|L&P Virtu UV-cured flatbed printers|
Leggett & Platt Digital Technologies (L&P) first showed a prototype UV printer at DPI trade show, Atlanta, 2001. FLAAR was there, and we have kept track of these printers ever since. Below are most of the models since then. The models that were current (for 2007) are listed in boldface. We have a separate page on the HD8 model for 2008, and a separate page for the Swiss models, RS25 / RS35.
It would help if the L&P web site (WP Digital) could provide an informative time-line so it would be possible to understand which model is which. I have no idea what the “Virtu 130” is.
L&P Digital's Swiss branch, Spuhl (Spuehl or more correctly Spühl) exhibits the Virtu RS35 and RS25 printers at trade shows in Europe. Since FLAAR personnel are tri-lingual including Deutsch we have walked past the Spühl booth in European trade fairs many times, but there are so many booths at a trade show that even with several assistant's we find that a factory visit and demo-room visit is a more effective to learn about a sophisticated printer in depth (see below).
Two years ago there was a European manager of Spuhl that was very helpful and we were gearing up to update all our FLAAR Reports, but this person switched to another company and since then we have been so busy with other UV printers that there has not been time to look at the L&P or Spuhl printers in detail.
Finding adequate information on the L&P Virtu UV-curable flatbed printer is a challenge
Leggett & Platt (the partent company of L&P Digital Technologies ) is a successful Fortune 500 company, but it provides less information than upstart entry-level Chinese UV printer manufacturers. Since there is essentially no independent information available we felt this would be a good place to outline how best to learn about a printer when no information is available.
This is the kind of suggestions that a professor is adept at working out: how to learn when at first no information is readily available. This is an advantage to being a research institute: we do research.
Most astute people in the industry recognize that most articles available on these printers are either outright Success Stories or close to it, and hence not much more than a packaged PR release. The best example of an unrealistic Success Story is the claim that “the printer prints on everything.” The most polite way I can put this is that this is not true and they know it. Featuring this claim is the easiest way to acquire minus points on an evaluation review.
L&P was a respected company and their Virtu UV printers have many sophisticated features, so they should be able to interest people in their printers by stressing what it can actually achieve. There should be no need to exaggerate with potentially misleading claims.
If perchance this printer can really print on everything (without subsequent abrasion or adhesion issues) then a demo should be set up for several days and literally print on every single substance in the FLAAR list of materials. We would then publish the results.
Suggested steps to learning about which UV printer to consider:
A Site-Visit to an actual printshop is essential
It is crucial to learn the pros and cons, ups and downs, weaknesses and capabilities of any UV-curable printer you are considering. So visiting a printshop that already has gone through trial and error is essential.
Just be aware that some printshops are an extension of the company demo room and PR system. So try to select the printshop yourself. You will get more reliable information if you visit a sign shop that is NOT on the manufacturer's list of Success Stories. You don't want a Success Story, you need to know the Failure Stories too.
So we have found our own sign shops that have DuPont Cromaprint 22uv printers. Independently we have located two places with Luscher JetPrint UV printers. I have visited two places that own the Infiniti UV printer (the best Failure Story we have yet). On my own I have found a print shop that has a Gandinnovations flatbed.
When I have another different business appointment in any city, if I don't know who in that city has the printers I wish to see, then I ask the manufacturer who in that city has a printer. But once I get to that sign shop, I can very quickly separate fact from fiction and quickly ascertain the reality of what aspects of the printer are good, and which are weak or need improvement (I do site-visits as a side trip in virtually every city in the world that I visit).
Most sign shops prefer not to allow competing sign shop owners to visit them; for obvious reasons: UV printing is nation wide. So a printshop in Texas is competing with a print shop in Ohio for the same national account with Staples, Krogers, Ace Hardware, etc. Printshops understandably don't want to show a competing owner/manager which printer is best.
