Open Wide

Scott Cullen

Bigger is better when it comes to wide-format copiers and printers.

In the world of wide-format (also referred to as large-format) printers and copiers, bigger is better–output may be as wide as 60 inches and of unlimited length.

The print-for-pay industry has had a huge impact on the market for wide-format copiers and printers–a market that’s growing at 18-20 percent a year, according to the market research firm IT Strategies. But even graphics departments in corporate America are catching on as the prices of wide-format products are coming down and the product pool is getting deeper and deeper.

Wide format is found in virtually any business that sells prints–service bureaus, screen printers, and sign shops, for example. This is the market most likely to purchase higher-end wide-format products where color is de rigueur. In-house graphics departments and advertising agencies are also using color wide-format products for a variety of applications. At the lower end of the wide-format market, you’ll find both black-and-white and color copiers. Here, engineering and architectural firms represent the usual wide-format suspects. Because these businesses require quick turnaround or consistently need wide-format copies or prints, it makes more sense for them to invest in their own wide-format copiers or copier/printers rather than farming this work off-site. It’s not unusual to visit a construction site and find a black-and-white wide-format copier churning out copies inside a construction trailer.

Wide-format characteristics

Like a fine wine, wide-format technology gets better with age. State-of-the-art ink systems, faster print speeds, higher resolutions, and more versatile media represent more notable enhancements to the technology in recent years. Indeed, speeds have doubled and, in some cases, tripled in the past two to three years. At the low end of the wide-format market, products operate at 2030 square feet per hour (sfph), while at the high end, speeds top Out at more than 230 sfph. Image quality is better than ever with the resolution on some models now topping out at 1440 x 720 dpi. In addition, systems are being designed with ease of use in mind.

Ink jet remains the dominant technology in the color wide-format market, with thermal ink jet and piezo being the most common. Thermal ink jet technology enables faster output, whereas systems that use piezo technology have printheads guaranteed for the life of the units. Detractors of piezo technology note that a longer-life printhead also means higher ink costs, while those who tout the technology say the costs balance out over the life of the system.

Buying tips

One of the first things you’ll need to do when shopping for a wide-format product is identify your volume and applications. Identifying these will help you identify the features you require, help you narrow the selection of products, and help you settle on a price. Avoid making price your number-one criterion as this may limit your choices and prevent you from purchasing a model that provides the necessary features for your wide-format applications.

Consider the following when selecting a wide-format product:

* How large is your output? Wide-format output generally ranges in size from 24 inches to 60 inches wide and up to unlimited lengths on color systems. Output on black-and-white systems ranges from 24 inches to 36 inches wide and up to about 50 feet long. The bigger the output, the more you’ll spend.

* Do you need color or black-and-white output? For graphics applications and print for pay, color is a no brainer. For architectural and engineering drawings, black-and-white systems rule. Large-format black-and-white products range from $5,000 to more than $40,000 for a fully loaded, digital large-format system. Specialized high-speed black-and-white systems top out at more than $250,000. Note that in the world of large-format copiers, analog technology is still in use, although more digital products are coming to market. Prices for color large-format products range from $12,000 to $50,000. You may need a device that does both color and black and white. According to Joyce Virnich, vice president of marketing for Oce’s wide-format products, the majority of wide-format output is still in black and white.

* How important is image quality? Not too long ago, the standard image quality of wide-format printers and copiers was a mere 300 dpi. Today, some models offer resolutions as high as 1440 x 720 dpi. For most applications, 600 dpi is adequate. If you’re producing disposable materials such as posters that will only be posted for a short period of time, investing in a system that offers the ultimate in image quality may be overkill.

* How much memory do you need? Although this isn’t an issue with analog wide-format copiers if you’re just making copies, this is definitely an issue with color and black-and-white printers. File size will determine the amount of memory needed. Consider the type of output you typically produce, and then consult with your vendor as to how much memory will be necessary. Here’s where a demonstration using the typical files your company works with is useful.

