What you need to know before you buy a reasonably priced plotter or wide format printer to print architectural & engineering plans
With all of the wide format printers out on the market, how is anyone to pinpoint the “right” plotter? And, how does one avoid spending a lot of money for a crappy machine? Or, from buying a printer that’s capabilities far exceed your needs, or doesn’t perform as you need it to.
So how do I know what I’m talking about? We have been an Authorized Dealer for several manufacturers’ for close to two decades (our company has been in blueprinting for over 33 years). Not only do we take pride in researching new products as they become available, we also have worked with a lot of this equipment in our print shop. Yet, most importantly we maintain a relationship with most of our customers; this has provided the most valuable feedback. Since most of those patrons were doing what you are doing today, trying to research what to buy, they are happy to share their likes & dislikes of the equipment that we provided at the time when they call in to order supplies for the printer. And fortunately, they do both! This is how I learned that most HP DesignJet products are going to be finicky when it comes to loading paper. And that the printhead for the Canon imagePROGRAF models usually only lasts a year to a year and a half (and is relatively expensive to replace).
Terminology: a plotter is another name for a wide or large format printer. Not to be confused with a plotter – this is another name for a contour or vinyl cutter. Seem confusing? Two totally different pieces of equipment; both used in wide format production that do totally different things, yet have the same name. For this article, we are only going to discuss plotter printers, and we’ll leave the contour cutter / vinyl cutting to someone else to address.
Narrowing down the field: photo printers vs. technical plotters
A photo printer is a device used to print large scale photographs, artwork, any type of display graphics, or signage. Some have referred to printing on a photo printer as “the giclée (ZHē‘klā) process”. Photo printers typically take six or more ink cartridge colors, and can be significantly more expensive to operate. This most commonly translates to a much higher cost of ownership.
Conversely, a technical plotter is designed to print architectural &/or engineering drawings or plans, equipment & parts drawings, schematics, maps, progress schedules, posters, and the like. Technical plotters are the modern day blueprint machines (I could write another entire article about blueprint machines, as we actually still have one!) that either print in black & white or are four or five color machines, whereby the fifth color is another form of black.
Plotters that print in black & white are actually more expensive than color plotters! How is that possible?
Laser plotters, LED plotters, and toner based plotters are the only wide format printers that just print in black & white, and they use toner. Laser plotters have a more complicated process to adhere the toner to the paper, these plotters are usually a lot faster, but there is a maintenance component that has to be addressed with laser plotters. Due to a higher entry cost and ongoing maintenance, laser toner based plotters are designed for production environments where the volume is high. These plotters have a minimum entry cost of approximately $14,000 plus heavy freight shipping and professional installation, and the price can be significantly more expensive based upon the features selected.
Today, reasonably affordable inkjet plotters are only made to print in both monochrome & color. That’s right, today there is no option to purchase a new inkjet plotter that prints in only black & white! However, many users use these plotters to just print using the black cartridges and never print in color. Although these plotters can print in color they are not designed to or should be confused with the photo printers discussed above. Don’t get me wrong, some of the technical plotters can print really good color. It’s like this; would you take a sports car off-roading? Even though it can, you wouldn’t want to do it often! So, to print a promotional piece every so often, or to blow-up a picture of the grandchildren for fun, sure these plotters can do them, but just don’t expect magnificent giclée quality. As previously stated, these inkjet plotters have four or five colors whereby the fifth color is a form of black. These inkjet machines are designed to print technical types of documents. These plotters have virtually no maintenance and little to no service needs, and start at around $1000. Yet, the average price for a descent plotter is $3500 – $6500.
Roll-feed and automatic cutter
Good news, today, all of these wide format plotters (24 inches and wider) have a roll-feed with an automatic cutter that cuts the page after printing. Using a roll-feed is so much simpler than feeding in cut sheets! Most inkjet plotters come with a single roll-feed, but for approximately $1000 more you can get a second roll with automatic switching. This is a nice feature, but not needed for most users. Also, worth considering is how easy it is to change the paper rolls. Most of the plotters have the single roll-feed that’s located in the back of the unit; since most offices set-up these printers with the back-side against a wall, so changing the paper requires rolling the plotter away from the wall. However, there are some plotters, like the Epson SureColor T-Series, that has the roll situated up and in the back, whereby changing paper can be a lot simpler.
