Wide Format Today
Varied offerings open more businesses up to wide format printing in both the graphic arts market and the corporate enterprise.
By Kenneth Sandlin
Digital Wide Format Printing. For some it evokes excitement, for others, trepidation. The technologies are evolving faster than almost any other segment of our field, with major new product rollouts at least every six months. These advances will add significantly to your bottom line and if you havenít jumped in, the time is right now.
According to a recent report by research and consulting firm I.T. Strategies Hanover, MA, the retail value of wide format graphics in 2002 was $16 billion and is forecast to grow to nearly $30 billion. This is a big market and very profitable as well, if you choose the right equipment and software for the output you plan to do. As part of our ongoing study of wide format printing, we will look at the various technologies available and the major manufacturers.
When selecting a wide format printer, first you need to determine what type of output you plan to primarily produce--POP displays, Posters, Presentation Graphics, full color CAD and Engineering Drawings, Tradeshow Graphics, Floor Graphics, etc. Will your output be primarily indoors or outdoors? How high will your resolution need to be? What kinds of media will you be using? How critical is a large color gamut? What will be your peak print volume requirements? All of your responses will factor in to which print technology you choose.
The most widespread and well-developed technology, these printers use water-based inks and can print to papers just like desktop printers. Some even use almost identical printheads, but much of their output is on specially coated medias. These medias require a top coating to control dot-gain and speed drying times and can be anything from pressure sensitive vinyl to artist canvas. There is a huge variety of medias available for them.
Aqueous printers use two types of inks--dye and pigment. Dyes are more vibrant in color and pop, but are not outdoor durable. They will fade in a few days when exposed to UV and are not waterproof. Pigmented inks are less vibrant but more durable, lasting up to six months outdoors, unlaminated. These printers can range in size from 24" up to 72" wide and vary in cost from as little as $3,000 to almost $30,000.
Solvent printers have traditionally been the Big Berthas of wide format printing, primarily for billboards, but have come down tremendously in size and price while their capabilities have expanded. Now they range from as little as 64" for about $30,000 to the giant 5-meter wide $600,000 models.
These printers use solvent inks--which are much less expensive than aqueous inks--to print directly to inexpensive uncoated medias like pressure-sensitive vinyl and canvas and have been responsible for the explosion of outdoor advertising on vehicles, floors, and even buildings.
Eco-solvent printers are a very new category in the past two years and have changed outdoor graphics significantly. With cost per square foot being a major factor in profitability, eco-solvent printers evolved to fill the large gap between the cost and capabilities of aqueous and solvent printers. Initially they used low-volatility solvent inks, which were less aggressive to print to medias specially engineered to receive them. This offered a more outdoor durable solution that was less expensive per square foot than aqueous printers could produce. Recently, new developments in this category have allowed printing to the same very inexpensive uncoated medias as the solvent printers, with inks that are lower in price than the previous versions. These printers are in the $30,000 range and between 42" and 87".
Thermal Transfer Printers
This type uses pigmented wax or resin ribbons to image uncoated vinyl by passing them under a heated printing element. Their output is very durable, but medias are limited and cost per square foot are rather high for the ribbons. They range in price from $3,500 to nearly $100,000 for larger full color models.
UV Curable Flatbed Printers
This is a newer growing category of printer that can image directly to rigid substrates of all types using a UV curing process to bond and dry their inks instantly. They can usually print to full 4í by 8í sheets and cost upwards of $150,000.
Speed will be a major consideration after the type of print technology. How much volume do you anticipate? Printer manufacturers often hype themselves as having the fastest speeds and the best print quality. Print speeds can vary tremendously and as a rule of thumb, take at least half the stated up-to speed as production quality. If you will be doing very high-resolution printing, the speed will be a fraction of that advertised.
High-resolution printing is always slow, but some printers are still faster than others at it. One example of how much this can differ (company name withheld) is an advertised speed of up to 192 square feet per hour with actual highest quality at only 16 square feet per hour. Be aware of the actual speed at the resolution you will be printing at. This is the best way to compare apples to apples.
You will want to base your resolution requirements on the typical viewing distances of your output. Generally, two to five feet require output be at 720 to 1440 dpi. Five to ten feet only require resolutions of 360 to 720 dpi. For photographic quality output--continuous tone--you will need minimum resolutions of 1200 to 1440 dpi. Sometimes you will see resolutions expressed as apparent rather than actual or addressable. This typically means that even though the print head may only be able to address 600 dpi, by using software dithering and more than just CMYK inks, a higher apparent dpi is achieved.
If great color is one of your primary concerns, you will want to evaluate a printerís multi-color options. All wide format printers utilize the basic CMYK ink combination, but many offer multiple additional ink sets. The most prevalent is the simple six-color set, which adds Light Cyan and Light Magenta (LcLm), which do not increase the color gamut, but do add to the apparent resolution by smoothing color graduations and transitions.
Hexachrome six-color ink sets add Orange and Green to CMYK which increases the gamut significantly and supposedly allows printing up to 90 percent of Pantone colors. Eight-color, sometimes called Octachrome, ink sets usually use CMYK, Light or Medium Cyan, Light or Medium Magenta, Orange, and Green to increase the gamut and also improve color graduations and transitions. One company actually offers a twelve-color ink set, which is the eight-color ink set plus Medium Cyan, Medium Magenta, Blue, and Red for the largest color gamut available.
