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Flatbed Applicators

Despite the boom in digital flatbed printing, demand has stayed strong for flatbed applicators. Brendan Perring analyses the forces shaping this technology's future

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A very flat picture

The picture of a sign-maker painstakingly trying to perfectly apply a vinyl graphic or laminate to a large rigid board and ruining the perfectly flat surface with one slip of the scalpel or squeegee, followed by a series of expletives, still remains a surprisingly common one in the UK sign industry. The technique is something of an art, and a worthwhile one, practised normally by wide-format printer equipped sign-makers the world over. With training and practice, it can be done fairly quickly and efficiently, but it still generates a significant amount of waste.

This issue though is easily overcome by a simple technology that was invented more than two decades ago, and although the flatbed vinyl applicator does grace the halls of many a larger sign-maker, it remains a sporadic purchase for the smaller business. The boom in direct-to-substrate flatbed printing has seen a growth in demand for the technology to apply over-laminates. But it is strange that a significant number of businesses that only run roll-to-roll printers have not seen the huge time and waste-saving advantages that the vinyl applicator can bring, especially as it still allows them to produce rigid substrate-based signage products within a competitive time frame when compared to those equipped with flatbed printers.

A key issue may be the space available in smaller sign shops of course, but taking that into consideration, I felt it was worth speaking to some of the UK's main players in this sector to find out the ins and outs of their individual offerings and why they think it is worth your investment.

The original

Chris Bradley, marketing manager at William Smith, the first UK distributor of the Rolls Roller believes the key factors in this flatbed applicator retaining its dominant market position are quality and durability of build, such as its robust guide beams and chassis, together with an evolving product range to meet the needs of sign-makers, with entry, standard, and premium ranges.

“Fast production efficiency and time saving, up to 80 percent, together with higher quality and reduced waste, mean that shorter delivery times can be achieved,” says Chris Bradley, marketing manager at William Smith

“Increased table sizes are also now available so that there is a table suitable for everyone,” says Bradley, who adds: “In addition, ongoing development of product features offers a wider range of options, such as heated rollers, height adjustable tables, additional roller beam, extension tables, fifth generation pressure roller, roller holder, stop static kit cord, and machine feet. A two to five year warranty on machines is a further benefit.”

Per Wendel of RollsRoller AB in Sweden, manufacturers of the Rolls Roller flatbed applicator, explains further that it was originally designed by sign-makers from an end-user perspective.

“Over 20 years’ experience of manufacturing the Rolls Roller has been influential in developing the machine to what it is today and what it will become in the future,” Wendel expands, adding: “And twenty years’ experience has also given us a wide and strong network of distributors worldwide with whom we have built close relationships. This has been invaluable in helping us to understand what our partners and customers need and want.”

(Above & below) One of the best-selling systems worldwide, the Rolls Roller has proven to be a robust and reliable technology. William Smith not only supplies the technology in the UK, but uses it to manufacture a range of its products

Indeed, as the first distributor of the Rolls Roller in the UK, William Smith offers extensive product knowledge, together with a comprehensive installation, training, and after sales service. Since the Rolls Roller was first launched, ideas as to how the technology can be used in product production have expanded and changed dramatically though.

“Techniques now embrace a much broader spectrum,” observes Bradley: “from digital print and print finishing to application to panels such as Corex, DiBond and Foamex, flexible face signs and banners, application of self-adhesive films, and lamination of glass and some film ranges as well as interior finishing and building materials.”

O Factoid: More than 5,000 Rolls Roller systems have been manufactured worldwide over the last twenty years, with the majority going into the sign industry. O

Wendel adds: “The market for the Rolls Roller has exploded, in total we have manufactured over 5,000 units worldwide since its launch and today the market has reached a level where it has become virtually a ‘must have’ piece of kit for any sign-maker who wants to remain competitive. The market is increasingly realising that the Rolls Roller is a money-maker and we have never manufactured as many machines as we do today.”

Today the market has reached a level where it has become virtually a ‘must have’ piece of kit for any sign-maker who wants to remain competitive

That said, what are the core reasons why sign-makers invest in a flatbed applicator and how does it help to improve productivity?

“Fast production efficiency and time saving, up to 80 percent, together with higher quality and reduced waste, mean that shorter delivery times can be achieved, as well as the opportunity for sign-makers to expand their product portfolio,” Bradley comments.

Wendel adds: “The Rolls Roller also gives you fast return on investment as you can start making money from day one. From a shop-floor point view, space savings can also be gained as additional work benches can be removed. And the machine’s improved ergonomic working position over traditional equipment makes for a better working environment for operators, with significant reduction in health issues, such as back pain.”

“Over 20 years’ experience of manufacturing the RollsRoller has been influential in developing the machine to what it is today and what it will become in the future,” says Per Wendel of RollsRoller AB

As with many such inventions, the simplicity of the flatbed applicator is also its genius. But as it is such a simple and effective technology, is there much room for improvement?

