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What's Happenin' in the Digital Printing World?

Copyright © 2015 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in July 2015, Volume 41, No. 1 of The Engravers Journal
As interest in the process grows, suppliers are now offering new materials that are compatible with UV/UV-LED printers. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics.

   At first glance, it may not seem like much has been going on in the digital printing world. The equipment looks pretty much the same as it did a year ago—and the hype about this technology is about the same. Yet, a closer look will reveal some interesting developments that might make you change your mind about the future of digital printing in your business.
   In the movie “Blazing Saddles” of some years ago, the lead actor, Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart, asks the question of his sidekick, Gene Wilder as “Jim, the Waco Kid,” after a night of debauchery, “What’s happenin’ in the clean world?” Well, in this article, we will consider “What’s happenin’ in the world of digital printing?”
   There has been a lot of activity in sublimation with the passing of the beloved Ricoh printers. After years of frustration with Epson tabletop printers, the introduction of multiple generations of Ricoh printers, in my opinion, saved sublimation from obscurity.
   The hard-to-kill Ricoh printers handled the sublimation ink without complaint and put an end to the frustrating clogging issues of the past. Although Epson printers are still used for wide-format applications, Ricoh printers took over the desktop venue with style and grace.
   Well, the Ricoh’s aren’t really gone but they have changed. With Ricoh’s decision to cancel production of the gel printer line that was being used for sublimation, emergency measures went into effect—someone had to step up to the plate and somehow save the gel printers (then known as the SG7100 and the SG3110). The question was “Who?” It would require a major investment of cash to have Ricoh do a production run of printers just for sublimation and that means someone was going to have to inventory a lot of printers and, hopefully, sell them quickly.
   It was Sawgrass Technologies, Charleston, SC, that finally took the plunge and shelled out the cash for a warehouse full of printers and, in doing so, probably saved the desktop sublimation industry single-handedly.
   So, what does this mean to us? First, it means we have another generation of Ricoh printers for our sublimation businesses and, although the name has changed and the model number has changed, they are basically the same beloved printers at basically the same price. The new name is the “Virtuoso HD Product Decorating System” and the new model numbers are SG400 and SG800.
   An extensive review of the printers will be in a future article in EJ but for now, I will share what I know. First, according to insiders, the printer uses a new, more vivid ink that cannot be used in the previous Ricoh printers. Second, the printers have been tweaked to work specifically with Sawgrass ink and the new PowerDriver driver software. Service and customer support are now the responsibility of Sawgrass, meaning there is no longer any issue about using non-Ricoh brand inks in the printers. In addition, we now have a service station we can send ailing printers to for repair, although it remains to be seen how “repairable” these printers will be since Sawgrass has a huge incentive to sell new printers and recover as much of its investment as possible.

The quality of sublimation has come a long way in recent years. Photo courtesy of Laser Reproductions, Inc. One of the latest technological breakthroughs is the ability to print white toner on heat transfers that can be used on dark garments. Photo courtesy of Garment Printer Ink.

   Being in the printer business is new to Sawgrass and although it should mean that an abundance of printers will be available (that hasn’t always been the case), it remains to be seen how well Sawgrass manages the challenge.
   One enticement to encourage people to upgrade to one of the new Virtuoso printers is a cloud-based graphics program that has been designed to be simple and easy to use. The program, called “CreativeStudio,” is free to Virtuoso owners and is intended to be a substitute for CorelDRAW, particularly for those who are new to the industry and have not yet learned how to use Corel. An extensive review of the CreativeStudio software is planned for an upcoming issue of EJ as well.
   Sublimation in the personalization industry is stronger than ever and shows a bright future. For those who struggle with the decision of whether or not to get into sublimation, I feel that now is a good time to do it—the printers work well, the inks are working great and the potential market for full-color products is bigger than it has ever been.
   UV digital inkjet printers are growing stronger and more common in our industry. As equipment prices go down and new companies enter the field, some exciting things are happening in the UV digital printing world.
   This year, Rowmark, Findlay, OH, has entered the world of digital printing equipment with the introduction of two new direct-to-substrate UV-LED printers. As many of you know, Rowmark has always specialized in manufacturing and selling engraving substrates—plastic sheet stock mostly. Companies like Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, and BF Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH, have long been distributors of Rowmark’s products as have many others around the world. A few years ago, the company broadened its product line to include signage hardware such as standoffs and frames under the division name of ClearPath Signage Systems. In more recent years, Rowmark has expanded into selling “tack-down” mats for rotary and laser engraving systems, and the Rack Star laser cutting system for laser engravers. The step into selling the UV digital printers was a major diversion from Rowmark’s typical business model.

Identification Plates, Inc. has recently introduced a versatile aluminum substrate called VersaMet that can be used with digital printing, sublimation and mechanical engraving.