* How fast does your system need to be? Large-format speeds have risen dramatically during the past three years. This is often measured in the number of square feet per hour, except with analog large-format copiers where copies-per-minute is the norm. Again, the faster the device, the more expensive. File size and memory will also affect your wide-format printer’s speed.

* What type of media do you use? Most large-format products can handle an array of paper and media. But not all systems are compatible or offer the best quality of output when working with certain kinds of media. Be sure and match the media you typically use with the unit you’re considering and view samples of output on that media.

Other features and capabilities you should consider, according to Linda Allen, product manager, wide format, for Ricoh Corp., include scale to original, ease of handling, ease of paper replacement and access to toner, and ease of clearing paper jams. Cost per page is an issue with any output device, and on wide-format products, this is measured by the square foot and is dependent on ink and head usage as well as type of media–and ultimately the image on the page. In general, expect to pay 32 cents to a dollar per square foot. Oce’s Virnich also recommends evaluating the software available from the wide-format manufacturer, ensuring that it’s compatible with your applications.

Beyond the box

Most of today’s large-format products are a testament to reliability. However, as with any mechanical device, problems may arise sooner or later. That’s why service and support are essential. This criteria is difficult to gauge if you’ve never purchased a product from the dealer or vendor before, but it doesn’t hurt to check references. In most instances, the dealer or manufacturer who sells you the product is going to be the one who services it. According to Steve Agostini, assistant manager for wide-format products, Graphic Systems Division at Canon U.S.A., the typical service contract for Canon’s flagship wide-format color printer, the BJ-W9000, is for three years and costs around $2,500. Because most wide-format products are printer based, less service is required. On average, Agostini projects a Canon dealer will usually perform periodic maintenance on a large-format product about twice a year.

Also determine, prior to purchasing, how easy it will be to acquire supplies such as ink, media, and software upgrades for digital wide-format products. The best and most reliable source will likely be the same vendor from which you purchased the hardware, but check out other options just in case. Inks supplied by the manufacturer are specifically designed to work with their hardware, and third-party inks may not offer comparable performance. The same may be true of media, although, depending on the media your applications require, a third-party supplier or manufacturer may be your best bet.

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, it’s time for a demonstration. During the demonstration evaluate ease of use, speed, and image quality. Some vendors will actually survey users about applications and workflow before bringing a system in for a demonstration. This approach allows them to tailor a demonstration to match the customer’s workflow.

Be sure and check out how easy it is for you to load oversize originals when making copies as well as how easy it is to load paper and replenish the ink supply–the latter two areas are often overlooked by buyers. Most manufacturers will offer free trials, allowing you to try out the system in your business before buying.

Training is another issue. Some manufacturers will offer free basic training for users of the system as well as more specialized training for an additional fee. For example, advanced training might encompass how to get the best results from specific types of media and how to troubleshoot problems in various applications.

Who’s who?

The roster of companies offering wide-format products encompass many of the leading players in the printing and copying industries as well as some vendors whose specialty is wide format. Canon U.S.A., Ricoh, Hewlett-Packard, Kyocera-Mita, Encad, Oce, Epson, Roland Digital Group, KIP America, and Xerox Engineering Systems (XES) are among the leading players in wide format. Some vendors specialize in black and white, others in color products, and others differentiate themselves by the markets they target.

The products

With so many wide-format products to choose from, it’s impossible to present a comprehensive overview of the available products that does the product segment justice in this limited amount of space. Rather, we’re presenting a selection of wide-format products, many recent introductions, from some of the leading vendors, to give you an idea of what is available. To check out a company’s complete list of wide-format products, visit its Website (see sidebar).

Canon’s BJ-W9000 color wide-format production printer is considered the flagship product of its wide-format line and is designed for print-for-pay establishments, commercial printers, and in-house corporate designers. It offers photographic-quality output in all available modes at 1200 x 600 dpi. The BJ-W9000 has a six-head color system (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, photo cyan, and photo magenta) and uses Canon’s Microfine Droplet Technology, capable of 8 picoliter dot size for precise placement and uniformity. According to Canon, the result is detailed color images, smooth edges, more accurate midtones and highlights, and reduced graininess, images up to 42 inches wide can be printed using a dual roll system and a range of media. Using the device print driver, the operator may choose which roll to print from, or allow the printer to automatically cascade to the second roll when the first is finished. The BJ-W9000 can print up to 92 sfph. The imagePASS-W20 print controller for the BJ-W9000, developed by EFI , features an Intel Celeron processor at 433MHz, a 20GB hard disk, and 128MB of RAM. The BJ-W9000 also has a built-in SCSI interface, and the printer supports PostScript 3 through Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX operating systems.

