The Green Type project, spanning from September to December 2023, was an explorative project into the possibilities of sustainable exhibition design. The focus was on assessing the viability of vertical printing technology, particularly through the use of a UV-vertical Wallpen printer, as a potential alternative to traditional vinyl lettering. Through experiments I came to a few conclusions about the advantages and drawbacks of such technologies.
Drawbacks of the Wallpen Printer:
Transportation Challenges: The Wallpen, robust in build, presents logistical challenges due to its bulk and weight. My initial idea to transport it via a cargo bike proved impractical, as its size and heft demanded more conventional means. Even limited transport experiences, including climbing stairs, highlighted its cumbersome nature. The machine feels very engineer-y, not very user friendly. It is strong, sturdy and stable, at the expense of ease of use. You can feel the love of machining in the steel bars.
Ink Sustainability Concerns: A primary concern for the project’s sustainability goals is the Wallpen’s ink. When uncured, it emits a significant amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), posing health risks and releasing a strong odor for a few hours. The necessity of using a FFP2 mask during operation in small spaces raised questions about long-term health implications.
UV Light Exposure: The Wallpen’s ink curing process involves intense UV light, potentially harmful to eyesight. The constant requirement for wearing polycarbonate goggles, especially in conjunction with a FFP2 mask, was cumbersome (you have mist on your goggles all the time). Public demonstrations demanded additional safety measures, particularly when printing on transparent surfaces (use a blocker when printing on glass).
Operational Rigidity: A notable drawback of the Wallpen is its lack of forgiveness for operational errors. Mistakes during printing often necessitated repainting walls, a laborious and time-consuming task. This inflexibility poses significant challenges, especially when working in spaces where repainting isn’t feasible. I had to repaint a wall twice in the timespan of the project, I was lucky that I could only repaint part of the wall but I can imagine this being a massive pain when using only lettering and having to paint a full 4x3m wall.
Color Calibration: Achieving the desired visual output required extensive knowledge of color calibration. The machine’s default settings often produced overly dark prints, necessitating substantial adjustments in lightness and color balance. This steep learning curve in color management underscores the need for comprehensive pre-testing for each project. (I had to boost the lightness on photoshop to 60% most of the time to get good results. On my machine I also dropped the CYAN and added a bit of yellow.)
Printer Calibration: The Wallpen’s calibration process, both vertically and horizontally, is important. Every transportation or accidental touch necessitates recalibration, making the setup time-consuming, typically requiring around 1 hours for assembly, ink refill, and calibration. (The 20 minutes set-up on wallpen website is very optimistic.)
Software Issues: While generally efficient, the software occasionally presents issues, such as artifacts or missing parts in printed images, necessitating vigilance during operation.
Obstacle Avoidance: The printer lacks environmental awareness, posing risks of collisions. A programmed downward movement at startup can lead to impacts if not planned.
Ink Management: Predicting ink levels is challenging. The printer does not provide an indication of remaining ink, requiring regular manual checks and refills.
Spatial Memory: The Wallpen does not track its position in space or on its rails, making it unable to resume a partially completed print accurately.
Longevity Concerns ?: Though not personally experienced, discussions in forums indicate that some users have encountered issues with the printer’s components, such as the printing heads. However, these can be replaced.
Proposed Solutions and Reflections:
To address the challenges faced with the Wallpen printer and make it a more viable competitor against vinyl, several steps could be implemented:
Develop Eco-friendly Ink: Focusing on creating more sustainable ink options would enhance the Wallpen’s appeal, particularly in terms of environmental impact. At the moment, it is hard to really know the impact of the used inks. A carbon and sustainability assessement of the current ink could be an alternative.
Improved Transportation System: Innovating a lighter and more transport-friendly system would make the printer more accessible and practical for diverse settings.
Advanced Collision Avoidance Technology: Incorporating bump technology, similar to that used in robotic vacuums, would improve the printer’s environmental awareness and prevent accidental impacts.
Enhanced Ink Management: Implementing a more accurate ink monitoring system would provide better predictability and efficiency in ink usage, reducing operational uncertainties.
Marketing Practices and ROI Challenges:
The marketing approach on the Wallpen website emphasizes the return on investment while obscuring the printer’s actual cost. Conversations with Wallpen owners revealed a disconnect between the marketing claims and real-world experiences. None of these owners had managed to recoup their investment yet and they reported a lack of traction / a sluggish market, suggesting a potential overstatement of profitability in promotional materials.
Print Quality Impressions:
In contrast, the Wallpen printer’s quality in actual use was remarkable. The finesse of detail and the depth of the blacks in prints were consistently impressive. This high quality received widespread praise during demonstrations, underscoring the machine’s capability to produce visually striking outputs.
First feedback on this post:
In response to this article, a range of feedback has been received, reflecting diverse experiences and perspectives:
Safety: One reader noted that while the ink emits a strong odor during printing, it becomes non-toxic once cured - a significant advantage over traditional wallpaper or vinyl that can still release toxic compounds. They highlighted that wearing a mask is a minor inconvenience compared to the benefits of the printer. They also pointed out that the need for safety glasses is not a major issue since their work environment minimizes public interaction, reducing the need for extra safety measures.
Technology Acceptance and Realism: Another reader emphasized the importance of accepting the realities of cutting-edge technology. They argued that certain drawbacks, like ink VOCs or operational rigidity, are part and parcel of working with such technology. The reader expressed that pioneers of new technology must accept its imperfections as part of a learning process, rather than expecting flawless functionality from the outset.
Frustration with Technical Issues: A third response revealed a more critical stance, expressing regret in their purchase of the Wallpen due to numerous operational problems, seconded by another user concerning the durability of the ricoh head. Despite acknowledging the innovative nature of the technology, they highlighted the frustration and disappointment stemming from its persistent issues. Two reader explained they had had their wallpen for 6 years with only a few problems. Other expressed their surprise for the short warranty period compared to similar product (one year instead of 2) and their frustration with the price of the spare parts.
All pictures were made by Jente Waerzeggers during the set-up of the Promptism exhibition.
This post is part of the Greentype project, supported by the #creathriveEU from Basilicatacreativa and the European Commission and was co-funded by the European Union’s Single Market Programme