   Rowmark’s entry into this market is a verification of the direction that many people believe the personalization industry is headed over the next few years, and that notion is certainly supported by other UV printer manufacturers that are exhibiting more and more frequently at our industry trade shows. Further evidence of this lies in the fact Rowmark has set up an entirely new division to support this technology called “GoVivid” (www.go
   Currently, I know of at least seven digital printer manufacturers that have their sights set on the personalization industry. They include GoVivid (Rowmark), Direct Color Systems (Rocky Hill, CT), Mimaki USA (Suwanee, GA), Roland DG (Irvine, CA), Graphics One (Burbank, CA) and GCC (Walnut, CA).
   The most active candidates for success in the personalization market, at least for now, seem to be Direct Color Systems (DCS) and GoVivid since, if for no other reason, they appear to be putting forth a great deal of effort towards selling to this market. GoVivid is selling a pair of printers made in Europe to their specifications that allow printing on an 11.75" x 31" platform and a 23" x 29" platform.
   DCS continues to offer a 10" x 24" platform but has added several additional models at a lower cost to become more competitive. (For more information about the 10" x 24" printers, read “Product Review: Direct Color Systems’ UV LED Flatbed Printers,” Sept. 14.) Basically, all of the DCS printers have the same bed size but have a reduced “head room” (Z-axis) which has allowed the company to lower the price on these models. All of the other features remain basically the same across the board.
   Some new features offered by DCS include a rotary device that I can see a lot of great applications for. This accessory is easy to set up and remove, and it allows printing on most cylindrical objects up to 2.5", 4.5" or 7", depending on the printer model. The roller fixture doesn’t work with handled items like coffee cups, but it’s well-suited for items like beer glasses, wine glasses, travel mugs, candles, cans, jars, vases and wine bottles.

Today, there are thousands of unique and interesting products available for sublimation, such as these guitar picks from Condé Systems.

   Another new development from DCS is a flexible ink. Although one might think all inks are flexible, they aren’t. Once cured, most UV inks are fairly rigid. Although they will flex to some degree, they don’t work well on substrates that bend or expand and contract at different rates than the ink itself. These UV inks will crack and peel when printed on flexible items or when the substrate expands and contracts. The new ink has flexible properties to eliminate or minimize the problem on flexible substrates such as leather, ribbons and fabric. New editions of the UV printers, called the F4 Editions, have been introduced by DCS to accommodate the new ink (you can’t mix inks in a printer).
   Direct printing on glass has been a pain both because its slick surface makes it difficult for the ink to bond and because people tend to put glass items in dishwashers which, until now, has been bad news for UV inks. New bonding agents, called adhesion promotors, are now available that have made ink adhesion to glass a problem of the past. As for the dishwasher problem, high temperature wash cycles still cause problems but nothing like they used to.
   DCS is also releasing a “roll to roll” adapter for its printers. This will allow thinner products that customarily come on rolls to be printed in the machines. Materials like thin acrylic, Mylar films, foil labels, ribbon, faux leather and even foam can be passed through the printer.
   Mimaki USA Inc., a big name in printers, has been trying to break into the personalization market by exhibiting at all the industry trade shows over the past several years. The company offers the UJV Series of UV-LED tabletop printers that includes three printers with 11.8" x 16.5" and 24" x 16.5" capacities. The two smaller machines differ most dramatically in their Z-axis
which is only 2" on the UJF-3042FX while the UJF-3042HG has 6" of Z-axis
clearance. Both printers retail around the $36,000-$37,000 price range.

Mimaki USA Inc., manufactures tabletop UV digital printers designed to print on a variety of substrates, including plastics, metal, wood, leather and glass. The ability to print on a variety of substrates makes digital printing a versatile process. Photo courtesy of Mimaki USA Inc.

   Mimaki also as a cylindrical roller (they call it a “Kebab”) that allows printing on cylindrical items ranging from 1.18" to 12.99" in length with a diameter from 0.39" to 4.33" on either of the larger printers. The Mimaki printers can use either hard or flexible ink but once the ink is selected, it should not be changed or mixed (the same is true with most printers). The company recommends using hard ink for extra durability and chemical resistance, and the flexible ink for other applications, including glass, plastics, leather, wood, etc.
   Mimaki offers a handy feature on its UV printers that provides the ability to “print” the adhesion promoter (they call it a primer) onto the substrate rather than wiping it on. This eliminates the need for cleanup after printing and also conserves promoter.
   Roland has been in this business for some time, too. The company offers several printers, three of which can feed either roll or rigid materials up to 1/2" thick and up to 30", 54" or 63" wide. The printer most likely to be of interest to our industry, however, is the “Magic Box.” This printer features an enclosed print area that will accept media up to 12" x 11" or 13" x 20" and 3.94" thick.
   There’s good news on the horizon for the future of UV printers. Although many people, like me, didn’t think we would see any drastic drop in the prices of UV printers, those prices continue to fall. Size appears to be a deciding factor in the price of the equipment for all manufacturers. The GoVivid machines start at around $20,000 for an 113/4" x 31" machine and go up to about $36,000 for the 23" x 29" printer. DCS has introduced a new way to buy their machines with prices as low as $15,000, and their workhorse 10" x 24" printer sells for about $20,000. Still a lot of money but nothing like the $40,000+ of just a couple of years ago.
   A driving force behind the UV printer interest, at least in our industry, is the ability to print—literally print—ADA compliant signage. This is a feature not all systems offer and among those that do, some are better than others, so if this is your interest, check it out carefully.

