The digital revolution in wide format printing for signage and graphics has undoubtedly opened up many avenues of opportunity for print service providers (PSPs).
Developments in hardware, media and inks over the last decade have enabled PSPs to diversify their product offerings and extend their business capabilities, writes James de Waal, head of marketing: business imaging group at Canon South Africa.
The continuing good news for signage and graphics producers is that demand in many application areas is growing. Output is increasing year on year, with combined wide-format print volumes across latex, eco-solvent and UV roll-to-roll printing technologies expected to rise from 1-billion square metres to over 1,6-billion square metres by 2020, according to forecasts from IT Strategies.
However, this escalating demand, whether from large corporate clients, retailers, agencies or SMEs, is typically characterised by ultra-short turnaround times. Data from InfoTrends indicates that, today, almost two thirds of jobs have to be delivered in less than 48 hours, with more than 40% needed the same day.
The growth opportunity, balanced with these extremely high service expectations, makes productivity a key concern for the majority of PSPs. They have responded with continuous investment in hardware, often replacing digital wide format printers every two or three years to take advantage of increasing output speeds.
FESPA’s 2015 Print Census showed that faster output speed was the deciding factor in almost half of all hardware investment decisions.
In tandem, PSPs are also giving increasing attention to end-to-end workflows, aiming to introduce efficiencies throughout their production processes, from automated receipt and processing of incoming jobs via web-to-print solutions, to increasing their digital finishing capabilities to remove bottlenecks downstream of the printer.
Inevitably in a maturing market, the pace of technological progress in digital wide format printing, which has delivered such meaningful productivity gains over the last decade, has slowed down. In the main, advances in output speed have become incremental, and PSPs have been driven to look to other areas of their operations to squeeze more productivity from their processes.
One of the underlying issues behind this slowdown in technological progress is linked to the fundamentals of the prevailing printer technologies. In the case of solvent, eco-solvent and latex, while these technologies have many positive attributes, they have in common the need for an evaporative process to remove water from the ink and from the printed substrate.
This slows production because the printer must limit the amount of ink laid down in any single pass to avoid saturating the media and to achieve the required image quality. So running in high quality mode for a retail point of sale job, for example, a PSP might realistically be restricted to running this type of device at little more than 15 square metres per hour.
Consequently, many PSPs have found themselves stuck for solutions that enable them to rise to growing customer demand with sufficiently flexible production capabilities.
Space and capital permitting, many PSPs have addressed this by installing multiple low-volume 64-inch solvent or latex printers side by side, both to add production capacity and to have ‘insurance’ against machine downtime, as well as extending shift patterns to achieve maximum productivity from their hardware. It is not uncommon to find high-volume signage and graphics production facilities with dozens of this type of printer running two or three shifts a day.
Installing multiple devices has also been a pragmatic response to the need to be able to switch conveniently between multiple media types. In practice, many PSPs keep particular devices for working with specific substrates, reducing the need for cumbersome roll changes and ensuring that the printer’s profiles are optimised for that particular material.
This approach in itself ties up working production capacity unnecessarily, limiting use to only a few applications, with a further knock-on to overall efficiency and return on capital investment. This, in turn, can hold PSPs back from the opportunity to expand their business to new customers or new markets.
In addition, the more individual devices are added, the greater the maintenance challenges for the business. This too affects overall efficiency and business overhead and creates real headaches for production managers trying to juggle multiple incoming jobs, requiring a variety of media, all with tight deadlines.
From a productivity perspective alone, the alternative investment route has been to opt for heavy duty, high speed 3,2m ‘industrial’ UV and latex systems. But at typical price points upwards of Euros 120 000 this requires a huge leap of faith for most signage and graphics businesses. The size and set-up requirements of these systems also limits their flexibility for businesses whose job mix comprises multiple small runs on diverse media.
Rethinking roll to roll productivity
Faced with this conundrum, Canon’s solution was a fundamental rethink of the roll-to-roll printing process, the result of which is Canon UVgel, a brand new technology incorporating optimised ink chemistry, print head technology, media platen and curing system.
This combination delivers the potential for PSPs to double or even triple the productivity they are achieving with prevailing roll-to-roll technologies, without compromising quality and with maximum media versatility. The first product to feature this technology is the Océ Colorado 1640 64-inch printer.
How is this quantum leap in productivity achievable? The key difference is that, as the name suggests, UVgel technology uses a gel ink. Developed according to the principles of UV curing, it remains in a gel state until it passes through the print head, where it is liquefied by heating.
Once jetted on to the media, which is maintained at 28 degrees Celsius, the drops return to their gel state and are immediately “pinned” to the media, preventing them from spreading or merging. This means the printer can deposit more ink in fewer passes, which translates to significantly faster production; the Océ Colorado’s top speed is 159m2 per hour, and 40m2 in high quality mode.
Once a swathe is printed, it is cured using an LED UV cold-curing system which moves independently from the printing carriage and gantry. As a result, print speed is no longer limited by curing, so productivity improves substantially compared with conventional UV. The printed output is also instantly dry and ready to cut, laminate and install, eliminating waiting time between production stages.
The commercial value of this is underlined by Benjamin Muller of TopColor Numéric in Colmar, France. “With the UVgel technology, our prints come out dry. This means we can laminate on the fly, without having to wait for some ink components to evaporate. We can therefore take last minute jobs more confidently.”
Uptime and automation
Of course productivity is a holistic concept that goes far beyond the printing speed. The design and build of the printer itself also play a major role in enhancing overall productivity. In a fast-paced production environment, uptime is a key factor in total cost of ownership, so robust build quality can have a material impact on return on investment.
Sophisticated automation features that minimise the need for ongoing maintenance checks and facilitate roll changeovers can make a tangible difference in a busy, multi-application production environment.
All wide format PSPs know only too well the frustrations of print head nozzle failure. With prevailing technologies, a failed nozzle will usually force machine downtime while the nozzle is replaced.
These issues were familiar to Viktor Kelm, owner of Comdatek GmbH, the first live customer of the Océ Colorado 1640 in Europe, who has gone on to install a line-up of five Canon UVgel printers. In addition to the issue of printing speed – the Océ Colorado prints at double the speed of his prevailing solvent devices – he acknowledges that the company’s solvent and latex systems required a high level of daily maintenance, which was becoming more of an issue as client workload increased and the business moved towards three-shift production on most of its devices.
In the case of the Océ Colorado 1640, nozzle failure is detected before the nozzle fires any ink using sound waves. The flawed nozzle is then replaced on the fly by a neighbouring one, without any intervention from the operator, and full nozzle replacement can wait until the next scheduled printer maintenance, allowing for uninterrupted operation.
Roll changeovers are also made easier, with the Océ Colorado 1640, thanks to the unique dual-roll media drawer. This minimises the time required to load and switch media, ideal in today’s mixed application environments. Van Vliet Printing in Hoorn, The Netherlands, quickly reaped the productivity benefits of the Océ Colorado 1640. Managing director Daniel Van Vliet cites the positive impact of the two media drawers on the speed of material changes and overall production efficiency.
Productivity with no compromise
Until now, PSPs prioritising roll to roll productivity above all else have generally had to compromise quality or media versatility, a difficult choice when customer demands dictate that you should be able to offer all three.
Happily, with ground-breaking innovation such as Canon UVgel disrupting the status quo by offering one technology that cuts across all three performance attributes, the wide format productivity puzzle may now be complete.