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Determining What Print Speed You May Need: A Large Format Printer Buying Guide

The idea that faster is better is widely accepted. After all, time is money, right?

When it comes to wide format printing, however, faster isn't necessarily better. In some instances, higher speed actually creates a lower quality print. Therefore, your goal is determining your quality needs and how to balance those with your speed needs. In addition, print speed ratings do not tell the entire story.

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Understanding Printer Speed

Large format printers use two different measurements to indicate print speed.

  • PPM: The page per minute (PPM) rating tells you how many 24" by 36" pages a printer produces each minute
  • Square feet per hour (SFPH): Inkjet printers tell you how many square feet they print by the hour, or sometimes per minute

In addition to these measurements, you need to consider the time the printer takes to warm up and begin generating prints, as well as the time needed to handle them (including collation). Also, time needed to cure or dry the prints before finishing affects speed. For example, inkjet printers require drying time, whereas toner units do not. Keeping up with a high volume of prints probably requires a toner printer, whereas a low volume allows you to uses an inkjet.

Again, look at quality before looking at printer speed, as the fastest printers do not typically create the highest quality prints.

The Four Factors Influencing Printer Time Requirements

Four main factors determine the overall time required to create wide format prints.

1. The machine's warm-up time: This may take up to several minutes for a wide format printer

2. The machine's quality mode: Often, the printer's speed rating is under "optimum" conditions, i.e. draft quality; the difference between print speeds may be substantial, up to 10 minutes for high quality prints

3. The unit's processing speed: How quickly does the printer process files during concurrent printing (sending multiple files to the printer at once)

4. Non-print time: How much time is spent on maintenance, changing or cleaning print heads, dry time, changing out the rolls, etc.

The only way to answer some of these questions, especially the first three, is through test printing before purchasing a machine. Use a large file (memory-wise) for an accurate idea on the true processing, warm-up, and print times.

Calculating Your Print Speed Needs

Determine how many prints or square footage you print on an average day (depending on whether you choose an inkjet or toner printer). From here, you can determine your speed needs.

As stated, most "spec" speeds are predicated on printing in draft mode. In addition, these speeds do not account for continuous printing, which typically includes slower speeds when printing at less than full width, changing to different media, and pauses in printing when the unit cleans itself.

The best way to gauge a printer's real print speed is to subtract around 25 percent from its stated speed. So, if the specs claim a 4 PPM speed, calculate that down to around 3 PPM. If the specs claim 60 SFPH, figure on 45 SFPH as a more realistic estimate. In addition, changing out media, or between roller and flatbed settings on a hybrid printer, takes time.

With a realistic understanding of your actual speed needs, along with a realistic expectation of what the printer's specs actually mean, you can arrive at a logical prediction of the time cost of a wide format printer.

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