Grand-format printers are industrial-grade, high-capacity printers that can handle rolls of inkjet media more than 100 inches wide. Unlike the 63 to 96-inch wide-format printers built for smaller sign businesses and print shops, grand-format printers are designed for use in high-volume graphics-production facilities that have sufficient floor space to print, finish, and ship graphics up to 16 ft. wide and 100 ft. long.
The first “superwide” printers were low-resolution, solvent-ink printers. These printers were used to print billboards and building murals that would be viewed from a distance. The newest generation of grand-format printers provides the throughput speed, production capacity, and higher resolutions that print-service providers need to make many types and sizes of indoor and outdoor signs, graphics, and decor products. Grand format printers are built to produce from 50,000 to 200,000 square feet of graphics every month.
5-meter grand-format printers such as the Durst Rho 512R Plus can print 1200-dpi graphics on three 60-iin. rolls simultaneously or media up to 196 in. wide. (Olson Visual: Durst Rho 512 Plus)
Grand-format printers are used to create giant backdrops for event stages and trade-show booths as well as photographic wall murals for stores, museums, hotels, theatres, stadiums, airports, and train stations. Grand-format printers also produce advertising graphics for billboards, buses, trucks, trains, and building exteriors.
This video about the EFI VUTEk 5r shows how a 5-meter printer can be used with 3 smaller rolls to produce a higher volume of wide-format prints per hour. (Video: EFI VUTEk 5r TCO Overview)
While grand-format printers are primarily designed to print on roll materials, some models can be equipped with optional vacuum tables for short runs of rigid substrates. Some grand-format printers can be set up to print two or three 60-in. rolls of media simultaneously.
How Grand Format Printers Work
Like flatbed inkjet printers, grand-format printers are engineered for the precise placement of droplets from a cluster of printheads that are transported back and forth across the surface of the media. Many grand-format printers use vacuum systems, tension controls, and wrinkle detection devices to ensure the substrate remains flat while it is printed.
This video shows how the operator uses Asanti workflow software and various controls to set up a job on the 126-inch Agfa Anapurna M3200 grand-format printer. (Video: Anapurna M3200i RTR high-speed roll-to-roll UV printer)
The newest models of grand-format printers can lay down multiple layers of color ink, white ink, and clear varnish in combinations that create tactile, textured surfaces or incredibly vibrant colors on window films and other clear media.
Print speeds vary greatly, depending on the ink density required for the application. High-saturation backlit graphics, textiles, and canvas takes longer to print than indoor high-quality graphics and outdoor billboards.
Some models have onboard slitting and trimming equipment so that superwide roll media can be trimmed and cut into wide-format sheets before the printed graphics are sent to a separate device for coating or laminating.
Some grand-format printers can print graphics on both sides of a roll of media. Some use onboard cameras for precise alignment of back-to-back graphics printed on both sides.of the roll.
Different models of grand-format inkjet printers are designed for different types of inks. Most 3.2 meter (10.5 foot) and 5 meters (16.4 foot) printers use UV-curable, Dye Sublimation, or Latex inks. Mimaki’s JV-34-260 printer can be specified to use either eco-solvent or dye sublimation inks to print on rolls up to 104 inches wide.
UV-Curable inks have chemistries that “cure” to form a rigid film when exposed to controlled intensities of specific wavelengths of UV light. Many newer grand-format printers use energy-efficient LED lighting to cure the inks. Because LED curing units don’t generate heat, UV-LED inks can print on vinyl and polyester films that could be damaged by heat.
Different models of EFI grand-format printers use different formulations of UV-curable inks, depending on the business goals of the user. The UV-curable inks used to print long-lasting, outdoor vinyl graphics are formulated differently than inks that will be thermoformed or inks that must adhere to a range of both rolled materials and rigid sheets.
Agfa inks use high-impact pigments that enable printers to achieve vibrant colors with thinner layers of ink.
Latex inks are sometimes referred to as “durable aqueous” inks. In these water-based inks, the pigments are carried by latex or resin-based polymers that bond to the substrate after passing beneath radiant heaters. HP makes 3.2 and 5-meter grand-format printers that use Latex inks.
Dye-Sublimation Inks are specially formulated water-based inks that can be heat-transferred (“sublimated”) beneath the surface of a polyester-coated fabric or rigid substrate. This process requires printing the inks on a special transfer paper that releases the inks into the substrate when exposed to heat and pressure on a heat-transfer press. Because the ink sits beneath the surface, the graphics don’t scratch off or make fabric feel stiff.
