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Wide Format Printing:

An Introduction & Buyer's Guide

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Choosing a Wide Format Printer

Today, big and bright graphics are more exciting and easier to produce than ever before, even in small or one-off quantities, thanks to wide format digital printers.  Every conceivable space is an opportunity for some type of graphic placement.

Posters, POP displays, floor graphics, vehicle graphics, “building wraps”, transit advertising, CAD engineering, fine art reproduction, banners, real estate and election signage, special event and tradeshow graphics, window graphics, stunning presentations, and much more.  These are some of the many areas where wide format printing can increase your impact and productivity as well as lower your costs.

Whether you are acquiring a wide format digital printer for in house production of company graphics, client graphics, presentations, or for producing your own graphics for sale, your choice of printer will depend largely upon what type of output you mainly plan to produce.  There are a wide variety of printers using different types of printing technologies, each with their own strengths and limitations.

Many wide format digital printers essentially use variations on the same technology used in your desktop printer.  Software converts the digital pixels from the onscreen RGB format into patterns of CMYK+ dots produced by dozens or hundreds of electrically activated, microscopic jets onto paper or some other print media.  However, there are some significant differences, which are often a surprise to new users.

First, the basic ink technologies:

Aqueous inks – These inksets are primarily used for indoor and some short-term outdoor graphics.  These inks have two main sub-categories based on the colorants suspended in a water-based carrier. 

These inks must be used in combination with specially coated print media that has a surface receptor coating.  This coating acts to keep the ink on the media, otherwise it would simply pool on the surface.  But its function is also much more complicated; it controls the dot gain, drying time, durability, water-fastness, surface appearance, and color interaction of the inks.  However, these coatings are relatively fragile and usually need to be laminated to protect the surface from abrasion, UV, moisture, airborne contaminates, etc.  Due to the relatively complicated manufacturing process, these medias are fairly expensive.

 Printers using these inks are generally the least expensive and can range anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000.

             Dyes: Dye inks use very small color molecules providing richer but less durable colors.  Dyes will fade quickly if exposed to Ultra Violet (UV) rays through sunlight; fluorescent lighting also gives off UV, which will cause fading over a longer period of time.  Dye inks are also less likely to clog inkjet print heads.

             Pigmented: Pigmented inks are much more resistant to UV (subsequently they are often referred to as “UV inks”).  These inks use much larger molecules of pigment, which resist breakdown much better, lasting outdoors often 6 months to a year without noticeable fading.  One drawback of Pigmented inks is that they are usually not as vibrant in color as the Dyes because the larger molecules are not as homogeneous at the microscopic level.  Another, lesser, drawback is that Pigmented inks are sometimes more likely to clog inkjet print heads, requiring more attention to maintenance.  Manufacturers have made substantial improvements over the last couple of years in both vibrancy and durability of Pigmented inks as well as print head reliability.

Eco-Solvent: These new inks are engineered to be durable outdoors without necessarily being laminated, though they should still be laminated for any applications where abrasion may be a factor.  Eco-solvent inks are generally compatible with medias specially engineered to receive them, though they are not topcoated.  They are generally a little less expensive than Aqueous medias.  

Modified Eco-Solvent: Recent modifications to Eco-Solvent printers allows printing to uncoated substrates, though the cost of inks is still higher than true solvents.

Printers using these inks are generally more expensive than Aqueous Based printers, ranging from $14,000 to $30,000.

"True" Solvent: Solvent inks bond directly to inexpensive uncoated medias because the carrier is actually an aggressive solvent.  Printers using these inks can range in price from $30,000 to $500,000 and produce very durable output for everything from floor graphics, to vehicle and building “wraps”.  When you see buses and other vehicles that look as if they were painted over their entire surface - that is often printed by these printers on thin adhesive backed vinyl film applied in a rather painstaking process.

Solvent printers generally more suited to higher production environments due to their higher speeds, bulk ink systems, and lower cost of inks.  Ventilation can be an issue with solvent printers as the inks do release annoying fumes - this can be equated to spray painting in an enclosed area, if there is enough airflow, ventilation is not as much of an issue issue.

