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Entry-Level Wide-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

If you are new to the wide-format business and are in the market for an entry-level wide-format printer for your shop, there are a number of questions you must first ask yourself and some criteria that must be met to ensure that any new machine you choose will be a good fit for your business model. Among the first and most important questions to ask is, what is the right entry point for wide-format digital printing for your business? What print volumes will you need? What are the ideal price points?

Well, to answer these questions properly, it really depends on where you’re trying to enter—from a market, volume or production standpoint. Whether you anticipate modest or medium production demands, there is a quality entry-level printer out there that can meet your businesses needs.

To get a better handle on the entire buying process, we spoke with a number of the top wide-format printer manufacturers and queried them regarding some of the most important considerations and questions to ask when purchasing an entry-level wide-format printer. 

David Conrad, director of marketing, North and Latin America, at Phoenix-based Mutoh America, says this is a really good time to look for an entry-level printer.  “The entry-level wide-format printing market is seeing better, simpler machines being introduced that require a shorter learning curve for operators.”

Targeting Your Market

“Regardless of the printing system, it all boils down to your business plan, what your target market is, and what your plans are for achieving growth,” reports Lily Hunter, product manager, Textiles and Consumables, Roland DGA, Irvine, California.

She points out that if you purchase a really inexpensive inkjet, you may be disappointed. While the initial cost may be less, she says, it’s possible that you’ll need to replace it in a couple of years as output demand grows. “The other option is to spend a little more on a higher quality printer that can support your business growth over a longer period," she says. "The bottom line is that it’s important to consider the total cost of ownership and not just the sticker price.”

Jay Roberts, product manager, UV printers, also at Roland DGA, adds when selecting an entry-level wide-format printer, it’s extremely important to first consider the markets you want to target. “Like a lot of newcomers, you might want to get into the banner and sticker industry. Or, maybe you’re more interested in poster printing and photographic reproduction. You might even want to get into the vehicle wrap business. For any of these applications, an eco-solvent printer or printer/cutter would be a great choice. On the other hand, if you’re just starting up and you want to print awards, cell phone covers or personalized gifts, a small UV-cure printer would be the way to go. With such a wide array of markets to choose from, start-up print service providers need to think about what’s profitable now, and also what may be available and profitable in the future,” he says.

“There are three distinct types of printers to consider," Roberts adds, "eco-solvent, dye-sublimation and UV-cure. Each type has its own unique traits. With this in mind, understanding the capabilities and limitations, and knowing how each type of printer works for each market, will help ensure a smart purchasing decision,” Roberts adds.

Models With Print/Cut Options

Printers with built-in vinyl cutting capabilities have been a very popular choice among smaller shops looking to get the most versatility from a single unit while still maintaining a small footprint and an affordable price point.

“As printer price points move downward, we’re also seeing an increase in capabilities for more diverse applications," says Josh Hope, senior manager, Industrial Printing Business Development & Marketing at Mimaki USA, Suwanee, Georgia. "For example, a few years ago, an entry-level printer may have been an aqueous- or eco-solvent-based printer marketed to produce posters and signage. While that is appealing in its simplicity, some entry-level printers now can do much more—such as print/cut devices or dye sublimation with fluorescent inks.”

Hope adds that with a print-and-cut device, users can print onto a variety of media to create labels, posters-to-size, even T-shirt transfers using eco-solvent inks. “The dual-capabilities of a print-cut device reduces costs, as only one unit is required to do both functions; plus, it saves valuable floor space—particularly for shops watching their overhead.”

Daniel Valade, product manager, color products, at Roland DGA points out that eco-solvent printer/cutters like Roland’s TrueVIS series give entry-level users a wide range of choices at different price points to suit their budgets and specific needs. “The TrueVIS printer/cutter family includes entry-level devices like the 30" SG-300 which is perfect for those looking to break into print/cut applications or add print/cut to their existing applications."

However, Matt McCausland, product manager, professional imaging, Epson America, Long Beach, California, says that as wide-format printing technologies continue to advance in terms of speed, productivity and versatility, he's found that the entry-level customer has to keep one eye on the future when deciding on hardware.

“This is particularly true when evaluating print/cut machines versus a separate printer and cutter," McCausland explains. "Costs being similar, it makes more sense for the future of their business to have the increased production capacity that a standalone printer and separate cutter offer. This is a trend we’ve started to see, especially as the prices of standalone 64" printers—our SureColor S40600 for example—have come down to a level where a printer and cutter can be purchased for the same price as a 54" print/cut machine,” he says.

Ink Choices are Important

Fabrizio Soto, general manager, Industrial Business Unit at OKI Data Americas, Escondido, California, points out that one of the most important things to consider when deciding on a new wide-format printer is the ink type. “Will you go with eco-solvent, latex, aqueous, UV-cure? There are pros and cons to each. And while there are ‘no one size fits all' solutions, there are certainly machines that will serve certain applications better than others.

