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An Introduction to Wide Format Printers: A Large Format Printer Buying Guide

For any print job that requires a printing medium between 18" and 100" in width, a wide format printer is the way to go. Sometimes referred to as large format printers, these machines allow you to print posters, banners, signage, and other graphics.

Like all printers, you find wide format printers in a variety of printing processes, styles, models, and capabilities. They also vary by width and print speed. Each factor influences cost and print quality. Your unique needs and budget dictate your choice.

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Who Uses Wide Format Printers?

Of course, the vast majority of entities purchasing a large format printer are commercial printing companies, such as print and copy shops. However, they are also popular equipment for graphic designers and organizations with onsite copy services. Some contractors use wide format printers to create printouts of CAD drawings. Typically, construction and architecture firms use plotters to print blueprints.

Though you can find wide format printers designed for personal use, most are designed for professional use. If nothing else, the cost typically prices these printers outside the realm of most home offices.

What Are Wide Format Printer Applications?

Depending on the printing process, possible applications for wide format printers are incredibly varied. Possibilities include:

  • Banners
  • CAD drawings
  • Electronic schematics
  • Image wraps for vehicles
  • Murals
  • Posters
  • Signage
  • Stage backdrops
  • Wallpaper

You also have a variety of mediums for your printed images, including:

  • Canvas
  • Ceramics
  • Foam board
  • Glass
  • Metal
  • Paper
  • Vinyl
  • Wood

What Kind of Ink Do Wide Format Printers Use?

Like a standard desktop printer, ink type categorizes most large format models and tells you about the unit's coloration and curing process.

Aqueous inks are water-based and use dyes or pigments (also known as UV) for coloration. Dye inks are vibrant with greater variety, but have lower UV resistance. Laminating aqueous prints helps protect them from fading, especially when placed outdoors. UV ink colors aren't as vibrant but resist fading, even without lamination.

Solvent inks have a non-water base, such as quick-dry petroleum or acetone, or slow-dry glycol ester or glycol ether ester (commonly referred to as eco-solvents). Prints are waterproof and the units allow direct printing to a variety of materials, including uncoated vinyl and foam board.

Dye sublimation creates photo-quality prints. A UV Piezo inkjet printer produces waterproof prints when UV light is used to cure the print. This is popular for prints on materials that typically do not "take" ink, such as wood, vinyl, ceramic, and glass.

Types of Large Format Printers

There are three main types of large format printers. The right one for you depends on your individual needs.

Roll-to-roll printers use a roll (as the name implies) of flexible printing material that feeds to an uptake reel. This style is especially popular with commercial printers. Applications include signage, posters, and banners.

True flatbed printers do exactly what they sound like: print onto flat items. The printing medium may be either rigid or flexible and models take a printing surface up to around 2" (5 cm) thick. Substrate materials include paper products, plastics, glass, metal, wood, and foam board.

Hybrid printers allow you to perform both roll-to-roll and flat printing. Changing between the two mediums is typically quick and easy, making them a cost-effective choice for organizations requiring both flat bed and roll-to-roll printing.

Printer Quality and Speed

Print quality is one of the most important factors in choosing a wide format printer. Factors influencing quality include:

  • Resolution: Indicates the number of dots per inch
  • Droplet size: Smaller droplet size indicates higher quality, as it requires more passes to ensure full coverage
  • Number of ink cartridges: Higher numbers equal higher quality images

Printer speed is another deciding factor. With toner printers, speed indicates how many D-size prints (24x36 inches) the unit creates each minute. Inkjet printer speed indicates the number of square feet the unit prints by either the hour or the minute.

High speed does not equal high quality. Higher quality prints typically take longer, so look first at the quality level you desire and then at speed.

How Much Do Wide Format Printers Cost?

With so many variables, costs vary widely. At the low end, you can find a 24" ink jet printer for around $1,500 or a 36" model for $2,500. On average, though, you'll pay between $4,000 and $5,000 for an inkjet in these sizes. Double those amounts, around $8,000 to $10,000, for toner-based models.

If you want a wide format printer that includes scanner capabilities, expect to pay at least $12,000 for a 36" model. Please note, though, that pricing varies widely.

