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Suppliers Take Automated Wide-Format Printing to the Next Level

The evolution in automation and workflow integration of wide-format printing can lower labor and production costs, as well as the ability to produce more short-run jobs with a quicker turn-around time and in a more cost effective manner.

By Bill Schiffner

Most jobs require cutting of some sort, and integrated cutting and/or finishing tables have evolved alongside digital printers to keep work in-house.

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  • An interest in the automation of wide-format printing systems is growing rapidly. Over the past few years, wide-format suppliers have responded by introducing higher quality machines that offer faster printing speeds. The next step in the process, and the biggest challenge, will be how to better automate these printers so they continue be more cost effective for output providers.

    As in offset, screen and other forms of high-speed digital printing, the automation and workflow integration of wide-format printing can mean lower labor and production costs, as well as the ability to produce more short-run jobs in a cost effective manner.

    "Providing solutions that improve overall workflow and print shop efficiency is a priority for wide-format suppliers across the industry, particularly as our customers are facing demand for tighter turnaround times and shorter runs," says Shahar Admon, product marketing manager at HP Scitex. "Like HP, many manufacturers are not only continuing to introduce new printers, but also end-to-end workflow solutions that

    help print service providers (PSPs) from the time an order is placed, to production to finishing." According to Christoper Howard, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Durst Image Technology US, LLC, productivity is the end result of a process.

    "It's affected at many points along the imaging workflow. Rated print speed is often held up as a reliable measure of productivity," he said. "But while speed is important, the ability to consistently run at top speeds is affected by everything from setting up print jobs at the user interface, to offloading and changing out media. It's important to think about - and deliver - productivity with this in mind."

    The 98-inch-wide Rho 900 combines more efficient automated media handling and "process color addi-tions" with high-speed printing capabilities, to deliver greater productivity and a wider color gamut. Its media handling system employs an auto-feed table with belts and a sheetfed gate with guides, for parallel board printing.

    Is Automation Right For You?
    Larry D'Amico, vice president of digital imaging at Agfa Graphics says that shops looking at more automated printing solutions first need to achieve certain levels of speed and volume from their output device, to even justify going that route.

    "Ideally, shops want to set these machines up, and leave them running unattended past the first shifts," says D'Amico. "They want to eliminate the amount of labor it takes to run these printers, but they probably need to be running about 70-80 boards per hour at minimum to even think about going to a more automated print system. Output providers need to have a volume of jobs available to make automation work for them. One of the first questions we ask a shop owner who comes to us looking at one of our high-speed printers is 'what type of jobs are you running?' and 'what is your media mix?' That will let them know right away if this type of equipment and automation is a fit for them."

    D'Amico continues, "Automation lends itself a lot more to jobs running on a smaller variety of media. There is set up time involved in any type of automated solution, and a major factor is the amount of setup time required to incorporate and calibrate different types of media. If you have constant media changes, it will greatly reduce your effectiveness and productivity."

    The VUTEk GS3250LX boasts a significant increase in production speed, and is designed to complement continuous shifts and 24-hour production capability.

    Increased Speeds
    The most obvious way to make printers more productive is to increase the speed of the printer itself. Heather Kendle, director of marketing at Inca Digital, points out that they have made a concerted effort to increase machine speed without loss of quality, and have introduced periodic upgrades to machines in order to do so. "Our move to full-width printhead arrays back in 2007 - a first for flatbed digital printers - created a step change in both speed and quality," she states.

    Kendle points out, from experience, automation plays a very significant part in productivity. The company first introduced automation in the form of feed and take-up capabilities alongside the introduction of its Inca Onset digital inkjet printer. "Because of the speed of the machine, automation became a necessary component, just to keep up with the demands of the printer. There is virtually no way a person can manually keep up with the print speed of the Onset during the course of a shift nor, at those speeds, accurately load and unload the substrate," she adds.

