On the face of it, wide format inkjet printing does not seem like the most revolutionary print technology around. For a start, we’re mostly talking about reasonably long viewing distances so resolution and image quality isn’t as important as, say, with a label press.
Also, wide format printers use a scanning approach with multiple passes, meaning that successive passes can fill in for missing nozzles and other artefacts, as opposed to a high speed single pass printer where all the ink has to be laid down on a moving substrate in one go with no room for any errors.
In addition, most wide format printers use UV-curable inks that will adhere to a very wide range of substrates, from vinyl and cardboard through to foam board and metal. These inks cure instantly so there’s no hassle about drying away the carrier liquid without damaging the paper, which is common to book and document printers.
And yet, those companies developing wide format printing are right at the cutting edge, pushing printing technology into new areas. Some of this is fairly obvious. Thus, Mimaki, Roland and Mutoh have all developed small format flatbed printers, essentially scaled down versions of their wide format printers but targeted at the industrial print market rather than the graphics market. Equally, Mutoh and Epson have also used their wide format textile print know-how to create desktop tee-shirt printers, though these are often sold to existing wide format users.
But there are other ways in which wide format vendors have successfully exploited their intellectual property. EFI, for example, has branched out from wide format to develop its Nozomi machine, which prints direct to corrugated board in a single pass. It’s a big machine, taking substrates up to 1.8m wide and capable of producing 75 linear metres per hour.
Durst has pushed into textile printing, starting with wide format soft signage machines before branching into the home furnishings and direct to garment market with its Alpha series. There are two models, with 190cm and 330cm widths, offering 600 dpi resolution and print speeds up to 460lm/hr. They work with a variety of fabrics and are designed to compete against screen printing.
Several companies, including Durst, Fujifilm and Inca have also developed hybrid ink systems that are designed to keep the benefits of UV inks while overcoming some of their limitations. I’ve only recently covered the Fujifilm B1 Acuity/ Inca Digital Onset M but it’s also worth remembering that Durst has developed the Rho WT250, a 2.5m wide format printer that uses a hybrid aqueous UV ink that is easier to recycle and gives an appearance similar to offset printing.
Inca has also been busy, not only with its B1 Onset M industrial printer but also working with BHS to develop a 2.8m standalone inkjet printer that can work alongside BHS’s corrugated machines. This will use Samba printheads and run at 300 mpm, with 600 dpi resolution.
Agfa has taken a slightly different approach, concentrating on its ink chemistry. This has taken Agfa into various industrial applications, ranging from furnishings to shoes as well as metal conductive inks.
In addition, quite a few wide format vendors have also been active in the 3D printing area. Roland, for example, started off with routing and milling machines and now has a number of 3D printers aimed at the dental market as well as a range of materials to support this. Mimaki has only recently launched its first 3D printer, the 3DUJ-P, which seems mainly to be aimed at the prototyping market. And then there is HP, which has developed its Jet Fusion series and currently has two mid-sized machines, both clearly aimed at serial production of parts. It’s also worth noting that various engineers associated with Scitex Vision have gone on to work in 3D, including the team behind Massivit, which aims to create large objects for the promotional display market.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. But it does serve to illustrate the tremendous breadth of applications currently being developed by companies whose background, and intellectual property portfolio, is firmly entrenched in wide format printing.
There’s little crossover in any of these activities with large format graphics – this is mainly about vendors building on their IP portfolio to diversify into new areas. And yet most wide format printers that I know tend to be very open-minded in terms of trying new business areas so there’s no reason why they couldn’t ride along and also diversify into industrial applications.
Either way, wide format is going to be one of the most interesting areas to keep an eye on, at least in terms of the print technology and the underlying R&D.