Grand-format dye-sublimation printers are widely used to print indoor front-lit and backlit graphics, backdrops, and banners for trade shows and events. (The next post in this series will talk about dye-sublimation and the new generation of hybrid sublimation printers.)
Eco-Solvent inks use liquids with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) instead of water to carry the ink pigments. Eco-solvent inks use milder solvents than the first generation of solvent inks used on grand-format printers. These mild solvent inks excel in producing vibrant colors on the flexible, self-adhesive vinyl used for vehicle wraps.
Most grand-format inkjet printers can be configured to run 4 colors of ink (CMYK) at higher speeds of 6 colors of ink (CMYK plus light cyan and light magenta) for improved photo quality. White ink can be applied in a layer beneath the color inks to enable graphics to be printed on clear or colored substrates or create backlit graphics that look vibrant even when the backlighting is turned off. A clear varnish can be added to improve gloss or to create tactile textures on the surface of the print.
Types of Media
As the popularity of grand-format printers has increased, so has the availability of different types of printable materials. Printing companies can choose from a wide array of front-lit and blockout banner materials, soft signage textiles, and dual-sided printing materials. Grand-format printers can be used to print many popular polyester display and backlit films.
Specialty materials include floor vinyl and low-pile carpet that can be used to print custom floor graphics for events, museum exhibits, and trade-show booths. Many types of wallcovering materials can be printed on grand-format printers.
Makers of decor products can benefit from grand-format technologies. For example, Wallpaper manufacturers can reduce inventory costs by printing only the number of rolls needed to fulfill an order for a specific design or colors. (Video: HP Latex 3000 Printer Series)
Printable wallcovering materials from Dreamscape include a range of textured white papers as well as printable metallic, holographic, and reflective wallpapers that can be used for eye-catching graphics.
Each grand-format printer requires a heavy-duty RIP server that can quickly process the high volume of data required to continuously print big photos or brand graphics on superwide rolls of materials. Caldera, Colorgate, and EFI all make RIPs designed to preflight job files and layout jobs for super-efficient production on grand-format printers and cutting tables.
Grand-format RIP software and servers are often networked with “command stations” that control multiple printing devices. For example, Agfa’s Asanti workflow software can not only set up jobs and manage colors for Agfa’s family of grand-format, flatbed, and hybrid printers but it can also set up jobs for color-consistent printing on an assortment of wide-format printing devices and cutting tables.
Some grand-format graphics printers include inline slitters and trimmers that automatically cut printed graphics into smaller wide-format sheets that can be easily transported for finishing on laminators, clear-coaters, or cutting tables.
Companies that specialize in large-format graphics often use banner welding equipment to create supersized banners. Nested or step-and-repeat graphics printed on supersized rolls are often sent to a flatbed cutting device for contour-cutting.
Coating equipment is used to apply liquid laminates that improve the long-term durability of graphics printed for vehicle wraps, wall coverings, and signs.
Advances in Technology
Advances in inks, software, printheads, and automation for grand-format printers have enabled large-format graphics companies to lower the overall ink, material, and labor costs of creating a high volume of many types and sizes of indoor and outdoor display graphics and signs. The cost per square foot of each printed graphic is reduced when high-quality, color-accurate graphics can be printed with lower-cost bulk ink supplies, less expensive bulk materials, less waste, and minimal operator intervention.
Grand-format printers such as the 3.2 meters HP Latex 3200 printer can handle rolls of media that weigh more than 600 pounds. Specialized lifts are available to help operators load rolls of materials onto grand-format printers.
Specialized material-handling and media feed systems make it easier for one person to load and unload rolls and minimize the amount of media wasted when starting each new roll. Larger capacity ink systems, bigger rolls, and onboard quality-inspection systems support unattended, overnight production. Cloud-based software can be used to monitor production remotely or detect when preventive maintenance is required to prevent downtime.
Some models include onboard lightboxes to verify the quality of backlit graphics without unloading the materials. Other models can print sequence numbers or codes in the margins or backside of printed graphics to reduce time and errors during the installation of multi-panel jobs.
The Fujifilm Acuity LED 3200R printer includes light panels that make it possible to check the quality of graphics for backlit applications before unloading the roll. (Video: Fujifilm Acuity LED 3200R)
Some graphics companies that operate online storefronts for print-on-demand jobs use multiple grand-format printers. They set up workflows to deliver incoming orders directly to the grand-format printer dedicated to creating that specific type of product.
Innovations in grand-format inkjet printers will continue as demand for decor, out-of-home advertising, and event graphics grows and commercial print providers seek ways to deliver high-quality, higher-margin products at lower costs.
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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 dye-sublimation inkjet printers.