    Kendle also says there are other ways to increase productivity. "Consider a new campaign where a number of materials must be sent to each store in a large retail chain. The job can consist of multiple components, some of which could be personalized - with pricing or local information, for example. One way to print the job would be to print all of one component, all of the next, and fill a warehouse with pieces that are picked and shipped to each store. You would have to wait until the job is completely printed before sending shipments."

    Reducing Manpower
    "Ten years ago, when digital UV printer suppliers were producing good quality output at five, 10 or 15 boards per hour, a 60-second unload/reload sequence had very little impact on the overall productivity of the printer," adds Mike Wozny, strategic product manager at EFI VUTEk. "Today, with quality boards per hour nearing 100, 10-second unload/reload sequences are required to maximize productivity. Going forward, you'll see printer manufacturers minimize the unload/reload sequence to less than 10 seconds, and eventually to where printing on two boards at once will occur."

    D'Amico explains that, as printing speeds get faster and faster, the need for an automated workflow will only increase. "A human worker can only load sheets so fast. We've done time studies where, generally, a worker can load a sheet in anywhere between five and 15 seconds, depending on the complexity of the job. Once you do the math and get above 100 sheets per hour on a regular basis, the human loading element becomes your lowest common denominator. That's not a profitable equation you want on your ROI. Once you start pushing speeds of 100 sheets per hour, the requirement for automation becomes a necessity."

    Kendle says that material handlers and automatic feeders are a solution because they require less manpower. "A large digital inkjet printer can be operated by just one person. A print company can preload a machine with a large stack of substrate before a shift starts, allowing people during a late shift to move around and perform other tasks while the printer is in operation, and ensuring that the material continues to be delivered to the machine."

    She adds that, by taking the human element out, the likelihood of operator error decreases. "However, no one is suggesting that automation completely remove the labor element from a machine. There still needs to be someone on site to check print quality and machine operation, yet the automation reduces the strain and heavy labor of lifting boards onto a flatbed printer, therefore creating a better working environment."

    Media Handling Solutions
    The automation of media handling solves one of the more challenging productivity issues. Howard says it pulls a very critical part of the overall imaging workflow into a controlled, efficient process, so there are fewer variables outside a managed system.

    "The challenge of the manufacturer is to properly integrate the media feeder and off-load systems into their printing platforms. That includes retaining the flexibility of the platform for quick and easy changeovers of media types and roll materials within the automated system. After that, it's primarily a question of matching system capabilities with the user's current and projected output volumes and operating requirements. We now offer a variety of media-handling systems - including our high-productivity, high-efficiency Mirus system - because of the range of print providers who are interested in our Rho printers," he says.

    Wonzy agrees that material handlers and auto feeders are maximizing the true productivity of a printer. "When a material handler or auto feeder is attached to an industrial super wide-format printer, such as our EFI GS3250LX, it will need to be built in similar 24/7 fashion. ROI and labor savings are some of the benefits, but the real benefit is the true productivity impact they provide as a good feeder is more reliable and consistent than an operator."

    Keeping Labor Costs Down
    "Labor is expensive, and getting more production capacity out of existing equipment without adding labor is a faster way to increase profitability. Also, with automated systems, operators can be assigned to other tasks, increasing productivity," adds Randy Paar, display graphics marketing manager at Océ North America, a Canon Group company. He cites that material handlers and auto feeders are usually expensive in relation to the cost of the printer. "The ROI needs to look at both the labor savings and what the added capital investment means at the price per print level. In addition, finding floor space for these automated systems can present a challenge."

    With the stationary, open-table design, the Océ Arizona Series UV flatbed printers have a very accessible print zone that lends itself to future integration of a media handling system.

    Arizona's Stationary, Open-Table Design
    Paar adds, there comes a point where manual loading and unloading of a printer becomes impractical. "Some of this comes about simply because of the design of the system and the type of application. Because of the stationary, open-table design of the Océ Arizona Series UV flatbed printers, we have a very accessible print zone that lends itself to the future integration of a media handling system."