  • An aqueous ink printer ranges from around $3,000 to $30,000
  • Thermal transfer printers have an even greater range, from $3,000 to $130,000
  • Eco-solvent printers average around $25,000
  • Solvent ink printers range from $30,000 all the way to $500,000

What is a Wide Format Printer Used for?

Once the primary domain of architecture, engineering, and construction firms (known as the AEC industry), today a wide variety of industries use wide format printers. Any business that prints its own signage, marketing materials, banners, and other graphic design applications is a candidate for a large format printer. Size options vary widely, from 24" to 60", broadening the field of potential users even further.

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Primary Markets

The two main markets for wide format printing are AEC (printing blueprints, schematics, and other technical documents) and graphics printing.

Graphics encompasses an enormous array of applications. People commonly think of banners, signage, and other promotional materials when they think of graphics, but it also includes posters, décor items, wallpaper, stage backdrops, murals, and image wraparounds for vehicles. Of course, the idea of printing out these items is not new. Businesses and government offices have done so for decades. The difference today is that, instead of outsourcing these jobs to print shops, many organizations now choose in-house options, such as onsite copy rooms, especially those that print these types of materials with any degree of regularity.

Creating Marketing Materials

Many organizations use wide format printers to create a variety of stunning marketing materials. With so many options regarding printing material beyond paper – vinyl, wood, plastic, metal, canvas, glass, ceramics, foam board, and more – many organizations choose wide format printing to create posters and signs that advertise their business.

Many companies take their printed advertising to the next level by creating vehicle wraparounds that take their message directly to the street. Anyone driving or walking by becomes your audience, potentially thousands of people each day.

Finally, many businesses use their wide format printers to create life-sized cutouts of a mascot, product, spokesperson, or even of the business's owner or employees. Advertising a new product? Create an enormous infographic highlighting each feature. Promoting your business as being the one with the personal touch? Greet customers with a life-size cutout of the boss. When it comes to marketing, the only limit is imagination.

Expanding Markets

With numerous improvements in technology, large format printer use has become more widespread. Previously, the feasibility of producing images on multiple mediums was extremely limited and often time-consuming. Today's units allow greater versatility, especially with the newer inkjet models. Producing low volumes or even one-off jobs is easier and cheaper than ever before, letting organizations experiment in ways they couldn't before (at least not cost-effectively).

There are also new niche print shops getting in on the fun. These smaller organizations don't have the backing to compete with the big boys, but that isn't their goal anyway. Many are building names and loyal customer followings by fulfilling a very narrow niche market, such as creating novelty signs and home décor items.

The bottom line is that wide format printing has enormous application possibilities, with many organizations choosing to adopt in-house printing as a cost-saving method. Retailers create point of purchase displays and floor graphics. Businesses of all types print vehicle and building wrap graphics. Anyone can create signage to hang on city buses, taxis, and more. Real estate and political offices create roadside signage, and folks at conventions and other special events use these printers to create amazing presentations and displays. With continued improvements in technology and reductions in costs, expect to continue seeing more and more people employing large print graphics and in ever more innovative ways.

Understanding Your Large Printing Ink Options

When choosing any piece of equipment, you need to consider the full cost (including operation) as well as how it will or will not meet your needs.

With a wide format printer, the different types of ink play a large role in determining how well the machine works for your particular brand of printing. Some inks print better on smooth surfaces, some on rough, and some are better for outdoor versus indoor exposure. There are also differences in coloration (whether through dye or pigment) and whether the ink requires a substrate or adheres directly to your chosen material.

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Aqueous Inks

These inks have a liquid base, usually water but not always, that holds particles of dye or pigment. You may see these inks referred to as dye and UV, but that does not mean UV curable, only that the pigment holds up better to UV exposure than its dye-colorant counterpart does.

Dye-based aqueous inks produce the most vibrant colors of all of the inks. However, the price paid for that beautiful color is faster fading (even under indoor fluorescent lighting). In addition, they aren't waterproof and do not resist abrasion the way solvent-based inks do. Pigment-based aqueous inks, though, are waterproof, as well as being more resistant to fading.

Print media must include an inkjet-receptive coating to ensure it holds the ink, which limits your options. Use aqueous inks to create posters, POS and POP displays, and graphics for trade shows (assuming you laminate them).

