UV Roll and Flatbed Printers

The printing technology of the 21st century
Tech Review: UV Roll and Flatbed Printers

Flatbed UV printers captured the attention of many signmakers with their ability to print on a myriad of substrates with an ink set that seemed to dry instantaneously while also being fairly environmentally friendly. So why didn’t they catch on several years ago? For one, they tended to print very slowly and, worse, they were generally priced in the $200k range, putting them far out of reach for most shops.

Today, a wide variety of UV printers on the market can meet the needs of most sign companies. Flat-bed UV printers can be found for under $100k and roll-to-roll machines start around $50k, affordable for many medium-sized and larger operations.

UV = UNBELIEVABLY VERSATILE

So, why is UV printing so desirable? In most printing systems (e.g., eco-solvent, sublimation) the ink needs to be closely matched to be absorbed in part by the media. Whereas, UV ink essentially sits on top of the media and adheres when cured by the UV light source. This means you can print on a variety of media that would be impossible for other ink formulations. In fact, most UV flatbed printers have adjustable head heights that can accommodate media up to a 2- to 3-in. thickness. You could, for example, print an image directly to a door. And with a finishing machine, it’s quite easy to print an image on a foamcore board and have the pieces cut to shape.

An issue with early UV machines was the mercury vapor bulb curing system. The bulbs had to be replaced often as they tended to weaken over time and put out a lot of heat, which could warp thin materials like sheet metal and some plastics. Now, most UV printers use an LED light source that generates considerably less heat – and lasts much longer, as well.

A question many people ask is, “Should I get a flatbed, hybrid or roll to roll?” The most versatile is obviously the hybrid printer, which can handle both rigid and roll media. Bear in mind that these are generally the most expensive machines and probably won’t do either job as well as a dedicated machine. Many flatbeds do have the option to add a roll-to-roll unit after the fact; that can be a good way to go. If your application is for roll media only, then by all means go with a roll-to-roll system. They will usually print faster than a hybrid and can offer a wider choice of media widths.

For the standard UV flatbeds that handle 4 x 8-ft. media, production print speeds will be in the range of 300 sq. ft./hr. Draft modes will, of course, be faster and photo-realistic modes can run under 100 sq. ft./hr. If you need high speed and/or larger formats, the machines are available, but be prepared to pony up a lot of cash. Print resolutions on most of the printers reach as high as 1,200 and 1,400 dpi. Machines can range from four colors all the way up to eight, with a typical mix being CMYK plus white. 

UV printer prices have come down significantly over the years and many can be found for under $100k. More expensive printers may include better registration systems, a more industrial build and an upgrade path such as a roll-to-roll unit. Any way you look at it, UV printers are definitely becoming the go-to machines for signmakers.

Signs of the Times October 2019

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