How to Buy a Wide-Format Printer
Wide-format printing is a growing opportunity for in-plants, but before you rush into this new market, stop and consider a few things. Do you have the space for a printer? How will you handle maintenance. Have you investigated the cost of consumables?
To help prepare you, we asked three in-plant managers what steps they took when adding wide-format.
What applications do you produce?
Liz Bowden: I’m definitely one to push the limitations of wide-format and think outside the box. We print a lot of research posters on fabric and recently, I’ve begun to print patterns on fabric and sew them into clothing. I printed our logo on fabric and sewed it into a skirt. We also do things like using window cling material to print water bottle labels. It makes it easier for anyone to adhere the label and reposition if necessary. It’s also a great option for customers who have leftover water bottles after an event. They can remove the labels and reuse the bottle. We’ve also used pre-pasted printable wallpaper for things like mock fatheads — it’s easy for the customer to install and does no harm to any surface.
John Bartik: We produce various sizes of signage for retractable banner-stands, contract color proofs for offset press, wall clings, new originals for aged blue prints, banners for corporate events and foam core mounted posters and standees. An unexpected capability came as a result of the ColorWave’s throughput, which was the ability to compete with short-run offset. We have actually been able to keep short-run 40˝ offset jobs in-house that would otherwise go to an outside vendor. The optional scanner (which is crazy fast!) has come in handy for our realty division. Quite often the client needs new originals from decade’s old architectural prints. Plus we offer the ability to provide an electronic file for archival purposes.
Gary Warren: We are able to produce tons of canvas wraps, cut vinyl applied to acrylic glass and mounted on walls with stand-offs and wall murals/wraps. This spring and summer we will be doing some car wraps and applying vinyl to brick walls with a heat gun and pressing it into the brick with rollers.
Factors considered when evaluating printers?
Bowden: For us, footprint is a big issue. Our facility is a bit choppy so I need to be able to find equipment that will fit in our space. Since wide-format is directly next to customer service, I also need to be aware of venting issues and smell. We also check with the electrician shop to make sure we are able to upgrade a circuit to meet the specifications of that machine. I also take into account ease of use, technician maintenance, maintenance contracts and where the tech would be coming from and what types of materials the printer can use. Another big item to check on is how much consumables cost and how often the machine should theoretically go through them in addition to the source you will buy them from. We like to stick with vendors that are close, or ship from multiple places.
Bartik: Our primary focus was on speed. We found ourselves under frequent pressure to produce exceedingly long banners within one afternoon. Resolving that bottleneck was critical, even at the compromise of fade resistance. Much to our pleasure, color and quality were never sacrificed. With the use of Onyx Thrive color software, our Pre-Media Specialist Andy Reis, who is G7 Professional certified, was able to profile the ColorWave to match the Epson. The color is so close that we now use this as our primary contract proofer for offset jobs … even on the cheapest of bond paper, which is additional savings.
Warren: Making sure the wide-format printers fit the need of what the university was getting outsourced at the time. Contour cutting for the decals was also high on our list as well so that we could produce the size of banners that were most common on campus.
Tips for calculating ROI?
Bowden: Well, you need to take into account everything associated with the machine. Electrical costs, labor, materials, consumables, waste, etc. Once you figure out your approximate cost per month, you can compare that to what you currently have, as well as your current production. For us, ROI is typically fairly quick. Our shortest ROI was six weeks. I’ve also come across some vendors who will actually help you calculate ROI prior to purchase.
Bartik: We found the material usage tool very helpful, as it reports the exact amount of toner consumed on each job. Ron Barth, our assistant manager, was able to calculate pricing down to the square inch with this feedback.
Warren: We had calculated between eight to 10 months for ROI but the biggest factor for us was what we were saving the university.
How did you evaluate color and quality?
Bowden: For the latex printer, we have done test prints on every material we have. There is virtually no difference in print quality and really no need to change the print mode for us. Using the correct material and RIP profile is key. With the flatbed printer, we will adjust printhead height, spray type, speed and quality dependent upon the application. For instance, if a print is going to be hung 10 ft. up on a wall, you can down sample the image to improve RIP speed and print at a higher speed with the printhead elevated. This conserves ink while still looking great for the viewing audience. Optically, your eyes will think it’s a high-resolution print because the viewer is not close enough to the printed piece to notice.
Bartik: Canon offered a demo, which we took extensive advantage of and we brought our own files and samples for color reference.
Warren: The university’s colors are black and PMS 872, which is a metallic color so that narrowed the field considerably. I received several samples and then looked at the pricing of the units to make my decision.
How important was substrate flexibility?
Bowden: Substrate flexibility is one of my main concerns. In the past five years, we have expanded to about 18 materials. For us, we need a machine that you can change out substrates easily throughout the day and that prints good quality on each substrate.
Bartik: Being able to print on a variety of substrates was important as we wanted to grow the opportunity for new business. The capability to house six rolls within the machine was a huge bonus to being productive.
Warren: This was very important because our older printer is an aqueous ink printer and is limited in types of substrates and they are more expensive.
How can you tell which inkjet technology is best for your in-plant?
Bowden: In the past 15-plus years that I have worked in wide-format, we have had dye, solvent, UV, latex and multipurpose. I’m a huge proponent of latex — it seems to check all the boxes for us, and we see many different types of applications. Solvent, dye and UV are nice, however for longevity, you would need to laminate the products. For me, I would prefer to go the route on one-step versus two- or three-step processes. I also like to use recyclable waterproof materials, negating the need for lamination.
Bartik: Rank your needs in order of importance as you will likely have to compromise at some point. It is easy to become swayed during demos that one technology is better than the competitors. Understand the downside to each machine, something they won’t point out until you ask.
Warren: Aqueous is cheaper to get into but limited to short-term outdoor or indoor displays. I went to purchasing and found out what large-format items were being purchased from outside vendors and then fitted the machine to the needs of the university.
Bowden: Once you’ve narrowed your search, find a shop nearby that has that machine. See if you can stop in for a visit, ask their tech questions and see how it operates. Many vendors will have open houses where you can see the equipment, as well as trade shows. Get online and search for that machine. Watch videos from users — not from vendors — and see if you can find forums about that machine. Usually if there are issues with a machine, someone will have posted something about it online.
Bartik: Be certain that you plan plenty of floor space, something we had difficulty in securing.
Warren: Make sure you have the room you need and the work to justify it. Have personnel that know or are willing to learn wide-format and how to do installations [e.g., wraps]. That’s a big plus. And then jump in. You won’t be sorry.