Solvent Inks

These are oil-based inks and incredibly resilient and long lasting. They resist fading and abrasion, even in the sun, and are waterproof. Part of their strength is in the fact that they don't typically require a substrate, meaning you can print directly onto the material, such as uncoated vinyl. The pigment bonds to the material while the solvent disappears either through heat curing or evaporation.

Drawbacks to solvent inks include the necessity for decent ventilation. In addition, the print heads become clogged if you fail to properly maintain the printer. This includes cleaning the print heads every one to two days, as even a few days leads to clogging, corrosion, and the need for a new print head.

Eco-Solvent Inks

The name eco-solvent does not indicate "green" but rather the fact that the solvent is a mineral oil derivative called ether. You may also see this ink called low-solvent or light-solvent. Like solvent inks, uncoated materials take the color well. It doesn't last as long as solvent inks, two to three years versus five to seven, but eco-solvent ink is still waterproof and resists fading and abrasion better than aqueous-based inks.

The curing time for eco-solvent inks is longer than for solvents, lasting up to 24 hours, meaning you must wait longer to finish your projects. However, maintenance on these machines is easier, and you only need to clean the print head once per week.

Latex Inks

These are water-based inks that require no venting or curing; the print is ready for finishing immediately upon leaving the printer. This leads to increased production speed. In addition, these units require less maintenance, since the water-based inks are non-corrosive.

Look closely at each manufacturer's print heads when deciding which unit to purchase, as they vary. For example, one offers an even, consistent heat source by using ceramic radiated plates (to aid in quick curing of the ink) while another uses replaceable print heads and radiant heaters and airflow within the unit to accomplish the same task.

Latex inks work well on a variety of mediums and even fabrics, including those with untreated surfaces. Test the printer on any new materials to understand how the printer's heat may affect them.

UV-Curable Inks

Wide format printers using UV-curable inks include a built-in light source that exposes the ink to UV radiation, hardening and drying it. The two light source options are:

  • LED, which produces low heat and has a long life
  • Mercury arc lamp, which produces higher heat and a shorter life

These inks do not bond with the material the same way the solvent- and latex-based inks do, though they do adhere well to a variety of surfaces, especially vinyl. They also work well for printing directly onto rigid substrates, such glass, wood, metal, and boards. However, their heat makes them a bad choice for materials that stretch, such as vehicle wraparounds.

These printers require less ink, so it's a more economical choice as far as operating costs. At the same time, they have a shorter shelf life, as exposure to UV radiation makes them begin the curing process. Pay attention to expiration dates, store them in a stable environment, and rotate your stock. They also require similar maintenance to solvent ink printer heads (i.e., cleaning them daily or every other day).

Solvent UV Inks

These inks are fairly new on the market and combine the best features of solvent-based and UV-curable inks. They use fluorescent lighting for curing, which takes slightly longer than traditional UV inks, but they have the durability and fade-resistance of solvent inks. Prints come off the printer completely cured and ready for finishing. Use solvent UV inks for banners, some fabrics, POS and POP displays, and vinyl.

Dye Sublimation Inks

When printing on textiles, choose dye sublimation inks according to the fabric type.

  • Acid dyes: Use on nylon, silk, and wool
  • Reactive dyes: Use on cotton, linen, rayon, and silk (pre-treat fabric before printing)
  • Disperse dyes: Use on polyester
    • Low-energy disperse: print onto paper and transfer via heat to the fabric
    • High-energy disperse: Print directly onto the fabric and then cure with heat

The ink bonds with the fabric through steaming, with reactive dyes taking about half the time as acid dyes. After printing, the fabric must be washed to remove excess ink.

You can use dye sublimation inks on any fabric, as well as printing onto paper for transfer to rigid media.

Finally, if you're considering using non-OEM inks in your wide format printer, talk to the vendor that services the machine before making a change.

Review Your Large Printing Platform Options

There are three platforms available for wide format printers: flatbed, roll-to-roll, and hybrid. Choosing between the three depends entirely on your print needs. If you print solely on either rigid or rolled materials, you can use the flatbed (rigid) or roll-to-roll (rolled) option. However, if you regularly print on both, you want the hybrid printer. Of course, project into the future a bit when making this choice. If you currently print on only rigid or rolled materials, consider whether you plan to expand in the near future before purchasing a printer that handles only one of type of material. From there, you can look at other printer technologies.

