Roland Soljet

Is Now the Time to Upgrade Your Printer?

Matt Dixon is the editor of Sign & Digital Graphics.

It might be a print shop’s version of the classic quandary, “fish or cut bait.” Is your printer holding you back from higher profits or will replacing that printer be more costly than it’s worth? It’s a doozy of a question, for sure. But there are ways to determine if now is the time to stay the course or put down an investment into the future.

Upgrading your digital printer can be a very involved process, and there are many things to consider before making the leap. But how do you know if you’re leaving money on the table in the first place?

“The key signs would start and end with the print shop’s profit and loss statement and market share,” says Candyce Holcomb, AMS sign and display category manager, HP Inc. “If a print service provider does not see healthy and steady growth, it may be time to look at the reasons why, and one of those could be that it’s time to upgrade their current printer or fleet of printers. Another sign would be market share. If a print service provider sees his customers moving to a competitor due to faster turnaround times, mobile and other new technology enablers, it is definitely time to consider upgrading.”

An easy place to begin searching for answers is the age of your printer. Technology in the digital printing field is moving forward very quickly these days.  

“The technology is evolving so quickly, there’s literally a new printer family generation born every two to three years,” says Ken Hanulec, vice president of marketing for EFI Inkjet Solutions.

“The printing market, like everything else, is moving at warp speed,” Holcomb says. “Technology has become the catalyst to time- and cost-saving improvements. So where a printer would last for five to seven years previously, print service providers now are shopping for something new or open to upgrading within three to five years.”

But apart from age, there are many other things to understand before looking to upgrade.

“Questions shops have to ask themselves are: are they getting high enough quality from their current printer, how long is it taking to produce a print, and what is the cost per print,” says Rich Reamer, director of product marketing, Canon U.S.A. “Once they know this, they should evaluate this against new technology to see if they could be printing more and with a much higher quality for less with newer technology.”

Think this may apply to your shop? Let’s take a look at the top four reasons you may want to take your printer to the next level.

1. New Applications

If you aren’t offering what your clients want, they won’t be your clients for long.

“What’s really important is to think about the application that you want to achieve,” says Josh Hope, Applications Product Manager for Mimaki USA. “So, rather than going into the process thinking I need a flatbed or I need a hybrid device, it really makes more sense to think about what is the majority of the jobs that I’m wanting to do and make sure that I have a device that can do that.”

Some applications that shops may want to consider include textile printing, package printing or prototyping.

“One of the fastest growing market segments is customization,” says Daniel Valade, product manager for Versa UV, Versa Studio and vinyl cutters at Roland DGA. “Add UV printing technology using LED light to cure ink onto pretty much any substrate, not printing just on typical roll-to-roll vinyls, and you can print directly onto a computer mouse, for example, or directly onto a cell phone, or laptop or other electronic device. Also, anything from wood, glass, metal or stone. The customization market has really taken off in the last couple of years.”

2. Speed, Quality and Size

Today’s printers are faster than ever, and most can print at high speeds with very good production quality. But if your machine isn’t keeping up with orders and you have to outsource work that could easily be done on your own machine, that’s money left on the table. 

“Many printers do well in either print quality or speed,” Holcomb says. “There is usually an accepted tradeoff, but there are now printing technologies that allow owners to have both superior print quality and speed.”  

“The ability to produce photo-like quality is key,” Reamer says. “With digital images being so commonplace now, a shop must be able to reproduce a client’s digital image faithfully.”

And, of course, size does matter. Valade says that he often runs into clients who didn’t plan far enough ahead when they purchased their current printer.

“They wish they would have gotten a 64” printer,” he says. “Everybody that had purchased the 30” or 54” printer, as soon as they start getting requests for banners or vehicle wraps, they wish they would have gone a little bit bigger.”

3. Functionality

The latest and greatest printers have some amazing bells and whistles these days, but determining which ones are right for you can be the difference between a good investment and a bad one. One way to find out what features your printer should have is to follow the outsourcing.

“If shops are having trouble completing jobs with the current equipment in their office, it might be time to take a look at what technology they are outsourcing to,” Valade says. “If it’s somebody who’s been in the screen printing business for a long time, maybe it’s time to move into digital printing to grab some of those shorter run, higher ROI runs for things like apparel, or decals and   stickers. If you find yourself calling for help more often than not on certain types of jobs, it might be time to look into something that can encompass a wide variety of applications.”

