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 July 16, 1999

Printing technology: Get the big picture with inkjet printing

Over the last several years, digital printing techniques have encroached upon the traditional print market through their ability to produce short print runs quickly and economically. Now, digital systems are poised to also capture a growing portion of the market that has traditionally been the domain of sign-makers and screen printers.

Advances in the durability of inks and print media have opened the door to large-format inkjet printing for many new applications. In fact, IT Strategies, a research firm based in Hanover, Mass., predicts that with the recent developments in inkjet technology, the total worldwide retail revenues for large-format printing will reach $19.8 billion in the year 2000 9 almost double the revenues of 1996.

In many respects, large-format printing is being driven by the advertising community. The current trend among retailers and manufacturers is to limit inventory and change products more often to meet consumer demands. This creates a need to market a segmented portion of their products quickly and efficiently. Large-format digital printing meets this need by providing both quick turnaround and an economic advantage in short runs.

Everywhere, advertisers seeking new niches and fresh approaches to promoting their products or events are using inkjet technology in nontraditional places such as building wraps, bus and car wraps, and wall murals. Even small businesses are embracing the new technology because for the first time, full-color displays carry an affordable price tag.

Not long ago, large-format plotters were the domain of engineers who used them primarily to plot computer-assisted design files. Today, large-format inkjet printers can render brilliant full-color images using up to eight ink cartridges in widths ranging from 36 inches to 73 inches. (Wider capacity printers fall into the grand-format category.)

Theoretically, the printable length of most large-format media is 100 feet and usually comes in a roll supply. However, the actual size of an inkjet print is dependent upon the digital file size and the capacity of the RIP (raster image processor).

Creating a large-format poster involves three equally important steps. The first is to construct a digital file that can be ripped. This might entail scanning images, creating graphics, formatting text and synthesizing all of these elements into a cohesive design. Issues such as resolution, color modes and font types must also be addressed. If you are working directly with the digital printer, it is best to consult with them about their file specifications. Generally, an ideal file is constructed in a page-layout software such as QuarkXpress with supporting .eps or .tiff files.

Once the digital file is prepared, it can be submitted for printing 9 the next step in the process.

There are three types of wide-format inkjet printers, each of which uses a different print method. A basic understanding of the different output options will help print buyers select the best method for their specific application.

The first and most common type of large-format output is achieved with the thermal inkjet plotter. This printer sprays a heated liquid ink through the tiny nozzles of an ink cartridge onto a specially coated media. The coatings help bind the ink, keeping it near the surface for maximum visual color saturation.

As stated earlier, recent advances in inks and media make this method an ideal choice for either long-term indoor displays or short-term outdoor applications. Adding to its appeal, the thermal inkjet method boasts more than 100 different types of printable media, including a wide range of film, plastic, fabric, paper and vinyl.

A second type of printer is the piezoelectric inkjet, which uses a tiny electrical current to discharge the inks out of the cartridge¹s nozzle. The inks can either be water- or oil-based. Oil-base inks dry quickly and are waterproof, making them a good outdoor solution. However, they are also harder to handle and to clean up, which can slow production times.

The third type of printer, a phasechange inkjet, uses a less-conventional method of applying ink. These models melt solid sticks of waxy pigment, then spray it onto the print media. The ink turns back into its solid state upon contact with the print media. The advantage of this method is consistent, rich color that can be printed on a variety of media without a special coating. Phasechange prints, however, are the least popular because they are susceptible to scratching and color shifting with overlaminates.

The final step of large-format printing is lamination. While waterproof inks and print media are used in some applications, the most brilliant colors are still achieved using materials that are susceptible to moisture and light. Thus, it is necessary to protect these prints with an overlaminate.

Achieving consistent, quality results in the laminating process is often the most challenging aspect for large-format printers. A number of common problems can occur, such as delaminating (when the laminate does not adhere to the inks), air bubbles, or foreign obstacles getting caught between the laminate and the print. A clean work environment and quality laminates designed specifically for inkjet prints help eliminate the guesswork of finishing a poster.

Lori Beaty is co-owner of Color Key, a large-format printing business in Fort Collins.

Over the last several years, digital printing techniques have encroached upon the traditional print market through their ability to produce short print runs quickly and economically. Now, digital systems are poised to also capture a growing portion of the market that has traditionally been the domain of sign-makers and screen printers.

Advances in the durability of inks and print media have opened the door to large-format inkjet printing for many new applications. In fact, IT Strategies, a research firm based in Hanover, Mass., predicts that with the recent developments in inkjet technology, the total worldwide retail revenues for large-format printing will…

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