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Considerations in upgrading from a large to grand-format digital printer

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Shops looking to grow their business often look at where they’d like to be in the future—say five years from now. In addition to thinking about new markets, new customers, perhaps a bigger facility, they inevitably consider ways to improve their equipment and efficiencies.

With digital printers, there’s a case to be made about when and why to upgrade. When is the right time to expand operations? Why would an upgraded printer add to the bottom line? To answer these questions, we should begin by addressing how a number of sign shops first originated—using a smaller printer—with a focus on moving up in printer size and productivity.

“This really depends upon the starting point,” explains Daniel Valade, Roland DGA. “If you upgrade from a 20″ printer to a 64″ model, the ROI difference will be more dramatic than if you go from a 20″ to 30″ printer.”

This example makes sense when thinking about more than tripling your printer size versus more of a modest increase. Sign makers should expect to produce more when employing bigger, faster, heavier-duty equipment. But what if the change was even greater than threefold? What if sign shops took a leap to over 100″ printers? How would that look in the grand scheme of their businesses?

This brings forward a topic that likely has crossed the minds of many sign-shop professionals: Making the switch from wide-format to grand-format printers.

Considerations in upgrading

Printers come in all sizes and speeds. They have different features and qualities that set them apart from others. Shop owners that remember their very first printers will likely tell you they have benefitted from upgrading in subsequent years. But what led to that decision? More pointedly, what elements should sign shop owners consider when upgrading?

“The volume, output size, and turnaround time required for typical jobs, as well as the print speed required, should all be considered when determining the printer size,” Valade says. “In addition, wider printers often allow the option to use specialty inks like light cyan, light magenta, and light black, which can improve image quality and add value.”

Job volume

Shops should already have a good sense of the volume they can handle. However, this can change as the market fluctuates and demand increases.

“Customer demand will dictate the opportunity to go wider,” says David Conrad, Mutoh America Inc. “As application opportunities demand wider output, you need to be prepared to look at wider printers. The market will dictate the need for wider output.”

Along with addressing issues with volume, shops should explore how they can be truly adaptable with their equipment.

“While addressing expected volume is important, PSPs should also be looking into scalability,” says Michael Maxwell, Mimaki USA, “as this makes it very easy to respond to growth needs over a period of time regardless of technology and eliminates the need to tie up capital all at once. Most Mimaki printers boast higher print speeds, and all of the products offered by Mimaki are scalable and affordable so volume increases can be addressed as needed.”

Output size

“This is one of the more important questions to address initially,” Maxwell says. “Most of the printed goods can be paneled and made for larger needs even with a smaller printable width; however, these processes require skilled workers or post-printing processes to realize final results. If a PSP expects a larger portion of their work to be 8′ to 10′ for example, it would be more beneficial for them to purchase a 10′ platform knowing that they can always produce smaller goods if required.”

The reality is that shops are going to take in all kinds of different projects with varying sizes. And the goal is to be able to accommodate all of the work so that there is nothing to turn away.

“The printer must be able to keep up with production and demand,” Conrad says. “Whether you are choosing a high-speed banner printer with a top speed of 1,100 square feet per hour or a larger 104″, you need to choose a printer that keeps up with demand.”

Along with that, increased demand may also bring in new, previously unrealized projects, some of which can only be completed using larger printers.

“Given most media substrates and applications run between 54″ and 64″ , one of the principle reasons a shop would upgrade to a larger printer is output size and/or media type required for jobs,” says Kelly Gornick. “Extra-wide banners or applications using textiles might require a wider-format printer such as a ColorPainter H3-104s, which can support medias up to 104” wide.

Turnaround time

This relates to speed. How fast can a shop get a project completed from start to finish while also keeping quality at the highest level?

“If shops are using a machine that lacks the speed and efficiency needed to match their operations, they simply won’t be able to keep up,” Gornick says. “The good news is that today, shops can get very fast, high-quality industrial style printers with advanced technologies at lower price points than ever before.”

But turning a project around on time can also be subjected to factors beyond a printer’s speed. After the print comes off the printer, other factors come into play such as lamination steps, cutting and trimming, and other finishing steps such as sewing, adding grommets etc., and of course the packing and shipping of the product.

Considering the technological aspects as well as including every part of the printing process-equipment, inks and media-is vitally important to successful completion of an on-time project. But to be sure, the printer is central.

