Wide-Format Printers/Plotters

High-volume plotters

1 Oct, 2000 By: Evan Yares

Inkjet, thermal, and LED plotters reviewed


Need to plot all day?
High-volume plotting

Inkjet may be the big seller in the plotter market, but it’s hardly the only choice. In fact, it may not be a good choice at all if you need to run really high volumes of prints and you don’t have time to waste.

Two technologies lend themselves to high-volume plotting: direct thermal and electrophotographic (also known as LED, for light-emitting diode). Some folks call them laser plotters, though few of these machines actually use lasers anymore.

Thermal
Direct thermal plotting is closely related to the thermal printing technology used in fax machines. An important distinction is that the quality of media used in thermal plotters is far better than that used in faxes, as the results show.

At one point, CalComp was the big player in the thermal plotter market. But, mostly due to incursion by inkjet plotters, sales slowly dropped to the point where, in 1997, CalComp stopped selling thermal plotters. In 1999, CalComp went out of business entirely.

That might have been the end of the thermal plotter market, except that thermal plotters had become very popular in the oil and gas exploration and seismic markets. The Imaging Systems Group (iSys), a company that had been building thermal printers for this market, recognized a bargain and acquired the direct thermal imaging technology from CalComp’s corporate parent, Lockheed-Martin.

The Imaging Systems Group’s i36 ImageMaster direct thermal printer prints up to five D-size plots per minute.

I36 IMAGEMASTER
Imaging Systems Group, Inc.

The i36 ImageMaster is based on a combination of iSys’s own technology and technology it acquired from CalComp. The plotter supports up to 800 X 400dpi resolution, and its Celeron-based controller prints up to five D-size plots per minute. The printer also supports a wide range of thermal media, including premium papers, vellum, clear film, and synthetic paper.

Thermal printing uses no consumables other than thermal paper. The output is as crisp as anything you’ll find, and, unlike thermal faxes, it remains stable for many years when stored in anything approaching a reasonable fashion. The only real downside with thermal prints is that if you run them through a very hot mercury- vapor blueline machine, they can turn black. That’s becoming less of a problem as wide-format copiers replace blueline machines.

I’ve been a fan of thermal printers for years because they’re extremely economical for people who run a lot of plots for internal use (where the plot is not archived). The savings come both in consumables and in maintenance costs. The ImageMaster lists at $15,995. As a rule of thumb, it should pay for itself in savings over an inkjet or LED plotter if you run 50,000 linear feet of plots or more per year. As a bonus, you’ll likely never need to call a service person.

LED
LED plotters are the workhorses of the reprographics industry. Visit any good-sized blueprint shop, and you’ll see a big LED plotter cranking out print after print, all day long.

Three large firms make and sell the majority of LED plotters: KIP America, Océ USA, and Xerox. Each of these companies makes entry-level units that are attractive to AutoCAD users, though some might argue that there is no such thing as an entry-level LED plotter. Each company also makes top-of-the-line units designed for full-time production in high-volume reprographic installations. Following are some examples of what is available.

KIP America’s Starprint 4000 comes in a variety of configurations.

STARPRINT 4000
KIP America

KIP America is probably the least-known name in LED plotters. To other LED printer manufacturers, it’s quite well known. In fact, KIP plotters have sold under the CalComp, Mutoh, JRL, Xerox, Océ, Shacoh, and JDL names. Now, with consolidation in the LED plotter market, most KIP plotters bear the KIP name.

The Starprint 4000, which is only one of KIP’s broad line of machines, is a 36" wide, 400dpi LED plotter. The basic plotter engine has been around for years—a good thing, because it is proven and quite reliable. Rather than use an internal controller, KIP powers the Starprint 4000 with a fast dual-Celeron PC-based controller. This lets the plotter run at the rated engine speed when processing plots. That’s three E-size or six D-size plots per minute. It also allows KIP to offer the Starprint in a variety of configurations, including one with an optional scanner. With a list price of $22,950, this is not the least-expensive LED plotter, but it’s a serious workhorse. Because of its speed in set processing, it is worth particular consideration if you plot multiple sets of drawings for distribution.

Océ’s 9300 is a high-production machine.

9300
Océ USA

Océ is best known for extremely high-production equipment. Look in the back room of a big reprographics shop, and you may find a couple of top-of-the-line Océ units. The 9300 is at the other end of the spectrum. It is a 36" wide, 300dpi LED plotter priced as low as $10,995 (for one roll—the two-roll unit is $12,995). Yes, that is the lowest-priced LED plotter you can buy. But you needn’t worry about quality—the 9300 is based on the 9400, a proven machine.

The Océ 9300 has a rated speed of two E-size prints per minute. With controller overhead, you may not reach quite this speed, except on multiple plots from the same file. Still, you won’t find any other printers for the price that can keep up with the 9300. Because of this, the 9300 is a good logical step above an inkjet plotter.

The Xerox 8825’s low price shook up the LED plotter market.

8825
Xerox

Xerox LED plotters used to be more expensive than those from other companies. With the 8825, Xerox became very competitive—in fact, so competitive that it shook up the market a bit. Consider that the 8825, a 36" wide, 400dpi plotter that prints up to three E-size plots per minute, costs only $14,995.

To be accurate, the 8825 is essentially the same thing as the Xerox 8830 (a much more expensive plotter), with a few features removed. To reach this price point, the 8825 comes with only one media roll and no single-sheet bypass (an extra roll and media bypass are optional). It also does not overlap processing and printing when running sets. It prints one plot just as fast as an 8830, but runs a touch slower when doing sets. Given the 8825’s low price, these compromises seem fairly trivial. At around twice the price of a top-of-the-line inkjet plotter, the 8825 is three to eight times as fast.


About the Author: Evan Yares


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