Wide-Format Printers/Plotters

Color Wide-Format Printers for CAD

29 Oct, 2015 By: Curt Moreno

Cadalyst Labs Report: These multifunction machines produce beautiful color prints to show off your work, plus black-and-white plots for day-to-day design checks.

Printers have been important tools since computers first landed on our desks, and now we're used to having them within reach in the office and at home. While most of the working world is content with standard, letter-sized prints, however, engineers and architects have greater needs. We need prints that range from letter-sized diagrams to giant 12-foot-square images — and larger! We need professional, wide-format printers.

Fortunately, the market is broad as well as dynamic, offering a wide selection of sizes, prices, and capabilities for modern design professionals to choose from. On the other hand, a wide selection can also make things a bit confusing.

Product Reviews

Following is a sampling of products that represent a variety of functionality and prices available in this product category. Click on each link to read the respective First Look reviews.

 Canon imagePROGRAF iPF785 MFP M40
 Epson SureColor T5270
 HP DesignJet T3500
 Colortrac SmartLF SC 36 Xpress Scanner

An Increasingly Colorful Marketplace

When it comes to wide-format printers, there are several players in the market; HP, Canon, and Epson are among the better-known manufacturers. There are also two types of technologies to choose from: electrophotography (more commonly referred to as laserjet) and inkjet.

Mechanically speaking, the main difference between these printer types is the print medium. An electrophotography printer uses a powdered toner medium similar to that of a standard office photocopier. This is very reliable technology, but unless you spend a lot of money, it only produces black-and-white prints.

Full-color prints are the domain of the inkjet printer, which uses liquid inks to create images. Inkjet technology is much more familiar to the average consumer, being nearly identical to that of desktop printers at home.

Practically speaking, for most engineers and architects, the first factor to consider when choosing new wide-format printer is whether color plots are needed. Most of our basic prints are fine as monochrome images, but being able to present a project to your clients in full color can make or break a presentation. In addition, color makes it much easier to set up an effective exhibit or present GIS data clearly. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a color picture is worth ten thousand. Currently, wide-format color plots are only economically feasible with inkjet printers, so that is what we'll focus on in this roundup.

Although the market for such plotters was restricted to a handful of expensive units not so long ago, today the number of choices is on the rise even as the entry price continues to drop. Both the number of manufacturers producing wide-format inkjet plotters and the number of models available have increased. 

Now, buyers can choose from a wide range of configurations, with the simplest, single-roll versions priced as low as $1,000. At the other end of the spectrum, there are models with multiple media rolls, enlarged ink tanks, scanners, and many more features, priced upwards of $30,000.

In addition, the technology and user experience have been refined to the point that it's hard to make a bad selection. All the models in this roundup, for example, performed very well in testing; the lowest score we assigned was an A-. 

Pick a Printer

With so many choices, settling on a single model can be intimidating. However, selecting a wide-format inkjet printer does not have to be complicated if you ask yourself a few simple questions to narrow the field of candidates.

Size. First, consider your company's needs: Does your company primarily produce sheets that are 22" x 34", 24" x 36", or even larger? Do you need a printer that can produce 48"-wide plots for really big jobs? Determining the maximum useful width is important; choosing the wrong size printer could lead to wasted paper and time if sheets must be rotated and cut after printing.

Beyond the question of page size, what about the size of the printer itself? Do you have a 6' spot in the office to accommodate a 48" printer? Space confines that barely fit the physical footprint of the printer won't work for day-to-day operation. In addition to the footprint of the printer, you must also consider the layout of network and power connections. And what about the space needed for proper ventilation and storage for printer supplies? Take the time to measure your office and research the recommended space allotment.

Media support. It might seem like a simple question: "What sort of media do you want to print on?" However, as with most things, the real answer is more complicated than just "paper."

Do you want to print high-resolution, photorealistic images of spectacular renderings? If so, you will want to produce those on bright, glossy photo media. Do you only need to produce day-to-day plots for check sets and internal reviews? Do you need to plot on specialty media such as Mylar or other plastic sheeting, poster board, or heat-transfer film? Do you need roll-fed media or individual sheets of manually fed media?