Does size (of the cartridge) matter?
The size of the cartridge does matter! Plotters that are intended for low volume only offer lower milliliter cartridges (26-80ml). Mid-range output plotters offer 110-130ml cartridges; whereby the higher volume inkjet plotters offer 350-700ml cartridges. Some plotters can take different size cartridges; which can allow for growing into a higher capacity plotter. Helpful Hint: get a plotter that is in line with (or a little more than) the volume of printing that you intend to do. Once you have it, you’re very likely to print more than you might expect.
Aside from paper, the main consumable for inkjet plotters is the ink cartridge. Although genuine ink does cost a little more, we only promote genuine ink cartridges for a variety of reasons: 1) genuine cartridges are safer, they are warrantied and do not jeopardize the equipment’s warranty. 2) Genuine ink doesn’t leak and cause a stain on the carpet in your lobby (stop by our shop and we’ll show you a colorful one from a machine that someone brought in). 3) Genuine ink is less likely to clog the extremely thin tube lines that carry the ink through the plotter.
"The Need for Speed"
A descent inkjet plotter today can print a typical 24”x36” sheet in 21-30 seconds, or two to three per minute. Which, for most is fast enough? However, any printer that is slower is intended for really light use and requires a lot of patients.
Hard-Drive & Internal Print Server, What’s the difference?
There is none. A hard-drive & internal print server are synonyms terms. Some plotters come with them and often can be an add-on. With each new model introduction the hard-drive size seems to get larger. Many people think that they need a hard drive in the printer, but don’t use it when they have it. So, what is the purpose of a hard-drive in the printer? There are really just two benefits of having a hard-drive in the plotter. First, when sending a print job, it transitions the job from the computer to the printer a little faster. This is only really noticeable when printing large file sizes. Second, a hard-drive in the printer allows a user to reprint without utilizing a computer. This is helpful when Austin prints a job on Friday before going on vacation, and Ashley needs to reprint it on Monday without logging onto Austin’s computer.
PostScript – What is it?
Most people even many that sell this type of equipment have no idea what PostScript is or what it does! Or they provide explanations that are really difficult to grasp! So, what is PostScript? PostScript is computer language used to interpret certain file types. Alright, so there is one of those explanations that really do not answer the question. So, what is PostScript and do you need it? Simply put, PostScript allows the printer to properly print Adobe files more easily. And it is important to note that we are not talking about PDF files. You do not need PostScript to print PDF files. The Adobe files that PostScript helps with are files created from the Adobe suite of software products, most common is Photoshop. Helpful Hint: If you are printing technical documents, you most likely do not need PostScript. PostScript is an option that typically adds approximately $1200 to the cost of a plotter, so knowing if it is not needed can be a worthwhile savings.
Stand or no Stand
Most plotters today come with a stand that has a document basket for catching the prints and is on rolling wheels. Some of the lower-end models do not include a stand. Our thought is that putting a plotter on a desk or table just consumes the space that could be used more productively; so it’s a lot neater to have it occupy its own space by utilizing a stand.
Understand that the document catch basket that comes with the plotter stand is really not very efficient. You see, paper coming off of a roll has an inherent curl; so when it drops into the basket it won’t lay flat and will progressively curl more and more as it gets further into the roll. The outcome is a mess of sheets that has to be reorganized. A good solution is a stacker tray; this is something that you can custom-make to fit your office, and can be relatively inexpensive.
Integrated scanner, stand-alone scanner, or no scanner
Do you need to make copies of printed material? Do you mark-up printed plans and need to see the mark-ups on the computer? Do you have an archive of printed drawings that you’d like to have digitized (on the computer)? If you answered yes to any of these questions, the next question is do you have enough of it to justify the additional cost of a wide format scanner (which is usually more than the cost of the plotter)? And if the answer to that question is also yes, than you should begin researching stand-alone scanners (this is the topic of another article). So what about integrated scanners? Integrated scanners are scanners that are attached or appear to be attached to the plotter, and usually sit above the printer. Integrated scanners offer space savings and usually work well with the plotter through software. Fun fact: most of the integrated scanners are actually manufactured by a different company than the one that manufactured the plotter. Yet, when they are integrated together; often when one goes down, you cannot use the other. Sometimes, one will surpass the life of the other, and so some people will keep a larger machine for the use of just the scanner, which usually outlast the printer. Nevertheless, the biggest drawback of most integrated scanners is that they are ergonomically awkward for real life applications. They sit too high and are often tilted, and don’t provide descent work-space for an easy stable work-flow process. Stand-alone scanners offer more capabilities, flexibility, independence, and ease of use. And through the right software can integrate very nicely with most any plotter.
