On A Roll31 Mar, 2005 By: Ron LaFon
Plotter Technology Keeps Paper Popular
If you've seen the output from modern wide-format printers, you probably don't need much convincing as to the usefulness of the technology, whether the final output is used for presentations or display, input from a workgroup or for archival purposes. These often larger-than-life images have many applications and often become the deciding factor when a project is presented to a client. Desipte the rising popularily of electronic document exchange and storage, hard copies continue to serve vital functions in manufacturing, AEC and GIS organizations.
In-House or Service Provider?For smaller firms, or those with limited needs, a service provider is usually the option of choice for obtaining large prints. At some point, however, firms may find that it makes sense to bring this work in-house. The most common reasons are to save money and to get the work done faster. In practice, it may work best to use a combination of in-house and service provider production—especially when a firm needs more prints than it can easily produce or requires finishing options not available with its current equipment.
Not only do today's reprographic companies offer a variety of printing options, many now provide quick delivery services that may prove more convenient and cost-effective than doing it all yourself. Plan Express (www.planexpress.com), for example, uses its location near the Federal Express hub in Memphis, Tennessee, to offer same-day fulfillment on print orders. Orders can be placed directly with Plan Express or through members of the Reprographic Services Association, which counts 170 providers across the nation.
To justify an in-house production facility, your company must have a regular need for wide-format prints. A wide-format printer that is used infrequently is prone to having dry ink clog its nozzles. This problem can be frustrating and time-consuming to remedy—not exactly what users want when they have pressing deadlines.
If you've determined that your office is ready for in-house production of large prints, the next step is to decide which technology is appropriate to your needs, and what output resolution you need.
Technology OptionsInkjet. In one variation or another, inkjet technology is the most common printing method found in wide-format printers. Most inkjets use thermal technology, in which heat is used to expel ink onto the paper. Typically the ink spray is initiated by heating the ink to create a bubble that bursts. The burst ink bubble collapses as the element cools, and the resulting vacuum pulls ink from the cartridge or reservoir to replace the ink that was expelled.
Such inkjets typically have between 300 and 600 nozzles, each about the diameter of a hair. Dye-based inks (usually cyan, magenta and yellow) work in combination with a separate black cartridge or reservoir to deliver a variable dot size. The nozzle density, though usually 300- to 600dpi, offers the possibility of enhanced resolutions as high as 1200dpi, usually with a second pass of the printhead.
Aside from the inherent nature of ink to dry and clog the nozzles, particularly when the printer is not used often, thermal inkjet technology also requires that the ink be heat resistant. The cooling process adds slightly to printing time.
Piezo crystal. Epson proprietary inkjet technology uses a Piezo crystal located near the ink reservoir. An electric current sent to the Piezo crystal causes it to flex and, in the process, expel a drop of ink from the printing nozzle.
The Piezo process permits greater control over the shape and size of the released ink drop. Slight fluctuations in the crystal allow smaller droplet size and greater nozzle density. The ink doesn't need to be heated, as it does in thermal inkjets, which saves time and enables a wider range of inks to be used.
Because the Piezo process delivers small dots with great accuracy, enhanced resolutions can be achieved by making two passes with the printhead, which slows the printing process somewhat. Inks for Piezo technology are solvent-based and dry fairly quickly, penetrating the paper rather than spreading out on the surface.
LED. Yet another technology, though one not used by any of the wide-format printers in this particular survey, is LED (light-emitting diode). LED printers are capable of printing at close to the same quality as the ubiquitous laser printer, and work in a similar manner. An LED panel recreates the image on a negatively charged drum. Where light hits the sensitive drum, it becomes less charged and attracts more toner. The printer then transfers the toner from the drum to the paper and applies intense heat to fuse the toner to the paper. Because it's basically a dry process, LED printers eliminate worries about clogged or dried-out printheads. The choice of pigment is, of course, limited to the toner cartridges available.
Ink and media. Typically, glossy and smooth-surface papers show more detail than matte and textured surfaces. Selecting paper stock depends first of all on what's available for the technology you plan to use, the size of the final output and how much detail you want to be able to see on close examination.