When researching media, consider all of the possible sizes you might need to plot. Does your company already have a printer that you plan to send your letter- and tabloid-sized prints to? Or will you need to need to send everything to this single printer? Will a single-roll configuration suffice, or will you need multiple rolls? Single roll units cost less, but multiple roll units will save your production staff time because they don't have to change rolls for different sizes and they can make more prints of a particular sheet size. Do the regular roll lengths suit your needs, or do you need a printer than can accommodate higher-capacity rolls?

All of these possibilities should figure into your research to be certain that the printer you select can print to the appropriate materials.

Performance. Time is money, and the time you spend waiting for plots can add up. So when selecting your wide-format printer, you should consider its rated performance. Will a print rate of three D-sized pages per minute be fast enough? Costs are tied to print speed, so this is an area where you can find savings if you're not in a hurry.

Resolution — the primary predictor of print quality — is another aspect of performance that is important to consider. Measured in dots per inch (DPI), resolutions can vary widely across various models and manufacturers. Much like speed, costs for higher-resolution printers will be steeper than for models with lower resolution. If you only require low-resolution check plots, then you may find that a printer with a 400 x 400 DPI resolution is sufficient. However, if you plan to produce presentation-quality or photorealistic prints, then you will need a printer capable of up to 2,400 x 1,400 DPI or higher.

Matching your expectations to the reality of a printer's capabilities is key in selecting a make and model that will meet your needs.

Scanning. Today it is very common for wide-format printers to feature integrated scanners. These scanners can be a great convenience, and they also provide relief in smaller office spaces: integrated scanner/printers occupy the same footprint as a printer alone.

In addition, the integration of the scanner is normally seamless, resulting in a smaller learning curve and lower IT support costs. Scanning to network drives or directly to the printer for copying is fast and easy, and has the added benefit of using the same interface.

Scanners à la Carte

Not all wide-format printers have integrated scanners as a default configuration — but should they? There is a very strong case for having an integrated scanner, backed by reasons such as ease of selection, guaranteed interoperability, and just not having to think about it. Still, there is one benefit that no integrated scanner can provide: versatility.

An independent scanner option is precisely that: independent. That translates into a world of options. What do you do if the wide-format printer that best fits your business use does not have an option for a scanner? Or perhaps you already have a perfectly good printer that has plenty of life left in it, but no scanner — or it has a scanner that doesn't fit your needs. What if your reprographic costs are going through the roof on a new project requiring 60-year-old as-built sheets? Never fear, you can purchase an independent scanner to resolve any or all of these very common scenarios!

Independence in scanners could give your company more freedom in terms of what to buy, and even when to buy it. Ordering à la carte may take a bit more research and effort, but the rewards are sure to satisfy the most particular of aficionados for whom "the bundle" will never do! Here is our review of one such product on the market from Colortrac.

The downside is that an integrated scanner usually can't be upgraded or replaced without replacing the entire printer/scanner unit. This is a distinct advantage of the stand-alone scanner unit. While it does require more space, as well as additional data and power connections, it is easy to replace or relocate. These can be great advantages as your company grows or modifies service lines.

Review Process

So now that we have a basic understanding of wide-format printers, we can set our expectations of the models that we reviewed. Each unit submitted for review was evaluated on the following criteria:

  • stated specifications vs. perceived performance
  • plot quality
  • ease of installation and operation
  • connectivity options
  • media options
  • ink cartridge system
  • quality of scan
  • other impressions
  • warranty.

In each category, I rated the printer on a scale of 1 to 4, then averaged the totals. Finally I correlated numeric values to arrive at a letter grade for each printer in the roundup.

It is important to note that the review scores do not take into account the ease/process of printer assembly. Several of the units reviewed were either shipped pre-assembled or were assembled by a company representative. Because I couldn't uniformly measure assembly, I did not score it.

Reviewed units were connected via Ethernet network in a working engineering firm and operated from a production CAD workstation with a Core i7-3770 processor and 16 GB of RAM. To test performance, I sent a wide variety of jobs to each device, to simulate what could be expected in an average product office. My test files included:

  • black-and-white line drawings
  • color line drawings
  • low-color graphic images (duotone)
  • complex, full-color renderings
  • photographs.

About the Author: Curt Moreno

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