Commentary & Analysis
Road Trip: A Visit to EFI’s Inkjet Solutions Facility
This is Part I of what will be an occasional series of manufacturer “Experience Center” visits.
By Richard Romano
Published: June 14, 2013
Exiting I-93 in the hinterlands of central New Hampshire, a long seven-mile drive on State Route 104 heading toward Meredith takes you past country stores, gun shops, and inns both quaint and curious—or, indeed, a bit sketchy—catering to the tourist trade drawn by both nearby Lake Winnepesaukee and the White Mountains. My day’s journey had started out in Massachusetts near the Route 95/128 tech corridor and whilst I was happy to have shed the dense and hostile commuter traffic somewhere round about the New Hampshire border, my thoughts now began to turn to a potential bear attack—or perhaps a Sasquatch sighting. The last thing I expected to find in these parts was a facility that manufactures high-tech printing equipment. Chainsaw sculptures, maybe; wide-format printers and production inkjet presses, not so much.
And yet as I round a bend, I see the sign for EFI’s Inkjet Solutions, which is a manufacturing facility, a corporate office, a research and development facility, and a showroom (the building had been a VUTEk facility, acquired along with the company by EFI in 2005). Just outside the showroom is a small lounge featuring wall décor, furniture, and other decorative accents all printed on EFI wide-format equipment—pretty much de rigueur these days.
There is an advantage to small, intimate tours like this, and even small-scale customer events, which can provide a focus that’s often lost in the mélee and confusion of a large trade show, where back-to-back appointments and booth meetings tend to make one look at one’s watch more often than the equipment on display.
As a writer—even for trade media—one is always looking for some kind of narrative, as a regurgitation of equipment specifications makes for pretty dull reading (and all the specs are on the EFI Web site anyway). And the narrative that can be told at places like these kinds of showrooms or “experience centers,” is the gradual transition into the wide-format market and a gradual scaling up of capabilities. In other words, where does the wide-format journey start—and where can it end? Or does it even have to end?
As one enters, immediately to the right of the front door is the EFI H652, where one’s wide-format journey could in fact start, as it is one of the company’s entry-level wide-format printers. “Most of the business [for the H652] comes in from the commercial world,” says Product Manager G. Scott Wood. The H652 is a hybrid flatbed/roll-to-roll printer that’s ideal, it is said, for the soft signage market. If you were a commercial printer looking to expand into the uncharted waters of wide-format, this would be the type of printer you’d look at, as it features a relatively small price point, and yet the ability to print a wide variety of materials. Since it’s a hybrid device, you would also have the flexibility to print on roll and rigid substrates. (The adjacent T1000 is also an entry-level flatbed wide-format printer geared more for specialty printing applications.)
Moving right along, the QS Pro Series is considered “entry-ish level” but is perhaps more properly a midrange device. Or “a workhorse,” says Sean Roberts, Director of Applications. Printing two meters wide, the QS2 Pro is primarily a flatbed, but features an optional roll-to-toll unit. For those playing along at home, the upgrade path to shops that have had success with the H or T series devices and are looking to greatly expand their wide-format offerings.
You can tell we’re getting toward the high end of the food chain. The machines are getting bigger. The very biggest superwide flatbeds remind me, in a way, of web offset presses, where very often you had to install the press and then construct the building around it. That isn’t necessary with wide-format, but when you have a printing device that looks like—and seems like it’s almost the same size as—a subway car, it’s hard not to be daunted. “This is the VUTEk architecture on steroids,” says Strategic Product Manager Michael Wozny, of the HS Series. Introduced last year, the VUTEk HS100 Pro prints on the widest range of substrates and thus produces the widest range of products. It also incorporates a technology that EFI calls Pin & Cure, which helps combat dot gain with precise droplet control and very fast ink curing. (The HS100—like nearly all of EFI’s wide-format offerings—are UV-curing devices.) Pin & Cure, says Wozny, “allows the widest range of gloss levels.” It also produces output that boasts “near-lithographic” quality.
At the top of the food chain is the GS Series—a five-meter-wide, 100 board-per-hour production flatbed, whose LX models offer LED-curing as an alternative to conventional UV curing. We’ve discussed the advantages of so-called “cool curing” elsewhere in these features, but chief among them is not only the energy savings from less heat being generated by the curing lamps, but also the ability to run thinner plastic substrates, which can be subject to deformation and melting on conventional UV printers. It’s a safe bet that LED curing is the future of the market—today’s economies of scale issues notwithstanding. “Oh, yeah,” Roberts concurs.
Tucked in a corner of the demo room is the Jetrion 4900 production inkjet label printer—but that is another story for another time, and for another microsite. Still, I remain captivated and entranced by high-speed laser cutters, much to the chagrin of my optometrist.
Journeys—if they are truly worthwhile—feature unplanned side trips and tangents. Taking a trip across the street with Spencer Craig, Director of Business Development, brings us to a research facility—and you know it’s a research facility and not a sales office by the plethora of “Danger” and “Warning” signs posted around (yeah, OK, insert own joke here...)—which, among other things, is where EFI’s engineers have been developing specialty inks used for thermoforming applications. In thermoforming, a graphic is printed on a sheet of plastic, which is then placed into a thermoforming oven which heats and softens the plastic, then molds it around a three-dimensional object.
The room is littered with the discarded remnants of failed experiments. “Shapes that are too complex to thermoform without needing to be cut out of the mold,” said Craig. Thermoforming is becoming common in packaging, as well as other types of 3D or assemblable applications. (The emblematic example is one of those Thule-like outdoor sporting equipment car roof carriers, custom printed.) In thermoforming, there are two issues related to the printed graphics: the ink must be able to withstand the heat and stretching of the thermoforming process, and “distortion software” needs to adjust the image to compensate for the stretching of the printed graphic. EFI specializes in the ink part of the equation. For those interested in learning more, there is a short video from EFI, or visit Distortion Arts to learn more about distortion graphics.
Many journeys must come to an end (I couldn’t afford the gas for an endless journey), but the wide-format journey doesn’t necessarily have to. New devices, new technologies, new products, new applications are emerging like points of interest on the highway. And while it may be tempting to hit the interstate and speed directly toward some known destination, sometimes it’s nice to ride the “blue highways,” as William Least Heat-Moon called them. Sometimes we can find exciting things—or exciting opportunities—we never even knew we were looking for.