Best of all formats?

Sophie Matthews-Paul
Monday, February 22, 2016

Just 15 years ago, the whole ethos surrounding superwide-format print centred around a market sector where size was far more important than quality. To be clear, the term ‘superwide’ ought to cover just the 5m-wide printers, although it is used for narrower devices.

In this field, the primary users were those concentrating on the very specific segments where large single pieces could be printed without seams, a market that had been limited to analogue options until superwide inkjet arrived. 

And superwide-format digital printers certainly found their first home among the battery of users who needed to generate giant billboards, building wraps and other applications where distance viewing negated the importance of high-quality output. 

With early machines using full solvent-based chemistries, requirements for good adhesion, bright colours and acceptable durability were met for the most part. After all, no one needed fine droplet quality or, indeed, precision colour accuracy when an application might be situated many metres from the viewer.

The advent of UV-curable platforms, and their move to dedicated roll-fed devices as a workable and practical alternative to solvent-based formulations, inevitably progressed across popular widths. And so it was only a question of time before the manufacturers were being asked for 5m-wide UV-curable printers. 

While these were never going to have the universal appeal of their narrower hybrid and dedicated roll-to-roll siblings, nonetheless developers were aware that there was, indeed, potential to produce options that filled the remit for superwide-format print.

Early options

Early iterations of 5m machines were dependent on the printhead capabilities available at the time, but throughput speeds were a key factor.  The ability to print across the full width opened the door to the potential for larger, single-piece applications straight off the reel, with their length only governed by the physical handling capacity of the machine and the software used to drive it. But it was important that jobs could be completed within a reasonable timeframe.

For a display producer or print service provider, however, investing in a machine designed primarily for very large applications often needed considerable justification. 

This was not only dependent on the purchase price and subsequent return on investment, but also relied on a user having sufficient floorspace to accommodate such a large device. Therefore it made sense to add a layer of versatility by being able to print multiple rolls, which, according to volume per job, could either duplicate or triplicate the application being produced, or process up to three different files simultaneously.

Since the advent of wide-format printers, and the developments of ink formulations that encouraged them to be used in exterior environments, there has been an interesting dichotomy between quality and application type. Solvent-based chemistries were limited to roll-fed devices and early UV-curable engines concentrated more on production direct to rigid materials, so the ‘bridge’ between capabilities didn’t really manifest itself for some years. 

Although the option for reels to be incorporated into flatbed machines came about fairly quickly, the development and shift to dedicated roll-fed versions took time with one key reason being problems with adhesion and cracking, both of which were endemic when using flexible media.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, concentration on hybrid and combination printers tended to lie on the 2m, 2.5m and 3.2m options for the simple reason that rigid substrate limitations provided a natural maximum width. And although overall improvements in ink chemistry led to the availability of dedicated roll-to-roll platforms, the 5m segment missed many of the refinements that helped improve their narrower siblings. 

At the same time, the ability to print to multiple rolls became a common-sense option as the value of generating two jobs at once was apparent. In terms of ink type, this facility was picked up by latex printing technologies and the burgeoning UV-curable market. 

And so it was inevitable that users concentrating on higher levels of throughput, and who also specialised in superwide-format work, were going to drive the market demand for improved 5m options. 

Certainly adhesion and ink performance had been refined sufficiently to enable a greater selection of material types. Many of these were substrates that were already deemed good performers with solvent-based inks, such as meshes and specialist media used for scaffold wraps and buildings. But, additionally, there were inexpensive products that fared well in relatively short-term environments, such as outdoor events and retail campaigns, that required the format size but not particularly high resolutions.

The addition of multi-roll production in development terms meant that precision loading and media handling had to be complemented by the correct workflow capabilities. Modifications to productivity software needed to accommodate the ability to print three different jobs simultaneously, factoring in the correct colour algorithms and job management where required. 

But the key to the success of adding diversification to superwide machines really lay in their ability to match the droplet quality and production capabilities of their narrower counterparts. No longer are these machines primarily simply for distance viewing; increasingly they are in demand by companies wanting not only the benefits of the additional width but also the versatility to enable one platform to handle a mixture of sizes.

