New Dimensions in Digital Printing
An emerging class of digital, direct-to-substrate inkjet printers is allowing screen shops to expand into ad-specialty products, promotional items, and more.
Screen printers know the drill: Short runs are rarely profitable, given the amount of time and materials involved in setting up even the simplest job. And forget about one-offs and prototypes. But just as wide-format inkjet printers have enabled screen shops to take on low-volume flat-graphics work economically and efficiently, the technology—albeit in a smaller size format—is now making it possible for them to diversify their product offerings, introduce an expanded range of services to their customers, lure in new business, and keep their screen presses focused on the profitable, high-quantity work.
Flatbed inkjet printers that are designed to print three-dimensional items offer an alternative to pad printing, which historically has been the imaging method of choice in many promotional-products applications. The machines can accommodate very thick products that can’t always be handled on other inkjet devices. Via standard or custom parts fixtures, they facilitate direct printing onto products ranging from smart-phone covers to golf balls. These machines typically use UV-curable (often UV-LED) inks and most offer high-speed output in at least four colors.
White and clear inks are becoming commonplace in digital printing, and this emerging category of three-dimensional printers is no exception. Many of these machines incorporate white and/or clear, allowing a greater range of materials to be decorated (including darkly colored and transparent substrates) and enabling effects such as highlights and blockouts to add “pop” to colors. Primers are making inroads as well, opening the door to typically challenging media, such as metal. Read on to find out about some of the systems that are on the market. (A number of vendors also offer higher-speed inkjet systems designed for in-line manufacturing, but in this article we’ll concentrate on machines that would typically appeal to commercial shops.)
Direct Color Systems
The Direct Jet 1024UVHS, the latest UV-LED printer from Direct Color Systems, incorporates several recent upgrades including greater flexibility when printing white and/or clear and print speeds up to 50% faster than earlier models in the line. The machine features eight print heads (CMYK plus two channels each of white and clear), allowing bi-directional printing of both white and clear through a feature the company calls inline printing. The 10 x 24-in. printer offers four production modes ranging from 1440 x 720 to 5760 x 1440 dpi (optimized resolution) and can print items up to 6 in. thick.
Also new to the 1024UVHS is the ability to achieve multilayered effects through the TEXTUR3D print mode. According to the company, users can produce ADA-compliant and Braille signage using the new feature.
The printer uses DCS Multisolve LED UV IR2 inks compatible with a variety of substrates including plastics, glass, wood, ceramics, and metal. Inks are available in 200- and 500-ml bottles for the refillable cartridges. The firm’s Advanced RIP 9 software drives the 1024UVHS and is compatible with popular design programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and CorelDRAW.
Other models available from Direct Color Systems include the 10 x 14-in. 1014UV, also a UV-LED machine, and a line of four solvent printers ranging in size from 13 x 9 to 13 x 24 in.
Billed as a “digital pad printer,” the Viper UV-LED printer has a 24 x 24-in. print area with interchangeable, custom-made jigs to accommodate a variety of materials and applications. The Viper can print products up to 12 in. high and uses Ricoh Gen 4 print heads that deliver 6-pl droplets. Five color configurations are offered: CMYK, CMYK+clear, CMYK+W+clear, CMYK+2xW, and CMYKcm.
A 2- or 3-droplet/pixel mode is available to produce higher ink densities when required for specific applications. Gandy says users can also choose to print four-color designs with two inline rows of white at the same time with no loss of production speed.
Automatic ink-level monitoring is displayed in real time on the specially designed GUI that is fully controlled from an Apple iPad (an industry first, according to the company). Laser-controlled head-height monitoring helps users eliminate the risk of head strikes, nozzle damage, and down time. The Viper also features an anti-static system designed to improve print resolution and clarity, and the LED curing technology eliminates heat-buildup problems on heat-sensitive materials.
Graphics One's GO F-24 UV-LED flatbed inkjet printer can print objects as thick as 10 in. with a maximum print area of 18 x 24 in. According to the company, the six-color machine (CMYK+W+clear) can print at speeds over 100 sq ft/hr in CMYK mode at resolutions up to 1440 dpi. The system’s One Pass technology allows the user to print a white underbase with process colors in a single pass. Inks are available in 250-ml, 500-ml, and 1-l bottles.
