Digital: what will it print on next?

John Zarwan - Digital: what will it print on next?

Most commercial printers print on paper. Seems simple and straightforward until one thinks about the different kinds of paper: coated and uncoated free sheet; coated and uncoated groundwood; newsprint. Even within each category there are gradations of quality, basis weight and brightness. It’s not so simple anymore.

Still sticking with offset, unusual but increasingly common substrates include folding carton and paperboard, card stock, plastic and lenticular. When there is a need for more specialized jobs, one normally thinks of flexo presses for flexible films and screen print for just about everything else.

Although hardly a newcomer, the range of substrates that digital printers provide, especially but not limited to, inkjet, continues to expand. There is a dizzying array of printers, sizes and substrates available. Most of the interesting substrates can be found in the so-called “wide-format” market, which can also include “super-wide” or “grand” – definitions and categories change. Applications include posters, point-of-purchase displays, banners, trade show exhibits, murals, vehicle and building wraps, backlit signs, transit, textiles and fine art, to name just a few.

With such an assortment of products and locations, both indoor and outdoor, the options for suitable substrates can be daunting. A quick perusal of the marketing materials of any of the firms specializing in large-format will show an extensive list of somewhat mysterious substrates. In addition to various papers (including nylon reinforced “tear-resistant, wet-strength”), there are various types of vinyl (smooth, scrim, mesh, graphic, blockout), solid and clear films, plastics, PET, plastic board, gator board, sintra, one- and two-sided polyethylene, polypropylene, tyvek, dibond, corrugated plastic sheet, static-cling, canvas, foam core and styrene, as well as wood, metal, glass and ceramics.

The choice of suppliers is, as one would expect, still very large. One recent list had more than 100 wide-format inkjet printers available, including more than 20 UV-curable roll-fed devices. Vendors include Agfa, Canon, Durst, EFI (VUTEk, Rastek, Jetrion), Epson, Fujifilm, Gandinnovations, Gerber Scientific, Hewlett-Packard (Designjet series, Scitex, Nur, ColorSpan), Inca Digital, Mutoh, Mimaki, Matan, Océ, Roland and Screen, among others.

While not all inkjet printers are capable of, or suitable for, printing on such a range of media, the technology is similar to those of smaller-format devices: thermal, piezo, continuous inkjet, etc. The inks could be dye or pigment, aqueous, oil, solvent, eco-solv (or “light” solvent), or UV-curable. New ink innovations launched at drupa include HP’s latex-based ink, now in the Designjet L65500 and Crystal Point toner technology in the Océ Color Wave 600.

Beyond that, there are essentially three types of inkjet printers – roll-to-roll, flatbed and hybrid – each suitable to certain types of substrates. Roll-to-roll printers work well with flexible media that come in rolls such as paper, vinyl, film or other materials. Products created by roll-to-roll machines include posters, banners, backlit signs, fine art, displays and exhibits, billboards and pressure-sensitive and static-cling products such as decals as well as vehicle wraps and transit/fleet advertising.

One of the advantages of flatbed printers, on the other hand, is their ability to print on rigid materials. Applications include signs, transit advertising, exhibits and displays, using substrates as varied as acrylic, glass, tiles, doors, blinds, plastics, plywood, ceramics, corrugated plastic materials, lenticular sheets and many other rigid items. So-called “hybrid” flatbeds can be converted to run both rigid and roll media, depending on the application.

Calgary’s Quintaro Imaging provides its clients with unusual signage alternatives using glass, leather, acrylic, tile, cork, burlap and even mirror. Started more than 30 years ago as a photo lab, the company has transformed itself to a digital graphics and art production facility. With clients worldwide, the company’s main focus is working with designers, architects and the retail and hospitality industries to create exceptional site-specific graphics. Now with 12 employees, Quintaro Imaging is run by Reg Anaka, one of the founders, along with his daughter Heather Lawton and her husband, Shaun.

Heather and Shaun Lawton, Quintaro Imaging

The company recently purchased the HP Scitex FB6100, a flatbed device that can print on rigid surfaces up to 10.5’ x 6.5’ as well as 87-inch-wide rolls.Since its installation, the company is now printing directly to a variety of unconventional surfaces. “We’re really trying to push the envelope, to be known in the market as the place to go,” explains Heather Lawton.