Here again, being a research professor helps. We are independent. FLAAR has no intention of setting up a competing printshop. And many of our readers are in distant countries, so won't be competing with the shops that we visit. In a few instances the printshops ask to remain anonymous, which we honor. We are allowed to do the interview, evaluations, and take photographs: just not identify the specific location or names.
We have done one L&P site-visit, but many years ago in Las Vegas. Although it is one of their Success Story locations, we learned about the shop from having met the owner independently. We would, however, prefer to also visit other L&P owners on our own in the future.
Our L&P report still needs more research, because of the aforementioned almost total lack of information in their web site. But at least we offer a report that is not an orchestrated one-page Success Story.
Trade show is essential at the beginning, but you need to do more too
The first step to learning about any printer is to visit a trade show booth. The advantage of a trade show is that in a single day (or best, over three days), you can see all the printers. A trade show should be visited before a finding a printshop that has the printers: you want your short-list first; this you get from trade shows (and from the FLAAR Reports).
Many readers have commented that the downside of a trade show is that “all you learn is what the company wants you to learn.” Indeed one sales rep at one of the top three UV printer manufacturers/distributors told me, “We don't need anyone else to write reviews of our printers. We alone will tell people what they need to know. People only need to learn what we tell them.”
Wow, how in the world should we react. I was so stunned I did not say anything, except under my breath: “If the owner of this company knew what his employee just told me, he would probably be fired.” As a comment, this booth was not the L&P or Spuehl booth.
But this same company has (politely) declined to provide their User Manuals, so clearly they are not as open as is MacDermid ColorSpan. MacDermid puts 100% of their User Manuals on-line; you don't even need to register. Just click! And the User Manual downloads immediately.
Mutoh Europe also allows downloads of user manuals with no registration: albeit you do have to know precisely which site it is, and the downloads are shorter versions, not the lengthy versions that come with the actual printer. But at least it's a start. Besides, Mutoh Europe provided FLAAR with every single solitary manual that we asked for, even private in-house manuals, private in-house PPTs, and other confidential documents. Mutoh Europe fully realizes that a professor only wants research material; that we do not make any of these documents available.
Gandinnovations, Agfa, Mimaki, Roland and many other companies have kindly sent their User Manuals when we requested them. Four companies politely declined. Does that suggests there is something in the manuals they don't want us to see?
The humorous aspect is that most companies who indicate they either won't answer questions about what printheads they use, or that won't provide their User Manuals, they say clearly that they realize we will find access to this information anyway. It's simple: end-users who are about to spend between $250,000 to $650,000 have a right to know what's inside the machine they are considering. They especially have a right to know what issues are present, or what features are not available (but that are available on competing machines). The spec sheets inside the User Manuals are more detailed than the spec sheets handed out at trade show booths.
Familiarize yourself with the printer at a demo room
A demo-room visit should be your second step. Visiting a demo room means going to either the factory (at the world headquarters) or else the US demo room. This visit has advantages over a trade show visit: you have more time and less hectic. And if there is a service technician in the demo room, you can learn more, since a sales rep may never have actually run the printer. Downside of a demo room visit is that you don't have all the different brands one next to the other.
So far we have been at the demo rooms of Gandinnovations UV in San Antonio and Gandy UV in their Toronto factory (twice in the factory, 2007 and summer 2008).
Have been guest many times at the MacDermid ColorSpan demo room.
Spent an entire week at the Mutoh Europe demo rooms (plural, it's a huge facility).
Have been at the Vutek demo room four times and in the Durst Rho demo room in Brixen three times and in Lienz twice.
Have spent several days at the GRAPO UV printer demo room (they have sold over 200 UV printers in Europe and Asia alone). Returned to GRAPO for three more days in summer 2008.
Eventually it was possible to see the L&P factory and demo room a few months after visiting the Spuhl factory and demo room in Switzerland. But there was no follow-up because the L&P Virtu was trying to use MEMS printheads which had issues (not the fault of L&P).
