Fujifilm’s new approach to wide format

Fujifilm used this month’s Fespa show to announce a new flatbed and the company’s first true hybrid printer alongside its Blueprint Live concept, where the company has supposedly gone back to the drawing board and designed a brand new range of wide format printers.

Fujifilm is selling this Acuity Ultra Hybrid, a 3.3m wide hybrid printer with UV LED inks.

The idea is that this marks a new direction in wide format for Fujifilm, which got into selling wide format printers following its acquisition of the British ink manufacturer Sericol. As well as a first class ink portfolio, Sericol also had a distribution arrangement with Inca Digital for its high-end flatbed printers. Fujifilm built on this by striking a deal to rebadge Canon’s Arizona range of flatbeds, which used Fujifilm’s ink, as did Inca Digital. But with the partnership with Inca Digital having run its course, Fujifilm was free to try something new.

Dave Burton, business director for Fujifilm wide format inkjet systems, explained: “We used to be a brand distributor so our business was taking other brands’ equipment and putting our ink in it.” He went on to say that Fujifilm’s new approach put it much closer to the manufacturing of the printers, adding: “All the products are exclusive and designed by us.”

However Fujifilm has been a little bit coy in exactly what it has done. There are fundamentally three approaches to manufacturing hardware: manufacture yourself as an original equipment manufacturer or OEM; enter a licensing and distribution arrangement to rebadge another manufacturer’s equipment; or design a product in-house and then contract out the manufacturing to a third party, which is a fairly common approach with ink. A variation is to take a product that’s manufactured in an emerging economy and adapt it to create a different version that’s more suited to western markets but at a lower cost than creating it from scratch in a first world economy.

This last option is becoming increasingly common across various sectors in the print industry, including large format. Essentially this means taking advantage of cheaper labour rates and manufacturing processes for the more basic items such as the printer chassis and possibly the transport system of the machine. The trick is then to add in the higher value elements such as the electronics, any onboard sensors and possibly the ink management systems. Some vendors will add the higher value elements themselves in Europe or the US, while others will have their Asian partners do this for them.

Fujifilm had previously struck a deal with Matan Digital to rebadge its superwide rollfed printers. But this arrangement came to an end in 2015 when EFI acquired Matan. Fujifilm’s solution was to work with the Chinese printer manufacturer JHF to develop the Acuity Ultra, which was officially launched at the last Fespa show in Berlin in 2018.

So it appears to me that Fujifilm has not so much gone back to the drawing board to design a new set of printers, but has more likely simply extended its partnership with JHF and/ or another Chinese manufacturer. This also helps explain the choice of printheads – Kyocera for the rollfed printers and Ricoh Gen5 for the flatbeds – which is hardly a ringing endorsement for Fujifilm’s own Dimatix printheads if Fujifilm really has designed these printers itself from the ground-up. It seems far more likely to me that Fujifilm has taken existing printer models, redesigned them to be more suitable for first world markets and had them built accordingly.

That does mean that Fujifilm doesn’t have quite the same freedom to manoeuvre as with a product built entirely in-house, but does allow it to come to market with cheaper products. And as Burton notes: “The bottom line is that the industry has topped out. Print technology has topped out, print quality is an assumption now so what we need now is effective return on investment.”

The most eye-catching of the new models is the Acuity Ultra Hybrid LED, which is a 3.3m wide model built on a roll-fed chassis but with a wide platen and tables for handling rigid media. It can be configured with up to 16 Kyocera KJ4A printheads and resolution is said to be up to 1200 x 1200 dpi. It runs CMYK plus light cyan and light magenta, with two further optional channels for white ink. It can produce up to 218 sqm/hr roll to roll, which drops to 100 sqm/hr in High Quality print mode, and 69 sqm/hr for backlits.

It will take all the standard roll-fed media, including PET, some textiles, mesh, banner and PVC up to 2mm thick. It includes a bespoke airshaft that can hold two separate rolls, each up to 36cm wide and which can be printed side by side even if the rolls are of different diameters. For rigid boards, it can handle Foam PVC, Dibond, PE Flute and Acrylic, up to 5cm thick. It will take boards up to 3.2 x 3m and up to 80kg in weight. For now, there are no automated loading and unloading options as this was previously handled by Inca Digital but I’m told that Fujifilm is looking at this. 

The Ultra Hybrid appears to have come from the same stable as the existing Ultra R2, which itself is a reworking of the older Acuity Ultra. The Ultra R2 is available in 3.2m and 5m widths. It can be configured with up to eight colours. Interestingly, there’s a choice of conventional curing with UviJet GS inks or LED curing with a new UviJet AU inkset, though the LED can only be used with six colour plus white. Fujifilm says that the conventional curing is faster if configured with two sets of CMYK but that the LED offers lower operating costs. All of the Acuity Ultra range use Kyocera printheads and I’m told that the Acuity Ultra Hybrid is using the same printhead carriage as the Acuity Ultra R2. There’s a choice of Colorgate or Caldera RIPs for all of the Ultra machines.

Fujifilm also introduced a new larger flatbed at Fespa, the Acuity Prime L. This has a 3.2 x 2m bed with six vacuum zones and 16 media location pins. The bed can be split into two zones to print two different jobs side by side. It can take substrates up to 51mm high and 45kg/sqm. However, there is no roll media option. 

As with the other flatbeds in the Acuity Prime range, it uses Ricoh Gen5 printheads with variable drop sizes between 7 and 21 pl. It’s capable of producing 54.9 sqm/hr in its Production Mode. It can be configured with up to seven channels, for CMYK, plus white, clear and primer. Curing is via LED. It will be available later this year. There’s a new Uvijet HM formulation for the flatbeds, which apparently includes CMYK plus light cyan and light magenta though there’s no mention of the light colours in the machine configurations for any of the flatbed detailed in the product brochure. 

Last year the company introduced the first two members of the Acuity Prime range, with the 20 and 30 models. These are both the same size, with a 2.5 x 1.27m print area. The distinction between the two is the number of printheads, with the Prime 30 having more heads and therefore costing more. As standard, the Prime 30 has six heads, but since each head can have two colour channels, this gives it 12 channels. It can be configured with up to nine heads. The Prime 20 has four heads or eight channels as standard but can be fitted with up to six heads. This means that there are more channels available to the Prime 30 for the CMYK colours so that it’s faster, and also there is more choice in how to use the primer, white and clear inks.

Again, there is some commonality of parts, with the new larger Prime L using the same head carriage as the Prime 30 though with a stronger gantry and a linear drive to ensure faster and more accurate movements over the larger bed. The Prime 20 and 30 models are both belt-driven.

You can find further details on the wide format range from fujifilm.com.

…with a little help from my friends

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