Encad’s NovaJet 750 printer is designed for users who require a lowcost entry into high-production, versatile print application environments. Priced at $13,995 for the 60-inch model and $10,495 for the 42-inch model, Encad is targeting sign shops, service bureaus, and exhibit builders with the NovaJet 750. Using Encad’s Microburst Technology, the NovaJet 750 controls precise pulse formation, exact ink drop velocity, and meticulous ink drop accuracy. Its eight ink reservoirs allow indoor dye-based inks and outdoor pigment-based inks to be used concurrently, and reportedly makes it easy for users to switch back and forth between the inks as necessary. A new thermal dryer gives the NovaJet 750 immediate take-up capabilities. Productivity features include: 84-sfph production print mode capability; 63-sfph photo mode print capability; 10/100BaseT networking; a standard automatic media take-up and feed or second media feeder roller; and seal-tight valve connectors for “clean hands” cartridge installation.

Described by Epson as the company’s fastest wide-format ink jet printer to date, the Stylus Pro 10000 uses a new variable droplet Micro Piezo DX3 printhead with photo accelerator and nozzle verification technologies. The Stylus Pro 10000 creates images up to 44 inches wide on a variety of media at true 1440 x 720-dpi resolution. According to Epson, the new engine also uses variable-sized droplets as small as 5 picoliters to produce text and line art comparable to a final press sheet, while greatly reducing print times. Epson’s Photo Accelerator Technology enables full print engine performance in all print modes and input ports, even using slower computer systems. Images can be printed up to 231 sfph using the printer’s fastest settings and approximately 72 sfph when printing photographic output. Images can be printed on an array of media up to 1.5 millimeters thick, including plain paper and specialized Epson papers–such as true glossy, semigloss, luster, canvas, and matte photographic papers–vinyls, Tyvek , and back commercial-grade proofing papers. The Stylus Pro 10000 uses the latest driver technology, offering compatibility with Macintosh OS versions up to 8.5.1 as well as with Microsoft’s Windows 95, 98, 2000, and ME and NT 4.X operating systems. A wide selection of printer interfaces includes a USB, IEEE 1394 FireWire, an ECP Parallel, and an EPSON Type-B expansion slot standard with optional cards available for 10/100BaseT. The Stylus Pro 10000 basic printing system has an estimated street price of $9,995.

Hewlett-Packard’s DesignJet 5000 Series is an open system that becomes a high-speed color production device when connected to an external controller with Adobe PostScript 3. The DesignJet 5000 produces lightfast indoor and outdoor prints with a pigment-based six-color ink system. Image durability is warranted for 24 months outdoor and five years indoor using HP’s DesignJet 5000 Series UV ink supplies and 3M Matched Component System. Key features include 1200 x 600-dpi resolution, automatic calibration of Pantone colors, ICC profiles for Macintosh and Windows environments, Apple ColorSync compatibility, and smart chips that identify low ink levels and worn print-heads. Both 42-inch and 60-inch models are available at suggested retail prices of $8,999 and $14,888, respectively.

Oce’s s CS5090 Large-Format Color Inkjet Printer is available in 42- or 60-inch print widths. The printer accommodates eight printheads, allowing several ink usage configurations, including: two identical CMYK ink sets for printing twice as fast as existing product offerings, according to the company; two different CMYK ink sets for quick switching between indoor and outdoor inks; and an eight-color ink set that offers a choice of spot colors or additional shades of cyan and magenta ink. The CS5090 uses a dynamic thermal drying system, which constantly adjusts for temperature and humidity, applying the proper amount of heat to the drying process, enabling fast output. The increased number of printheads allows additional cyan and magenta dilutions to provide smoother color gradations for enhanced pastels and flesh tones. Applications for the CS5090 include posters, corporate signs, banners, and backlit signs.

