Every business has different printing needs.
For some, print jobs are mostly internal. If your business has minimal over-sized print jobs, it makes sense to send the jobs off as needed. But if you regularly print materials that are over 2 feet wide, you’ll want to consider a wide format printer. Wide format printers, sometimes called plotters, can print in color or black and white on many different types of materials.
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Do you want a printer or plotter?
When you research wide format printers or plotters, you may find the two terms used interchangeably. But know this: no one sells plotters anymore. That technology has gone the way of VHS tapes.
Plotters have been replaced with wide format printers. It’s kind of like how you may still hear people talk about a movie “coming out on DVD” when Blu-ray is the current standard. Sometimes old terminology lingers in our vocabulary. Plotters were commonly used by architectural firms and companies for things like blueprints and other technical documents. But in today’s world, pen plotters have been replaced by the faster and more convenient technology of the wide format printer.
More and more niche industries are finding wide format printing a necessity. In essence, there are 3 basic market segments which use wide format printers:
Both creative and production printing have such flexibility in their creativity due to the materials now used in printing. Wide format printers use 2 types of printing materials.
With both rolled and sheet-fed substrates, creative printing abounds. But the most popular requests for printed material come in these forms:
When printing in widths of 24″ or larger, you need a wide format printer. There are two main wide format technologies:
Both inkjet and toner technologies have distinct advantages for specific print jobs.
A general rule of thumb:
If you work in graphic design, you will likely prefer an inkjet printer because you will be printing a lot of colors. A color inkjet wide format printer prints high-resolution images on various materials in color.
If you work in the AEC (architects, engineers, and construction) industry, you will prefer a toner wide format printer. They are great for computer-aided design (CAD) applications. They’re also faster than inkjet and are better at handling large print volumes.
In the charts below, you will find a comparison of printer uses as well as the pros and cons of each type.
Inkjet vs. Toner Application
Toner Pros and Cons
Inkjet Pros and Cons
Wide format printers are used by large advertising firms and even homes and small offices. In fact, many businesses find at least an occasional need for print jobs that require larger than the standard 8.5 x 11-inch paper. Instead of outsourcing for these print jobs, companies are seeing cost-savings and return on investment by purchasing their own wide format printer. Purchasing or leasing a wide format printer may be the right decision for your business, but first, you need to know what type of large format printer best suits your needs.
When you think of a wide format printer, you typically think of the expensive, large machines that are dedicated to professionals printing poster-sized media or engineering/architectural documents. However, there is another category, the over-sized printer.
The most common over-sized paper is either 11 x 17-inch tabloid, or 13 x 19-inch super-tabloid. Both are considered wide format sizes. Tabloid and super tabloid printers are also called over-sized multi-function printers which means they have scan, copy and fax capabilities. Typically inkjet, these multi-function printers do double duty in that they can accommodate larger sized paper but also standard or even smaller sized paper. Commercial grade tabloid printers offer an affordable office solution, but if you need a higher quality print production, you can opt for a professional grade wide format printer. The price of the professional printer will be higher, as well as the cost of ink.
Since 11 x 17 paper contains twice the surface area as a standard sheet of patper, you can fold one sheet in half and get 4 letter-size pages or a 4-page booklet.
Wide and super-wide format printers are professional grade. They can print hundreds of square feet in less than an hour, and a super wide or grand large format printer has a print roll capacity of over 100″ wide. There are 3 options when it comes to these professional wide format printers.
Once you’ve determined if inkjet or toner is best for your business, you will want to consider size. What is the size of material on which you will be printing? Wide format printers print on individual sheets of paper or rolls of paper that are up to 300’ long. Common sizes of wide format printers include the following:
For engineering applications, 36” is the standard size. A 36” wide format printer is large enough to handle any construction document thrown its way. When choosing a size for a graphic design company, there is a vast selection. Determine your size based on the type of project you typically print or anticipate printing. For example, if you print large-scale projects, such as huge outdoor banners, there are printers as big as 16’ wide.
Another important factor to consider is the quality of print you want. All of the following influence print quality:
The resolution has to do with the dots per inch of an image being printed, but more critical than that is the droplet size of the ink. Smaller droplet sizes will mean higher quality prints because there are more passes to achieve full coverage. Also, the more ink cartridges, the higher the quality will be. A 12 ink printer will produce higher quality images than a 5 ink printer.