Other factors to consider, particularly when printing for archival purposes, are the stability of the inks and the media. Whether the inks and media are waterproof and able to endure exposure to light for long periods may also be considerations for prints that are to be displayed. Though these factors are beyond the scope of this article, they may well prove important in helping you decide which wide-format printer is best for your organization.
Resolution. How high a resolution do you need? That depends largely on what you plan to do with the prints. Keep in mind that large prints are often not examined closely, so you may not need the highest of resolutions except for smaller prints that are scrutinized in more detail.
Drivers. Once you've made your way through all the options in printer technologies, resolutions, inks and papers, the next factor to consider is the software that makes it all happen. Many wide-format printers employ their own native printer drivers, while others may need a RIP (raster image processor) to function at their best. A RIP tells the printer where to place the ink and also speeds the processing of the file. A RIP can often process a huge original file in minutes instead of hours. RIPs can be very expensive in their own right and are available from a number of third-party suppliers. Depending on the type of work you expect your wide-format printer to produce, you may or may not need to investigate such supplemental software.
This overview of available technologies doesn't begin to cover the permutations currently available in the marketplace, but it should get you started. If you're ready to evaluate wide-format printers, one of the outstanding instruments in this roundup just may fit the bill.
What We RequestedUnlike in past years, this wide-format printer roundup focuses more on the general types of printing technology available and what factors to consider when purchasing a wide-format printer. A supplemental feature table available online at www.cadalyst.com/0405plotters lists information provided by participating vendors, but we did no hands-on testing this time around.
We asked a number of vendors for information on their wide-format printers that met the following requirements: released after January 2004 and capable of producing at least D-size drawings. We asked vendors to limit their submissions to three models, though there was some flexibility here—particularly when the base model and a variant were similar to one another. The wide-format printers could use any printing technology appropriate for CAD/GIS applications (inkjet, thermal, LED, etc.).
Five vendors responded to our invitation—Encad, Epson, HP, Océ and Roland DGA—providing information on a total of twelve different devices. For particulars on each of these instruments, see the feature table online.
Today's wide-format printers use a range of sophisticated technology to deliver the final output you need. These wide-format printers are typically expensive, as are consumables such as ink and paper, but if your firm has an ongoing need for such output, bringing this process in-house is certainly worth investigating.
Encad—A Kodak Company858.452.0882
Encad offers a range of printers and media for wide-format printing. For this roundup, Encad submitted the T200+ thermal inkjet printer, a redesign of its T200 model. The T200+ has been updated to print both CAD and full-color photographic images. It can switch from printing monochrome images at 567 square feet per hour to full-color output at 37 square feet per hour.
The T200+ simplifies features and functionality. The ink system uses prefilled cartridges that snap on and off for quick, clean installation. For extended printing runs, Encad's Ink Caddy system holds larger amounts of ink. The transparent caddies ensure that ink levels are always visible. The T200+ can switch from four color to four black cartridges. Encad's CIS2 inks are priced to produce a low cost per plot—for a D-sized color plot with 5% coverage, plots cost $0.32 each; for a monochrome plot, the cost is $0.27.
The Encad T200+ supports sheets and rolls ranging in width from 8.5"-36" and incorporates a sheet feeder and a roll feeder with a media cutter. The T200+ ships with 128MB of onboard memory and supports both raster (EN RTL, HP RTL) and vector (HPGL/2) languages directly. Connectivity options include a 100 BaseT Ethernet option, an IEEE-1284 bidirectional ECP (expanded capability port) and a parallel port. Drivers currently included support AutoCAD (AutoCAD 2000-2004), HDI: AutoCAD LT 2000-2002 and AutoCAD ADI 13-14. Windows drivers for Windows 95/98/NT/2000/Me/XP are also provided.
Priced at $3,495, the Encad T200+ measures 48" X 58" X 28" (wXhXd) and weighs 70lb when assembled. Installation and service is performed by a factory-trained technician at your location. Warranty coverage is a one-year exchange, return to depot, although an optional extended plan is available. Encad offers a preventive maintenance kit that contains the parts that wear and need replacement most frequently. An Easy-Klean kit is also available. It provides a cleaning tool, cleaning fluid, air cleaner, hands cleaner, lint-free cloth wipes and cotton swabs.
The Encad T200+ offers excellent versatility in its ability to switch from printing line drawings to color renderings, as well as in its sheet size and roll capabilities. If your company has a variety of wide-format printing needs, the Encad T200+ deserves a look.
