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Commentary & Analysis

Wide-Format Roll-to-Roll Printer Roundup

In today’s wide-format market, flatbed printers are all the rage and, for certain applications, deservedly so. But the earliest wide-format printers were all rollfed (or roll-to-roll) devices, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that flatbeds existed as a product category. Flatbeds emerged to take time and materials out of the “print-then-mount” process; after all, why not just print directly on the surface you want the graphic?

By Richard Romano
Published: January 7, 2015

In today’s wide-format market, flatbed printers are all the rage and, for certain applications, deservedly so. But the earliest wide-format printers were all rollfed (or roll-to-roll) devices, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that flatbeds existed as a product category. Flatbeds emerged to take time and materials out of the “print-then-mount” process; after all, why not just print directly on the surface you want the graphic?

Despite their clear advantages in certain situations, flatbeds are not a solution for all applications—and not even all rigid ones. Given the cost differential between rollfeds and flatbeds (at least for now), it can still be more economical to print-then-mount, unless you have the volume to justify the investment in a flatbed. At the same time, flatbeds may not be as versatile as rollfeds; flatbeds tend to be predominantly UV, while rollfeds come in solvent, aqueous, latex, dye-sublimation, and UV. If you are printing textiles, vinyl graphics for vehicle graphics, and the like, your best bet may still be rollfed.

There are many choices in rollfeds today, and we will identify some of the recent roll-to-roll product introductions and current “state of the art.” This is not meant to be anywhere near a comprehensive list of what is on the market, but is designed to give you the “lay of the land.” By the way, to keep this feature to a reasonable length, we will not be looking at “hybrid” units—machines that can function as both roll-to-roll and flatbed printers. That’s another story for another time.

Semantic note: while it could be argued that “rollfed” and “roll-to-roll” refer to two different things (a rollfed printer could have a cutting mechanism and not necessarily refurl back onto another roll), for all practical purposes, the two terms are synonymous and can be used interchangeably.

Some features to pay attention to when shopping for a roll-to-roll device include:

  • Dual, even triple roll options: Can the device print on multiple rolls, and thus print multiple jobs simultaneously?
  • Ink type: UV? Solvent? Aqueous/eco-solvent? Dye-sublimation? Latex? They all have their advantages and their disadvantages, but will—generally—determine what you can print. Textiles are still largely dye-sublimation with latex gaining ground; vinyl graphics are still largely solvent, but eco-solvent inks are penetrating (as it were); UV inks are suitable for unusual substrates that other inks cannot print on. Some inks are more expensive than others, as well (solvents are inexpensive, UV inks are pricier).
  • White ink option: This is a capability that has become de rigueur for many wide-format applications, such as backlit displays, window graphics, and, naturally, graphics designed for non-white substrates.
  • Specialty colors: High-value print products (vehicle graphics, ad specialties, etc.) often require metallic or other special inks to add that je ne sais quoi to output.
  • Print-and-cut: Some units have a built in cutter that will cut the print as it unfurls. Other units require the user to manually slice off the graphic when printing is complete. Oftentimes, cutting up a printed roll is done in a separate finishing step to free up the printer for the next job.
  • Cut-and-print: Say what? The act of contour cutting a printed graphic can cause the image to distort. So, some units allow the cutter to cut the contour, then print within those cuts without dislodging them.

Here are some recent product introductions that should serve as places to get started when looking at roll-to-roll devices.

Agfa’s latest entry in its Anapurna line of roll-to-roll and flatbed printers, the M3200i RTR, made its North American debut at the SGIA Expo back in October. It is a six-color, 126-inch-wide roll-to-roll UV printer, designed for indoor and outdoor applications and can print on flexible media such as fabric, canvas, vinyl, and more. It features a dual-roll option that allows users to simultaneously print on two rolls of the same media type, each up to 60 inches wide. It joins the growing Anapurna line of roll-to-roll and flatbed units.

The 130-inch Durst Rhotex HS is designed to print on a variety of soft signage materials such as banners, displays, wall decorations, parasols, flags, backdrops, and outdoor advertisements. Boasting speeds of up to 4,300 square feet per hour (though your mileage may vary, as I like to caution), the Rhotex HS also uses water-based dispersion inks that are odorless and contain no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The Rhotex HS joins the 126-inch Rhotex 322 in Durst’s line of rollfed soft signage printers.