The best way to evaluate print quality is to view a sample. Be sure to request that the sample is printed on the same type of paper with the same format you will be using in your office (vinyl banner, blueprint, etc.). Print quality will vary, depending on the type of paper and format.
Note: Most suppliers will mail you a sample print job on the material of your choice. Be sure to request this before committing to a purchase.
Depending on the type of print jobs you have, speed is another important factor to consider in your buying decision. The speed of a toner printer is measured by how many D size prints it can print per minute. A D size is 24 x 36 inches. It is the most commonly used size. The speed of inkjet printers is measured by how many square feet they can print per hour or minute.
When comparing speeds, take into account what speed you are getting with the quality of the print. Most printers can print faster at a lower quality. If you need high-quality prints, you don’t want to invest in a printer with the fastest speed out there. Decide on the level of quality you want, then consider speed.
Most printers have various print modes that allow users to trade speed for quality. The higher quality setting will take longer to print than the lower quality draft mode. If you always intend to print at the highest quality, knowing the speed of the printer at its lowest quality won’t be of much use to you. Make sure the supplier explains the printer’s speed in the measurements and at the print setting you need, so you are able to understand the comparisons.
Note: Knowing how long it takes the wide format printer to warm up after it has sat idle for a while is just as important as the print speed. For some printers, this can add minutes to your print time. Also, keep in mind that prints from an inkjet printer will need time to dry where toner prints will not.
In terms of “printed and ready,” inkjet prints will need time to dry, but toner prints will be ready immediately.
When choosing a wide format printer, the decision is partially made when you decide what type ink you need for the projects you work on. Here are the four most common types of wide format printer inks. The print industry not only relies on the innovation of the wide format printer but also the various types of ink that are used. Each type of ink can offer specific benefits to a certain industry. Do your homework to discover which ink best suits your business market.
Aqueous ink is the most common and most popular type of ink used in wide format printers. It is a type of dye sublimation ink and is used for both desktop and large format printers. As its name implies, aqueous ink is water-based ink and is environmentally friendly. Since it does not emit harmful fumes and requires no special ventilation, the printers can be located anywhere.
Pros: easy to use; fast output with high resolution; bright colors on the printed page; quality color reproduction; printers relatively inexpensive.
Cons: special, laminated, paper needed; colors fade quickly if exposed to sunlight; paper and ink more expensive.
Uses: technical documents, digital graphics, professional photography, fine art, indoor signage, short-term outdoor signage and banners, trade show printing, pre-press proofing.
Solvent inks contain dyes and are often referred to as pigment inks. The dye is ‘etched’ onto the media’s surface creating a strong bond.
Pros: durable, scratch resistant, cost effective, versatile, waterproof. Can print on uncoated (unlaminated) media. Less expensive than aqueous ink.
Cons: hazardous due to noxious fumes; requires special venting; not suitable for office use; lengthy dry time.
Uses: Typically used for outdoor applications like banners, auto graphics, billboards, banners, and adhesive decals.
An emerging category of ink. After printing, ink is cured by UV light exposure. UV light hits curable ink transforming it from a liquid to a solid on the substrate.
Pros: dries quickly, less expensive than aqueous ink; durable outdoor images (laminate paper not needed). Can print directly on a variety of materials—wood, metal, ceramic, glass.
Cons: performance not yet reliable on all substrates; expensive, ink can crack if applied to a flexible substrate; ink does not dry flat and gives a matte finish; expensive machines.
Uses: graphic arts, decorating metal, glass, and plastic; automotive and telecommunications industries.
The newest type of ink used on vinyl, paper, fabrics, and polyester. Water-based with a polymer that bonds by heat to the substrate. Similar to solvent inks but no toxic chemicals. Both ink systems use water as the main ingredient with the pigment carrier being either latex or resin-based.
Pros: no extra ventilation needed; durable printing; good for indoor and outdoor applications; quick drying; long-lasting laminate prints.
Cons: printer needs a pre-print and post-print heater; higher energy consumption than other inkjets; some media may buckle under the high heat.
Uses: banners, posters, general display signage and vehicle graphics.
Once you determine size, print quality and speed, you can narrow your wide format printer choice even further by looking a printer features. Common features include:
Consider the needs of your business when deciding which features to include. Some features are designed for very specific jobs that you may never use.