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True Flatbed Printers

A true flatbed printer prints on any flat material, either flexible or rigid, usually with a maximum thickness of 2". You place the material on a "flatbed" platform, which uses a vacuum to hold the material in place, securing it for printing. Printing is highly precise, allowing you to manipulate exact placement of ink droplets.

Print materials include any flat item, not just paper. Flatbed printers work on foam board, glass, metal, wood, plastic, and even corrugated media. More advanced systems allow printing on heavy materials through multi-zone vacuums capable of securing the weight. They also let you lay down multiple smaller materials, making it possible to create multiple prints in a single pass.

Roll-to-Roll Printers

With roll-to-roll printers, you feed a roll of flexible material to an uptake reel. These units are popular for signage, banners, and posters, especially for organizations printing these materials in high volume. Most roll-to-roll printers work with a wide variety of materials. As you get into higher end models, you find machines capable of printing on mesh, or that include a trolley to handle heavier media.

Of course, the drawback to both machines is the fact that each machine prints only on either flat or rolled media. That's where the hybrids come in to play.

Hybrid Roll-to-Roll/Flatbed Printers

Hybrid wide format printers allow you to easily change between flexible and rigid materials. If your print requirements include both, this is the most cost-effective, space-saving option to handle your printing needs. This is especially true for commercial print shops.

You find hybrid printers in either roll-to-flat (RTF) or flat-to-roll (FTR. The first option, RTF, is designed to primarily handle rolled media, with detachable media table for printing on flat materials. The FTR option's design is geared toward flat media, with add-on equipment for printing on rolled materials. Your choice obviously depends on which media dominates your printing needs.

One issue with hybrids is that many of the advanced features, particularly for roll-to-roll machines, are missing.

If your organization does a high volume of printing in both mediums, you may be better off buying two dedicated machines instead of a hybrid. While making the switch from flat to rolled is relatively simple, doing it repeatedly negatively impacts productivity. In the end, the choice comes down to which system best fulfills your needs and creates the highest quality prints.

Considering Image Print Quality

The first thing many people think of when they consider printer quality is resolution. When it comes to wide format printers, however, resolution is not the number one factor determining print quality.

In wide format printers, you also need to consider droplet size, how many ink cartridges the unit has, and print technology issues such as color capability and how the printer interprets the data you aim to print.

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Determining Wide Format Printer Quality

Three main items determine print quality:

  • Resolution
  • Droplet size
  • Ink cartridge quantity

Resolution is measured in dots per inch, or dpi. High resolution, however, does not necessarily indicate quality prints. When comparing two units, you also want to look at the printer's technology to determine whether it has the ability to produce the quality images you require.

Droplet size is measured in picoliters (a picoliter is one-trillionth of a liter). Typically, you want a printer with a smaller droplet size, as this returns prints with higher quality. This is due to the fact that the printer has to make multiple passes to achieve optimum coverage, giving your image crisp lines and more vibrant color.

Finally, the number of ink cartridges makes a big difference in coloration. Your basic wide format printer comes with five ink cartridges: two black and one each of cyan, magenta, and yellow. The next step up is eight cartridges, while the highest quality printers typically come with 12 ink cartridges. Think of it as the difference between coloring with the 64 Crayola box and the skinny little 8-crayon version.

Of course, the only real way to determine the print quality of any printer is to see it in action, preferably using your preferred printing medium. If you regularly

print on vinyl, you want your sample printed on vinyl to get a true feel for the machine's print quality. Ordering online? See if you can find a print shop or store that carries that same model to run your sample.

Evaluating Printer Quality

Beyond those top three items (dpi, droplet size, and number of ink cartridges), you want to look at the printer's color capability with higher resolution, variable drop, and speed when evaluating quality.

You want a wide format printer that produces consistent color on a variety of mediums and substrates (i.e. rigid as well as flexible). What's more, you want this color capability to be true at any resolution, and whether your image is designed for close or distant viewing.

