How does a flatbed printer work?

Digital Flatbed

Digital flatbed printers fill the gap between offset printing and silk screening by providing a way to apply an image to rigid, flat or unevenly surfaced objects. The process will print shapes ranging from coffee cups and injection-molded acrylic, glass objects, furniture and wooden doors. Commercial printing operations generate the bulk of flatbed-printed materials.

Dimensional Printing

To use a flatbed printer, the operator places a printing medium (pen, glass, whatever) on the flat bed of the printer, or in a delivery tray that sits on the flat bed. Mechanical locks or a vacuum secure the printing medium as it slides through the printer. If the medium were to slip, the printed image would be out of register (think out of focus) and unusable. On command, the printing medium moves through the printer, passing under the print heads and, in some cases, under a UV lamp that instantly cures (dries) the ink.


Digital flatbed printers use the primary “subtractive” (subtracts color from a white base) ink colors—cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK)—as opposed to their smaller desktop cousins who are based on the visually “additive” (adds color to black) primary colors of light, red, green and blue (RGB).

Also unlike desktop printers, flatbed printers provide for the application of “spot” colors including white (necessary, as the print medium may not be white) and varnish, which many of the printers can apply as a spot color, a process color or over the entire image.

UV-cured inks, as in letterpress and other “fine” printing, also have dimensionality. That is, the ink dries on the surface of the print media so it rises above the surface in a way that lets you can feel the ink, almost as if it had been hand-painted.


A short list of applications for flatbed printing includes retail point of purchase and point of sale material, in-store advertising, indoor and outdoor signage (construction, real estate and theatrical signs, for instance). Additional applications involve sales promotion materials (pens, money clips, coffee cups and the like), trade show display panels and signs, special events graphics, interior design, product decoration, furniture and fine art (originals printed on a collage, or painting prints reproduced on mounted and stretched canvass, for example).

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