Brands - What's in a name?
There are three main manufacturers of wide format printer plotters; HP, Canon, & Epson.
HP has been in the inkjet plotter market for the longest time. Whereby many Architectural & Engineering offices had some version of the popular DesignJet 1050 close to two decades ago. These plotters were great long lasting machines that were just work-horses. HP continues to put out a good product and is certainly the big name in the inkjet plotter printer industry. However, the HP DesignJet products seem to have a relatively higher operation cost, and are not as easy to use as the competition.
Canon entered the wide format inkjet printer plotter market in or around 2006 with their imagePROGRAF series that had a lower price point than the comparable HP’s. Canon also puts out a decent product; however, aside from shaking a bit when printing, the quality has been good. However, the biggest drawback to the Canon plotters have been the costly printhead that seems to last just beyond its warranty of one year, often lasting approximately a year and a half. Canon recently introduced their new TX models that seem promising; however may be too new to have received any substantial feedback.
Epson has been in the wide format inkjet market for a rather lengthy time with their graphic StylusPro series; which had been the mainstream machines for giclée printing. In around the year 2013, Epson ventured into the technical series with the introduction of the SureColor T-Series line of inkjet plotters. Priced very competitively combined with manufacturers rebates these have been the class-up plotter for the lower-class price. Epson brought great color vibrancy to the technical series with a solid product. Engineered with a printhead that’s not easily replaceable, Epson makes the printhead a non-consumable part that is covered under the warranty. The main drawback is that Epson’s T-Series printhead is very costly to replace if the plotter is out of the warranty period. If you’ve ever had an Epson printer, you know that performing the nozzle-check function is a simple routine task followed by the occasional clean printhead function that is performed by selecting it from the onboard display (no need to get your hands dirty or to even open-up the unit). And there are some pointers to maintain a long lasting printhead.
One final thought on some tricky questions
After narrowing down the potential plotter to purchase, people often ask, “How many prints can we expect to get out of a cartridge?” or “What will it cost to make a print?” I challenge you to ask these types of questions to the salesman after he makes his recommendation. The truth is if he/she comes up with a number he/she is simply just telling a lie. You see there are way too many factors that determine how much ink that gets put onto a print. Like how much coverage there is on the paper; a photo versus a line drawing, or a line drawing with a lot of detail versus one that shows a light sketch (there are an infinite number of different variables). Also, there are a variety of settings that you can choose (draft mode versus photo quality (and others)); these settings can add more or less ink. And the media or paper that is being printed upon will also affect how much ink is laid down too. Manufacturers will sometimes lay claim to a cost per print. I could go on and on about the myriad of variables that make these claims a fallacy. So unfortunately, just knowing the cost of the consumables like the cartridges, paper, and printheads should help to determine if a plotter is going to be more or less expensive to operate. Printing the same image from one technical inkjet plotter to the next within the same class should utilize roughly the same amount of ink. With some estimating on the cost to operate added to the purchase price should provide a good budget for the total hard cost of ownership.
There are a lot of very good plotters on the market. The key is to find the right one that meets your particular needs and is ultimately a good fit. When evaluating price, it’s important to look at the operational costs related to the equipment. Many people buy a cheap plotter and settle for a slow or finicky machine yet still end-up spending considerably more over the life of the equipment. We don’t like to see the placement of equipment that is far above the needs of a business. We also don’t like to hear the frustration caused from equipment that falls even a little short of anyone’s needs. There are a lot of good plotter printers on the market, finding the right one can be tricky. You are doing the right thing by reading & learning about the different features. Another good recommendation is to speak with different people that utilize this type of equipment to get some feedback about what they like and dislike about the equipment that they are using. And finally speak with Authorized Dealers that are willing to share their knowledge and experience, and most importantly are able to satisfactorily answer your questions.
Thanks for reading
Please provide your feedback on this article, especially if it helped to provide some clarity. And, if you want help finding the right plotter for your particular needs please call me at (602) 224-9971, I’m happy to help!