The new Virtuoso sublimation printers are now available from several suppliers, including Marco Awards Group.

   In the heat transfer world, all eyes are on the new OKI Data printers that offer white toner. Matched with a good transfer paper like Condé Systems’ (Mobile, AL) Laser Dark, this combination is expected to seriously threaten the direct-to-garment printer industry with the capability of printing solid whites on black garments and vivid colors on fabrics of any color. Reports are that the image is extremely washable, has a soft hand and is hot peel. An extensive review of the printer is coming in a future issue of EJ.
   The two new OKI Data laser printers, the C711WT and the 920WT, are unique in that they don’t have a black toner cartridge. Like some printers of old, they produce black using a process of combining the CMY (cyan, magenta and yellow) toners to make “process black” and, although this might seem like a step backward, it is done that way because they have replaced the black toner with white. This means that by using the right transfer paper, you can actually print white onto a black garment! These transfers work well on most fabrics that can withstand the 385º-400º F temperatures needed to make the transfer. Cotton, polyester and most blends work very well. Wash-ability is reported to be excellent with little or no fading or cracking.
   The cost for the new printers is about $3,400 for the 81/2" x 11" C711WT model and $7,500 for the tabloid size 920WT. Although these may seem a little pricey, it is because these are extremely robust printers and not your garden variety color laser printer. For the purest who insists on a black toner and not process black, there is a tabloid sized printer available which is CMYK+White which carries a price tag of $23,000. (That price makes process black look better and better all the time!) Actually, most people, so I’m told, can’t tell the difference between process black and true black on fabric unless compared side by side.

UV digital printing can be used for a variety of applications, including 3D textured effects, ADA signage and cylindrical items. Photo courtesy of Direct Color Systems. Equipment is now available that produces high definition, high-quality heat transfers. Photo courtesy of Imaging Supplies Warehouse.

   Toner for these printers seems expensive but when compared with other printers on the market, only the white is more expensive than average. However, some initial tests show the finished cost to be lower than CMYK (no white) versions. Still, toners, especially the white, will set you back a few bucks with the colors going for $265 and the white selling for $560. Drums for the printers sell for $120 and $150.
   So, if you thought heat transfers were dead, I say think again! The magic of these printers isn’t just the printer. In fact, without the right transfer sheet, the printer would be worthless for T-shirt transfers. Neenah’s new Laser Dark transfer paper, which has been vastly improved, seems to be the best for fabric (sold by Condé). Other papers, such as those sold by MagicTouch, are also said to work well on many hard substrates but I haven’t tested any of them myself.
   The future of our industry seems to be becoming clearer and clearer. Not that our lasers and rotary machines are going anywhere but printers are the next BIG thing. Sublimation, digital printing, heat transfer and direct print options are coming on stronger than ever. The equipment is becoming easier to use, more dependable, more affordable and more versatile than ever before. Prices are coming down, machines are plentiful and education about them along with training is strong. YouTube has made it possible for hundreds of videos to be made available that cover just about every aspect of printing you might want to know.

GoVivid, a division of Rowmark LLC, has recently introduced two new UV digital printers, the Breeze (left) and the Wave.

   Personally, I have been doing sublimation for 25 years and it is better now than it ever has been! No more clogged heads with the Ricoh printers and there are a thousand products to decorate. I have also been using a UV printer for a year or so and, like sublimation, it is dependable, fast and inexpensive to use. Although more complicated, it comes with great customer support, allowing me to get jobs out in a timely manner. I have had heat transfer for some time now, but only CMYK and I haven’t dabbled with it too much. Now that the white toner printers are available, I am doing some serious testing. Initial reports are promising. I’ll let you know in a future issue what I think of it.
   Like it or not, our industry is changing and expanding. Will you expand with it or be swallowed up by the advance of technology? No longer can we be “just” engraving companies, we are being called upon to be “personalization” specialists. Keeping up isn’t always easy. It takes hard work and long hours to learn new technology and become comfortable with new machines, but we must if we are going to remain competitive in today’s hi-tech marketplace.