Once youíve absorbed all the printer variables, you still need software to drive it. Wide format printers must have a Raster Image Processor (RIP) to function optimally even though some may have their own native printer drivers. The RIP not only tells the printer how to place the ink, but also speeds the processing of the file, and gives increased control of color, placement, and many other production features. Without a RIP, processing a file hundreds of megs in size can sometimes literally take hours before beginning to print.
RIPs can cost thousands of dollars and come with multiple modules of functionality. Some of the major RIPs are Onyx Graphicsí, Midvale, UT, ONYX PosterShop; Wasatch Computer Technologiesí, Salt Lake City, UT, SoftRIP; Flexi PhotoPRINT by Scanvec Amiable, Philadelphia, PA; PosterJet, Germany; and Best Colorproof by Best GmbH, Germany.
This is often one of the most regrettably overlooked areas for those entering wide format printing. There are many variables that affect the color of wide format output, particularly with aqueous printers--inks, medias, coatings, environment, print heads, and software. Printer and software manufacturers offer color profiles for their own inks and medias which are usually about 85 percent reliable, but these profiles were not made under your exact conditions and may not give as accurate color as you would like. And if you choose to experiment with alternate media, you will definitely need the ability to create your own custom color profiles.
Color management software for wide format printers will often cost between $2,000 and $4,000, and the actual equipment--spectrophotometers and/or densitometers--is additional. If accurate color is critical to you and your customers, you must budget this into your purchase decision.
For many types of output some form of lamination will be required and, even if it is not, lamination offers an excellent way to add real and perceived value. Not only does it protect the finished print from damage, but it also enhances its appearance, even when economy medias are used. There are three types of laminates--cold film, hot film, and liquid. Cold laminates can be applied with a basic mechanical laminator, but hot laminates require heated rollers to activate the adhesive. Liquid laminates can be applied manually by spraying or with hand rollers, or by mechanical liquid laminators. Liquid laminates are the least expensive and cold laminates are the most expensive per square foot. Hot laminators are the most versatile because they can apply hot or cold laminates, but they are more expensive initially.
Epson, Long Beach, CA, is well known for their desktop printers, but they have successfully scaled up their technology in progressively larger and more feature rich models up to their top 44" StylusPro 10600 which is only about $8,000. Many photographers use Epson wide format printers because they have gradually upgraded their equipment as their needs grew and Epson offers ease of use and excellent quality for a very reasonable cost. Epson printers are also one of the few with a usable native printer driver, though still slower than a true RIP. The downside is that they are the slowest of the wide formats and not very flexible in terms of variety of output.
Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, CA, is the other well-known desktop manufacturer offering a wide format printer. HPís DesignJet 5500 is offered in two sizes with various options, including a native printer driver. HPís driver is almost unusable though, and a true RIP is needed. The 5500 is another easy to use printer selling for around $15,000 to $20,000 and was chosen by Kinkoís to add wide format capabilities to most all of their branches. The quality is quite good and this printer was also selected by Londonís National Gallery for their art reproduction. They are fairly fast but only offer CMYKLcLm color.
Roland DGA, Irvine, CA, is one of the main wide format printer manufacturers offering a wide variety of good quality printers. They offer six and eight color aqueous printers as well as six-color eco-solvent models ranging in price from around $16,000 to $30,000. Roland also offers integrated cutting plotters with some models allowing contour cut graphics. Their recently introduced EX model uses a system of drying/curing heaters with a new ink formulation, which allows printing to very inexpensive uncoated media.
ENCAD a KODAK Company, San Diego, CA, was recently acquired by Kodak and has been a manufacturer of fairly inexpensive aqueous printers, which offer good speed and decent quality. Their newer models now offer eight-color printing, but resolution is still fairly low. Prices range from $7,000 to $20,000.
Mimaki, Suwanee, GA, offers an aqueous printer with twelve heads allowing two sets of six-color inks or three sets of four-color inks to be used simultaneously for higher speed. Print quality is very good and three sizes are available ranging from $23,000 to $30,000. Mimaki also offered the first affordable true solvent printer priced at $30,000 with a 98" model available for $60,000.
Mutoh, Tempe, AZ, is less well know in the U.S. than in Europe, but they offer a very wide range of printers in all categories of aqueous, eco-solvent, and true solvent with a new model similar to Rolandís EX.
MacDermid ColorSpan , Eden Prairie, MN, is the only manufacturer to produce a true twelve-color printer. Their new DisplayMaker X-12 offers the best flexibility of any of the aqueous printers with twelve separate ink channels that can feed different inks or combinations of three four-color sets, two six-color sets, an eight-color and a four-color set. It also offers the only multi-density black ink set available for unequalled black and white prints. The X-12 is available in 62" or 72" models for around $24,000 to $27,000 with ColorSpanís own RIP extra. ColorSpan also offers other less expensive eight- and twelve-color aqueous printers as well as a 110" solvent printer for about $180,000.
Nov2003, Digital Publishing Solutions