Never Say Never

February 1st, 2008 Desktop, Tech, Tech Features

Large format devices have met with new imaging technologies to give you the capability to print on almost anything. Drew Turney learns more.

Need to print on a wooden door, a pre-made fridge magnet, Venetian blinds, a hot air balloon or a wall? Gone are the days when giving your customers a pen with your company name on it every Christmas made much impact. Like in every other area of advertising and marketing, branding or signage, printed products and surfaces have had to evolve, the bar constantly raised on what’s possible to stand out from the crowd.

The promotional products industry is quick to jump on the latest gadgets and digital technologies — as anyone who’s ever received a house-shaped stress ball with their mortgage broker’s name on it knows. But how easy is it to get your logo on things you wouldn’t ordinarily think could be printed on?

Two things have driven the uptake of technology in printing; speed and quality. We not only need the best results for our project, we often don’t have the luxury of long periods of planning or execution. In turn, the printing’s industry’s had to invest in increasingly faster technologies and as always, speedy turnaround is part of the marketing of many providers no matter how big or small your job. Sometimes however, that innovation can be a step back in time…

The evolving process

Printing has taken four basic forms since the advent of the desktop era. The pin and ribbon system is already far behind us, a holdover from the days when the typewriter was the tool of choice for text generation. Instead of individual keys striking paper through an elongated ink ribbon, the computer simply passed commands to a pinwheel covered in characters and symbols, causing it to strike the ribbon while facing the right way.

Everything from the multifunction device to the large business machine is still usually either inkjet or laser driven. The former — as it sounds — works by very precisely spraying ink directly onto the substrate, be it paper, PVC or a host of other materials. Laser printing works by causing an electrical charge on the revolving drum, which causes the drum surface to pick up particles of toner to deposit onto the paper.

The fourth method is four-colour process, the rolling of one colour at a time onto a large sheet to be trimmed, bound and otherwise retooled to its final form. To many of us that’s still the highest quality there is, but you’d be surprised how many processes use the older, simpler ways for various materials.

You’d be hard pressed to find film in most large commercial printers now. The practice of exposing transparent film onto metals plates that are then affixed to the printing drum held on for as long as it could, but using your digital file to output the image directly onto the plate was inevitable in the postscript era, and now computer-to-plate is standard.

Of course, the vast majority of the world’s printing is done on old-fashioned wood pulp. But there are as many printing methods as there are materials to be printed on, and some of the methods that predate the printing press are still with us in the digital era.

Life on the silver screen

When the first caveman chewed up a mouth full of ochre, put his hand on a wall and spat the ‘paint’ around the outline, he was unwittingly inventing screen printing.

The simplest description of screen printing might be ‘stencilling’. The positive area of the image (where the ink will appear) is formed on a thin membrane that’s forced against the surface to be printed. Emulsion forms the opaque areas on the screen, so when the ink is forced against the membrane the colour is applied in the positive area.

You might remember it from high school art class by pouring ink into a mesh box on top of a cheap T-shirt and dragging a rubber squeegee along the length.

Just like the basics of pressing ink onto a surface from a fixed image haven’t changed since Gutenberg’s days, the basics of screen printing are the same. The emulsion is applied to the membrane (called a silk but typically made of polyester nowadays) and loaded onto a large flat bed press, where the ink is squeegeed across the surface by an automated frame that controls the speed and therefore the density.

The same process is then repeated for all four colours plus spot or specials like in traditional printing and it’s also surprisingly good quality. One pass of the ink squeegee can produce a 540 line per inch image, a second pass 1040 lpi. Screen has even found a friend in digital printing, and the texture of a screen print job can have an astounding degree of accuracy, feeling as authentic as like hand-wrought embossing.

Eight print heads, loaded with the four process colours and special light versions of them, can produce a result you can’t initially tell from four-colour process or straight out digital. The lighter shades of the process colours can be applied to add depth, shade and contrast the likes of which your old art teacher wouldn’t have thought possible.

The Big End of Town

While anything bigger than A3 is out of the reach of most designers or office workers — even on the most expensive and elaborate copy or print devices — dedicated print output providers will have large format printers. Large format refers to output devices that work similarly to a normal office printer but can produce output of anything up to several metres in width and as long as the roll of paper or substrate offers.

A large format printer such as the Canon imagePROGRAF IPF9000 is typical of the field. At 60 inches, it delivers 12 inks through 30,720 individual nozzles in the print head. It actually contains 12 colours to maximise contrasts and shades and has a resolution of 2400 x 1200 dpi.

Closely related to the large format printer but with a very different set up under the hood is the plotter. Like a live-action vector file, the plotter creates the image by literally drawing a line with pens rather than making one out of infinitesimal dots. You’ll find the plotter in a lot of industries like engineering and architecture where deep-level image precision is key, but as they produce line-only art, their application to advertising or marketing is limited.

