Review Your Wide Format Printing Platform Options (Flatbed, Roll-to-Roll, and Hybrid): A Large Format Printer Buying Guide
There are three platforms available for wide format printers: flatbed, roll-to-roll, and hybrid. Choosing between the three depends entirely on your print needs. If you print solely on either rigid or rolled materials, you can use the flatbed (rigid) or roll-to-roll (rolled) option. However, if you regularly print on both, you want the hybrid printer. Of course, project into the future a bit when making this choice. If you currently print on only rigid or rolled materials, consider whether you plan to expand in the near future before purchasing a printer that handles only one of type of material. From there, you can look at other printer technologies.
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True Flatbed Printers
A true flatbed printer prints on any flat material, either flexible or rigid, usually with a maximum thickness of 2". You place the material on a "flatbed" platform, which uses a vacuum to hold the material in place, securing it for printing. Printing is highly precise, allowing you to manipulate exact placement of ink droplets.
Print materials include any flat item, not just paper. Flatbed printers work on foam board, glass, metal, wood, plastic, and even corrugated media. More advanced systems allow printing on heavy materials through multi-zone vacuums capable of securing the weight. They also let you lay down multiple smaller materials, making it possible to create multiple prints in a single pass.
With roll-to-roll printers, you feed a roll of flexible material to an uptake reel. These units are popular for signage, banners, and posters, especially for organizations printing these materials in high volume. Most roll-to-roll printers work with a wide variety of materials. As you get into higher end models, you find machines capable of printing on mesh, or that include a trolley to handle heavier media.
Of course, the drawback to both machines is the fact that each machine prints only on either flat or rolled media. That's where the hybrids come in to play.
Hybrid Roll-to-Roll/Flatbed Printers
Hybrid wide format printers allow you to easily change between flexible and rigid materials. If your print requirements include both, this is the most cost-effective, space-saving option to handle your printing needs. This is especially true for commercial print shops.
You find hybrid printers in either roll-to-flat (RTF) or flat-to-roll (FTR. The first option, RTF, is designed to primarily handle rolled media, with detachable media table for printing on flat materials. The FTR option's design is geared toward flat media, with add-on equipment for printing on rolled materials. Your choice obviously depends on which media dominates your printing needs.
One issue with hybrids is that many of the advanced features, particularly for roll-to-roll machines, are missing.
If your organization does a high volume of printing in both mediums, you may be better off buying two dedicated machines instead of a hybrid. While making the switch from flat to rolled is relatively simple, doing it repeatedly negatively impacts productivity. In the end, the choice comes down to which system best fulfills your needs and creates the highest quality prints.