Me & my: RTI Vortex 4200

Packaging is tipped as one of the next big markets to be addressed by digital printing. So a small packaging firm becoming one of the first in the UK to install a new machine based on new technology is a big deal.

But when that machine’s core market is CAD/GIS rather than packaging, the question is: are they plain insane or insanely clever? 

Cardworks is a 12-staff POS and packaging specialist based in Bracknell, Berkshire. The firm has focused on a niche of high quality in low volumes at a good price and built a reputation with its clients as a problem solver.

Several years ago Cardworks decided to focus its limited space and resources on where it could add the most value, and so it outsourced its litho and screen printing and concentrated on design and finishing. It has laminating, mounting and die-cutting in-house to enable it to apply large-format print to foamex, corrugated and X-Flute boards. Latterly it added in-house digital print capabilities for the shortest runs – a Xerox toner-based machine for small formats and an Agfa Anapurna UV flatbed for the bigger stuff.

“Most of our customers supply into large retailers and we look after their packaging and point-of-sale,” says founder and director David Lucas. “We were looking for a machine that would take us to higher volumes than a UV flatbed – a bridge between that and litho.”

In Cardworks’ case the bridge turned out to be the RTI Vortex 4200, which is a fast 1m-wide single-pass inkjet printer. Based on Memjet printheads it prints at 300mm/s or 150mm/s, producing 850sqm of print per hour at its highest speed. It prints onto rolls of paper but can also handle cut sheets. The Vortex was installed in 2013. 

“We’d been looking for a way of improving the production speed and quality on paper and thin board, both reel and sheet,” says Lucas. “Before the Vortex our limitation was speed and we were missing orders because we couldn’t meet the deadlines.”

Prior to installing the Vortex the firm used an Agfa Anapurna UV flatbed for direct-to-board large-format digital for low volumes and a mix of screen print and laminated litho for longer runs. In addition to taking on all non-plastics work from the Anapurna, the Vortex has completely eliminated the need for screen print and is eating into litho print-and-mount for some longer runs.

Before choosing the Vortex the firm looked at both high-speed UV flatbeds and other Memjet-based machines. “The speed was good on the high-end UV flatbeds but the quality wasn’t as good as the Memjet-based machines,” says Lucas. “We knew UV wouldn’t be fast enough without the ‘lawn mower’ effect being visible in the print.”

So it then came down to a battle of the Memjet-based machines, with the firm looking at the Canon Océ ColorWave 900, Xerox DocuWide reel-fed machines and the sheetfed Xante 4200. 

“We did look at the other Memjet-based machines,” says Lucas. “We looked at the Xante due to its ability to handle rigid boards. The problem was it needed specially coated boards and the minimum order is 12,000 sheets. That ties up a lot of money, and takes up a lot of room.” 

Economic sense

The Vortex was the most versatile solution, and RTI the most attentive potential supplier. But the overriding reason was economic. “There’s no click charge – just ink,” says Lucas. “And the hardware price point was viable.”

That was an important factor for Lucas. He didn’t want to overstretch the business financially with huge repayments, which would have been an issue with the UV machines that offered the productivity required. Lucas was keen that the firm should not become focused on keeping busy at any cost, taking its eye off meeting customer needs.

While the solely sheetfed Xante didn’t make the cut, the Vortex’s ability to handle sheets of board was another deciding factor. “The ability to take sheeted boards will become important at a later date, after all we are called Cardworks,” says Lucas. “It’s a fantastic option that enables us to keep all the small and medium-sized jobs in-house.”

Given that some of the target markets include CAD and GIS, the Vortex is designed for office environments, so slotted into the studio area of the business without any problem. There was no need for special preparations or floor reinforcement. All the other Memjet-based options would have been as easy to install but Lucas realised that a big flatbed would have had a big impact on the layout of the factory. 

Day-to-day operation presents no challenges either, with the Cardworks studio sending the jobs to the Vortex directly. “It’s as easy to operate as sending a file to any desktop printer,” says Lucas.

At the heart of the Vortex 4200 are five 8in-wide Memjet printhead arrays, which stacked together end-to-end cover the 1,016mm print width. Print speed is up to 300mm/s when running at 1,600x800dpi and 150mm/s at the maximum resolution of full 1,600dpi. It uses a dye-based set of aqueous CMYK inks to print onto reels of specially coated media of 80-300gsm. It will also support printing onto manually fed rigid boards up to 500microns, also with a special inkjet coating.