Variable drop print heads do exactly what it sounds like: produce different drop sizes within a single printed image. More common in prints using grayscale or lighter colors, variable drop creates photo-quality images while using less ink than binary variable drop print heads.

When it comes to printer speed, most people think that faster equals better. With a wide format printer, this is not necessarily true. Yes, you want the machine to complete projects in a timely manner. However, too quick often results in a pixilated or blurry print, which is rarely the look you're going for. You also want to look at how the printer manufacturer defines its "up to" speeds. Often, this number indicates how quickly the printer works in draft or express mode, two options rarely used for commercial purposes. You want to know the printer's speed when it's set at the quality level used for your standard print jobs.

Additional Quality Considerations

In a large format printer, image processing tells you how the machine interprets your data to create the print. This plays a big role in determining those fine details. Sometimes you want a dotted line, such as in electrical drawings, but the printer's interpreter may see that dotted line and turn it into a straight, smooth line.

If you plan to print from scanned originals, look carefully at the printer's scanning technology. The best units have the ability to enhance "weak" data, such as pencil marks, while suppressing unwanted data, such as wrinkles in the original.

Finally, you also see a lot of variance in print quality when you use an inkjet or color printer versus straight black and white images, especially as you change from one print surface to another. If you regularly switch between glossy surfaces, matte paper, vinyl, or any other medium, look for a printer that handles that level of versatility without sacrificing quality.

Large Format Printer Extra Features

Most people lack fortune-telling abilities, making it impossible to predict your future printer needs. However, most businesses have a one- to three-year roadmap and direction, which can help you determine the features you might want in a wide format printer.

Common Wide Format Printer Features

Certain features are standard on your average large format printer. These include:

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  • Driver and software formats: This determines how well the printer communicates with your software and computer. You only want a printer with a driver that works with your software program, preferably certified.
  • Scanning and copying function: For some models, both inkjet and toner, scanning is standard, and with others it is part of an upgrade module. If you don't have a regular scanning need, this is probably an unnecessary expense.

Additional Wide Format Printer Features

A number of optional features make your job much easier.

  • A catch tray collects the finished print, meaning the operator doesn't have to stand there waiting
  • A paper cutter automatically separates multiple prints
  • A Raster Image Processor (RIP) lets you exactly match existing colors, important when you need color precision (though a costly extra feature)
  • Accounting features allow you to add billing codes to prints
  • Color scanning and markup capabilities allow you to make notations on as-built plans
  • Multiple paper widths let you print a variety of widths, and some roll-to-roll printers even allow you to load more than one size roll at a time
  • Scan and save lets you save projects for repeat jobs

Upgrading Your Printer

One of the things to consider when buying a wide format printer is whether you can upgrade your features as your needs change, as well as the types of upgrades the manufacturer provides. For example, do you get regular software or firmware updates that align with new developments?

If the printer allows you to upgrade – add a scanner, take additional rolls, boost memory capabilities – then you have much less need to look into the future.

Instead, you can change with the times, because the printer you chose allows you to do so. In other words, your best bet is an adaptable model.

Buying vs Leasing Considerations

One of the many decisions facing business owners is the question whether to buy or lease their office equipment.

When it comes to buying or leasing a wide format printer, each option has its own list of pros and cons. In addition, the needs of the business itself vary. Business size and age, liquidity, a recent change in product or service offerings, available credit, and more all influence your decision whether to lease or buy.

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Purchasing a Wide Format Printer: The Pros

Buying equipment outright, whether through cash-on-hand or credit, carries a few advantages. The first is that, though it costs more out the gate, over time you pay substantially less for equipment that you purchase outright versus over the life of a lease. Ownership also gives you the opportunity to recoup some of your costs, since you can sell the printer when the time to upgrade arrives.

Another benefit of ownership is that you are responsible for the unit's maintenance and upkeep. At first glance, this sounds like it belongs on the con list, but for many business owners, this is a huge plus. If the printer requires maintenance or repair, you don't have to wait for the leasing company or follow its guidelines.

Ownership also usually comes with tax benefits for the purchase, depreciation, and maintenance costs. If you take out a loan, you may also be able to claim interest payments as tax deductions. Of course, only your accountant knows for sure what you can and can't claim, so talk to whoever does your taxes.