Wider benefits

Noticeably, with machine saturation increasing becoming apparent across many areas of wide-format display and retail work, companies are now finding specific market segments where they can still generate decent margins. While hybrid UV-curable machines have enabled businesses to benefit from bread and butter work output on rigid and flexible substrates, the popularity of dedicated roll-fed printers appears to be accelerating. Thus it makes sense for many service providers to be able to offer a full range of sizes up to 5m in width. And this alone has provided manufacturers with the impetus to produce engines that now produce high quality as well as good throughput speeds.

Instead of isolating superwide-format machines into a specific category that only caters for jumbo-sized jobs, it has made sense for manufacturers to accommodate versatility across all widths so that users benefit from the same high quality as is expected from the more standard format platforms. This now means that even those who only have an occasional 5m wide job can take full advantage of producing multiple applications as a single operation, thereby doubling or even tripling the output potential from a narrower device.

Stephen Hood, managing director of ESP Technologies Group in Kent, has been a long-term user of superwide-format print devices, having been one of the original investors in an EFI Vutek UltraVu 5m machine, one of the early options available in this sector. “Many of the application types we produced using solvent-based inks back in 2000 are still required today,” he says. 

“Coming from a large-format screen-printing environment, the convenience of using an inkjet engine quickly manifested itself for short runs and one-off orders. As a result, 5m-wide output has been an important part of our portfolio throughout the years.”

ESP Technologies Group has only recently upgraded its 15-year-old 5m wide platform and invested in an EFI Vutek GS5500LXr. This gives Hood the ability to generate multiple jobs at the high quality he would expect from a narrower platform as well as updating his superwide applications to UV-curable ink and LED curing. 

“While printing across the full width has its own value in terms of speed and ease of production, being able to work with multiple rolls obviously adds versatility and goes some way towards justifying the investment in a superwide-format platform,” Hood explains. 

“The size of footprint also makes sense, as do running costs, because a single machine can be far more cost-effective than operating multiple units in the same premises. Handling two or three rolls reduces time spent on set-up and pre-press, and also reduces the margin for error such as the risk of colour shift.”

Another long-term user of superwide-format printers is MacroArt in St Neots. Matt Tibbitts, the company’s production manager, has witnessed many changes during the past two decades in terms of output standards. “We’ve been using 5m-wide systems for 20 years and the quality now is virtually identical to the 3.2m options. The newest machines on the market contain the right levels of diversity so they can be used for many different applications,” he states. “We use ours for large volume PVC banner production through to high-end backlit block-out textile jobs.

“In terms of output capabilities between 35% and 45% of our jobs are printed using the full width,” Tibbitts states, referencing his Durst Rho 512R. “The rest are multi-panel applications and, from an operator viewpoint, the advantages of using one machine include colour, quality and speed consistency. 

“The main disadvantage would be the lack of ability to run a variety of substrates at the same time.”

From a manufacturer’s viewpoint there are benefits and disadvantages up for consideration when a new dedicated roll-fed machine is being considered. Having been a very early player in the superwide-format segment, EFI Vutek has been in a strong position to determine market direction and the increased quality and versatility expected nowadays that encompasses all widths. But, despite the potential on offer, there are remarkably few manufacturers that have stepped into the 5m arena and those that have already benefit from a strong history within the roll-fed arena. The principal producers offer variations based on end-user requirement, and are all too aware of productivity expectations for the future. EFI’s recent acquisition of Matan certainly strengthens its offering in this segment, and Durst is being no slouch when it comes to platforms that also fill the need for versatility.

One area where all manufacturers will concur is the variation in customer requirement and which type of machine is best suited to specific workloads. Durst UK’s managing director, Peter Bray, points out that many people investing in 5m devices don’t necessarily have a huge amount of work for these specific machines, but like the versatility of different print modes across different formats.

“The percentage of jobs produced at full width is remarkably low, and no more than 15% to 20% in our experience,” comments Bray. 

“The beauty is that printing can be carried out simultaneously from different queues, and this means productivity, cost and quality are definitely important factors when using multiple rolls on a single machine.”

The latest iterations of superwide-format printers certainly demonstrate the work that has gone into their continued development and that now brings them in line with their narrower roll-fed counterparts. Print service providers intending to concentrate on greater throughput of a variety of applications onto flexible media can now balance the benefits of choosing a 5m platform against one or more 2.5m or 3.2m options –without factoring in quality and media-handling compromises. 


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