Wide-format Graphics: An overview of digital finishing


Photo courtesy Esko

By Steve Urmano
With the availability of ‘soft signage’ substrates, rigid boards and polypropylene (PP) alternatives to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), today’s sign shops have more choices than ever when it comes to printing materials. 
The installed base of both roll-to-roll (RTR) and flatbed printers has increased steadily.

Given this growth, post-print finishing has also become more important, as so many of these graphic materials need to be framed, laminated, mounted, contour-cut and/or routed. Often, the value of finishing provides a higher return on investment (ROI) than printing. Traditional manual methods of finishing, however, are becoming woefully inadequate at meeting today’s deadlines and cost requirements.

High-speed printing platforms are driving huge volumes of graphics. When a shop is printing two rigid 1.5 x 3-m (5 x 10-ft) boards per minute, similar cutting throughput is required. Keeping up is particularly difficult with high-speed textile printers, as fabric graphics are more likely to need trimming, hemming, sewing and grommeting.

Indeed, without continuous, significant increases in the automation of material handling and in cutting capacity and speed, sign shops’ investments in faster and wider printers may prove fruitless, to the point of eroding their growth and profits. It is important to prevent finishing processes from becoming major bottlenecks that could delay delivery and invoicing. For digital printing to continue its march forward, digital finishing is not merely an option, but a must.

Much like the diverse range of digital printing equipment, however, there are many choices to make among cutting and finishing devices. Signmakers need to consider not only what types of products they are planning to finish, but also how those products will be physically handled and processed through an automated production workflow.

Avoiding bottlenecks
Sales of wide-format ultraviolet-curing (UV-curing) hybrid and flatbed printers, along with durable aqueous ‘latex’ inkjet printers, have increased substantially in recent years. Market research firm InfoTrends’ latest report shows installations of wide-format UV printers have grown by nearly 20 per cent, while HP reports placements of its latex printers increased by 35 per cent between 2013 and 2014.

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Print service providers (PSPs) that invest in wide-format digital presses typically do so to become more competitive in their market in terms of running costs and versatility of applications. The same is true with automated finishing equipment, which requires less operator intervention, achieves greater productivity and reduces waste.

With complex contours and shapes, finishing time can exceed printing time, especially for point-of-purchase (POP) graphics and thicker materials. Printing is a ‘scanning’ process, whereby the addition of more printheads and nozzles will increase a machine’s speed. Cutting, on the other hand, is a ‘narrow path’ process, where speed is directly related to the complexity of the cutting path and the thickness of the substrate, not simply to one true cutting speed of the machine. For this reason, in many shops, the finishing department needs to be larger than the printing department if bottlenecks are to be avoided.


Roll-to-roll (RTR) contour cutters come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
Photo courtesy Mutoh

Application trends
As mentioned, the rise of diverse substrates is driving the evolution of trends in finishing. Textile printing, for example, has grown considerably, including the use of transfer-based and direct dye sublimation, flexible UV-curable and latex inks. Contour cutting has helped turn printed textiles into finished signage, exhibits and apparel. Some businesses discover they need to add sewing capabilities, as well.

At the same time, UV-curing flatbed printers have boosted rigid graphic material volumes over the past few years. These materials are nearly impossible to cut efficiently by hand without significant damage to the print. The only practical method for cutting and finishing them is a flatbed router/cutter.

Today’s choices for sign media are more diverse than ever. Frontlit and backlit signs can be printed on polyester or vinyl-based materials with outdoor durability. Latex, UV-curable and solvent-based inks offer a wide range of effects.

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Thermoformed signs printed with UV inks can stretch by up to 200 per cent and require a heat moulding process to give ‘relief’ to an image. Signs printed on paper are laminated to foam-core boards for rigidity. Soft and UV-susceptible inks and materials are also laminated to make their graphics more resistant to harsh outdoor conditions. Vehicle graphics, in particular, require lamination before they can withstand the rigours of a car wash.

Polyester-based textiles have also become a large part of the sign and graphics market, thanks especially to the flags, fabric banners, table drapes and tensioned signs that have largely replaced rigid trade show displays. Not long ago, businesses commissioned expensive, single-use displays for trade shows, but in today’s age of shrinking marketing budgets, many booths are instead made of extruded aluminum channels with silicone-edge fabric graphics that can be used again and again. The same materials are also being used in retail environments. As mentioned, printed textiles often require precision cutting and sewing during the finishing process.

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