“Turnaround time is also impacted if the platform is not wide enough, or if the printed goods require lamination or cutting on another device,” Maxwell explains.

Valade sees a direct correlation between printer size and efficiency in turnaround time. “To be competitive in today’s market,” Valade says, “a sign shop really needs to invest in a quality 54″ or 64″ inkjet. Having a printer or printer/cutter of this size will allow an operation to maximize versatility and productivity, while also reducing turnaround time.”

Bigger opportunities

The mid-range, wide-format printers are absolute workhorses. Sign shops have turned to them for years to tackle jobs from banners to vehicle wraps. It’s when the projects start outsizing the equipment when sign professionals should be considering a step to the grand-format side, which is typically defined as a printer with over 100″ width.

“Sign companies should consider a larger printer if the work they are taking on requires more post-processing such as paneling,” Maxwell says. “Once a PSP starts sending jobs off to be seamed or find themselves in need of overlaps for a paneling purpose, then they should consider going wider to reduce time and cost.”

During cases when large graphic panels must be printed intact, wide- to grand-format printers make the most sense for the job. According to Valade, these wider printers “often eliminate the need to print multiple panels and seam them together. For example, when doing a vehicle wrap, a wider printer may allow you to print a single panel for the entire hood, allowing for a much ‘cleaner’ installation. This also reduces the amount of installation time and labor required.”

Entering the conversation of the wide-format versus the grand-format world, Conrad believes, “They are two different markets that can complement one another, so have a good understanding of application opportunities and capabilities and limitations for the smaller footprint printers.”

The same rings true when discussing these larger printers. Conrad offers up to sign owners, “Know your limitations and understand what you want to accomplish from an application standpoint prior to taking the leap upwards. This includes analyzing the market potential too.”

Benefits to leveraging new features can increase print speeds and overall quality. For example, “Dual-head versus single-head printers are typically found in 64″ or wider printers,” Conrad says. “This dual-head technology, allows for faster production speeds while maintaining quality.”

Challenges

Of course, an equipment upgrade does not come without its challenges. With printers, shop professionals should dedicate themselves to learning about the most effective way to use their machines and where potential pitfalls may lay in hiding.

In the business of printing, there is always the possibility of incurring stoppages for any number of reasons. For sign shops, this shouldn’t be the cause of using the wrong printer.

“Bottlenecks in production cause delays and order fulfillment problems,” says Conrad. “Having the right printer for the job is important to keep up with workflow demand. Sometimes this means adding printer capacity or going wider to accommodate new application opportunities.”

Gornick agrees, expanding by saying, “Shops should upgrade to a larger printer when they can’t keep up with production demand and turnaround times required by their customers. A good indicator that that is the case is if there are bottlenecks in productivity, and staff are frequently working late and/or multiple shifts are needed to keep up with demands.”

It’s also important to note the other components that go into the printing process and how they can impact a specific project.

“With so many different substrates available, custom ICC profiles can be a necessity for accurately reproducing specific colors when moving on from one application to the next,” Valade says. “Efficient profiles ensure that enough ink is laid down to reproduce colors without resulting in oversaturation, which can prolong the amount of drying/curing time required. The quicker the graphics dry, the faster you can start laminating.”

“Other challenges include the concern of print quality issues,” Maxwell says. “Mimaki has put a specific amount of emphasis on this particular concern,” says Maxwell, pointing to specific quality-focused technologies that, “greatly reduce the imperfections that can occur with inkjet reducing misprints, wasted time, and materials.”

So often, it’s easy to look solely at the machine to gauge a print job when there are so many other factors to ponder. Ink is one of those elements that plays a very big role as the printer size expands.

Plainly, it’s an educational process to determine how a printer upgrade will impact business. One must take into account not only the size but the additional features and the market’s demand.

“Once you’ve done your homework and you determine that it’s smart to go wider, you need to be prepared to support the demand your new efforts will generate,” says Conrad. “Don’t wait until you have jobs in house before you search for your wider printer. There are plenty of finance options available that allow you to defer payments while you build your wider business account base.”

And once a sign shop makes that decision to go wider, it can start to weigh the investment versus the potential return.

Ryan Fugler

Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine and has been covering the signage industry since 2006.

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