Priced at $3,495, the Encad T200+ prints on sheets from 8.5" to 36" as well as on roll media.
Epson is noted for its variety of output devices, from desktop color printers to large wide-format printers suitable for a broad range of applications. Three such devices are included here.
Stylus Pro 4000—Professional EditionPrice: $2,195
Falling into a category that might be described as a wide desktop printer, the Epson Stylus Pro 4000—Professional Edition accommodates media up to 17" wide. It can print at resolutions as high as 2880x1440dpi using Epson 7-color UltraChrome inks with 8-channel printhead technology.
The Stylus Pro 4000—Professional Edition includes a high-speed 10/100 BaseT internal Ethernet card along with a custom-designed RIP from ColorBurst that is compatible with PostScript Level 3 language. The printer includes one USB, one ECP parallel and one Epson expansion slot for installing the optional internal IEEE FireWire card.
The printer costs $2,195 and measures 33.4" X 14" X 30" (wXhXd) with a weight of 83.7lb. The Stylus Pro 4000—Professional Edition is obviously not your normal desktop (or tabletop) color printer. It handles cut sheets as large as 17" X 22" and rolls to 17" X 132", with a built-in automatic cutter.
The Stylus Pro 4000 from Epson is a desktop printer that handles media up to 17" wide.
Stylus Pro 7600Price: $2,995
The second wide-format printer from Epson is the Stylus Pro 7600, a free-standing 24" printer. The Stylus Pro 7600 can accommodate either sheets or rolls as wide as 24". It includes an automatic media cutter and supports media thicknesses up to 1.5mm.
With a new print engine design, the Stylus Pro 7600 provides features such as borderless printing and fast print speeds. Like the Stylus Pro 4000—Professional Edition, the Stylus Pro 7600 uses Epson's UltraChrome inks. For a 24" sheet this printer produces 87 square feet per hour in production mode and 16 square feet per hour in photo-quality mode. The Stylus Pro 7600 includes one USB, one ECP parallel and one Epson expansion slot for installing the optional internal IEEE FireWire or 10/100 BaseT Ethernet cards.
The Stylus Pro 7600 is available for $2,995. It measures 43.3" X 22" X 22.5" (wXhXd) and weighs 96lb. A optional stand is available.
Epson's Stylus Pro 7600 is a 24" wide-format printer priced at a reasonable $2,995.
Stylus Pro 9600Price: $4,995
Bearing a resemblance to the Stylus Pro 7600, the Epson Stylus Pro 9600 supports sheets and rolls up to 44" wide and also includes an automatic cutter. Like the 7600, it offers one USB, one ECP parallel and one Epson expansion slot for installing optional internal IEEE FireWire or 10/100 BaseT Ethernet cards.
The Epson Stylus Pro 9600 measures 63.9" X 46.4" X 28.2" (wXhXd), and weighs 185lb with the included stand. Depending on the print mode used, the Stylus Pro 9600's print speeds vary from 8 square feet per hour to a maximum of 192 square feet per hour. Photographic quality printing averages about 16 square feet per hour, and everyday production-quality printing averages 87 square feet per hour.
Priced at $4,995, the Stylus Pro 9600 offers an option for an automatic take-up reel system for unattended production of large print runs. Like the 7600, the Epson Stylus Pro 9600 is capable of borderless printing.
All three Epson printers discussed here are covered by a one-year warranty, and all use the Epson ESC printer language to print at resolutions as high as 2880x1440dpi.
For the Stylus Pro 7600 and 9600, an EFI Fiery Spark Professional 2.0 Adobe PostScript 3 software RIP is an option. Epson offers a wide range of ink, media and printers. For more details (and lots of informative tidbits), visit the company Web site.
Epson's Stylus Pro 9600 achieves production-quality speeds of 87 square feet per hour.
HP produces a broad array of printers suitable for many applications. Its models range from the ubiquitous desktop inkjet printer through true behemoths of the wide-format printing world. For this roundup, HP submitted two variants from two different lines of printers.