The Go F-24 features a White Ink Ready function, combining an ink-circulation system and pressurized pumps to reduce print-head clogging when printing white. The printer also features InterWave Dot Technology, which is designed to reduce banding. The Laser Printhead Protection function uses light sensors to detect print-path obstructions, thereby reducing print-head strikes.
Promotional products made of acrylic, plastic, ceramic, wood, and other substrates are compatible with the printer. Graphic One’s F-24 RIP software is included.
The X2 UV-LED inkjet printer from Inkcups Now is a flatbed version of the firm’s larger XJet model, a unit designed for higher-volume industrial applications. Like the earlier model, the X2 can reportedly print a 20 x 24-in. area in 90 seconds. It accommodates parts up to 3 in. tall and offers imaging resolutions up to 1200 dpi.
The X2 comes with a six-color (CMYK+2xW) inkset. Dual UV-LED lamps and two staggered white print heads allow for uni- or bi-directional white printing. The machine incorporates VDS (Variable Droplet Size) technology, delivering three dot sizes (7, 14, and 21 pl) to print sharp images with smooth gradients. X Series UV inks are packaged in 1-l bulk-ink containers and the company says ink costs average $0.0015/sq in.
The X2 also allows printing onto metal substrates through the use of DigiBond primer, available separately. Users are advised to wipe the primer onto the metal parts and then flash cure it prior to printing.
Standard features include automatic negative-pressure ink maintenance and white-ink maintenance systems, as well as programmable platform-height adjustment for three-dimensional parts. Standard and custom parts fixtures are available through Inkcups Now. The system occupies a footprint of 66 x 61 x 54 in. and weighs in at 1300 lb.
Lawson Screen & Digital Products
Lawson bills its Express-Jet/ASI direct-to-substrate UV-LED inkjet printer as an industrial system engineered specifically for the requirements of the ad-specialty industry, not a modified desktop printer, delivering ink deposits and image quality not attainable through pad printing. The system uses six industrial-class grayscale piezo printheads with variable-dot technology and imaging resolutions up to 1200 x 1200 dpi. The machine offers a choice of three print modes that Lawson has labeled Good, Better, and Best.
The five-color (CMYK+W) Express-Jet/ASI-2024 has a standard imaging area of 20 x 24 in. Features include an ink degassing and filtration system, multiple print-mode settings, automatic print-head cleaning station, and a recirculation system for the white ink to prevent clogging. Options for the Windows-compatible unit include dual UV-LED lamps, specialized and custom-designed parts fixtures for a variety of applications, foot pedal, and more. Installation and service are handled by Lawson personnel and parts are stocked in the US. The unit has a footprint of 66 x 80 in. and weighs in at approximately 900 lb.
LogoJet's EX4 is an eco-solvent, direct-to-substrate inkjet printer that supports a maximum imaging area of 8 x 12 in. The system features automatic platform-height adjustment to accommodate three-dimensional products up to 3.25 in. high with compatible media including metal, glass, plastic, wood, stone, canvas, vinyl, cardboard, and more.
Compatible with both PCs and Macs, the EX4 reportedly accepts files created by any third-party solution, including Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and CorelDRAW. The company says its six-color (CMYKcm) bulk ink-delivery system reduces maintenance and refills, and claims that ink consumption per 100-ml container of ink is up to 24,000 sq in. The system includes an IR curing lamp designed to promote ink adhesion and print durability; a heated print bed is optional. LogoJet reports that print time, which varies according to substrate and print area, is between 3-10 min.
The EX4 supports a variety of parts fixtures and can accommodate products weighing up to 10 lb. Included with the machine are more than a dozen standard accessories, including a mat for flat objects and a three-in-one parts fixture for golf balls, poker chips, and ping-pong balls (as well as software designed for those applications). Also available from LogoJet is the Pro H4, a larger machine with a maximum print area of 13 x 24 in., an eight-color inkset that adds two levels of gray, and the ability to print items up to 5 in. high.