Purchasing a Wide Format Printer: The Cons

There are two main drawbacks to ownership: depleted cash reserves and inability to upgrade.

The most obvious issue is, of course, the bite ownership takes out of your available capital. Or, if you choose to go the loan route, your available credit. This can be especially painful for startups or businesses going through a growth spurt, when available capital is at a premium.

Beyond this, the main "con" is the cost of upgrading. It surprises exactly zero people to hear that technology evolves quickly. Beyond that, though, is that, if your business needs change and the printer you purchase is no longer capable of handling them, the cost of upgrading is prohibitive. This is true even with the ability to sell the original machine, which won't be enough to recoup the full cost.

Finally, the responsibility for upkeep, while a pro to some, is a con to others. These companies appreciate the ability to delegate regular maintenance and repairs to the leasing company.

Leasing a Wide Format Printer: The Pros

Many organizations, even those with ample cash reserves, prefer leasing office equipment over owning it for a variety of reasons. Of course, the top leasing benefit is the fact that it requires substantially less capital and doesn't tie up your credit.

Moving beyond the initial costs, lessees appreciate the ease of budgeting for lease payments. They also like the tax advantages, since you can usually write off the entire lease payment (talk to your accountant to know for sure). Many leasing companies offer the chance to purchase the printer at the end of the lease contract, as well. Or, if your needs change, you can upgrade to a newer model, or one with greater capabilities.

Finally, most leases include provisions for regular maintenance and repairs. Some even include replacements for toner or ink. Check your lease carefully to determine exactly what it includes.

Leasing a Wide Format Printer: The Cons

Basically, the main cons of leasing are the pros to ownership. You cannot sell the unit to recoup some of your costs and you pay more for the lease in the long run than if you'd bought the unit outright.

Once you sign a lease, you are responsible for the payment for the duration of the lease agreement. If your business needs change and you no longer need the printer, that makes no difference.

How Do I Know Whether to Lease or Purchase?

There is no hard and fast answer as to which option is better for your business. However, there are a few guidelines.

Give more points to purchasing a wide format printer if you have the available funds and plan to use the machine for at least a few years, with no plans to upgrade.

Give more points to leasing if you do not have ready capital, do not know how long you'll use the printer, or think you may want to upgrade frequently.

In other words, the three questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • 1.What is my financial situation?
  • 2.How long do I want to use this printer?
  • 3.How often do I want to upgrade my equipment?

Buying New vs Used Considerations

Many people prefer to purchase used equipment, especially if they can find a refurbished printer for half the price of a new unit. Most people understand the benefits of buying new:

  • The latest software and upgrades
  • A full warranty and probably a full-term service contract
  • A unit without wear and tear
  • No worries about finding ink and replacement parts

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Despite all of these benefits, there are also pluses to buying used. If you go the used/refurbished route, do your research and know the full cost of your choice.

What's the Difference Between Used and Refurbished?

Though the terms are often used interchangeably, used and refurbished are not technically the same thing.

A used machine simply means that another entity previously owned and operated the printer. In the process, the unit accumulated standard wear and tear (or greater than standard, depending on its level of use). When you purchase a used machine from a dealer instead of a private party, you typically receive some type of warranty or guarantee, possibly up to 90 days, though 30 days is more common. The dealer may also offer certification that the unit was inspected and works properly.

Refurbished typically means one of two things:

  • The customer who bought the printer returned it for some approved reason (such as did not meet their needs or failed to work properly).
  • The printer was a leased unit, traded in or surrendered at the end of the lease. The leasing vendor may have repaired or serviced the unit, but not always. Verify, do not assume, that repairs occurred.

What to Look for in a Used Wide Format Printer

You find the same variety in used wide format printers as you do in new machines. In addition, you have a wide selection of used equipment dealers available.

When buying used equipment, look for the bigger names. Well-known manufacturers tend to earn their stellar reputations by creating reliable, long-lasting equipment. That means that one of the top brands is more likely to be a great used machine than an unknown brand. In addition to having a longer lifespan, you'll also have an easier time finding replacement parts, getting repairs made, and finding the toner or ink you need to operate the unit.