The FW7030D from Ricoh produces multiple copies at 15.7 feet per minute and is designed for copy shops, architectural or engineering firms with in-house reproduction departments, and design firms. Typical users also include public utilities, manufacturing and transportation firms, and government facilities. The FW7030D is a plain-paper copier equipped to handle media of any size from 8.5 x 11 inches to 36 x 197 inches. It has a cutting length of 11 inches to 197 inches and uses the rotary cutting method with three formats: standard format, free-size cut format, and auto-synchro cut format that automatically synchronizes the paper cutting to the size of the original. It offers 400-dpi copy quality with 32 levels of gray scale, auto paper roll selection, binding extension, image shift, mirror image, positive/negative reverse, and text/halftone mode. Additionally, the FW7030D offers 1:1 reduction/enlargement, 25-to 400-percent zoom, and independent zoom. Other standard features include five user programs, fusin g temperature adjustment, and special media mode, which allows the user to use tracing paper and film. An optional memory unit with standard 16MB of memory, expandable to 64MB, or a 1GB hard disk, adding scan-once/print-many capabilities, is also available.

Roland DGA Corp.’s Hi-Fi JET PRO FJ-600 VS wide-format ink jet printer is a 64-inch model capable of printing with variable-droplet technology in eight colors. It’s Pantone Hexachrome licensed to simulate more than 97 percent of Pantone Matching System (PMS) colors. The unit can print extra-large graphics, exhibits, backlit displays, and posters with what Roland calls “unmatched detail and color fidelity.” In addition to the Pantone license, a key advantage of the Hi-Fi JET PRO is Roland’s variable-droplet technology, which automatically adjusts the droplet size so the dots are larger in solid areas and smaller in pastel areas. The result is a print that rivals continuous tone. In eight-color mode, the Hi-Fi JET PRO prints CMYK plus OG and LcLm at a highest resolution of 1440 x 1440 dpi. For faster throughput, up to 127 sfph, it can be loaded with two sets of CMYK. The Hi-Fi JET PRO series comes with the latest version of Roland ColorChoice (RCC) software RIP. RCC is the first Adobe PostScript 3-compatible RI P that provides full eight-color printing with automatic variable-droplet control. In addition, RCC enables users to use RIP and print simultaneously, which dramatically accelerates production times. The FJ-600 has a list price of $20,995.

The ColorgrafX X2 is XES’ latest 54-inch, six-color ink jet printer for high-volume print-for-pay and in-house graphic arts production environments. It uses PixelCorrect, a patent-pending image technology, that XES claims virtually eliminates banding and delivers sellable quality output at the printer’s fastest speed. The ColorgrafX X2 prints at 360-and 720-dpi resolutions and offers three different print categories, in productivity mode, the ColorgrafX X2 prints at 431 sfph; in quality mode, it prints at 260 sfph; and in high-quality mode, it prints at 130 sfph. XES is targeting digital color printers, graphic arts service bureaus, color photo labs, exhibit builders, quick printers, reprographic houses, and corporate in-house printers with the ColorgrafX X2. A 36-inch model for the graphic arts industry will be available shortly. The ColorgrafX X2 prints in six colors–black, cyan, magenta, and yellow plus two tonal inks, light cyan and light magenta, which produce smooth blended images and increase the amou nt of reproducible colors within the standard Web offset printing (SWOP) color gamut. The printer also uses instant-drying, oil-based, pigmented inks that are water-, UV-, and smudge-resistant. As a result, the prints don’t require additional drying time and can be laminated, mounted, and finished immediately after printing.

Last line

Wide-format products may still be limited to small, niche markets; however, for those users who require a wide-format product, the selection of products available is wider than ever.

Scott Cullen (culcom@voicenet.com), a contributing editor for OfficeSolutions, writes frequently on office technologies.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Quality Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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