Upgrading Your Wraps Printer

Important considerations before making a large investment.

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Okay, you’ve got a shop that’s growing nicely, and you’ve decided it’s time to upgrade your printer to increase your capacity. Before you run down and buy a new printer, take a moment and review a list of what’s really important for a wrap shop. Here are some points to consider from my own shop-owner perspective that I hope will get you on the right track.

It’s Not All About Price
If you were to shop printer manufacturers, you’d find most entry-level large-format printers pricing come in at roughly the same price across the board. I can say that most of the printer manufacturers today are offering equipment that performs very well. That’s really good, especially considering the fact that large-format digital printers have only been around for about 14 years.

In the early days of digital, we were buying very expensive boat anchors that needed to be babysat for every square foot of print produced. Today, to our benefit, that bleeding is over. Today’s printers are economical, reliable and faster. They possess an array of options that we didn’t have when the so-called Digital Print Revolution started.

However, the term of durability and reliability can make or break your production/performance. There will be those moments when they’ll need service too, so that’s where we’ll start.

Printers will have their moments of operational issues, and most of the time it’s at an inopportune moment. I suggest, when working with a salesperson, you first and foremost determine their ability to service the equipment they are offering. The minimum acceptable response time, in my opinion, is within a few days.

Fortunately, the distributor/printer salesperson has a vested interest beyond the initial sale of your printer. They will continue to support you with the sale of inks and media.

However if you’re in a rural area (e.g. 100 miles plus) you could rightfully expect that those few days of response time will most likely be longer. It’s important that the salesperson understand what the cost of downtime is to you. Let them know right out of the chute, “If my printer is down, I’m not producing, consequently I’m not making money. Don’t let me down!”

Size: 54″ Vs. 64″
You’ll need to know what printer is right for you. There is a broader spectrum of jobs you’ll be able to print with a 64″ printer than a 54″.

In my opinion, if you are upgrading or are seriously going to get into the wrap biz, a 64″ printer is the minimum size you’ll want to consider. Material manufacturers make many sizes of digital print media, but for wraps it’s all about 54″ and 60″ media.

With the advent of lower initial tack adhesives, many of us are wrapping vehicles horizontally (covering an entire vehicle side in one panel). Approximately 70 percent of all high-production vehicles from rocker panel to tip top of doorframe will fit within the 58″ height category, so a strong percentage of your passenger cars, light truck and van projects would be best on 60″ media. The advanced adhesive technologies of today, are of a lower initial tack, like Avery’s EZ/RS. That technology gives us the ability to wrap an entire side of a vehicle in one panel, without bleeding of high initial tack. A 64″ printer printing 60″ media is more efficient and consumes less time from concept to rolling down the road. NOTE: 60″ media has a net printable surface area of 58″ and 54″ has only 52″. You get the point.

Production Machine: Turn and Burn!
Beyond the standard 64″ units under $25K, there are higher performance, production-based models including HP’s Latex , as well as printers from Roland, Mutoh, Mimaki and Seiko. These units are for the informed buyers and they are not cheap. These units are made to turn and burn!

It is very important you do your homework on these units and their advertised speeds. Some will never operate at the speeds they advertise, because the image quality might not be there. A 104″-wide unit will have good speed but it might not be able to deliver the print quality necessary to compete in today’s wrap world. Personally, I think that for wraps, a 104″-wide printer is overkill, especially when a wrap shop generally doesn’t print onto media wider than 60″.

Solvent vs. Latex vs. Eco Solvent
When it comes to ink types, value is in the eye of the beholder. Here’s my take on three inks that are all commonly used in wrap shops.

  • True Solvent: I have been burning solvent-based inks since our beginning and look at true solvent ink as the most durable, warrantable inks for outdoor durability. Many of my clients-even the ones who call themselves “green”-are all about the bottom line and the warrantable aspect of their graphics at the end of the day.
    In my shop that outdoor durability warranty is for graphics printed using true-solvent inks with my Seiko printer onto cast media with cast 2-mil laminate. The manufacturer will warrant their media for up to five years on vertical surfaces with clean removability on OEM finishes.  
  • Latex: From what I’ve heard, the Latex printers material manufactures warranty is around the same as that of true solvent. I have no basis to judge for actual durability though. From an installation aspect, I have installed prints done on HP’s Latex units and found them to be very good on the stretch, with good ink penetration.
    As far as color gamut, I haven’t studied it, but it seems to be good on what I’ve worked with. With Latex technology the curing time is instant, therefore your laminate can be applied right after printing. One drawback to solvent inks is that prints need cure time. That’s a big plus, and no smell of course.
  • Eco Solvent: In my experience eco solvents haven’t really performed that well-that is until recently. It’s always been a color durability and ink penetration issue, but eco solvent ink formulas have come a long way in recent years. I have been working with a new ink set from Seiko for the last few months, and it’s turning me into a believer. These new SX Inks for the ColorPainter M64s have great ink penetration and a very full color gamut. The cure time is less than half of my true-solvent inks. Warranties are to be that of true solvent and Hey, no big ink smell!

64″ Laminator?
Quick note: If you’re upgrading to a 64-inch printer, you’d better look and see what size your laminator is. If it’s less than 64″ you’ll need a bigger one. It may seem obvious, but shops get into that situation sometimes.

Speed and quality are closely tied together in the printer world. In general, the faster it prints the lower the print quality; and conversely, printing at slower speeds delivers better print quality. Globally, we’re all about instant gratification. Traditionally in the large format world, quality and speed are not available at the same time. “You can’t have one, without losing the other.” That seems to be changing, however, at least on the high end. I love my ColorPainter printer. Those who have their sights set on one of these bad boys know that if you want your pie and eat it too, you’ll have pay for it.

Three-Year Printer Life Expectancy
There are exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, large-format printers are considered three-year pieces of equipment. What that means is within the first two to three years you’ll be replacing parts, and in some cases (depending upon what’s went haywire) the costs of repair could amount to more than you originally paid for the printer. So, when cutting that check for your new printer, make sure you can live with the return on investment.

Cost: Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later
 “Pay me now or pay me later.” That old adage couldn’t be more accurate than in the world of printers. Here’s a simple breakdown on square footage throughput. These numbers are based on sellable quality, and would vary depending upon print resolutions, ink load and other variables. For basic ballpark comparison purposes this should help you.

  • You’re Printing: A 54″ unit (around $15K) delivers around 70-100 sq/ft/hr.
  • You’re Informed: A 64″ unit ($15-$25K) delivers around 120-190 sq/ft/hr.
  • You’re Serious: A 64″-74″ unit ($40-$80K) delivers around 150-500 sq/ft/hr.
  • You’re Racing: High-end production units start at about $250K.

These estimated print speed numbers are based on sellable quality. In my opinion, if you looking for the “Sweet Spot,” the 64″-74″ industrial type printer is the ticket.

See All the Modes
One final thought. Make sure that when you demo these printers that you see all the modes of quality and measurable throughput that are offered. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you’re upgrading, now’s the time to take the high road on your next printer purchase. It will pay dividends. I hope my two cents helps your program.

* From the 2014 issue of WRAPS magazine.

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Troy Downey

Troy Downey is the founder of Coronado, Calif.-based APE Wraps. he specializes in custom, one-off wraps while also providing training on how to wrap vehicles with Avery Graphics films. For more information about Troy and APE Wraps, visit www.apewraps.com.

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