HP Designjet 110-plusPrice: $995
The HP Designjet 110-plus printer is a tabletop printer capable of handling 18" X 24" sheets from its 150-sheet plain paper tray or single sheets up to 24" X 64". Using HP's thermal inkjet technology, the HP Designjet 110-plus prints at resolutions as high as 1200x 600dpi. Typical speeds are 11ppm (pages per minute) for letters (fast mode) and 90 seconds for D-size line drawings (fast mode). The HP Designjet 110-plus printer sells for $995.
The HP Designjet 100-plus tabletop printer handles 18" X 24" single sheets up to 24" X 64".
HP Designjet 110 plus nrPrice: $1,595
The HP Designjet 110-plus nr includes an HP Jetdirect 620n internal EIO print server and automatic roll feeding for printing prints up to 24" X 50' in size. Its price is $1,595. Connectivity options include USB 1.1 (USB 2.0-compliant), Centronics parallel IEEE-1284 (ECP-compliant), 1 EIO slot and the included HP Jetdirect 620n. A printer stand and media bin are optional accessories, as is an additional roll-feed spindle. The printer measures 41" x 21" x 8.7" (wXhXd) and weighs a trim 50.7lb.
Both the HP Designjet 110-plus and the HP Designjet 110-plus nr are covered by a one-year, next-business-day exchange warranty. Both printers incorporate 64MB of onboard RAM. They come with a PCL 3-GUI Windows driver, Microsoft Windows 95/98/ME/NT 4.0/2000/XP drivers that include support for AutoCAD 13/14/2000, and USB and ECP drivers. There's also a raster driver for Macintosh OS 9.x/OS X v10.1+.
HP Designjet 4000Price: $9,995
HP Designjet 4000psPrice: $12,495
The HP Designjet 4000 and HP Designjet 4000ps printers are both freestanding thermal inkjet printers capable of accommodating sheets and rolls in sizes B, C, D and E—up to 42" wide. Both printers have 256MB of main memory, with 96MB of imaging memory (expandable to 512MB). The HP Designjet 4000 supports these printer languages and file types: HPGL/2, HP-RTL, TIF, JPG and CALS-G4. Input and output are accommodated by fast Ethernet (10/100 Mbps) and FireWire (IEEE 1394a compliant). The printer also includes one EIO slot.
Ink cartridges for cyan, magenta and yellow are available in 225cc and 400cc capacity. Black cartridges measure 400cc. Pairs of staggered printheads in the cartridges offer double the capacity of previous models. Media thickness for all paths ranges from 0.0018" to 0.0175". Warranty coverage for both Designjet 4000 models is one year for next-business-day on-site service, with extended coverage and installation options available. Price for the basic HP Designjet 4000 is $9,995.
The HP Designjet HP 4000ps includes all the features of the basic Designjet 4000 printer. It adds an embedded RIP for Adobe PostScript Level 3 and Adobe PDF v1.5. The HP Designjet 4000ps sells for $12,495.
Both printers measure 76" X 31.5" X 53.2" (wXhXd) and weigh 253lb. The HP Designjet 4000ps supports Adobe PostScript Level 3, Adobe PDF 1.5, HPGL/2, HP-RTL, TIF, JPG and CALS-G4 printer languages.
HP offers a variety of ink and media options for its extensive line of printers. Optional accessories for the HP Designjet 4000 and the HP Designjet 4000ps include a high-speed USB 2.x card, a 256MB memory upgrade and the HP Jetdirect 620n LAN card.
The HP Designjet 4000 freestanding thermal inkjet printer features pairs of staggered printheads in its ink cartridges.
The Océ TCS400 is a multifunctional large-format system that incorporates a print engine, a scan unit and an integrated Océ Power Logic Controller to create a system that prints, copies and scans. For this roundup, we look at the printing component only.
The print engine component of the Océ TCS400 is a thermal inkjet printer capable of handling 36" X 15' prints. The TCS400 automatically senses the printer language used and supports the following printer languages and file types: HPGL, HPGL/2, Calcomp, HR-RTL, TIFF 6, CALS, C4, NIRS/NIFF, Adobe PS3 and PDF. Driver support is provided for WPD (Windows 9x/ME/2000/NT4.0/XP), ADI (AutoCAD 14) and HDI (AutoCAD 2000-2005 PS3).