You want to be the one to deliver a truly finished product. Adding finishing options to your print jobs can distinguish your company in the print industry. While a single shop can’t provide every finishing option, knowing what is out there can help you decide what you would like to provide to your clientele.
Laminating–covering the print with a clear plastic film. Protects prints from the elements and improve rigidity. Gloss, matte, and luster finish.
Coating–alternative to lamination. Aqueous coating is a water-based UV coating.
Mounting–applying the graphic to a rigid surface like Foamcore or Gatorboard.
Grommeting–punching and reinforcing holes with metal or plastic ring for hanging the graphic.
Die-Cutting—a shaped steel “die” is used like a cookie cutter that will cut the printed material into the “die” shape.
Laser Cutting–used for detailed shapes that aren’t possible with traditional die-cuts.
Routing—method for cutting elaborate patterns in a substrate.
Hot Stamping–heat applies a design to the printed product. Also called branding.
Doming–when polyurethane is applied on top of a print that adds extra dimension once hardened. Labels and decals use this technique.
Vacuum Forming/Thermoforming–when plastic graphics are molded into 3-D shapes.
The technology used in toner equipment hasn’t changed much over the years. Since toner wide format printers are more durable and last longer than inkjet printers, there are plenty of used toner printers on the market. If you are looking for a toner printer but can’t quite handle the cost of a new model, a used printer is an excellent alternative. Some suppliers will offer the same warranties and service agreements that they offer with new machines. Used toner printers can last anywhere from 5 to 7 years.
There are pros and cons to both leasing and buying a wide format printer. And, whether you should lease or purchase will depend on your needs and financial situation.
Some things you should consider:
There are benefits to purchasing a wide format printer outright. If you have enough capital, you can make a cash purchase. If you prefer to purchase but do not have the funds, you can finance. Here are the pros and cons of each option:
Purchasing a Wide Format Printer with Cash
Purchasing a Wide Format Printer with Financing
When you cannot afford to purchase a wide format printer, leasing is an excellent alternative. Even if you can afford to purchase a printer, you may find that you prefer to lease due to the benefits of leasing. A lease spans a fixed period of time and is binding. You cannot cancel the lease without a penalty, but there are still advantages you might find appealing.
Leasing a Wide Format Printer
In summary: If you have the money and do not plan to regularly upgrade your equipment, go ahead and make the purchase. Keep in mind that inkjet printers last 3 to 4 years and toner printers last 5 to 10 years. You can always sell the printer at a later date and recapture some of the investment.
If you do not have the funds for the upfront cost of a printer or if you want to be able to regularly upgrade to a newer model, then leasing is the way to go.
Like most equipment that gets frequent use, wide format printers require maintenance which includes:
Your printer will last longer and run more smoothly if it is well-kept with consistent maintenance. Depending on the service agreement you get from your supplier, it may only cover repairs. Other agreements include things such as toner, drums, replacement parts, and visits from a technician. Ask for details about the service agreement BEFORE you buy.
Whether you decide to purchase a toner or inkjet printer, you will need to periodically download software upgrades. That should be included in your service plan as well.
A service agreement is usually priced by printed square foot per month. (Think of it as a service agreement on a car that’s based on mileage). If you aren’t familiar with wide format printing or if your printer will be used on a regular basis, you will want to purchase a service agreement.
Regardless of whether you looking to replace your old wide format printer or you are getting your first machine, you need a printer that is not only good for your business right now but in the the long run as well. What seems like a straightforward purchase can be more complicated than it appears.
Know exactly what to look for, and consider these five factors when researching your wide format printer purchase.
Above all, superior print quality is probably the most important thing people tend to consider when choosing a wide format printer. There are three things that determine a wide format printer’s print quality
The capability of your copier mainly comes down to the speed at which it is able to print documents. Speed is important to keep in mind in order for your company to improve efficiency. Today, a toner printer is rated by how many D size prints, 24×36 inches, it can print per minute. Inkjet printers quote in square feet per hour or minute because of their long spooling time between prints.
Of course, cost is going to be a huge part of the decision-making processing when it comes to buying the best wide format printer model for your business. Typically, toner printers are going to be initially more expensive, but will last anywhere from 5 to 10 years; while inkjet printers are less expensive up front, but only last up to 4 years.
Before buying a wide format printer, it is important to consider the size of the documents you’ll be working with. The size wide format printer you need will be based on the size of the materials you print on. Generally, wide format printers print on rolls of paper that are up to 300’ long or on individual sheets of paper that are fed into it.