A key feature on printers that shops should be paying attention to is color gamut. The days of surviving with CMYK are coming to an end, and staying competitive without six or eight ink channels these days is becoming more difficult. Another serious consideration should be employing white ink.

“White ink is such an amazing tool,” Hanulec says. “It gives you the ability to do things with multilayer, with transparancies—it almost becomes the artist’s canvas. Half the customers I visit with, whether it’s an EFI customer or a competitor’s customer, they bought a printer without white capability. And when they learn about what they are leaving on the table, they are devastated. It’s our No. 1 most common upgrade.”

“I think one of the biggest things lately is people who didn’t think about getting white ink or think about the importance of expanded gamut, being able to hit additional spot colors,” Hope says. “You may end up with a printer that does things you planned for very well, but now you may need to work on a material where you need white ink or you may need to do a three layer print on a clear substrate.”

Hybrid printers are also great ways to increase functionality, whether you are looking at hybrid roll-to-roll/flatbed printers or print-and-cut devices.

4. Ease of Use

Today’s sign and graphics shops often operate with employees wearing many hats, and that can include the job of printer operator.  

“A printer that is easily operated is a must for a shop,” Reamer says. “Unless you have the same operator consistently over time, you need a printer that is easily operated so if you have to make a sudden change to the operator, they can easily begin printing with high quality.”   

“Print service providers are looking for printers that are intuitive to use, similar to how consumer products are today with touchscreen interfaces and automatic maintenance to protect their investments, and are mobile-enabled to monitor printer performance,” Holcomb says.  

The time it takes to train employees and the number of employees you have trained to run the printer shouldn’t be ignored because if too few people have the necessary skills, that could lead to overtime wages or another late night for a shop owner on those big runs.

“Ease of use is something that oftentimes is overlooked,” Hope says. “The consideration of operator level – the ability to cross-train people – is really a factor to make sure that you’ve got a machine that you can put on your floor, start the software, start the printer, and even with some of your more demanding functions, you can put many different operators in front of it and get that same quality and consistency.”

“Deciding between two competitive printers that have very similar specs and very similar pricing can come down to which printer is easier to use,” Valade says. “Which printer offers an integrated RIP software that makes it so I’m just dragging and dropping files instead of having to get involved in third-party RIP software, and has the features within that software that are bundled, such as variable data.”

Other Considerations

  • ROI – Does the new printer investment make sense, and do I have the workload to support it?
  • Workflow – How will this new printer enhance my current workflow? Ideally, it would remove duplication and/or extra steps.
  • Power Requirements – Do you need any additional investments to maximize and use the new printer? And will there be cost savings?
  • Finishing – Will you need to upgrade that equipment as well? How does your current finishing equipment fit with a possible new machine?
  • Bulk Ink – Are the conditions right to make the switch to a bulk ink system to cut down on ink costs and waste?
  • Being Green – “The word ‘green’ is tossed around, but it is more than just being eco-friendly,” Holcomb says. “It is also considering how printers relate to waste, recyclability, power consumption and emissions from the printer and also the printing output. Healthier printing is becoming more and more important to PSPs, which results in healthier workplaces and reduced shipping and disposal requirements.”

The decision to upgrade a printer can make or break a shop, and printer manufacturers know that their customers want to keep that machine relevant for as long as possible. For example, the EFI VUTEk LX3 Pro LED printer was designed to receive significant field upgrades to extend the life of the printer.

“If you and I owned a business, and we were going to spend a couple hundred grand on a printer, it’s a big step for us to put that money down,” Hanulec says. “Usually when people buy these printing presses, it’s the next biggest purchase next to their home or their building. What people really want to know is whether there is some sort of extensibility to that architecture. We built this deliberately into every one of our new platforms around this idea of extensibility.”

Hanulec says that all areas of the printer can be upgraded, from the picoliter size to the software to adding a continuous board function to increase productivity by 30 percent. And being able to upgrade the printer currently in your shop is a lot less of a hassle than working out a configuration for a whole new printing platform.

Fish or Cut Bait

With all of the considerations a shop needs to think about in order to decide if it’s time to go for that next big purchase, it can lead to paralysis by analysis. Can your bottom line handle it? Can your staff handle it? Can your building handle it? The future of your business may rest on one of the most difficult decisions a print shop can make.