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Critical Questions to Consider When Looking at a Flatbed Purchase

The purpose of this article is to provide the imaging professional with a list of critical questions to ask when shopping for a flatbed inkjet printer. By understanding these questions, then seeking answers to them, those printers looking to install flatbed inkjet units in their facilities will be able to make better purchasing decisions.

By Dan Marx, Vice President, Markets & Technologies, Digital Printing & Imaging Association
This article appeared in the SGIA Journal 2005, Volume Nine, Forth Quarter issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2005 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

The purpose of this article is to provide the imaging professional with a list of critical questions to ask when shopping for a flatbed inkjet printer. By understanding these questions, then seeking answers to them, those printers looking to install flatbed inkjet units in their facilities will be able to make better purchasing decisions.

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  • Gaining knowledge from the questions presented here will enable the printer to choose a flatbed printer that matches the company's needs. It is important to remember, however, there are no right or wrong answers. Instead, the answers must be formed by you, based on the responses of your supplier or manufacturer, discussions with colleagues and careful market research.

    Determining the Correct Machine
    Let's start with critical questions that cover the size, speed, strength and installation of the machine, along with strategies to help you fully determine the total cost of the machine.

    Which other machines have similar capabilities?
    One of the first steps to finding the right flatbed for your uses is to have a firm understanding of the models on the market and their capabilities. Using DPI's Wide Format Output List, you can start your search by creating a customized list of devices that do what you need. It is only then that you can effectively compare and contrast among those devices that are appropriate for your company.

    Is the machine's user interface easy to understand and operate?
    Selecting a machine that is easy to understand and operate expands your choices for machine operation by lowering the learning curve. If the machine requires long and detailed training, fewer people may be capable of using the machine. Also, a difficult user interface could lead to mistakes and confusion among those employees using the equipment.

    Is the machine's build quality sufficient for the work I require?
    Using the right tool for the job requires knowing the long-term durability of the machine. Is it capable of running 24/7? Is the machine's chassis strong enough to handle heavy substrates like sheet metal or stone? This is a case where choosing the lightest, smallest unit capable of your requirements may not be your best decision. Sometimes only the "heavy iron" will do.

    Does the machine accommodate the size of my materials?
    Develop a firm understanding of the maximum size of your end products, and seek a machine that can print at that size and perhaps more. If jobs regularly require your company to print on 4' x 8' sheets of foam board, for instance, a flatbed printer not capable of handling such sizes should be crossed off your list. Conversely, small jobs on huge machines also may not make sense.

    How fast is the machine at my expected print quality?
    In a demo room, or on a trade show floor, the prints from flatbed systems look stunning, but are generally printed at the highest - which is also the slowest - print quality. It is important to determine the quality of the print at the speeds the job requires. We suggest performing a timed print using a typical file from a job at your facility to test and verify that the quality and speed are sufficient to meet the needs of your facility. It's all part of doing your research up front.

    What is the quality of technical support and service on machine?
    Finding the right flatbed is the first task to address, but once you it's installed in your facility, can count on the supplier or manufacturer to provide prompt, effective and reliable support and service. When the machine goes down or needs service - and they all eventually do - you need it to be up and running as soon as possible. Any amount of time the machine is not running is time that machine is not generating money for your company. Reliable service reduces this reality.

    Are training and installation included?
    Any flatbed printer is just a machine until it is completely set up in your facility and a member (or members) of your staff is ready and able to operate it. Installation and training are key to getting your flatbed running as expected, as soon as expected. If installation and training is left up to you, without the guidance of a qualified professional, you may be stuck trying to troubleshoot in unfamiliar territory, or forced to hire someone to do it for you.

    What is the total cost of the printer?
    Like buying a car, the "sticker price" of the flatbed does not give you a complete picture of the cost of the unit. With any flatbed device, it is important to understand and consider the costs associated with ink purchases, maintenance, service contracts, media, training and other factors. These costs can be strongly affected by the ability to successfully use third-party ink and media products. Comparing the total cost of the printer with your ability to make money with the machine gives you a better picture of your potential for profitability.

