mimaki ujv55-320

Buying Tips: Grand-Format Printers

Bill Schiffner is a freelance writer/editor based in Holbrook, N.Y. He has covered the imaging industry for 25 years and has reported on many evolving digital imaging technologies including wide-format printing and newer electronic digital signage. He was the editor for a number of imaging publications and websites. He can be reached at bschiffner@optonline.net.

Investing in a piece of grand-format equipment—which can potentially rival the cost of a house—is something that definitely should not be rushed into. And, although the initial price tag on many of these models may make you queasy, the potential return on investment for your business could be a sound move, as long as you choose the right printer.

There are many things to research when in the market for grand-format printing equipment: what manufacturer and model do you choose, what technology works best for the products you will be creating. And, the very most important thing to consider is how you are going to pay for it. Grand-format printing equipment as well as the finishing equipment to support it can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is a large investment for a shop, and it is best to look at the payment options that are available before moving forward.

Grand format is no longer just for mid- to large-sized print shops anymore. Many smaller mom-and-pop shops are migrating into the grand-format market as well. So even if you are a smaller shop there are ways to add grand format to your service mix.

If you are in the market for a grand-format model, it is critical to research equipment that best suits your shop’s specific needs. Since it’s such a significant investment, we polled a number of the leading suppliers about some of the most important points to consider and questions to ask before purchasing a grand-format unit.

Starting Points

Tom Wittenberg, sign and display marketing manager at HP Inc., Alpharetta, Georgia, says he always tells people looking at grand format to start with the applications you want to produce. “That helps you define the type of technology you want. Next, it becomes both a space and economics discussion—Do I have the space available for the printer/press and associated finishing equipment? What are the costs associated with purchase and operation? Do I have the volume to make a profit? How long will it take to get a return on my investment?”

Wittenberg says researching and analyzing your shop’s needs means deciding what it is you want to achieve, and the kinds of prints you hope to sell.

“Start with what it is that you want to sell, and then find out if you can sell enough of it in the markets available to you to make a profit. This leads to the technology question above and, ultimately, the financial decisions. Many of the grand-format printer manufacturers can help you with some of the decision-making process including return on investment (ROI) calculation tools, go-to-market ideas,” he adds.

Becky McConnell, product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America, Graphic Systems Division, also points out that just like with any investment, you should determine what you’re trying to accomplish and how you're going to get there. “If your goal is to quickly increase top-line sales, perhaps the first consideration should be ‘what else can I sell to my clients?’ Think about the times you've had to say ‘I can’t’ to a client and what you can do to say ‘yes.’ If it’s a capacity issue that's forced you to turn jobs away, think about what throughput levels you'd need to achieve and work your way backward,” she explains.

Make a Plan

Joe Garcia, managing director at StratoJet USA, Santa Fe Springs, California, says it’s best to start with a sound business plan. “Understand your current situation as far as cash flow, labor, specific customer demands that you currently can produce in-house, and those that you need to outsource. Put together a detailed analysis and measure the time it takes to produce a specific print solution and how much it would cost you, including costs of consumables, labor, equipment amortization, space requirements among other items.”

Then compare the time savings and consumable cost savings of producing with a specific grand-format solution. “Don’t forget to add a value to delivering faster service and higher quality output that your customer may enjoy. Also, evaluate the new print solutions that you can provide with the new equipment.”

Garcia says grand-format work would encompass output of 96" or wider, and grand format printer productivity can be measured as follows:

  • Entry Level Production = low volume (up to about 1,000 sqft/hr)
  • Mid-Level Production = commercial (up to 1,999 sqft/hr)
  • Industrial Production = fast, high volume (2,000+ sqft/hr)

He points out that when the monthly self-adhesive vinyl consumption for mounted print work exceeds $3,000, this justifies taking a good look at UV flatbed printers.

“A lease payment for a new flatbed printer can be less than $3,000 and a printer that can substitute mounting vinyl, will bring about savings beyond the media itself, since labor is typically the highest cost in production,” Garcia explains.