    "The extra width of the Océ Arizona 360 XT and Océ Arizona 550 XT models enable either one to be used in a continuous imaging mode for rigid media up to 49.2 by 98.4 inches, or a standard four- by eight-foot board. Two rigid boards of this size can be mounted on separate vacuum areas of the flatbed table. While one board is being printed, the operator can change the other. Since the printer never has to stop for a media change, users can significantly increase their net print production on boards of this size."

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    HP/Hostert Solution
    At the highest volume, manufacturers are helping to reduce the manpower required to load media. "With recent introductions like the Multi-Sheet Loader for the HP Scitex FB7600 Industrial Press, and more recently, the Hostert Automatic Loader, a partner solution developed for the HP Scitex FB7600 and FB7500 Industrial Presses for stack-to-stack operations," reports Admon. "The wide-format industry is also making strides from a software perspective, with solutions traditionally found in the general commercial and production printing sectors."

    HP's Multi-Sheet Loader allows the operator to simultaneously print on up to four pre-cut sheets, shortening the turnaround time and reducing waste by eliminating cutting.

    He adds that HP's SmartStream Production Analyzer for HP Scitex is a complete data analysis and operations monitoring software program that helps PSPs improve production efficiency with automated data analysis and 24/7 visibility to gaps and trends in their operations. "With such solutions, and the Hostert Automatic Loader, shops can reduce their dependency on labor, and increase the efficiency of their resource distribution."

    Admon says that, with the addition of front-end media loading or unloading equipment, PSPs can reduce production costs, improve turnaround time and create a seamless, automatic working environment. "We had been interested in adding an automatic loading solution for our highest volume presses for some time based on the market need expressed by our customers and, after a long search, we identified Hostert as the right partner in this venture."

    One customer currently using the Hostert Automatic Loader with their HP Scitex FB7500 Industrial Press is GigantPrint, located in Norrköping, Sweden. "Together with our HP Scitex FB7500 Industrial Press, the new Hostert Automatic Loader allows us to produce higher quantities in a much shorter time, so we save manpower," said Fredrik Ridström. "Our capacity with this combined solution is about eight times higher than with our older flatbed models."

    HP partnered with Hostert to offer the Hostert Automatic Loader with their HP Scitex FB7500 Industrial Printer.

    Meeting the Challenge of Substrate Issues
    Kendle sees another big challenge in the ability of the automation system to handle a wide variety of substrates. "Sheets can vary in thickness, from standard offset sheets to foam boards. Certain systems are limited in terms of the thickness of substrate they can handle. The automation system also has to be sophisticated enough to handle varying levels of porosity and different weights. In fact, unsurprisingly, some thick substrates - e.g., wood - are just too heavy to be fed automatically onto a flatbed printer (unless very specially designed heavy automation is used)."

    She points out that an automated system is helping take one of their Onset S20 users' production capabilities to the next level. "We don't have to wait for our Inca Onset S20 to stop, for the operator to take the sheet off, put on another and line it up to register," explains Allan Brooks, president of LightVisions, Winnipeg, Canada. "The sheets can be pre-positioned, stacked and squared during the printing process, so when the printed sheet is removed, the next one is in position to be loaded. When running manually, you have to take it off the printer and then square it up on the pallet."

    Brooks continues, "To be competitive with screen printers, you need the same capabilities to reduce costs. The automation is letting us compete with screen printers at much higher volumes than before. It has dramatically increased our productivity, as there is now much less operator intervention. We have seen a large increase in the number of beds per hour, per operator over our existing UV flatbed printers. The output per hour is now also very consistent, as there is less operator fatigue. We have noticed that, with our existing manual load machines, output per hour can vary greatly depending on operator ability, and time of day. The impact of having this type of automation is huge."

    The Agfa :M-Press TIGER was co-developed from screen technology.