The company has done a number of unusual projects. For Calgary’s Flames Central restaurant, for example, it created an acrylic dance floor that gives the impression that one is walking on centre ice. The company also produces glass privacy walls and double-sided partitions, often for offices. By adding a layer of white ink underneath a translucent colour, Quintaro Imaging can create a reflective or opaque surface instead of a transparent one, depending on how the ink is applied. They have also incorporated glass into fountains and waterfalls. Needless to say, printing on glass can be tricky and mistakes costly. Lawton explains that they print a test sheet for placement on inexpensive material, then place the final substrate in the same place to print the final piece.

One uncommon substrate is printing to leather. Although “not the biggest seller, it intrigues people,” says Lawton. One example was a commemorative appreciation plaque for Lynnwood Ranch, thanking the owners. Quintaro Imaging printed to leather, then finished the edges with a blow-torch to make it look weathered, mounted it on distressed barn wood and placed it in an industrial steel frame. The concept was developed jointly with the designer and, Lawton explains, “provided an interesting contrast of natural earth and environmental products with the industrial.”

Anvy Digital, also in Calgary, is a provider of quality digital large-format printing, laminating and mounting services for trade show exhibits, retail promotions, corporate communications and outdoor advertising. Founded in 2002 by John Phan, the company can choose from a wide variety of printers to match the substrate and application.

“Every printer we have uses a different ink technology,” says Phan. “All these printers have different applications. We pick and choose what it’s good for.” For example, while an older, water-based 72-inch ColorSpan X12 is appropriate for engineering blueprints, longer runs and presentations, he uses a newer HP ColorSpan 72SR for outdoor vinyl banners, vehicle graphics and backlit signs. Similarly, a Roland Pro III is best for labels, decorative work and fine art reproduction.

In the last two years, Anvy Digital Imaging installed two UV flatbed printers from Fujifilm. In 2007, they became Canada’s first owner of an Inca Spyder 320 white installed by Fujifilm and last year added to that with an Acuity HD2504.

“With these flatbed printers, we can print directly to almost any flat material for breathtaking results,” says Phan. “The Spyder is better for rigid material. Its white ink allows us to print on colour substrates,” Phan explains. “The Acuity’s adhesion isn’t as good as the Spyder, but it has better resolution. We use it for more high-end indoor products and museum type work. It depends on the type of work the client is looking for. We will go to the right printer to make it work.” Among its less typical jobs, Anvy Digital has printed on carpets for trade shows as well as custom floor tiles for home builders.

Mississauga’s Global Imaging started six years ago by three partners, each with more than 20 years in the business. Now with 10 employees, the company has two Océ Arizona UV flatbed printers, a Mimaki JV5 roll device and an I-cut CNC machine. Global Imaging serves a variety of marketing companies, point-of-purchase, trade show exhibits and trade work for offset printers and sign companies. Scott Saunders, one of the founders and production manager, says that Global Imaging is geared more toward interior displays rather than larger billboards and outdoor work.

“The Océ machines have very high resolution and are great for interior work. That’s our market. We specialize in higher-end product, one off, custom work, not just signage,” Saunders explains.

Nevertheless, many of the jobs are “massive projects,” Saunders continues. “It would be nothing to print on 300 to 400 sheets, with multiple setups. There might be 10 sheets of 50 different setups in each job.” For example, a retail customer could have 100 or more stores, with multiple pieces going to each store, each advertising different products, promotions or sizes.

Because of the customized nature of the business, Global Imaging prints on both standard styrene and card stock for point-of-purchase as well as less typical media up to two inches thick.

“Trade show exhibits often involve printing on brushed aluminum,” says Saunders. “Because of our capability of printing white, we do lots of reverse and double-sided on clear acrylic.” He recalls one job produced for a trade exhibit that printed the product description on acrylic, with the product – in this case a six-foot-high drill bit for mining – encapsulated in the acrylic display case. “It was easily read and you could still see the tool.” At the other extreme, Global Imaging produced mini hockey sticks as a promotional item, printing directly on plastic and wood. The company has also printed on carpet for trade shows.

Much of the specialty work, including glass and custom acrylics, has to be handled “touch free.”

“We printed directly on half-inch glass, reverse CMYK with a flood white. These are tough projects because you can’t just go to the shelf and grab another. You realistically have one shot. As soon as the ink hits, it has to be right or it’s garbage,” says Saunders.

Réal Vachon, SublimartSublimart, founded in June last year by Réal Vachon in Saint-Ambroise (Québec), specializes in printing on fabrics using a dye-sublimation process. Prepress operators may remember the dye-sublimation printers used for making proofs. While the basic technology may be similar, the process and machine certainly is not! Vachon uses a Roland 1045, modified to accept aqueous inks, to print a reverse image on paper, then transfers the image using a three-metre-wide Monti Antonio, an Italian-made machine designed for textiles that is, according to Vachon, the largest of its type in Canada. The designs are transferred using heat and pressure (there are other dye-sublimation printers that print direct to fabric).