You also want to look for vendors with the best reputation. Check out online reviews, giving extra weight to ratings with lots of reviews behind them. Five-star ratings are great, but not reliable when only a few reviews back it up. A four-star rating with hundreds of reviews carries a lot more weight than a five-star rating with only two. If you see negative reviews, look to see if the vendor replied.

Another vendor plus is the offer of guarantees and/or warranties on used equipment. Ask for referrals, as well. This lets you talk to other customers for an "in the weeds" take on the vendor. Questions to ask:

  • Did you purchase used equipment? Were you happy with the purchase?
  • Does the vendor respond to service and maintenance requests? Is response time prompt?
  • Have you purchased from this vendor before? How many times? How long have you been a customer?
  • Would you buy from this dealer again?

That last question may be the most important one to ask.

The Cost of Buying Used

On average, you'll pay about half the price of a new printer when you buy used. Prices actually vary, based on how old the unit is and its mileage, so savings may be as low as 25 percent or as high at 60.

You need to make sure the unit hasn't been discontinued, or the manufacturer hasn't gone out of business (another reason to stick with well-known brands). You want to be sure you can get replacement parts, not to mention ink or toner. Though printers are incredibly common, wide format printers are not. You need to ensure you'll be able to get the machine serviced and keep it running.

Questions to Ask the Dealer

Finding the right dealer can be a challenge. A wide format printer is a major purchase; you want to make a smart choice. How do you know who's the best dealer until you enter into a purchasing agreement? Online reviews are important, but they don't tell the whole story.

This type of research is a great start. Keep reading to learn what to look for and what questions to ask.

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What to Look for in a Dealer

The first thing to remember is that, no matter how enticing an offer is, it's always a good idea to obtain multiple quotes. When making a major purchase like a large format printer, you really want at least five or six quotes from different dealers. The interaction does not end with the quote; you want to talk to these dealers, as well. Personal interaction is how you to develop an understanding of how each dealer works. What's more, it's how you ensure the dealer understands your needs to help you choose the right printer.

Personal interaction also gives you a good idea what you can expect in the way of service. A good dealer offers a variety of contact methods and lets you know when you can reach someone with questions. (Is there someone on-call weekends? Overnight?) Preferably, the dealer shares this information without you requesting it.

If you can't get personal interaction for whatever reason, take advantage of technology beyond YouTube product demonstrations. Skype and similar programs allow you to conduct video calls anywhere in the world, free of charge.

One of the questions you want to ask is how many wide format printers have they sold in your field. While the printers themselves remain the same no matter what industry uses them, the wear and tear they receive varies. If the dealer has sold printers to other companies in your industry, request a couple of referrals.

Whether from your industry or not, you want some client references. While it's true that most companies won't offer references they don't feel fairly confident will provide stellar reviews, you still glean valuable information from these calls, so make them. Questions to ask include responsiveness to issues, resolution after experiencing issues, and how they'd rate the dealer's service techs.

Other Considerations

There are a variety of miscellaneous considerations when choosing a dealer. In no particular order:

  • Always request a sample from each machine you're considering, it's the only way to accurately compare brands. The dealer should allow you to email your sample file and then print it on your chosen medium and send to you.
  • If entering into a lease-to-purchase agreement, do not bundle with your service agreement; you don't want to tie yourself to using the same vendor to service the machine once you purchase.
  • If leasing your wide format printer, do not bundle it with other office equipment, such as a copier. If you must bundle items, choose machines with a similar lifespan.
  • If possible, look for a dealer that specializes in wide format printers.
  • If your purchase includes a service plan, request price protection for at least three years.
  • When choosing a dealer, longevity is more important than size. You want a company that will still be around in a year. Smaller companies may provide more customized service, whereas larger dealers typically offer more variety.

What Should a Dealer Tell You?

You should have your own list of questions, but a good dealer imparts some information without being asked. Be prepared to answer some questions, and be wary if the dealer's representative offers little more than a sales pitch.

The dealer should:

  • Ask a few questions about your business. What products do you sell? What's your budget? Who is your typical customer?
  • Offer product information that helps you make an informed decision based on your unique business needs.
  • Offer experience-backed information (either the dealer's or its customers') on recommended products.
  • Offer references to other customers in your industry or who bought the printer you're considering (or both).