"For example, if any of your work goes outdoors, durability is king. Finding a printer that is versatile but can provide outstanding durable prints with or without lamination will be important,” he says.

Understanding the different types of printers—and their ideal output—goes hand-in-hand with market research, Soto says. “Once you begin to recognize how your shop can fit into the market it will become more obvious which ink type will best serve your needs.”

He adds that another important factor is color gamut. “Today, most printers are pretty good with color, but the trick is to ensure that you get that same great color every day, no matter the print mode. Shops that are just getting started tend to look at only the immediate future and how they can get into the market as inexpensively as possible. Many will outgrow their printer faster than expected. When productivity picks up, they find themselves stuck with an inefficient printer that has a life expectancy of only two to three years. Instead, consider a more versatile printer that allows you to grow into it,” he says.

Entry Points and Applications

McCausland says that, depending on the applications needed, the “entry point” for wide-format digital printing should be somewhere around $12,000 for the printer, plus whatever finishing equipment is required. “Again, customers have started to make decisions in the entry-level space with an eye to the future, so they want to get a good balance of production with low capital investment and/or lease payment.”

Conrad points out that, again, depending on the application, the entry point for wide format digital printing can be under $10,000. "With just a small 24" eco-solvent printer a small 24" cutting plotter, a small heat press and some simple software, you can be in business for applications such as vinyl printing, stickers small banners indoor and outdoor signage, labels and transfer textile printing," he says.

“We believe it’s important to find out what the business owner’s target applications are, before discussing an entry point,” Hope says. “Different technologies serve an array of applications—what suits one may not suit another. Getting a good handle on target applications, volumes and growth forecasts is necessary.  Will the primary applications be for indoor or outdoor? Will it be used for signs and banners? Soft signage? Rigid graphics or printing on objects? What’s the minimum width required? What are the projected volumes in three, six, 12 months and beyond? A qualified, manufacturer-authorized dealer can be the best guide in determining the right entry-level product, based on these and other factors.  We strongly recommend working with only authorized dealers to help determine the best technology, format, ink, media, software and supplies to get started,” he adds.

Justifying Costs vs. ROI

Roberts points out that justifying the cost of the printer is actually a poor way of looking at the investment. “You really need to look at the return on investment (ROI). The ROI for any printer starts with what is going to be printed.  Regardless of the type of printer, the minimum desired ROI should equal the monthly payments on the inkjet, plus overhead. But again, the type of market will define how the ROI is achieved, and better yet, how the profits beyond the ROI are achieved.

There are simple calculators available based on the number of printed products that can be produced in one hour. The retail price minus the cost of the materials (media and ink or blank product and ink) is multiplied by the hours in the day typically spent printing (usually six is factored).”

Roberts says that essentially, you take the cost to produce and subtract that from how much you can sell the product for, and then multiplying that by the hourly production rate.  “Roland works very closely with dealers and end-users to show the cost and ROI of printers,” he adds.

Hope says that there’s great variance and too many components to provide a comprehensive answer to this question. Location (overhead costs), labor rates, financing, machine and ink type, consumables, software, media, finishing, etc., can all affect the production cost to varying degrees. “Low cost-of-entry doesn’t always translate into better value because of hidden consumables, service or other printer-related expenses. Once a printer/ink type is determined, we recommend preparing an ROI that takes into consideration monthly costs for equipment, labor and overhead, and calculate that to return a ‘cost-per-day’ to run. Then determine a realistic ‘sellable-per-day’ square footage rate from that data, to get a good idea of production needs, costs and return. This is a highly simplistic model but will help start the conversation about how much is needed to sell to achieve a good ROI. Printer manufacturers and experienced dealers can be very helpful in developing an ROI based on an individual business,” he explains.

What Types of Projects and Volumes are Required?

Conrad says that print volume requirements are very dependent on the market you’re going after and the customer base you're serving. Also the margins available for the product to be produced should be considered.

“Dye sublimation and some specialty UV printing will allow for higher margins and a faster return on investment, and it may not be as competitive as traditional sign market is," Conrad says. "Again, it's important to understand what your ROI is, your material costs, what your labor and overhead are going to be, and what pricing the market will bear that will allow you to be competitive and still make money—and seeing who your competitors are, what are they selling, and to who. Understanding all of these will help you be successful in your venture,” he adds.

McCausland also reports that projects and volumes vary widely depending on the applications the printer will handle. “This is why we see many shops trying to differentiate their print offering to provide better quality, unique application and different media where they can charge a higher price for the final print, and therefore would be either more profitable or be able to sustain their business with less initial volume. We have found that many customers can justify the price (and in some cases even pay off the entire printer) with one or two jobs.”