Wide format printers have evolved significantly in the past few years and are a big investment for any type of company. Depending on the size and technology, these printers can have a very hefty price tag, so understanding the main characteristics and different available options is crucial before making a purchase.
First, it’s important to understand some general terminology. More often than not, a ‘wide format printer’ typically refers to a roll-to-roll – or roll-fed – machine, while ‘large format printer’ characterizes the market segment or in some case can refer to flatbed printers. Traditional wide format printers are categorized as being between 24” to 120”, while printers 120” or wider begin the grand format segment. The size of the printer you need will depend on whether you’re producing large billboards or small displays, so keep your production goals in mind before deciding on a certain model.
Wide format printers are a production necessity for printing most construction and architectural blueprints, banners, posters, trade show graphics, murals, backlit displays, CAD drawings, wallpaper and a variety of other products. The technology today is digital, which means a computer-based interface that can often accommodate unattended print runs. With this digital technology, operation is more streamlined and allows employees to focus on other tasks.
Just like many traditional office desktop printers, wide format printers can use piezoelectric inkjet (think Epson) or thermal inkjet (think HP). Piezoelectric printheads use an electric charge and crystals to accurately and precisely fire very fine droplets, while thermal inkjet printheads use, you guessed it, heat to propel droplets through their nozzles. Because of the heat required in thermal printing, the ink chemistry is limited, while piezoelectric wide format printers can utilize a variety of ink chemistries including:
Aqueous Ink: Water-based ink that’s ideal for fine art and photographic applications, including photo paper, posters, canvas and other indoor materials. This type of ink can also be used for outdoor applications if there is no longevity requirement.
Solvent Ink: This ink type is the industry standard for printing banners, decals and vehicle wraps because of its cost-effectiveness and high quality. Solvent ink creates high-quality print results, but may need proper ventilation when printing to reduce VOCs and fully ‘gas-out’ after printing.
UV-Curable Ink: With instant curing once exposed to ultraviolet light and no ‘gas-out’ time, this ink creates high-quality prints on an extremely wide variety of substrates that are ready to be handled immediately after printing. UV ink is ideal for front/backlit vinyl and fabric, labels, vehicle wraps, soft signage and more.
Latex: Applicable for many indoor and outdoor applications, latex inks require heat and subsequently can be difficult for some substrates to handle.
The environmental impact of a wide format printer will depend on the specific ink technology. For example, since aqueous inks are water-based, it is more eco-friendly than solvent ink.
The brand of wide format printer you need will depend on the type of ink and printhead technology that works best for the substrates you’ll be producing. Some of the most common brands include Mimaki, Epson and Mutoh for piezoelectric and HP for thermal.
The ink technology and substrate capabilities can vary greatly with wide format printers, additionally the production speed will differ with applications and manufacturer brand models. Before purchasing a wide format printer, you should research the throughput speeds and overall production capability of each printer model. Also consider the amount and types of products you will be printing. If you need to print twenty vinyl banners every week and your printer can only handle half of that, you will of course fall behind on production; but if you don’t need that production capacity, you may have more options when it comes to the brands and models of printers that are right for you. Be sure to also consider your potential future capacity needs as well as your current ones.
No matter your business’ needs, integrating a wide format printer into the mix has the potential to significantly impact your production capabilities.