps to define the type of printer technology you will need along with width, speed, and media handling,” says Tom Wittenberg, industry relations and events, HP Inc.
Bob Honn, senior director, marketing support, large format solutions, Canon Solutions America and Edward LaManna, senior manager, product marketing, large format solutions and commercial photo product marketing, Canon U.S.A., Inc., share that PSPs should consider which technology will allow them to cut costs on existing commodity applications while simultaneously enabling the growth of business with new and different higher margin applications.
“The applications accomplished today and are critical to their business, as well as the market they’re looking to serve or customer demands looking to meet, should be determined first. Once a print provider has a clear plan laid out, it will help define the elements that are most critical like productivity needs, quality demands, media handling capabilities, and ink requirements,” agrees Becky McConnell, segment marketing manager – wide format inkjet, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division.
Related to applications is media used. “R2R printers need to be flexible with the types of media they use for the various applications they are likely to get from customers. Decorative window wraps on clear cling or low-tac films with and without white ink, for example, are among the most popular R2R applications today,” notes Bill Brouhle, digital print solutions architect, Agfa.
William Davis, managing director, CET Color, believes the printhead should be a focus when it comes to purchasing a R2R printer. “The capabilities of the printhead are of prime importance. The speed output and quality of print are derived from and begin with the printhead.”
The other big consumable—ink—is also at the top of the list. “In signage, it can be crucial to hit specific colors to meet customers’ needs. Brands have certain colors, so it’s essential to find a printer with a wide color gamut. Some colors can be difficult to get right, so look for a printer with ink colors to help—such as red and white ink,” suggests David Lopez, product manager, production imaging, Epson.
“It it critical that a shop examine the ink type, durability of the ink set, and media that can be used when looking for a R2R printer,” adds Ken Parsley, UV product manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
Larry D’Amico, sales director, North America, Durst Image Technology US, believes that one of the first criteria that needs to be satisfied is output quality. “Print providers’ customers do not really care how fast you can run, but they do care that the quality meets their requirements. Once the quality level is determined you can then realistically understand the practical speed. Too often printers are evaluated based on their ability to run a couple of benchmark prints. This does not really tell the whole picture of the overall productivity of a machine.”
PSPs need to determine their R2R printer purchase based on the printer’s ability to run unattended, how often the printer needs to be stopped for ink purging and maintenance, and the service history and mean time between failure on the printer, continues D’Amico.
Width is another major factor. “While manufacturers are offering more R2R printers and printer/cutters in the entry- to mid-level sizes—20 to 30 inches—that feature noteworthy advancements, the newer models in the 54- and 64-inch range also incorporate a lot of useful updates and improvements, especially when it comes to wider color gamut and higher quality output,” explains Daniel Valade, product manager of digital print, Roland DGA Corporation.
“The right printer width can reduce the number of panels needed to complete wraps or general signage, which results in more efficient jobs and quicker turnaround times. Some print providers have either commercial accounts or are high-volume shops so a printer that can keep up with that workload is a must,” agrees Chris Padilla, eco-solvent product manager, Mutoh.
The printer’s width influences other hardware used in the production process. When thinking about dye-sublimated signage, for example, the width of the printer also determines what size heat press or calendar is needed and the overall throughput, points out Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh.
No Use Without It
There are specifics that PSPs absolutely require when it comes to R2R printers. Feature sets are designed to enable ease of use, whereas others may encourage eco-friendly practices.
Top requested features often focus on ease of use and maintenance. “Many sign shops have short deadlines and quick turnaround times as well as multiple operators that wear many hats within the organization so a machine that is both low maintenance and easy to use is a must,” explains Padilla.
Ease of use and maintenance is furthered by automation. “Making printers more automated seems to be an advancement that is becoming more popular in today’s market. Things like automatic page feed adjustment, automatic alignments, and nozzle recovery systems are quickly becoming industry standards,” continues Padilla.
The ability to print on multiple rolls simultaneously is another feature enabling ease of use, according to Davis. Related to this, many PSPs look for robust R2R feed and take-up systems to eliminate the possibility of printhead strikes or skewing during printing.
“Media handling capabilities are often a big focus when someone is upgrading their current equipment, as they often have applications that they’d like to accomplish more efficiently,” adds McConnell.
Many print providers are concerned with the environment, and as such might require a device that conforms to this way of thinking. “UV LED inkjet printers consume less electricity than most other forms of wide or grand format inkjet printing. When it comes to UV LED curing technology, it is important to understand that they operate at a cool temperature, so we don’t have issues with heat-sensitive substrates,” explains Brouhle.
Sometimes the requested feature isn’t a tangible object, but a trait. At Roland, Valade says when surveying its users, dependability is at the top of the list in terms of required features and very close to that is “vivid color and exceptional detail.” However, having one without the other isn’t ideal.
“Keep in mind, it doesn’t matter how beautifully a printer images if the device doesn’t work. An unreliable machine quickly turns from a revenue driving device to a drain on profit and productivity,” adds Valade.
Another trait, versatility. “R2R printers are a big investment, so it’s important to find a printer that will meet current needs, as well as grow with the shop and evolving signage trends. Look for a printer and ink set that is ideal for both indoor and outdoor signage to broaden project scope,” recommends Lopez.
