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The Successful Integration of Digital Imaging Technology, Part I

Integrating digital imaging technology into your existing facility may represent a step into the unknown. Like a classical music enthusiast first discovering jazz, the company adopting digital is introduced to a fascinating new world that is puzzlingly different, yet strangely familiar. The equipment looks different, the buzzwords are different, but the final goal is the same: to produce and sell high-quality printed materials to paying customers.

By Dan Marx, Director of Communications & Service Development, DPI
This article was originally published by the Digital Printing & Imaging Association, and is being reprinted with permission.

The purpose of this two-part article is to ease your first approach to digital imaging by providing a working knowledge of the technology and ideas for making your investment profitable.

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  • Start with the End Product
    When integrating digital imaging into your business, one of your first steps should be to define the end product you will produce. This will, in turn, help to specify requirements for equipment, ink, substrates and finishing processes your company will use. Digital imaging is a subset of specialty imaging. Specialty imaging companies produce or convert a vast array of end products, including signs, decals, textiles and point-of-purchase displays.

    Equipment Options Shaped by Substrates, Inks, Ink Delivery
    Roll-based digital output devices use a substrate delivered on a roll and printed after it is fed into the machine. Roll-based devices allow you to print on flexible surfaces including paper, vinyl, fabrics and thin plastics, and to print on papers used in thermal image transfer processes such as dye sublimation.

    Flatbed devices allow direct printing on rigid substrates, which can range from the common, such as poster board, foam board or rigid plastics; to the uncommon, including metal, glass, wood and other substrates. Printing directly on these rigid substrates may eliminate the mounting processes required of many images printed on rollbased units.

    UV inkjet units use ultraviolet light to cure UV ink, and many are also flatbed devices. It is important to understand that UV inkjet inks can be used only on devices that are capable of curing UV ink. Solvent-based printers use solvent-based inks, which dry through rapid evaporation.

    Narrow-format devices are generally sheet-fed devices that allow for printing onto paper, pressure-sensitive films and thin plastics.

    Highly important to successful digital imaging is the print head, which literally “jets” the ink onto the substrate. The two most common types of print heads are piezo and thermal. Piezo heads release ink by applying pressure to the head’s nozzle chamber, forcing a drop of ink onto the print surface as needed to create the image. With thermal ink heads, a heating element creates a gas bubble in the nozzle chamber; the bubble yields the pressure needed to force a droplet of ink onto the media.

    Ink Essential to Quality Prints
    As in all types of printing, ink is distinctly important to the creation of a print with reliable and accurate color, durability and longevity. In today’s digital inkjet markets, the following ink systems have gained prominence and represent nearly 100 percent of inkjet graphics created worldwide.

    Dye-based and pigment-based ink systems are aqueous, meaning they are water based. Unprotected, these ink systems can be used to print indoor signage or other types of prints. For outdoor uses, or to increase the durability of the print, the print must be laminated. Due to issues of cost and technology, most entry-level wide-format printers use either dye or pigment inks.

    As mentioned earlier, UV inks require specific output devices in order to be cured. Once cured, the finished print offers high durability, even outdoors, without the need for lamination or other steps required to protect the print. Currently, UV ink is the ink system that allows for printing on the widest variety of substrates.

    Solvent-based ink also offers high durability and is generally less expensive than UV. However, when purchasing a printer using a solvent-based ink system, it is important to consider that the use of solvents could lead to significant air emissions, triggering the need to comply with air quality regulations. Without proper ventilation, the fumes from these systems may also be a concern for worker safety and health.

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    Bringing digital imaging into your operation will likely expand your company’s product mix. Therefore, consider your future needs, as well as your current capabilities, whenever you select a printer and ink system. Whichever type of ink system you select must be capable of achieving the results your customers will expect.

    Media Choices Expand in Digital Imaging
    The range of substrates ­ “media” to the digital imager ­ continues to grow. Only a few years ago, paper and vinyl made up almost 100 percent of the media used in the digital imaging industry. Today, however, the rise of flatbed systems, and the use of UV-cured and solvent-based inks have widened the playing field.

    Still, the most common media in digital imaging are paper-based, often used in the creation of signage and point-of-purchase displays, among other applications. Often, you will mount prints on paperbased products to another surface, such as foam-board.

    Vinyl is used for a number of important end products. Self-adhesive vinyl can be used for decals or graphics, such as those that are adhered to the side of buses or other vehicles. Thicker vinyl is often used to create the banners and static cling decals you commonly see announcing an event, advertising a store or sharing a message.

    Some digital printers can print directly onto textiles, from heavy canvas to the lightest, most delicate silk. Others use thermal transfer processes. The end products for digital textile printing include architectural graphics, trade show displays, clothing, and scarves.

    As was mentioned earlier, flatbed printing and the rise of solvent-based and UV-curable inks, have spurred change in digital imaging, and allowed for a growing range of new rigid substrates. While the media outlined above represents most of the general product categories for digital media, the choices will continue to broaden.

    Finishing the Job
    Let’s say you make a print from the digital output device of your choosing. Now what? In all cases, making the print is crucial, though it is generally not the final step in the production process. Whether your company makes signs, decals, point-of-purchase displays or banners to wrap the exterior of a building, the print must be “finished” before it becomes the end product. Finishing can be performed in many ways. Some of the most common finishing processes used in digital imaging are mounting the print onto a rigid material, trimming or cutting the print, sewing, grommeting, lamination and die cutting. On the outside edge of finishing activities, doming or vacuum forming may also be performed.

    Again, ask yourself what end product your company will be producing, then evaluate to see what equipment you will need in order to finish the print. Your company will need that equipment on hand to make digital imaging applications profitable.

    In Part II of The Successful Integration of Digital Imaging Technology, we will explore how to make digital imaging work for you in your business.

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