Wide format printers can generally handle 24” to 60” sheets of materials, the most common being 24”, 36”, and 44”. But there are custom printers designed for outdoor banners and larger-scale projects, generally called “grand-format” printers, which can work with documents 72” all the way up to 16’ wide.
Another major consideration for your office is how much available space you have for the device. While it is important to select a printer that meets your performance requirements, if it does not fit in your space, it is not much help to you anyway. Many models that accommodate larger dimensions are meant to be used mounted on a stand or even on a tabletop. Keep your office space in mind before signing a contract.
As important as it is to choose the right printer for your business, it is just as important to choose the right company to back it up. If your wide format printer isn’t working as it should or not at all, it’s definitely not making you any money. In fact, sometimes you could even lose money in the form of upset customers, missed deadlines, or material costs for a job re-print.
Because the wide format printer you buy is a valuable business tool and needs to stay in top working condition, you need to have knowledgeable support for any issues that may occur. To keep up the highest level of service and support, it is important to research the companies that fund ongoing training programs to keep their technicians up to date.
For day-to-day production and maintenance, it becomes a hassle to constantly have a technician come out to service your machine. Ideally, your wide format printer supplier should be able to provide you with training in all aspects of production, including file setup and color management to helping select the best performing substrates for your application.
Some companies will only service the printer they sold you and are not willing to provide training. If this is important to your business, make sure to ask the supplier upfront is this is a service they provide.
Keep in mind is how much ink the machine consumes for a typical job. Replacement toner is about 7 times less expensive than replacement ink. While inkjet wide format printers will cost you less initially, they need to be replaced more often than toner printers.
If buying used, make sure to compare the receipts for ink purchases against a regular output machine. Performance tends to decrease as the wide format printer ages, which justifies why older models are cheaper than newer ones. Don’t get stuck with a machine that you paid little upfront for because more than likely you will end up paying more in maintenance just to keep the thing running.
Note: More often than not, more expensive does not mean a better printer overall. Besides the machine itself, wide format printer suppliers will also offer you extras like a roll of media, additional ink supplies, or delivery and installation services to help win your business. Don’t be shy about negotiating price and asking about these extras when coming to a final price. A good supplier will work with you.
Once you are ready to buy a wide format printer, make sure you choose a reputable supplier who will offer a quality purchasing experience.
Here are some things to consider:
At some point, you will need a technician to service your printer, so you want to make sure you are getting high-quality service. We recommend that you check references to get an idea of how the supplier treats their customers. Pay attention to their knowledge level, their responsiveness to your questions, and their ability to solve problems. If your print jobs are done during unusual hours, find out the supplier’s hours of availability.
Make sure that you choose a supplier who specializes in wide format printers. There are a lot of suppliers out there who are selling wide format printers, but it’s not necessarily their area of expertise. You want a supplier who fully understands the machine and knows how to resolve any issues that come up.
In the world of wide format printers, you will notice a pretty wide range in price from one printer to the next. This is due to a number of factors (listed below), but keep this in mind:
A toner wide format printer will cost you more upfront, but it will save you money in the long-term because it has a longer life span than an inkjet. Also, replacement toner is about 7 times cheaper than replacement ink. Similarly, an inkjet will cost you less upfront, but it won’t last as long as a toner-based printer and you will end up having to buy a whole new printer in 3-4 years.
Pricing Tip: If a toner printer is too expensive or you don’t have a long-term need, then consider an inkjet. If you are looking for the best long-term investment, then a toner printer is the way to go.
Other factors that affect price include:
The Price of Consumables: Once you’ve paid for your wide format printer, you will still need to purchase replacement parts on an as-needed basis. Ink or toner must be replaced as needed. Remember, ink is more expensive than toner. Other consumables like paper, however, will cost about the same price for inkjet or toner. Some suppliers offer a fixed rate of cost per square foot on paper, toner, and service.
How Much Does a Wide Format Printer Cost?
Here are 5 questions to help you find the right wide format printer:
Relying on a trusted brand wide format printer brings confidence to your purchase decision. Top wide format printer manufacturers have earned their reputation through building high-quality products and backing them with reliable support. Both inkjet and toner wide format printers use specialized ink to create crisp, clear images on a variety of media such as banners, signs, textiles, fabrics,and blueprints.
Here are our top WFP manufacturers.
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