Wittenberg says he looks at this as how quickly do you want to recover your investment and at what price/margin will you be selling into the market? “This will help determine the volume you need to sell over the desired recovery period. Does the volume seem reasonable, too small or too large? It may require a trial and error to get to a point where you feel that you can comfortably sell the volume needed and then the ROI calculation will tell you how long it will take to recover your investment.”

Keeping the Machine Busy

Josh Hope, senior manager, Industrial Printing Business Development and Marketing at Mimaki USA, Suwanee, Georgia, says in general, they counsel customers to consider what types of applications they expect to be producing on their new grand-format machine for the majority of the time (80% or so) that it is installed. He adds that Mimaki only sells through authorized dealers.

“Some grand-format printers command a higher price tag, so in that regard there may be a difference in leasing terms, etc. There are also overhead considerations such as floor space, utilities, ability to store large rolls of media or large boards (if a flatbed), etc. “We recommend our customers work with an authorized dealer that can walk them through TCO (total cost of ownership) exercises to find the break-even point,” he explains.

Output Speed and Quality

Hope notes there are many variables involved with this question. “Output speed always seems to ‘top of the list’ when shopping for a machine but we find that in reality, it’s the production throughput that is valued. As in ‘how many of X do I need to print, how long will it take me, and at what price can I sell them?’ It also varies depending on whether the grand-format printer is a roll-based unit that may be used for distance-viewed billboards that don’t require high-resolution quality; or is it a flatbed that’s decorating large volumes of smaller items that will be viewed up-close.”

McConnell says that most people look to grand-format devices because they either need more capacity or they need to be more efficient and they see a grand-format device as a potential solution for that. “In order to find the right device to meet client demands, it is best to see the output of particular files on the intended media. Don’t just rely on data-sheet speeds for various devices but watch jobs printed and determine how much throughput it will offer based on the required applications. That way, your expectations are closer to equivalent than by relying on stated speeds alone,” she adds.

Ink Types

“It’s important to use ink that suits the necessary application; if a print provider is considering a roll device, they should be sure the ink is going to flexible but also adhere to the substrates they intend to use in production,” says McConnell.

She explains that an all-around versatile ink is always a great option but if a manufacturer/distributor has multiple ink sets for a single device, it’s worth discovering what each of those ink sets have to offer a print provider.

When it comes to UV-cure inks, “Some may have a wider color gamut but may be a bit more brittle, which isn’t good for flexible material or finishing rigid sheets. Or an ink may have a flatter finish but it features excellent adhesion. Durability and coverage are also important factors that need to be considered,” she points out. “All these factors (and price of ink, of course) will determine which ink set or type of device is best for your business.”

She says that every type of ink has certain benefits—whether it be solvent, eco-solvent, latex or UV-cure.

Automation Options

Hope says for roll-based models look for flexibility in media handling. “Does the printer enable shorter rolls to be run side-by-side? Does it include features for easy loading and unloading? Also, does it include an inline LED backlit proofing panel to check print quality before the entire job is run?”

“For flatbeds, the printer should include layout pins for easy registration of large boards,” he adds.

Garcia says that when measuring the number of prints you need to produce in a specific frame of time, measure all aspects, from loading/unloading, file manipulation at the printer control system to warm up times and scheduled maintenance times. “This will give you a better idea of the real-time output production versus only measuring printing speeds.”

McConnell explains that there are a number of automation options for grand-format devices.

“In terms of flatbeds, there are feeders/loaders and stackers/off-loaders to help maximize the throughput of printers. It’s key to fully evaluate the handling system you are considering to ensure that it’s effective in reducing handling time for substrates you intend to print; unless the material handling automation can keep up with the printer and also handle the sheets of substrate a print provider is producing on, there’s no benefit to the an automated handling system.”

She adds there are also systems that are not fully automated, so more operator interaction is needed than a fully automated handling system, but will allow for greater throughput on the printer.

“In terms of roll devices, some grand-format printers have bulk roll feed systems that allow for rolls that are heavier or have a larger diameter than the printer specification allows; this means less operator interaction for long run jobs,” McConnell concludes.