Get to see how well the machines are designed and assembled by a factory visit
A really good way to learn about the insides of a printer, whether it will hold up longer than a few months is to visit the factory (two Chinese UV printers that we have inspected began to deteriorate within three months and had essentially fallen apart after six months; a $250,000 Chinese UV printer had so many breakdowns or parts simply wearing out that the owner was about ready to throw in the glove).
So starting in 2006, FLAAR began a program of visiting UV-cured flatbed inkjet printer factories. Since our university obviously does not cover travel to foreign countries, we either prepare a sponsored research project or simply request a training and research grant from the manufacturer. So Mutoh Europe provided an entire week of training inside their factory in Oostende. During these visits it is possible to speak to most of the design team and to the ink chemists. Visiting inside the factory is also very telling: you can see how well made the printers are.
As a result of factory visits it has been possible to improve the FLAAR Reports significantly.
It takes one full day for each machine, minimum, and it helps to have an additional day for the factory visit and general discussion. Where there are additional models, then three to five days are more realistic. Might as well do a thorough job after traveling so far. Besides, 340, 000 printshop owners, managers, and comparable people, worldwide, will be able to read the results. This is more than read all the sign and digital printing trade magazines put together.
So there are many ways to learn about UV-curable flatbed and UV roll-to-roll printers. Since there are over 101 models of wide format UV printers from more than 45 manufacturers, it is not realistic to focus on every single make and model. We tend to concentrate on:
However we do try to publish at least basic discussions of each printer because sooner or later our readers ask for a FLAAR Reports. Most printshop owners and managers want to see a FLAAR Report either before they make their short-list or before they make their final decision. We get e-mails from all over the world every day asking for assistance in selecting a UV printer. Larger companies ask for consulting services as well, either asking us to visit their home office or headquarters, or they sign up for a trade-show wall-through with FLAAR, so they can learn personally from Nicholas Hellmuth at each booth that interests them. This allows them to cut to the chase and skip all the utter nonsense that floats around about improbable print speeds and claims that “our printer will print on everything.
L&P Virtu from 2009 onward
L&P did not exhibit at SGIA 2008, a major absence. But by that date their sales had dwindled to probably fewer than one printer a month, so not many people noticed they were no longer at SGIA. In hindsight I would estimate that by this time L&P Digital Technologies already knew they were about to be bought, so it made little sense to exhibit, especially since there was nothing to show (since unfortunately the Spectra M Class printheads, MEMS technolology, had problems very similar to HP Scitex X2 printheads, which are also MEMS technology.
Hopefully WP Digital can resurrect what can be salvaged from L&P in America. Luscher evaporated in the US in the market for UV printers because they refused to admit the problems in their printer design. Plus if you asked anyone who made the mistake to buy a Lusher JetPrint you quickly learned that the printshop owners and managers were not very happy with the Swiss style of tech support: after 5 pm European time zone, forget about tech support anywhere in the world. I lived in Switzerland for three years, so have a bit of experience with what it's like (but I would return at any time, but at least I know what to expect).
The challenge for resurrecting L&P Virtu in the US is that everyone else has been very successful, especially Durst. And GRAPO now has a new high-end printer that will be much desired as soon as it is available in America: the Grapo Shark. Plus, at ISA '09 and SGIA '09 and Print '09 (GraphExpo '09) there will be so many other UV printers that not everyone will have time to stop in the booth of a brand name they are not familiar with.
In the process of bringing L&P Virtu back into the market, I hope that it is possible to bring back their textile printer (Virtu 130” DirectUV), or at least have it available to other companies under OEM. The original mission of L&P Digital Technologies was (from what I remember being told back in 2001) was to print or otherwise decorate the mattress covers that L&P machinery makes all over the world. Yet for a variety of reasons, the textile segment of the L&P Virtu did not succeed in becoming an stand out division or business segment.
Nowadays there are so many exciting new textile inks available, and so many other companies that could partner, that all the R&D of the original L&P textile printer should be given another chance to succeed.
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