    Ink on Media
    Let's address issues relating to color, ink and its proper adhesion to the substrates you intend to use. We'll also discuss color gamut, print heads and ink performance, along with strategies to help you avoid ink-related pitfalls.

    Is ink adhesion sufficient with my materials?
    If the ink, as well as the system to apply and dry or cure it, does not perform on the substrates you plan to use in your facility, then looking at a different machine may be a strong option. To determine appropriate adhesion, have the supplier or manufacturer perform an ink adhesion test using samples of your substrates. Be sure to clarify what testing method the company suggests to determine appropriate adhesion.

    Does the color gamut meet my needs?
    Unacceptable color leads quickly to customer dissatisfaction. Therefore, the ability of the flatbed unit to produce accurate color and have a sufficiently wide color gamut is critical. Be sure that when used with appropriate RIP software and color management systems, the machine is capable of color that meets the needs of your customers. Have the supplier or manufacturer run a color test using a typical digital file from your facility.

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    Does the durability of the ink meet my needs?
    Hand in hand (and hand) with ink adhesion and color gamut is ink durability. Be sure that the ink you consider is sufficiently durable to perform in your most difficult conditions. If all of your printing is for indoor applications, this may not be a significant concern. If, however, a majority of your work is used outdoors and exposed to the elements, this concern is huge. Ask for references from the equipment supplier/manufacturer.

    Does image quality meet my most particular customer's needs?
    Using color tests, adhesion tests and information you receive from references relating to ink durability, consider or consult with your most particular customer to help determine whether the flatbed unit you select is sufficient to fulfill their printing needs. In business, this may be the ultimate test.

    What is the cost per unit of ink?
    Most flatbed inkjet units use UV-curable ink sets. UV ink is expensive, making ink a significant cost center associated with running a flatbed unit. Ask about the cost of the ink, and perform normalized (per unit) ink cost comparisons between the various units you're considering. While ink cost should be a consideration, remember that the least expensive ink may not be the ink with the best performance.

    Is the ink proprietary, or can third-party inks be used without voiding the warranty?
    Many companies have resorted to using third-party inks as a way to reduce costs. While many printers have reported acceptable results from these ink sets, their use can in some cases void the equipment warranty. Ask the supplier or manufacturer if the use of third-party inks is okay. It is better to know the answer to this question now than later.

    How difficult is routine equipment maintenance?
    Like all equipment, flatbeds also need routine maintenance, often related to the ink and head systems. It is important to understand whether most of the routine maintenance can be performed easily, or if a qualified technician or highly trained employee is needed. Determine if inkjet heads can be easily changed. Also determine the difficulty of a head purge, and how much ink is wasted in the process.

    How will the ink perform on future substrates?
    When considering ink and substrates on which you currently print, do not forget to consider substrates on which you may print in the future. Some companies using flatbeds find their range of substrates expands as they become more familiar with the flatbed and its capabilities. Though this may be a very difficult question to answer, you should consider it.

    Is white ink an option?
    Opaque white is becoming an increasingly common option on many flatbed units, allowing for easier and more color accurate printing on non-white substrates, and allowing for printing on transparent substrates such as Plexiglas. While white may ultimately be a part of all flatbed units, it is currently considered an add-on, often at a significant cost. Determine whether your company has a sufficient need for white ink.

    Space and Equipment
    Here are questions to help you determine the flatbed machine that meets your physical space and other logistical considerations, as well as considerations related to product finishing.

    How much space do I need around the machine?
    If you're entering flatbed printing from a roll-to-roll digital background, you may be surprised by the amount of floor space required by flatbed units. In addition to considerations for equipment size, you should also consider space needed around the machine for the movement of substrate and media to be loaded on and off the machine without walls, columns, posts or other equipment hindering the flow.

    Do I have sufficient storage space for media?
    Similar to the previous question, do you have sufficient space for the storage of media prior to printing the project? If floor space is minimal at your facility, you may need to consider sturdy shelving for media, an off-site storage area or just-in-time delivery of media products. Remember also the flow of printed media through your operation, and space needed to stage printed product for finishing.