While the price of a printer is an important factor in your decision, it should not be the only factor. Your ultimate goal is finding a dealer who helps you realize the full value of your investment.

Warranties, Maintenance, and Service Agreements

Like any large piece of equipment, your wide format printer lasts longer and works better with regular maintenance. This is why most companies choose a vendor that includes a service contract. Of course, service agreements vary between providers and manufacturers. While some include regular inspections and cleanings, others only include actual repairs while still others include replacement parts and toner. When comparing quotes, be sure to carefully review what the vendor includes in the service contract. A bid significantly lower than other quotes you receive may be hiding a lackluster service agreement.

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Why Do I Need a Maintenance and Service Contract?

A wide format printer represents a significant financial investment. You want to maximize your return on that investment. When the printer fails to work properly, or breaks down entirely, that directly impacts your bottom line. Not only is it not making you any money, it may be losing you money in the form of angry clients, reprints, and missed deadlines.

Unless you have a service team onsite capable of maintaining a large format printer, you need a maintenance and service contract. The best service providers make sure their repair techs have the best training and expertise needed to keep you, and your printer, up and running.

Maintenance on a printer is no different from regular oil changes and tire rotations on your vehicle or preventive medical and dental visits. These maintenance visits ensure potential problems are discovered early, while they're still cheap and easy to fix. What's more, some warranties require regular maintenance.

4 Benefits of Service

  • 1. You get an experienced technician who has had substantial exposure to a wide variety of issues on a wide variety of systems. What's more, these techs have the certification and training on new technologies and the most up-to-date systems.
  • 2. Your technician has a network of other printer techs that he or she consults with over tricky fixes or new problems. It's like hiring a whole team of printer techs.
  • 3. Service contracts typically cover OEM replacement parts, so you know you and your printer aren't being compromised by cheap, low-quality third party parts. When it comes to electronic and computer equipment, this is especially important.
  • 4. Your service contract includes software support. This includes more than the occasional upgrade to the printer's software. If your office upgrades to the latest Windows operating system, or makes the change to iOS, a service contract that includes software support means that you have a qualified service tech to make any necessary changes to the printer's software.

Warranties and Extended Warranties

The typical manufacturer's warranty on electronic equipment lasts between one and three years, with more and more products moving to a single year of coverage. Look carefully at the manufacturer's warranty when comparing equipment. You want to know:

  • How long it lasts
  • If it covers consequential damages, such as damages caused by a malfunctioning printer
  • If it includes conditions or limitations, such as maintenance requirements
  • What happens if the product fails
  • What parts and repairs the warranty covers
  • Who provides warranty service

The last items is where you find serious variability, as some warranties cover parts but not labor, or include expensive conditions, or even conditions nearly impossible to meet, such as returning the unit in its original packaging.

An extended warranty does exactly what it sounds like: it extends the manufacturer's warranty for a given period of time, typically for two or three years. However, if the manufacturer includes a one-year warranty, a two-year extended warranty really only provides one additional year of coverage.

Things to Remember

Maintenance is a key component of making the most of your investment. This includes regular cleanings and inspections, as well as replacing parts as they wear out. Not all service agreements are created equal, so look closely at what each dealer offers. Two things you definitely want: onsite labor coverage and replacement parts shipped via next-day delivery.

The pricing on most service agreements is by the number of pages (inkjet) or square feet (toner) printed each month. Before you sign anything, read the warranty carefully. After purchasing, save the receipt and the warranty together, and make sure you fulfill any special expectations required by the warranty (regular maintenance, saving original packaging, etc.).

The Bottom Line

A wide format printer can be used for a variety of applications, including signage, banners, posters, and textiles. As technology advances and becomes more affordable, more and more organizations choose to handle large format printing in-house, with niche and specialty printers getting in on the action.

Buyers have an incredible amount of choice, from size to ink type to platform and more. That's why research is key, especially for any organization buying its first large printer. Items to look into before buying include:

  • The applications you'll use the printer for
  • Ink choices: aqueous, solvents, latex-based, and UV are the most common
  • Do you want roll-to-roll, flatbed, or hybrid
  • How does printer speed affect quality
  • What is your budget and what can you expect to spend
  • What size do you need

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Author: Ashley Smith

 

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