The crossroads where large format and older technologies like industrial screen-printing combine is rendering the old factory printing ways obsolete. Digital is changing everything.

The reason we talked about the four major printing methods before was because it’s ironic that large format digital printing is returning us to the heyday of the inkjet printer. Where paper absorbs ink through four-colour process, many surfaces (the technical term is ‘substrates’) won’t behave the same way, altering the spread and even colour of the ink. Plus, most digital printers output all colours at once without needing a pass for each shade.

A good digital flatbed printer dedicated to alternate substrates will be able to print onto anything up to around 3-4 cm thick, so that includes doors, thick corflute (acrylic) or even blocks of concrete. Many are rigged to take flexible material, so if you’re doing a PVC banner to cover the side of a building you might need extremely long sheets of material that are supplied on rolls.

Nor does your substrate have to be perfectly flat — Venetian or vertical blinds and even corrugated or sawtooth sheets of iron are printable. The print heads are fixed so don’t move up and down with the surface, but the jets of ink are precise enough so the difference in image integrity between peaks and valleys are barely visible to the naked eye, and certainly not from the distance your audience will be viewing from.

The Pros and Cons

Weighing up whether to go digital or not comes down to virtually one criteria; price. Where traditional inks cost around $40 per litre, digital ink can still be closer to $200. Even when taking into account the labour involved in traditional printing of prepping the equipment or breaking it down after the job, digital can price itself out of the market and larger jobs will always be more cost effective done traditionally for the foreseeable future.

Like everything it’ll get cheaper the more widely used it is, but screen and other four colour processes are a lot like cinema — even though there are technically superior (and cheaper) models of delivery, we continue to use it for the experience.

In just about every other department, digital wins hands down. As anyone who’s ever been in an old style print factory knows, it’s a messy, grimy process. Equipment is cumbersome and has to be washed frequently. In the case of industrial screen printing, the screens — anything up to several square metres in area — have to be stored somewhere. They get splattered with ink, the get dusty, they need treating and replacing at regular intervals. After the job they’ll be taken to a dank back room to be hosed down, the emulsion and other chemicals collected in a drum the size of a filing cabinet for environmentally friendly disposal.

It’s also blisteringly fast compared to the old ways. As one industrial screen print provider estimated, the amount of work that takes five days in the factory can be done in the clean, white digital press area in a 10 hour shift, with no drying time or additional chemicals and the press being ready for the next job as soon as the previous one comes out.

The same provider has moved 30% of their work from screen print to digital in the last year. By next year they anticipate it being 50%, and within 6-8 years, digital will be the only method.

Where do you get it?

Printing onto the surface you want might not be viable, but printing onto a surface to apply to the surface you want is almost always an option.

In a parallel world to that of paper supply to printers, there’s a whole industry selling and advising on unique surfaces and their possible applications. Providers like Allkotes (NSW, VIC ACT & QLD) and NZ company QRos have a huge range of surfaces and the ideal use for every one.

The challenge they face is two-fold. They have not only to get their products out in the marketplace, but make sure printers know how to treat and work with them, to the point in cases where they must assign certification to certain printers who know what they’re doing.

Just about any combination of surfaces for magnets, temporary tattoos, PVC signage and more are available from polyester, vinyl, silicone, magnetic paper, synthetic paper, laminates, foils and more.

But do your homework. It may well be you can remove whatever it is you want printed, take it along to your specialised digital printer and they can run it through their digital press as is. In today’s world of marketing messages screaming for our attention, you see advertising in the strangest places, and chances are some part of it or the campaign it belongs to has been through a large format digital process somewhere along the line.

Who Does It?

Allkotes (Darren)
Sydney (02) 9597 5844
Melbourne (03) 9871 1111

Allkotes offers a large range of printable and coated materials that can be applied to most paper and board surfaces as well as holographic and metalised coloured films as well as specialty foil and emboss effects.

QRos (Roger)
Sydney 0410 398 729
New Zealand 1300 737 805

Starting in the field as a Temporary Tattoo provider, Qros quickly expanded into a range of materials from all over the globe. Making a push into the Australian market with products like, Flock Papers, Magnecote (‘prints like paper but acts like a Magnet’) to ClingZ, a polypropylene film that sticks to clean, dry surfaces without leaving a residue.

Spice Digital (Andy)
Perth (08) 9244 3833

Spice Digital wields two modern digital printing systems, a 2150mm ZUND capable of printing on both fixed and flexible substrates¬¨‚Ä up to 40mm thick, and an INCA Spyder, which has a 1600×3200 bed and can handle material up to 30mm. Spice have successfully printed onto banner mesh, concrete blocks, doors, blinds, MDF, plywood and corrugated metal.

Bokay Group (Troy)
Perth (08) 9473 4488

A screen printing business from a long way back, the Bokay Group has jumped on the digital bandwagon wholeheartedly and can now offer the best of both worlds.


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