    What are the machine's electrical requirements?
    Before you decide on a flatbed machine, be sure to determine the amount of power needed to run the machine, and verify that your facility has sufficient power to do so. In some cases, the right machine for the job may require additional wiring in your facility. In other cases, however, the need for often-expensive additional wiring could be avoided simply through your choice of equipment.

    Do I have all needed finishing equipment for the job?
    Generally, some sort of finishing operation is required to make the print you produce on a flatbed unit into a sellable or deliverable finished product. Do you need trimming equipment? Do you need a computer-aided cutter? It is important to always consider the whole process - start to finish - before stepping into new markets. Also consider space, electrical and other requirements when considering finishing equipment.

    Is a controlled environment preferable?
    Cleanliness is an important part of any printing operation, but often this goal is not achieved. Cleanliness in any digital imaging facility should be considered a requirement. Also, some systems may require particular attention to temperature and humidity. Attention to all of these factors, where appropriate, makes for better printing and an improved printing environment.

    Will I need a forklift to move/manage media?
    Until now, inkjet imaging and forklifts had little to do with each other. However, it is important to consider - assuming you go big enough with your flatbed unit - how you will move skids of Sintra, Coroplast or Gator Board around your facility. Depending on volume, size and need, a forklift or other device for transporting heavy objects may be required.

    Customers & Competition
    Finally, here are questions to help you determine the correct flatbed machine for your facility, and how you plan to make it profitable. We discuss geographic area and market choices, along with strategies to help you make sure the work you do is both competitive and profitable.

    Will I cannibalize other services I currently offer?
    It is important to consider that by implementing flatbed inkjet into your operation, you may in fact be replacing some of the profit centers found within your own company. Imagine for example, signage printing on a roll-to-roll system, then mounted to rigid board. A flatbed system could replace this process, which would address your existing market without necessarily growing your business.

    Does demand exist in my geographic area or market?
    Do you plan to sell locally, nationally or internationally? Whatever the answer to this question, you must thoroughly consider the amount and level of competition you face as you enter the flatbed market, as well as the demand for work produced using flatbed inkjet. Consider how, through your equipment purchase or finishing options, you can differentiate yourself from existing competition. Being "first to market" with a new technology or niche product may help you achieve initial success. Remember, however, that your competition is always at your heels.

    How will I position my business?
    The cost of most flatbed systems is high enough that most companies can't purchase the machine, install it in their facility and then "just see what happens." Before you make the step into flatbed inkjet production, it is best to know in detail how your company expects to achieve profitability with the technology. The inclusion of the flatbed system should be reflected in your company marketing efforts, as well as in the efforts of your sales staff.

    What industry segment will I attempt to capture?
    Once again, this is a matter of positioning your business for success. Setting out on your flatbed journey without a goal is not a wise approach. Sure, over time your business can diversify once it has achieved profitability with flatbed printing. Up until that point, however, it is important for your business plan to reflect your goals. Your plan should also detail how you will achieve success.

    Are product prices already set by others? If so, what are they?
    If you are using your flatbed unit to work within established markets, you may find that those who entered the market before you have already set product prices. Because of this, your ability to charge higher margins than your competition will be limited. That is, of course, if you plan to offer the same product produced the same way. As mentioned earlier, those companies that can differentiate themselves from the crowd by offering something different - a new method, a unique substrate, delivery/installation options - may find themselves in the driver's seat, at least for a short time.

    What will my price point be?
    Research is required to determine how much you will charge for the product produced. Remember, this price is not arbitrary, and is, in many cases, lower than what you wish. Always remember, the basics of pricing include covering materials, labor, equipment costs, overhead, utilities and other expenses, and include profit to help your company grow.

    In just a few short years, flatbed inkjet systems have revolutionized digital imaging, and have started what will be a strong entry into a number of traditional screen printing markets. In short, there may be a flatbed in your future. When you seek to purchase a flatbed, asking the questions presented here - and other questions - will help you enter gracefully and more quickly achieve profitability. Flatbed inkjet is like any other type of printing in that careful research prior to the equipment purchase is directly related to success following the purchase.

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