Direct-to-object (DTO) printers use UV-LED inkjet-printing technology to decorate three-dimensional objects. This includes awards, gifts, bottles, drinkware, bottle caps, guitar cases, wooden boxes, smartphone cases, gallery-wrapped canvas, casino chips, industrial parts, and promotional items such as pens, coasters, phone chargers, sunglasses and USB drives.
A wide range of products can be personalized on different sizes and types of direct-to-object printers from companies such as Xerox, Heidelberg, Roland, Mimaki, Direct Color Systems, Mutoh, LogoJet, Inkcups, ColDesi, and Engineered Printing Systems. (Xerox Video: Direct-to-Object Printing - The Next Gen on Personalization)
Some DTO printers complement or replace the pad printers that have traditionally been used to imprint logos or markings on three-dimensional objects.The first DTO printers were compact flatbed printers that decorated one surface of an object loaded onto the flatbed. Direct-to-shape (DTS) printers are an advanced form of DTO printers. DTS printers use robotics to rotate objects so they can be printed on all sides. For example, DTS printers can apply wraparound graphics on glass bottles, stainless steel tumblers, plastic sports bottles, and candle holders. Some can print directly on sports gear such as footballs and basketballs or different shapes of plastic packaging for consumer goods.
How It Works
Most DTO inkjet printers use UV-LED inks. These inks are formulated to cure quickly when exposed to specific frequencies of UV light provided by low-heat LED lamps. UV-LED inks can be jetted in layers to add special surface textures or embossed lettering.
DTO inkjet printers differ in how the objects are positioned and fed through the press.
Multi-pass DTO flatbed printers feature printheads that can be raised or lowered to accommodate objects of different thicknesses. Custom-designed fixtures (“jigs”) hold unusually shaped objects or groups of objects in place while the inks and coatings are being applied and cured. For example, one jig would be used to hold a dozen smartphone cases; a different jig would be needed to decorate two dozen golf balls.
DTO printers such as the Roland VersaVU can print different designs on a blanks such as smartphone cases. (Video: Roland VersaVU LEF-20-Magical prints, amazing profits)
Single-pass DTO printers from Engineered Printing Systems use continuous-feed conveyor systems to move objects beneath the printheads and curing units at high speeds. These systems can be engineered to connect to automated loading and unloading systems for printing thousands of objects, such as coded caps for soda bottles.
Rotary Direct-to-Shape (DTS) printers apply text, images, and graphics to cylindrical objects such as bottles, cans, and drinkware. The objects are robotically rotated so the entire circumference of the object can be imaged.
Cylindrical printers are built to quickly apply graphics and images to all sides of the printed object: (Video: Helix Digital Printer for Glassware, Bottles, and Cans)
Types of Printers
Small-Format Flatbed Printers are used in sign shops and small print shops to decorate a variety of promotional products, including branded coasters, luggage tags, and USB drives. Roland’s benchtop VersaUV LEF printers have print-beds that range from 12 in. x 11 in. up to 30 in. x 13 in. These printers can decorate items up to about 4 inches thick.
The small-format flatbeds in Mimaki’s UJF MKII series can decorate items up to 6 inches tall and 11.8 in. wide and 16.5 in. deep or 24 in. wide x 16.5 in. deep.
Direct Color Systems offers a DTO printer that can be configured to handle objects up to 15 in. high on a 12 by 24 in. printbed. LogoJet offers several small-format flatbed printers that can accommodate objects up to 5 or 10 inches tall.
The printhead heights on DTO printers can be raised to accommodate a variety of prefabricated objects.. (Video: Roland VersaVU LEF-20-Magical prints, amazing profits)
Wide-Format DTO Flatbeds resemble the flatbed printers commonly used to print large signs and graphics. But wide-format DTO flatbed printers are designed to accommodate thicker and heavier objects. For example, the Roland LEJ-640FT has a 64 x 98 inch bed that handles heavy materials up to 6 in. thick and weighing up to 220 lbs. Mimaki’s UJF-7151 UV printer can print objects 28 in. wide, 20 in. deep, and 6 in high. The high-speed fJET XL from Engineered Printing Solutions can decorate items close to 6 inches thick with a print area up to 41.75 x 24 in. Some benchtop and wide-format DTO printers can be equipped from fixtures for printing on cylindrical items bottles or drinkware.