Vachon had been in the exhibit business since the early 1990s and was looking for a better way to reduce the weight and complexity of trade show booths. By using fabrics, he is able to reduce not only weight, which can make shipping more difficult and expensive, but also setup time. An advantage of dye-sublimation, according to Vachon, is that the ink becomes an integral part of the fabric, allowing for better colour stability, water resistance and light-fastness. Vachon says the output is more environmentally-friendly as well. In addition to changing out of solvent ink on the Roland printer, almost all the fabric he prints is both recycled and recyclable.

Sublimart Roland wide-format

In addition to exhibition booths, other applications include stage backgrounds, curtains for press conferences, banners, wind flags and beach flags, inflatable systems, tablecloths and displays. Although they have done runs of 40 or more for custom banners for a well-known Canadian casual dining restaurant chain, most of the work is customized, with just one or two prints. Some of the more unusual include customized waste container covers (both indoor and outdoor), bedspreads and pool tables with logos.

It is not just specialty printers that provide these services, however, as many commercial offset printers have moved to digital print. Pazazz Printing, a 14-million-dollar printer based in Montreal, has a wide-format digital division that complements its new KBA large-format offset press (featured in the June 2009 issue of Graphic Arts Magazine). Michel Seguin, head of the wide-format division, says that the new press will produce longer runs, while its digital equipment is most appropriate for short runs. They currently have roll printers from Hewlett-Packard and Mutoh for producing banners, trade show work and both indoor and outdoor signage, vehicle wraps and window decorations on almost all available substrates.

Pazazz will soon be adding a flatbed printer to increase the range of substrates it is able to print on digitally, including wood, foam and styrene, as well as aluminum, lenticular, glass and acrylics.

“Some of the applications are spectacular, particularly mirrored or brushed aluminum. You get some really interesting effects that draw people in,” says Seguin. Moreover, notes president and founder Warren Werbitt, “with our big UV press, wide-format and now flatbed capabilities, Pazazz has the best of both worlds. We work with our clients to determine the best way to produce the job. And with the KBA, we can add even more coatings and colours.”

Zarwan wide-format calandre roll printer

Smaller printers, too, offer wide-format digital services, printing on a variety of substrates. Imprimerie B & E, a small commercial printer with 15 employees in Sept-Iles, Quebec, is expanding its wide-format offerings. Its first foray was more than six years ago with the purchase of an HP 5500. Co-owner Jean Taschereau wanted to move to outdoor work and in June invested in a Mutoh ValueJet 1304 and a digital vinyl cutter. With his 61-inch laminator, he feels he doesn’t need to print on rigid substrates, but can mount and laminate as required. To show how cost effective and versatile his new capabilities can be, Taschereau has developed some floor graphics for his facility’s entry way.

Imprimerie B&E entrance - floor graphics

Jean Taschereau (on left) of Imprimerie B&E, with new Mutoh

Similarly, St. John’s, Newfoundland’s Print Three franchise, owned by David and Anne Marie Fowler, added a Canon ImagePROGRAF W8400 wide-format colour printer to its existing digital production capabilities, which are presently mostly Xerox. The company is already outputting engineering and legal work with a Xerox 6204 monochrome printer and a Contex scanner. Sales manager and son, Dan, says the company’s customers were requesting colour work, especially banners and posters.

Inkjet is not just about wide-format, however. Increasingly, full-blown “industrial” inkjet systems are targeted at graphic arts customers, including those from EFI’s Jetrion and the Agfa :Dotrix. (See our drupa 2008 coverage in the July 2008 issue of Graphic Arts Magazine). The Jetrion is focused primarily on labels, while Agfa has targeted not only heat-sensitive, pressure-sensitive and in-mould labels, but also point-of-purchase, displays and flexible and paperboard packaging with the larger :Dotrix.

One area where toner shines is labels. Both Xeikon and HP Indigo have long served the label market. As web devices, the various Xeikon products can be used for labels; the 3300 is targeted at this market. HP Indigo offers specialized label presses, the WS4500 and WS6000, as well as the 2000 series for industrial printing applications such as membrane switches, panels, keypads, mouse pads to plastic cards for ID and drivers’ licenses. The HP Indigo WS6000, first shown at drupa last year, can print up to seven colors, including white, which is important for printing on metallic label stock as well as flexible packaging.