“As market leaders we must continually develop our products to stay ahead,” Wendel remarks, adding: “The basic idea of applying adhesive material to various surfaces is quite simple and the machine still looks as it did in the beginning. However, what is changing is that more and more elements of the machine will become automated or electrically driven, such as the heat rollers and table height adjustment.”

“We will shortly be announcing a range of new developments that will put the Rolls Roller right at the forefront in terms of technology,” concludes Wendel enigmatically.

I asked the same question of two other key technology suppliers that have seen success with their products in the UK. Both of who explain other key issues surrounding the development of this technology.

“There is always room for improvement and evolution, mostly based around further enhancing ease of use and speed. Some manufacturers though are simply trying to build cheaper models by using inferior materials or by adding things like cutters to their tables. At Bobis we are currently working on a complete new technology advance in this area and will introduce this to the market soon,” says Paul Reimert, managing director of Bobis Engineering BV.

“With this product you can save more the 60 percent on your labour costs. The other important factor is that you can be sure that your last product from a series will be as perfect as the first,” says Paul Reimert, managing director of Bobis Engineering

Another key player in this market sector in the UK is Graphic Printing Technologies (GPT), which supplies the Lamidesk range. Its general manager of systems sales, Shaun Thompson, also reveals this system has seen some significant evolution recently: “Lamidesk has evolved with the introduction of a heated top roller and a choice of roller hardness, table height adjustment, multi-point roller tension and release, and a bi-directional powered roller option. These have helped to further increase the flexibility and productivity of the product.”

Spoilt for choice

Looking across this market, lack of choice is certainly no barrier to entry. In addition to those mentioned in this article as key examples, there are a range of other solutions from the likes of Josero and Radecal that offer a variety of different options when it comes to price points and levels of complexity and functionality. Returning to the Bobis Multi Applicator though, it is a case in point of the immense amount of thought and effort that has gone into the design of these systems.

Bobis Engineering BV introduced the Multi Applicator in 2010 and it is now sold in 35 countries around the world

Indeed, it offers a modular build construction that sees users able to invest in an entry level model that can be augmented at a later date as capacity requires. This also means it can be bought and installed without special tooling or the need for modifications to your production space. The Bobis system is also built from specially designed aluminium profiles that makes it robust, without making it incredibly heavy. As with many of its contemporaries, it also offers an LED lighting system built into the desk to provide an illuminated surface to aid with quality checking. A key area of variation between technology in this sector, it uses a rail system for the roller bridge which offers an extensive guarantee and can offer optional height adjustment. The Bobis also cleverly uses compressed air cylinders with guiding bars to aid roller stability and has crowned edges.

“Bobis Engineering BV introduced its technology into the market in 2010 and based it on a technique/machine from 1984 developed by Sallmetall. Since then we have averaged a growth rate of 30 percent each year and the Multi Applicator is now sold in 25 countries.”

The aforementioned Lamidesk from GPT has also proven its market credentials after being introduced to the market at Sign and Digital UK to much acclaim, specifically because of its ergonomic design, electronic automation, and clever time-saving features.

“The Lamidesk from GPT offers a range of innovative, industrial flatbed roll laminating machines that are designed to deliver robust, long lasting reliability, low maintenance, and high quality flatbed lamination,” says Thompson, who adds: “The unique design of the Lamidesk provides a simple, accurate and effective way to apply self-adhesive vinyls, cut vinyl graphics, digital prints and application tapes to a wide range of substrates.

“Its flatbed design is easy to use and allows fast turnaround, while ensuring a consistently high quality finish. With the option for a powered roller drive system, it can also be fully operated by one person. In addition, Lamidesk does not have a cumbersome and heavy ‘over table’ gantry, which makes it more user-friendly and very practical.”

With the option for a powered roller drive system, the Lamidesk can be fully operated by one person

Looking at its specifications, a key mark of what has driven interest in the Lamidesk is that it can swap between manual and automatic operation at the touch of a button and provides LED illumination, the machine also comes with electronically driven rollers to transit the bed.

Thompson continues: “More and more print companies are seeing the benefit of an applicator table. It provides a much smoother operational workflow, with improved finishing throughout the process. The market has grown steadily, but with the understanding that a Lamidesk can speed workflow and allow print companies to produce a higher quantity and better quality of output more quickly.”

As Thompson and his peers point out, what makes the flatbed vinyl applicator such an attractive technology to invest in is that it adds flexibility to the workflow of a sign-maker. This is because it can be used for an extensive range of applications including banners, digital prints, application tapes, and a huge variety of other self-adhesive materials. It can also be used for applications onto rigid panels including aluminium, core, foamed, and disband.

What marks out the best flatbed applicators are those that ensure a high quality finish by ensuring substrates remain stable on the flatbed throughout the application, after all, what is the point of saving the pennies only to lose pounds later on? So, if you have just had another painful morning of trying to get the graphics to sit just right on that exhibition panel, or had to painstakingly remove air bubbles from a laminated graphic, then perhaps it is time you rolled with the punches and invested some money now to save   time, stress, and profit loss in the future.

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