As we have often written in our WhatTheyThink Wide-Format Zone, it's all about the applications. New technological developments in wide-format hardware first and foremost serve to expand the number and variety of applications shops can produce. But at the same time, they should also improve the "evergreen" concerns of image quality, speed, throughput, and reduction or elimination of waste.

Although predominantly known as a workflow company-"Fiery" is essentially synonymous with RIPing-EFI was demonstrating at SGIA a couple of weeks ago its prowess in developing wide-format hardware, with models on display that showcased two of the company's new technological developments.

Let There Be [A Different Kind of] Light
One looming technology shift in wide-format will recapitulate one that is taking place in the consumer space, as the old, familiar-but highly inefficient-incandescent lightbulb is being phased out in favor (to the consternation of some) of first what I believe will be the transitional technology of compact fluorescent light (CFL) and, finally, to light-emitting diode (LED) lamps. The latter last longer, and are more efficient, losing far less energy as heat than incandescents.

In the wide-format printing space, particularly in the sub-market of UV wide-format, ink curing is performed with mercury-vapor lamps that use ultraviolet (UV) light, but also a substantial amount of heat to dry the ink. Although UV printing has opened the door to a panoply of applications and products that can be printed-nay, manufactured-the requirement of heat in the curing process is one limitation of the process. Enter LED-based UV printing, which takes the heat out of the process.

"[LED] allows curing to take place with light instead of heat," says Patrick Morrissey, EFI's Senior Director of Sales, Inkjet Solutions, Americas. "That changes the paradigm-the limits-of what can be done. Things that were thought impossible are now possible."

For instance, take the thickness of the substrate. When traditional UV printers (and, yes, it sounds a little strange to be talking about "traditional" UV printers at this stage, but there's no tradition like a new tradition!) attempt to print on thin, particularly plastic, substrates, the heat can cause discoloration, curling, or other deformation as the heat melts the plastic. With LED UV, you can now print on those thin film or plastic substrates which perfect for backlit POS/POP graphics or even dimensional applications, as you can print on the types of films required for thermoforming.

LED printing is also faster than traditional UV printers, says Morrissey, "and you gain a little color gamut in the whole process.

"It's a totally different way of thinking about the manufacturing process," he adds. "There is no loss of speed, no loss of color-it's a real gain in terms of what you can print on. On the creative side, it expands what people can do with digital imaging."

Being able to print on thin substrates has additional benefits beyond simply expanding the variety of print applications; thin substrates can be supplied as rolls rather than sheets or boards, and are less expensive to ship once they off press.

EFI introduced its first LED printer, the Jetrion 4830LED, in 2010, but its flagship LED printer today is the Vutek GS3250LX, a hybrid flatbed/roll-to-roll printer that can handle flexible or rigid substrates up to 126.5 inches (3.2 meters) wide and up to 2 inches (5.08 mm) thick. It is also multi-roll capable.

Another Gray Area
The second of EFI's new technology demonstrations at SGIA involved its approach to "grayscale" printhead technology, which the company says will mark the end of the "DPI battle." The concept of resolution has always been one best described in relative terms; in many traditional wide-format applications, you can get by with a low actual resolution if a print is being viewed from some distance. Regardless of viewing distance, the typical approach to output resolution has been a binary process: dot or no-dot, and each dot is the same size. It is solely the number of dots-or drops of ink-that controls the density in any given portion of an image. Now, however, the combination of software and printhead design creates drops of ink that vary in size and puts the dots where they are needed in the print. For example, small text or fine lines would require smaller dot/drop sizes than, say, high-density areas or solids. As we all know from Digital Imaging 101, the more levels of grayscale you have, the smoother the color transitions are and the less likely you are to see the familiar problem of banding. By combining different size droplets (determined by the RIP), images have a smoother appearance. You also get better reproduction of fine detail. There is also the potential for ink savings, says Morrissey, depending upon the image, giving printers "more mileage per liter."

EFI has incorporated its approach to grayscale imaging in any of its "Pro"-designated printers, such as the Vutek QS2 Pro, QS3 Pro, or the HS100 Pro. Older units are also can be retrofitted to take advantage of the grayscale printhead technology.

"[The combination of] LED and grayscale is about technology enabling better quality images, more applications, and taking the cost out of the process, and the ink," says Morrissey.