Which wide-format printer do I invest in?

ImageWide–format inkjet printers have taken the market by storm over the last few years, replacing technologies such as short–run screen printing, pen plotters, thermal transfer printers, and the like. But even as inkjet has replaced those other print technologies in the wide–format market, it has also fragmented into several different ink technology categories. Each of those technologies delivers a unique set of characteristics for specific applications.

The worldwide signage industry does well over $29 billion US in business each year—and revenues continue to grow. Given the many different types of signs and banners a large format printer can produce, print providers can seize a sizeable chunk of the signage market. In fact, the large–format digital printing market is growing twice as fast as the overall print industry.

Whether you have an aqueous, solvent, or UV–curable printer, wide–format printers can produce indoor and outdoor banners, trade show exhibits, backlit signage, posters, fine art reproductions, large–format photographic reproductions, decals and pressure sensitive stickers, floor graphics, window graphics, building graphics, and vehicle graphics.

Each different type of printer sends you towards a slightly different revenue stream.

Aqueous inkjet printing
The leading wide–format aqueous inkjet suppliers are Canon, Encad/ Kodak, Epson, and Hewlett–Packard, and each of these vendors has their own strengths.

Large–format aqueous inkjet printers are the most common printers available on the market today. Their name reflects the fact that water is the primary “carrier” which transports the pigment or dye to the printed substrate.

From all the reports I have read, experts expect that the worldwide market for large–format aqueous inkjet will continue to grow, driven by trends in photographic and giclee art reproduction, technical documents, digital graphics, and the general office and business environment.
Wide–format aqueous inkjet systems provide the fastest output, typically with the highest resolution, and are also the lowest capital investment. Aqueous inkjet printers are used mainly for indoor printing, but with certain types of media, they may be used for short–term outdoor printing. With lamination, their outdoor longevity can be substantially increased. Aqueous printers rule the market in photographic and fine art printing, as well as trade show printing, graphic design, and prepress proofing.

The primary advantage of aqueous–based printers is their ease of use. The new Canon iPF series of printers now boast 12 colour / 12 bit printing, while the new HP printers offer a built in spectrophotometer. Epson’s K3 Ultrachrome ink set is also very popular.  These aqueous based ink printers will appeal to commercial printers, designers, advertising agencies, and poster printers, as well as architects, engineers, prepress/proofing departments, photo labs, professional photographers, and internal marketing departments.

The new Canon iPF printers have targeted general office printing needs as well by including a variety of software applications such as PosterArtist, a template–driven poster creation software which allows just about anyone without experience to create beautiful posters.
Over the past couple of years we have seen the price of wide format systems decline significantly, down to as low as $1,500 at the extreme low end, which makes it possible for corporate marketing, creative departments, and everyday business environments to invest in a wide–format printer.

At the high end of the aqueous inkjet market, Canon, Epson and HP offer a 24”, 36”, and 44” printer, while Canon and HP offer a 60–inch–wide printer as well that is targeted at the production–oriented printing market. The Canon iPF9000 12–colour 1200–dpi printer and the HP 5500 6–colour 600–dpi 60” printer each sell for around $17,000.

Solvent inkjet printing
Solvent and eco–solvent inkjet printers are a popular topic of discussion in the printing world today. There are many suppliers of wide–format solvent–based inkjet printers today, including companies like Agfa, Colorspan, HP, GandInnovations, Mimaki, Mutoh, Oc’, Roland, Vutek, and Seiko, which are all continuously improving their solvent–based inkjet printing technologies. These printers can print on media from 4 feet up to 16.5 feet wide.

If you build a proper venting system for solvent–based printers, their value proposition is good.  They have the ability to produce durable outdoor graphics at a low cost. Solvent–based inks are less expensive than aqueous inkjet inks, their media is less expensive, and, in some cases, you can eliminate the need for lamination, which saves both time and consumables.

Solvent inks are a versatile, long–life ink that are classified as hazardous, with milder versions available that produce less noxious odours. Solvent–based inks’ hazardous nature requires special venting be installed. “Eco” or “mild” solvent–based inks are less hazardous but may not be as durable as true solvent inks.

It is unlikely that a corporate end user will invest in a solvent inkjet printer, since these printers are not designed for an office environment.  From 2004 to 2009, the worldwide retail value of print produced from wide–format solvent–based inkjet printers is expected to grow from about $9 billion to $18 billion. This represents a compound annual growth rate of almost 17 percent. Prices can range from $17 995 to $275 000, depending on size and features.

UV–based flatbed printers
There is no doubt that UV–curable printers are changing the world of industrial digital printing. These high–production inkjet printers allow you to print on both flexible and rigid substrates up to 3 inches thick and uses ink that dries instantly, which reduces your production times and ultimately saves you money.

With UV–curable printers the drying mechanism for the ink is completely different then that used in solvent inkjet printing. When ultra–violet light hits curable liquid ink, it transforms it from a liquid to a solid on the substrate chosen. The downfall of the UV–curable technology is that the inks are not as flexible as solvent or aqueous based printers, so there might be a concern when printing on rolled media, yet we are still in the beginning stages of this new technology and ink formulations are constantly being improved.

UV–curable printers offer many of the same features as solvent inkjet printers, yet operate with less expensive ink sets. Users can print directly on materials such as wood, metal, ceramic, plastic, glass. This buffet of choices opens a host of new possibilities in terms of applications and revenue streams. Agfa, 3M, Colorspan, DuPont, Durst, Gandinnovations, Gerber, Inca, Mimaki, Nur, Scitex, Vutek, and Zund, among others, have jumped on the UV bandwagon with new machines designed to print on everything from wood to glass to vinyl.
UV–curable will have to improve its reliability and performance with flexible substrates if it’s going to overtake solvent printing in the roll–to–roll application. UV printers can range in price from $75 000 to $500 000 and more.

Assessing the Data
As we can see, there are many printing options available with many different suppliers. The key is determining the right printer for your application and then investing in a manufacturer who will continue to invest in research and development to keep the products on the cutting edge. Inkjet printing technology is here to stay, and the volume of work will grow for these printers as they take over from print volume produced using other methods such as offset or screen–printed, cut vinyl or handpainted.

Wide–format digital printing will provide new revenue streams for those that adopt the technology. While there will be challenges along the way, wide–format digital is a large and profitable market. Those that partner effectively and apply their creativity and expertise will reap the rewards.    

Peter Dulis
Wide Format Printing Specialist
T: 647.895.3315
E: pdulis@iprimus.ca