Life in the fast lane: high-end printers
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By Sophie Matthews-Paul
14 June 2012
Durst's high-end Rho 1000 has roll-to-roll, roll-to-sheet and continuous board capabilities
At the top end of the wide-format machine sector sits a group of machines which are intended to supersede much offset litho and screen-printed production, inspired by versatility and the benefits gleaned from a truly digital workflow. Manufacturers vie for supremacy in this market often in close comparison but, in terms of practical use, these platforms serve two very different types of throughput requirement.
End users wanting to move into the fast lane of wide-format productivity should be governed by the type of work they want to produce and the relevance of the particular platform they're considering. In litho and screen-printing terms, many PSPs work to sheet-fed specifications, considering the long-run handling and speed benefits for volumes which are specific in size and stock weights. Making the transition to digital holds familiar operational patterns, with automated loading and stacking coming as high on the list of priorities as the actual printing process. We now have a healthy choice of engines that are designed to handle this kind of output, serving the need for posters, point-of-sale and display applications. Integrated is the convenience of being able to produce mixed sizes and volumes plus variable data without the hindrance of time-consuming makeready and changeover essentials.
Using HP Scitex, Agfa and Inca Digital as established examples of high-speed sheet-fed production, the machines coming out of these companies have set themselves up in a position to challenge analogue presses. They've done a good job as can be seen by the numbers of these industrial strength systems now installed on a world-wide basis. From an end customer's standpoint, whether or not a job has been produced digitally is largely immaterial as long as it meets the requirements of the order. For the print company, productivity can be enhanced so that overall daily volume targets can be maintained but with a far higher number of applications being throughput.
Nonetheless, there is a faction of PSPs who need something more in terms of production flexibility, and these are the people who are more likely to be tempted by a flat-bed and roll-fed combination printer. This doesn't exclude them from producing sheet jobs when necessary, but being able to change from rigid to flexible materials and back again represents a cogent part of their daily production need. As a result, we have seen the onward progression of hybrid engines to greater productivity levels, based on original platforms and engineering which have been in evidence for many years.
It is companies like Durst and EFI who have continued down this combination route with machines that are designed to offer the best of both worlds to end users. But these PSPs are going to be businesses where the need for hybrid versatility in an engine is a de facto requirement and where, perhaps, budget and space preclude the ability to install two engines to handle the separate types of application.
When I'm asked which type of machine a purchaser should consider, the answer is rarely simple. It doesn't boil down necessarily to favouring a particular manufacturer but it's more a question of assessing the actual production requirements, both now and in the future, and investing in a platform which covers the right bases. A dedicated sheet-fed solution is fine for a business concentrating purely on that market but the flexibility of a good combination machine can score with users who want to print panels in batches or who need to split production with roll-fed materials.
In truth there is no right or wrong, and nor is there straight competition between combination printers and their sheet-fed counterparts. Investments should be based on job requirements and not just concentrated on ink performance, cost factors and good relationships with the manufacturer or supplier. Likewise, any purchase now should attempt to factor in future requirements which, of course, might change at any time. This means that would-be purchasers wanting to extend their capabilities should take on board considerations outside their immediate comfort zone and decide whether to concentrate on sheet-fed digital production or extend capabilities to roll media with a dual-purpose unit.
Although we all accept that wide-format print is now established as a process, users are still unearthing new options for producing new and sometimes wacky applications on all types of platform. Investors in high-end machines need to ascertain whether they want to stay within their familiar sheet-fed parameters or bring in more versatile technology that might not be as fast and automated but could be useful when wanting more variable application potential.
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