Mimaki’s line of UJF-6042 UV LED printers are designed to print a wide variety of substrates used in the promotional-products industry including plastics, glass, leather, and metals. The printers feature variable-dot technology with a minimum drop size of 4 pl and the ability to print three drop sizes at once, allowing for smooth gradations and color transitions at a maximum resolution of 1800 x 1800 dpi.
Three models are offered. The UJF-6042 supports a maximum print area of 24 x 16.5 in. and a maximum substrate height of 5.9 in. The UJF-6042FX (2 in. maximum substrate height) and UJF-3042HG (5.9 in. maximum substrate height) can both support print sizes up to 11.8 x 16.5 in.
All three printers have eight ink cartridge slots and offer a choice of three ink systems. LH-100 (CMYK+W+clear) and LF-140 (CMYKcm+W+clear) also include a channel for a primer that can be applied automatically to improve adhesion to substrates such as PET, acrylic, glass, aluminum, brass, copper, and nylon. LH-100 inks provide better scratch and chemical resistance according to Mimaki, while LF-140 inks offer a more flexible ink film and enhanced imaging properties. LF-200 inks (CMYK+2xW) can be stretched up to 200% during post-print processing without causing delamination, according to the firm. The inks are supplied in 220-ml cartridges that can be refilled via 600-ml bulk ink packs.
All models feature the ability to over- or under-print white ink as well as Mimaki Circulation Technology, designed to circulate the white ink to improve its stability and standardize pigment dispersion. A nozzle-recovery function allows users to continue printing when a clogged nozzle can’t be resolved through the standard cleaning regimen.
Pad Print Machinery of Vermont
Pad Print Machinery of Vermont's fJET-24 UV LED printer is designed for personalized souvenirs, customized gifts, promotional items, and more. The printer supports single- or bi-directional printing in CMYK or CMYK+2xW. (An optional clear ink is also available.) Featuring a maximum print area of 20 x 24 in. and a top substrate height of 2.95 in., the fJET-24 can print at speeds up to 89 sq ft/hr at 1200 x 900 dpi in bi-directional, six-pass mode.
Standard features include 1-l ink tanks for each color, automatic print head maintenance, and platen height adjustment. The system includes a dedicated PC installed with ColorPrint RIP software and an LCD control panel to manage job-setup and print-queue functions. Options include a mobile computer workstation and a caddy for staging and storage. The fJET-24 occupies a footprint of 66 x 61 x 54 in.
The company also offers a variety of stock and custom inkjet print lines designed for higher-volume manufacturing environments, including monochrome and multicolor models with options such as corona pretreatment systems, custom fixtures, and pick-and-place unloading devices.
Roland DGA's VersaUV LEF Series of flatbed UV inkjet printers are, according to the company, the only benchtop UV printers that are fully enclosed to cut the risk of UV light exposure to the skin and eyes, reduce dust and debris, and minimize ink odor. Available in two models, the printers can image directly onto a range of substrate types, including PVC, PET, ABS, wood, boards, acrylic, and more. They also facilitate direct printing of metallic electronic devices, heat-sensitive plastics, and a variety of three-dimensional objects.
The LEF-12 has a print area of 12 x 11 in., while the LEF-20 offers a print area up to 20 x 13 in. Maximum substrate height on both machines is 3.94 in. Both employ UV LED curing and use Roland’s ECO-UV inks (CMYK+W+ clear). The clear ink allows embossing and varnishing effects to be created, while the white can be printed as a spot color or a flood. Job presets allow specific settings for the user's most popular jobs to be recalled automatically. Eight presets are offered on the LEF-12, while the PEF-20 supports 20. Roland VersaWorks RIP software drives both systems.
Features distinct to the LEF-20 include a more advanced, faster curing system; a Distance Print mode designed to improve print quality on curved objects; idling technology to create a quiet production environment; substrate height-sensor bar made of non-magnetic material to facilitate printing magnetic media; and an ink-recirculation system intended to reduce waste.
Freelance writer Ben P. Rosenfield is the former managng editor of Screen Printing magazine.