The Océ TCS400 comes with 512MB of RAM and can be expanded to a maximum of 1,024MB. The included hard disk has a capacity of 80MB. Configured with a 1-roll unit, the TCS400 is priced at $12,495. Configured for two rolls, the printer costs $13,995, and with three rolls, $16,995. That last price includes the printer with three rolls, the Océ Power Logic controller and a copy-receiving rack. FireWire provides connectivity. Warranty coverage is one year.
Two new features—the third media roll and copy-receiving rack—increase printing efficiency and reduce the need for operator intervention. Users can easily switch between three media roll sizes or types for less waste and trimming, thus reducing media and finishing costs. The copy-receiving rack allows the printer to run unattended or overnight because it automatically stacks prints without the need for operator attention.
Because this is part of a multifunctional system, its capabilites can be expanded to suit changing needs. To gain copying functionality, add the scanner ($19,745). For scan-to-file functionality, add the Océ Scan Logic software and a memory upgrade ($4,400- $5,650). If expanding to a large-format scanner is something you may want to consider in the future, the Océ TCS400 provides a good starting point.
The Océ TCS400's print component can be configured with one to three rolls of different-sized media.
Roland DGA Corp.800.542.2307
Roland DGA is the U.S.-based marketing, distribution and sales arm of Roland DG Corp., which offers a range of precision wide-format printers, printer/cutters, sublimation printers, milling machines, engraving machines, photo impact printers and media and ink. For this roundup, Roland DGA submitted three wide-format printers, all based on Piezo electric inkjet printing technology.
The SJ-645EX can print sheets from 19.68"-64" wide when the print heater is running, and from 8.31"- 64" when the print heater is not running. Maximum printing width is 63.56". The SJ-645EX prints using either six color cartridges (black, cyan, magenta, yellow, light cyan and light magenta) or four color cartridges (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). Cartridges hold 220cc ± 5cc. In either mode, the SJ-645EX can print at 1440x1440dpi resolution.
Using Roland's Eco-SOL INK, the SJ-645EX wide-format inkjet prints wide-format graphics on both coated and uncoated substrates that dry quickly and are durable outdoors as well as indoors without lamination.
The SJ-645EX comes with 64MB of RAM (maximum) and connects via an internal Ethernet card (10 BaseT/100 BaseTX automatic switching). It comes with drivers for Windows and Roland's VersaWorks Raster Image Processor. The printer uses Roland's RTL printer language.
Roland DGA SJ-645EX wide-format inkjet printer prints on both coated and uncoated substrates that can be displayed indoors and outdoors.
The SP-300V from Roland DGA is a 30" wide, four-color printer/cutter designed for an assortment of wide-format graphics applications. The printer handles sheets from 7.18"-30" wide and prints at a resolution of 720x1440dpi. The SP-300V can plot at 63 square feet per hour on 30" media, printing 29" in width. A separate "S" model is available for sublimation graphics.
Like the SJ-645EX, the SP-300V can use Roland's Eco-SOL ink for durable prints on both coated and uncoated substrates to be used outdoors as well as indoors. It also includes Roland's VersaWorks software RIP. The printer connects using USB (v1.1) and comes with 32MB of RAM. Drivers for Windows are included in addition to the VersaWorks RIP.
The SP-300V from Roland, priced at $14,995, accommodates media up to 30" wide.
The third entry from Roland DGA is the SP-540V, a four-color printer/cutter that handles sheets from 7.18"-54" wide and prints at 720x1440dpi resolution.
Priced at $19,995, the SP-540V is, like the other two Roland DGA wide-format printers, covered by a one-year onsite warranty. Connectivity is accomplished via an internal Ethernet card (10 BaseT/100 BaseTX automatic switching). The printer comes with 32MB of RAM installed, with no option to upgrade memory further. A Windows driver and Roland's VersaWorks RIP (raster image processor) are included.
The SP-540V measures 94.9" X 31.5" X 50.9" (wXdXh) and weighs 328lb unpacked. Plotting speed is 114 square feet per hour on 54" media when printing 53" in width. Use Roland's Eco-SOL ink to create prints for use outdoors.
Both the Roland SP-300V and SP-540V printers feature integrated and accurate contour cutting of irregular shapes, even after lamination of the original.
If youre not sure about buying one of these big machines, you can lease the SP-540V and other models from Roland.
Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor, and computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.