Wittenberg argues quality is more important than speed. “Without quality, you won’t have a business very long. Next would be what features will provide me with the level of quality I want to achieve? Also, can I run the printer unattended and still maintain optimal quality? This helps to increase productivity and reduce overall costs. Finally, which printers will help me obtain this level of quality at the highest speed? The two combined—quality at high speed—provide the optimal outcome.”
The newest generation of R2R devices include updates and advancements that reflect on PSPs’ biggest needs in the space. This includes expanded color gamuts, take-up devices for unattended printing, second rolls for increased productivity, liquid cooled print platens, and ink introductions.
Agfa’s newly released Oberon RTR3300 printer features a liquid cooled print platen and a backlit viewing box built right into the hardware. The liquid cooled print platen enables operators to print continuously over multiple shifts without heat slowly building up over long print runs. An integrated backlit viewing box allows for assessing the color and print quality of backlit projects during the production process.
Canon’s Colorado series of 64-inch roll printers is equipped with UVgel technology. UVgel inks are durable and reduce the need for lamination. The Canon Colorado 1650 in particular contains FLXfinish, allowing users to print matte, gloss, or both regardless of media type.
CET Color’s roll printers include linear magnetic motor drive systems as well as a symmetrical array printhead configuration. This eliminates the traditional mechanical belt carriage system and enhances print speeds as well as provides an accurate ink dot placement. Due to this design, the company cites an increase in throughput by 40 percent compared to previous models.
One of Durst’s newest technological advancements on its roll printers is a two-roll system that enables a user to run one job while the second is already mounted on the printer. The company says it can save ten to 15 minutes per roll change. Another feature found on its roll devices is two sets of drive motors so rolls of different diameters can run simultaneously.
Epson debuted the SureColor R-Series printers in 2020, which leverage resin ink technology. They offer output ready for immediate lamination at production speeds of up to 290 square feet per hour. UltraChrome RS resin ink delivers instant dry scratch-resistant output and consistent, repeatable jobs.
Fujifilm’s Acuity Ultra printers are available in a configuration where the available channels are completely filled with CMYK to enable the PSP to produce massive amounts of work. Combining the series’ print quality and 3.5 picoliter ink drops, the Acuity Ultra also includes easy setup and maintenance.
Enhancements available on many of HP’s latest printers include onboard spectrophotometers, optical media advancement sensors, smart printing technology, production software, and thermal inkjet technology. The HP Latex R Printer Series and the HP STITCH S Printer Series are two classes of recent printers with many of these enhancements.
Mutoh offers UV, eco-solvent, and sublimation R2R printers. The XpertJet line includes updated features such as automatic bi-directional alignment, a user-friendly touch panel, and an upgraded media flange that allows operators to quickly load media and exchange multiple rolls. The XpertJet 1641SR and 1682SR include variable pressure capabilities, allowing for a wider range of media to be controlled from thicker to very thin substrates. For the dye-sub roll devices, the company’s latest improvement is individually adjustable hold down rollers, where each can be disabled or reduced in pressure.
Roland expanded the output gamut of its TrueVIS VG2 printer/cutters and TrueVIS VF2-640 printer. The reliable devices achieve beautiful color output on a variety of substrates. Advancements like unattended printing with the new TU4 series take-up devices adds to the production capabilities.
StratoJet USA’s Falcon 3300 XL is well suited to print fabric and vinyl applications that are up to ten feet wide or multiple smaller rolls simultaneously. Print on the largest variety of roll media with its no-pinch roller system using CMYK and white UV inks that adhere to nearly anything at high speed and 1,200 dpi output.
swissQprint offers the Karibu roll device. It notably offers the ability to print two jobs at the same time, thanks to a dual roll option up to 64 inches the width of the roll. According to Mike Kyritsi, president, swissQprint USA, its other standout feature is the ability to print multiple layers of ink—including white—all in one pass.
We should plan to see a few notable announcements in the future in regards to R2R printers.
Keep an eye out for single-pass technology. “It could have an impact on our market, but currently the price points and speeds do not effectively address the needs of most people in the wide format segment,” explains D’Amico.
Valade foresees more repurposed technology. “Where devices are modified to allow for high return on investment applications produced at a higher rate than originally intended. This can add additional revenue for manufacturers and customers looking to accurately reproduce similar applications from one item to the next using familiar technology.”
Ink set innovation consists of product introductions like Canon’s UVgel technology. “UVgel delivers what other technologies can’t—low-cost, high-production instant finishing and never-before-seen automation. UVgel technology is delivering the next paradigm shift in the market,” note Honn and LaManna.
“In addition, expect to see technological advancements in the area of UV LED inks developed to support specific applications and being fully compliant to industry norms for the protection of human health and the environment,” shares Brouhle.
Roll with It
There are a host of options when it comes to roll printers. A good place to start is identifying your current and future applications and the media used to determine which printers are a fit. From there, examining ink sets, ease of use features, quality, speed, and width needs are some of the most important factors in making a final decision.
If interested in learning more about R2R printers and the newest advancements related to signage-type applications, be sure to view to our recent webinar, Roll-to-Roll Printers: A Look at the Latest Innovations, which is archived here.
Mar2021, Digital Output