“For the close-viewed POS and packaging the true throughput of our flatbed is down to 2sqm per hour,” says Lucas. “Whereas I’d argue that, running flat out [at 850sqm/hr], the Vortex produces some jobs at a better quality output than our Xerox toner machine.”

“It’s already helped us to win business that we wouldn’t otherwise have got. That was down to a combination of the faster turnaround, higher quality and competitive pricing we can now offer.”

While Lucas feels confident that the Vortex has helped to increase turnover, he says it’s too soon to give any more details on the ROI.

Although generally delighted with the output quality, Lucas reports that there is a problem with the evenness of flat tints, which can be more apparent in some tones and colours than others. While the effect is reduced somewhat by laminating, Lucas acknowledges that this is a limitation for some types of artwork and some very demanding customers.

Peter Barton, RTI director of EMEA business, responds: “Single-pass is certainly the future of digital print, but it is still in its infancy. Print quality improvements are being introduced regularly. We have seen huge improvements in the Memjet engines over the past 12 months and these improvements will continue. Due to the low ink usage inherent with Memjet technology, large areas of light pastel colours are the most likely to show any inconsistencies. These are generally very minor and do not affect the ‘usability of the print’.”

Cardworks’ Lucas would also like lower priced inks, but then that’s a common gripe with digital devices and isn’t a specific criticism of the Vortex.

Proactive support

Service and support have been good. In fact RTI has proved to be very proactive. In one instance it picked up an emerging issue via the remote diagnostics and the first time the firm was aware there was a problem was when the RTI engineer was waiting on the doorstep the next day to fix it.

One unexpected benefit of the output of the Vortex, which is a big advantage over other digital technologies, is the integration of its output with the firm’s other production stages. This has had a positive impact on overall production costs. 

“Standard OPP laminate is 6p/sqm and works with the output from the Vortex,” says Lucas. “Our other digital output, whether toner or UV inkjet, needs a self-adhesive laminate that costs £1/sqm.”

Upfront cost was as important as cost in use in the firm’s selection, and was an area the Vortex scored highly. “When we bought the machine we had certain stipulations for the price,” says Lucas. It had to be a low enough amount that it wouldn’t put the company at risk should it not work out. The high-end flatbeds would definitely have put us at risk. The price of the Vortex means that we still have money available to invest in other equipment.” 

And so Lucas is a wholehearted advocate of the Vortex 4200. “The Vortex was the missing link in in-house production, it drops right into our mounting, laminating and die-cutting workflow,” he says. “It gives us a quality and speed advantage over our competition. Its performance is critical to us offering low cost and high quality. We can cut our costs compared to litho on the shorter runs.”

There’s no need for a second machine yet, but because of the speed of the Vortex the firm is looking for a new laminator that can keep up with the printer.

So on the evidence to date, Cardworks falls into the insanely clever category, and investing in the Vortex was clearly a very smart move. 


Width 1,016mm

Resolution 1,600dpi 

Print resolutions 1,600x800dpi and full 1,600dpi

Speed 850sqm/hr

Printhead technology Memjet waterfall fixed-array single-pass

Ink Memjet dye-based aqueous 

Price £69,140

Contact Reprographic Technology UK 01780 789736

Company profile 

Cardworks is a 12-staff POS and packaging specialist based in Berkshire. The firm has focused on producing high quality in low volumes for SMEs selling into retail. It does design, prototyping and laminating and mounting in-house, choosing to outsource conventional print. 

Why it was bought...

Having dipped a toe in the world of digital print with small-format toner and large-format UV flatbed, Cardworks was looking for a machine that could handle larger formats in higher quality in larger volumes and at lower cost than its current kit, while also taking some work from screen and litho to cut costs and turnaround times. 

How it has performed...

According to Cardworks director and founder David Lucas, the Vortex was the missing link in its in-house production. It dropped into its finishing workflow, giving the firm a quality and speed advantage over its competition. “The Vortex is a key differentiator for Cardworks,” says Lucas. “It allows us to seem a league above our size – we can be competing successfully with much larger printing companies. It’s all down to the speed and the quality – it looks like litho. Its performance is critical to us offering low cost and high quality.”


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