Metro Label, based in Toronto and with facilities in Langley, B.C., Montreal and California’s Napa Valley, has both Indigo and Xeikon machines, as well as flexo, offset, screen, letterpress and gravure. At 35-years-old, Metro Label is Canada’s largest converter of pressure-sensitive labels and one of the largest in North America, serving a number of markets, such as beverage, health and beauty, pharmaceutical and food. President Sandeep Lal says the digital presses are typically used for shorter runs. With many customers having hundreds or even thousands of different products and as labels might change a number of times during the year, press runs of 50,000 to 500,000 labels might include a number of different SKUs.

There are a variety of pressure-sensitive label substrates, including a variety of papers and films, as well as metalized stock. Not only do they all perform well on both the Indigos and Xeikons, Lal says certain types of graphics can be best done digitally. “Customers do notice a difference. Digital has a finer resolution and is very good in the highlights. You can go to a zero per cent dot on the Indigo.”

Shawn Werbitt, head of the label division of Montreal’s Pazazz Printing, which has two flexo presses and an HP Indigo WS4500 digital press, agrees. “Digital can achieve labels with incredible colour quality. The colours produced digitally on the Indigo ‘punch.’ Digital label quality is comparable to offset quality; you just can’t achieve that type of clarity with flexo.”

Digital presses, including the Xerox iGen and Kodak Nexpress as well as Xeikon and Indigo, do much more than labels, of course and can print on an increasing variety of substrates and media. One of the most innovative and unusual is the Xerox iGen Automated Packaging Solution, developed by substrate provider Stora Enso and branded Gallop in European markets. The product combines digital printing with coating, die cutting and foil stamping for cartons. (See the drupa article in the July 2008 issue of Graphic Arts Magazine). Another innovative use of the iGen is for magnetized products by companies such as Illinois-based MagnetStreet, one of the first U.S. commercial businesses to install a Xerox iGen4. Founder Neville Baird says growth in its consumer business has exceeded 30 per cent a year in the last few years. He is now looking to diversify further and is looking for fabric on which to print.

Inkjet can print on the egg before or after it’s cooked.   (photo courtesy Kodak Versamark)

Bassett Direct, a 10-million-dollar Markham, Ontario provider of direct marketing services with a variety of devices from Xerox and Xeikon, uses a variety of grades and textures to meet its clients’ requirements.

“We’ve always been a company that pushes the envelope. In all the years we’ve had digital technology, you can count on one hand what we couldn’t run,” says Rich Bassett, owner. Bassett says testing is the key. Projects with unusual substrates included clear papers and teslon plastic coated stocks for gift cards, on both the Xeikon and the iGen. “There are not a lot of limitations,” Bassett says. “As long as you can get it in roll or sheet, there’s a way to run it. We always look for something that makes the product different and stand out.”

FUJIFILM Dimatix DMP-3000It is also worth mentioning the capabilities of digital printing for non-graphics, so-called “industrial” applications. For example, inkjet printheads from companies like Fujifilm Dimatix can be used in a variety of applications, including such things as printing bioactive inks on paper strips to detect toxins in food packaging, or nano silver conductive inks for RFID (radio frequency identification) applications. Dimatix has recently introduced a fully-functional system, the DMP-3000, capable of jetting a wide range of functional fluids onto virtually any type of substrates, including plastic, glass, ceramics and silicon, as well as flexible substrates from membranes, gels and thin films to paper products.

According to Tim Luong, sales engineer at Dimatix, scientists use inkjet to print DNA or coat micro lenses with nano particle fluids. Luong notes that functional printing is much more difficult than graphics, as it is “mission critical” – you can’t miss a drop. “These fluids can be expensive and volatile. Inkjet is environmentally-friendly; you can put the drops exactly where needed with a minimum of waste.”

Closer to the printing industry, inkjet technology is also used in computer-to-plate systems by companies such as Glunz & Jensen and JetPlate. In these systems, a solution (ink) is jetted directly onto a grained aluminum plate. (Depending on the system, it may require some additional non-chemical finishing, typically heat, to bond the solution to the plate and make it press-ready).

It is clear that the range of substrates available for both electrophotographic and inkjet printers will continue to expand, offering new opportunities for print providers to develop their business.


One response to “Digital: what will it print on next?

  1. This is one of the more informative articles I’ve read on the subject of digital-wide format. Informative because the writer obviously brings to the reader (me), his knowledge of the direction wide format is taking, but adds proof of the reality of that direction by the interviews done with real life wide format printers.
    BRAVO to Graphic Arts Magazine for your leadership in delivering articles like this to an information-hungry audience (me included).