This Logojet video shows the steps involved in decorating a stainless steel tumbler on a benchtop DTO printer: (Video: LogoJET Printing with Rotary 360 Device)
Industrial Digital Cylindrical Printers can print wraparound graphics on cans, bottles, jars, pint glasses, steel tumblers and other cylindrical objects. These machines appeal to beverage companies that want to avoid the need to print and apply labels to wine, beer, and soda bottles. The Inkcups Helix and Inx CP 100 printers are examples of industrial digital cylindrical printers.
The Inkcups Helix Digital Cylinder Printer can decorate beer bottles, growlers, wine bottles, pint glasses, and other products. (Video: Helix Digital Cylinder Printer for Glassware, Bottles, and Cans)
Industrial DTO Printers are being custom-built to meet the specific part-printing requirements of manufacturers of appliances, medical devices, toys, sports equipment or packaged products.
The XD-54 single-pass industrial inkjet printer from Engineered Printing Systems does continuous multi-color printing on relatively flat objects that feed through the printer on a conveyor at speeds of up to 50 inches per second.
The Heidelberg Omnifire 1000 DTS printer uses 6-axis robotics to print full-coverage, full-color graphics on items such as suitcases, motorcycle helmets, and surfboards.
Other DTO printers have been built exclusively to add decorative finishes to aluminum siding for commercial buildings or enable product manufacturers to create label-free plastic containers for consumer goods.
The UV-LED inks designed for multi-purpose DTO printers are formulated to work on a variety of surfaces. Specialized primers can be applied inline to ensure that the inks won’t rub off or wash off from metals, glass, stainless steel, coated metals, tiles, and dense plastics.
Most DTO printers are designed for use with 4 colors of ink plus white and varnish. The new Inkcups Helix Hi-Fi printer includes light cyan and light magenta for companies that want to add photographic images to bottles and drinkware.
In order to make DTO printers more practical for printing packages for branded products. industrial equipment will have to be able to match a wider range of corporate colors.
The INX CP100 rotary printer that can decorate beverage cans has up to 8 color channels, including CMYKOG + White + Varnish. The Xerox DTO printer can hold up to 10 inks or coatings as determined by the customer.
Preparing jobs for DTO printing is different than creating files for rolls or materials to be printed on an offset or large-format printer. Users of DTO printers must know the exact dimensions and shape of the blank objects that will be loaded on the press. A jig may need to be created to hold multiple smaller items for faster production.
Software: All DTO printers are sold with RIP software that meets the special requirements of preparing files to print on items that may have surfaces that aren’t perfectly flat. For example, if an image will wrap around a tapered pint glass, the software must know how to manipulate the image so it isn’t distorted by the shape of the glass. The prepress operator must enter details such as a circumference, diameter, and height of the object to be printed.
The software must also create print files that precisely match how the objects are positioned on the press. Designs for cylindrical printing may need to be rotated to match how the bottle will be fed through the machine. Some software includes tools for creating special stained glass or etching effects on glassware or tone-on-tone printing that combines a matte surface with clear-coat embellishments.
Jigs: Pre-made jigs can be purchased for standard items such as golf balls. But because so many different types and sizes of objects can be decorated, most print shops will need to make their own jigs or outsource jig production.
Mimaki has introduced a 3D printer for DTO print shops that want to make their own jigs. Wide-format print shop personnel can set up the flatbed contour cutter in their shop to create custom jigs from sheets of foamboard.
This Roland video shows different methods of creating jigs for holding notebooks, coasters, and irregularly shaped objects in place during printing on their VersaUV benchtop DTO printers. (Video: Creating jigs for your Roland DG VersaUV Flatbed Printer)
Advances in Technology
Advances in inkjet printheads are enabling ink chemists to create a much wider range of formulations that can be jetted and cured with UV-LED systems. The first-generation of multi-purpose DTO printers for small batches of promotional products has evolved into higher-speed purpose-built DTO and DTS printers for higher volume production of parts, decor, and packaging.
DTO printers enable all types and sizes of print shops to diversify their services and enter new niche markets. For example, print shops make and sell promotional products for the same customers that buy trade-show or event graphics.
A DTO printer can be used not only to print metal and wood signs, but also specialty products such as custom light panels, fan blades, toilet seats, paving bricks, bike helmets, license plates, and funeral urns. The business possibilities are endless.
Follow Us on Social Media
This post is part of a series we are publishing to help you understand the many types of analog and digital printing processes now in use. Follow Ordant on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter to learn when the next post in this series has been published. Our next post will discuss digital label printers.