Three Key Variables of Wide-Format Equipment
Finding the right wide-format inkjet system requires a diligent research. For those operating on the outside of the segment, it may seem that any of the many similar looking devices likely do the same thing, and that the purchase decision will be driven primarily by equipment cost. Those better versed in wide-format know differently, understanding that many considerations must be addressed to narrow the list of potential devices. In some cases, the decision to focus on one thing means a decision to accept trade-offs in other areas.
Fast. Faster. Fastest.
For many, the desire for maximum throughput is of primary importance because their goal is capacity, and systems surely exist to fill this space. For instance, one of the fastest wide-format units on the market today will produce more than 15,000 square feet of salable printing in an hour. But that same device is also quite expensive, which is justified if a company has enough work to meet that financial requirement. And, achieving the high speeds promised often means operating a step or two down from “high quality” mode because the fastest printing can necessitate lower resolution. But the true goal of the fastest printer is not exceptional quality – it is instead fully acceptable quality for the high volume of work done. Further, many of the segment’s fastest machines are flatbed-only or roll-to-roll only, limiting the ability for the machine to be used for a wide variety of applications. So, the trade-off: speed, in exchange for lower quality and less flexibility.
In inkjet’s early days, skeptics said it would never achieve photographic or offset quality, and would thus not compete in these areas. Today’s most quality-capable inkjet systems have disproved these early assertions. High-resolution greyscale printheads and expanded inksets that include green, orange, violet, opaque white, and gloss can produce astounding results. But, again, like the need for speed, the quest for exceptional quality comes at a cost. Given the extremely high resolution these systems can produce, their print speed is reduced. For instance, one quality-focused printer on the market today features a twelve-color inkset capable of hitting up to 99% of PANTONE Formula Guide colors, but will produce only 194 square feet per hour in its highest-quality mode. On top of that, these roll-fed printers use aqueous-based pigmented inks that perform exceptionally on a rather narrowly-focused class of specially coated inkjet paper. The trade-off here, then, is quality in exchange for slower printing and less flexibility.
Hybrid wide-format systems are those that offer the capabilities of both roll-to-roll and flatbed printers, integrated into a single machine. Nearly all of these systems utilize UV-curable inks, which enable acceptable adhesion to the widest variety of substrates. They provide maximum flexibility, offering outdoor durability on substrates ranging from rolled delicate fabrics and thin plastics, to rigid materials including styrene and wood. These are workhorse printers, commonly found in sign shops where space and equipment portfolios are limited, and the list of end products is quite diverse. Regarding print speed, there is a wide range between the slowest and fastest hybrid systems, often directly related to unit cost, though few come close to today’s fastest systems. This same range brings choices, regardless of budget, and that’s a good thing. Regarding print quality, these systems can provide excellent results for the purposes and end products they serve, but they do not compete for highest possible quality. Here, flexibility is gained in exchange for less speed and lower quality.
The Good News
It is helpful to view speed, quality, and flexibility as a Venn diagram that takes the form of an equilateral triangle. While there is significant overlap between these three elements, the systems that are most specialized – and, thus, limited – likely fall outside that overlap. The good news is that many systems today offer excellent quality, acceptable speed, and needed flexibility to satisfy the needs of most wide-format users. To take this good news, however, and make it your own reality, requires understanding your company and its needs. There is a “right” system for you. Your task is to know enough that you can identify it.