EFI offers a wide variety of roll-to-roll, flatbed, and hybrid units. Recent roll-to-roll introductions include the VUTEk GS5500LXr Pro, a 204-inch, 8-color-plus-white printer designed for flexible substrates such as heavy textiles and mesh, and the VUTEk GS3250LX Pro, a 126.5-inch, six-color roll-to-roll printer designed for high-margin, closely viewed graphics.

Last summer, Epson introduced new models in its SureColor T Series of wide-format printers aimed at the architectural, engineering, and construction (AEC) and technical printing markets. They use pigment-based inks and come in widths from 24 to 44 inches, with single-roll and dual-roll models available. Epson’s SureColor F7170 is a top-of-the-line dye-sublimation printer designed for textile printing. It is the flagship of the SureColor F Series of dye-sublimation printers, and is favored by some fashion designers.

In the past few years, Fujifilm has been concentrating on building out its flatbed portfolio, but the Fujifilm Sericol Uvistar series is the company’s line of UV roll-to-roll printers that can print up to 3,800 square feet per hour (your mileage may vary), and are targeted (but by no means limited to) POP and billboard applications. The five-meter-wide Uvistar models can print on up to three rolls simultaneously, or on one really big roll. The latest in the series is the grand-format Uvistar Pro-8W, which can print white ink.

HP’s current state of the art includes its Latex printers, including the three models in the Latex 300 Printer series (54 and 64 inch models), as well as the top-of-the-line Latex 3000 Printer, a highly versatile industrial-scale 126-inch-wide high-volume printer. The Latex 3000 offers dual-roll capability. The Latexes (Latices?) are well-suited for textile printing, as well as a wide variety of other applications. The “3”s mark the third generation of Latex ink technology, but the series also comprises low-volume and mid-volume models, as well.

Last October’s SGIA Expo saw the North American debut of Mimaki’s CJV300 series of cut-and-print machines. These are eco-solvent ink-based machines (the 54-inch CJV300-130 and the 64-inch CJV300-160) and can be configured using up to 10 eco-solvent ink colors, including silver, which can be used to create high-value print products such as labels, decals, T-shirt transfers, window clings, floor graphics, POP displays, vehicle markings, package prototypes, and more. Other recent introductions include the JV150 Series printers and CJV150 Series cut-and-print machines, which launched in early October. The JV150 Series comprises the 54-inch JV150-130 and 64-inch JV150-160. Both models can print using either eco-solvent or dye-sublimation ink.

Mutoh’s growing portfolio includes the ValueJet 2638, a 104-inch four-color eco-solvent printer that can print up to 1,168 square feet per hour (mileage may vary). It can print on coated and uncoated substrates and is designed for posters, banners, backlit displays, wayfinding signage, POP displays, floor graphics, vehicle graphics, and decals. The ValueJet 2638 joins Mutoh’s roll-to-roll and hybrid devices, which, among other applications, have been seized upon by vehicle wrappers.

Reprographic Technology Inc.’s (RTI) initial wide-format printing offering is roll-to-roll Vortex 4200 42-inch inkjet printer. Its five Memjet printheads, comprising 352,000 nozzles for drop on-demand thermal inkjet printing, make the machine capable of printing up to 12 inches per second, or 9,168 square feet per hour. The Vortex is targeted toward the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) markets, as well as map printers and POS graphics producers.

Last October’s SGIA Expo saw the North American debut of Roland’s 64-inch Texart RT-640 dye-sublimation printer, which prints in four (CMYK) or eight-colors (CMYK + light cyan, light magenta, orange, and violet) at, the company says, speeds of up to 351 square feet per hour. It is designed for textile printing like soft signage, banners, and the like. Roland also recently introduced the 64-inch VersaExpress RF-640 eco-solvent printer, designed as a less expensive complement to the popular SOLJET XF-640. It features a mirrored CMYKKYMC printhead configuration to print up to 521.9 square feet per hour. These newer units join the company’s evergreen Pro XR-640 and XF-640 machines.

Roll-to-roll devices can sit comfortably next to flatbeds and are a vital part of a wide-format print provider’s digital portfolio.  

Please offer your feedback to Richard. He can be reached at richard@whattheythink.com.

 

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Wide Format Editor

Richard Romano

Richard Romano, Section Editor/Senior Analyst
Richard has written about communication, graphics hardware and software trends for the past 15 years.

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