Thermal Transfer: The Thermal Transfer process uses heated elements to transfer wax or resin pigments from a ribbon to a smooth substrate.  Thermal resin pigments are very durable and bond directly to inexpensive uncoated vinyl medias.  Thermal Transfer printers range from about $3,000 to $130,000.  The lower end printers are good for small volumes of simple color labels and stickers, the higher end printers can produce very durable, high quality four-color process prints.  Generally the cost of thermal ribbons is higher that inkjet and there are usually a range of Pantone spot colors that can be used in addition to CMYK process colors.

After you’ve decided which printing technology best suits your application, you will need to estimate how much average and peak volume you will need to be able to produce. 


Big lie #1 “Our printer has the fastest output”.  Imagine the confusion when almost every manufacturer and dealer is saying this when they try to sell a printer.  Most printers perform well in their niche, but unfortunately many printers are used for non-ideal purposes. 

Most speeds published in marketing materials are impressively high, but not when you realize that these speeds are almost always unsellable draft quality.  A good clue to an inflated speed claim is the phrase “up to”.  Use this rule of thumb: take about half of the published “up to” print speed as the average day-to-day production quality.  If you will be printing high-resolution output, the actual speed will be a small fraction of the “up to” speed.  When comparing printers it is absolutely necessary to compare actual print speed at the resolution you intend to print and verify whether it is of sellable quality..  


Big lie #2: “Our printer produces the best print ‘quality’ ”.  The word quality can encompass many things: resolution, vibrancy, color, etc.  Of these, resolution is the easiest to measure, but not always clear itself.  This is because resolution is measured as addressable, which is how many actual ink drops a printhead can “address” within a linear inch.  But, it is also marketed as “apparent”, which is simply that even though the addressable resolution may only be 600 dpi, the printer uses other factors to give the subjective visual impression that the resolution is much higher.  Happily, though, both of these can usually be taken at face value. 

Don’t rely only on stock print samples supplied by the dealer or manufacturer, as these are almost always produced in ideal conditions with prepared files at the highest possible quality settings.  Take your own file to your dealer and have it printed at the speed and resolution you will likely use for your customers.  Prints viewed at five to ten feet only require about 360 to 720 dpi and 720 to 1440 dpi for two to five feet.

Color Gamut and Accuracy

As graphics professionals this is a subject near and dear to all of our hearts.  Being able to work with 16.7 million (or more) colors on screen and only being able to print a fraction of those can be frustrating, but technology is catching up.  We are no longer limited to just CMYK!  Inksets have been expanded to six, eight, and even twelve colors!

Six color inksets add the ability to use Light Cyan (Lc) and Light Magenta (Lm) or Orange and Green or Red and Blue.  Eight-color inksets can add LcLm, Medium Cyan (Mc) and Medium Magenta (Mm), OG, RB, or combinations of any two.  Light and Medium colors do not add to your color range, but smooth color transitions, increasing perceived resolution.  OG and RB both increase the actual usable color gamut.  The one manufacturer who offers a twelve-color printer allows the combination of all of the above and also multi-density blacks for high quality grayscales.

Most printers are set up to run the printer manufacturer’s media and inks with profiles for these preset in the operating software.  These profiles are 80-90% accurate, but if any environmental parameter changes or you want to use a different type of media or ink, you will need to be able to build your own profiles.  Budget an extra few thousand dollars for this software and a color spectrophotometer/densitometer.

Profit/Cost Savings

With the tremendous improvements in the technology and ease of use, in combination with the decreasing cost of ownership, it may make a lot of sense to seriously consider purchasing a wide format printer for your own or your company’s use.  But be sure to do plenty of research, because there are so many on the market each with their own advantages and disadvantages.   Some are appropriate for a non-mechanically inclined but tech-savvy person, some take extensive training and effort to maintain and use profitably. 




Site last updated February 27, 2004