    Roaring with Screen Technology
    D'Amico explains that the Agfa :M-Press TIGER high-speed, flatbed inkjet press was co-developed by Thieme and Agfa in response to customer demand for economical, high-run-length digital printing. The :M-Press TIGER allows for easy access to the front of the machine for the delivery of large format pallets. The fully automatic feeder is standard for screen printing, and is used on the current multicolor Thieme lines, so it handles all substrates currently used in screen printing with ease.

    "Thieme has been involved in screen printing automation for many years, so we didn't need to reinvent that aspect when developing the printer. The :M-Press TIGER is a nice blend of our digital capabilities incorporated with their established technology. When you think about it, in the end, all we are really doing is replacing a traditional screen with a digital device. The media handling aspect is very similar to what's been done traditionally. It also allowed us to incorporate a hybrid approach for those customers that wanted it. We have sites that have traditional screen stations inline with digital elements. If you want to add a varnish, spot color or special effects that you can't with a digital head, you can with the screen station. It allows us to incorporate screen printing in certain applications where customers want that capability," D'Amico says.

    LightVisions' Allan Brooks, president (left), Doug Seney, vice president (middle) and Mariola Siedlik, S20 lead printer (right), are checking the feeding system on their Inca Onset S20.

    The Final Piece
    The last piece of the automation puzzle is the finishing aspect. Most jobs require cutting of some sort, and integrated cutting and/or finishing tables have evolved alongside digital printers to keep work in-house that would otherwise be outsourced. These integrated machines also offer output providers control of the process, from start to finish. They allow the printing company to be more creative with the types of projects it offers, while also providing a cost-effective and faster solution.

    "Across the industry, people are selling printed work based mostly on speed, quality and price per square foot. What they really need to do is to go to market with end-to-end solutions. This means implementing software on the front end, and finishing on the back end. In addition to print performance, print shops need end-to-end solutions," says Bill Hartman, vice president of business development, digital finishing, at Esko.

    "Shops can work 24/7 - but not 'lights out.' Many finishing devices can run virtually operator independent, but need someone to reload the feeder periodically, and to off-load the finished materials. Depending on volume, automated material handling systems may improve throughput. What we are seeing with automated finishing and digital printing is that one person can run both. The challenge is that faster digital printers will continue to develop, and faster finishing and automated material handling systems will need to keep up. A digital print and finishing system is typically not inline, because it is difficult to balance the digital printer speed with the finisher. So, the systems are typically near line, and if a printer is very fast, extra floor space is needed, to keep the printed sheets before they get to the finisher."

    The Esko Kongsberg XP Auto is a fully automated dieless finishing machine for packaging and point-of-purchase displays. Photo courtesy of VT Group.

    Hartman adds that an integrated finishing table allows a print shop to work with a broader scope of substrates and shapes. Such is the case with Yeadon, Pennsylvania-based VT Group, who is using Kongsberg equipment to boost their workflow. "The Kongsberg XP44 Auto has doubled our capacity, boosted our quality in short run production, and given us even greater competitive advantage over litho," says Robert Mormile, president and CEO of VT Group. "Our original Kongsberg DCM die cutters - with their ability to cut a huge number of substrates without having to use cutting dies - helped move us into the short run arena, generating new business opportunities. With the recent addition of the Rho 900, a 98-inch-wide UV flatbed, we needed a digital die cutter to keep up with its production and handle the larger format sizes."

    Mormile explains that Kongsberg XP44 goes a long way in helping them meet customer demand for fast turnarounds of wide-format displays. "Like our Kongsberg DCM 24-units, it automatically loads and unloads sheets, letting us run the machine unattended. We can fit all the parts of a display job onto a single sheet because of the large working area, which not only saves us time, but cost. We can also work with a lot of different materials - even acrylics."

    Bill Schiffner has covered the imaging industry for more than 20 years. He has reported on the many new digital technologies that have reshaped the imaging marketplace.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, May/June 2012 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2012 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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