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10 Tips You Need to Keep in Mind Before You Buy a Wide Format Inkjet Printer

things to remember when buying a buying a wide fomat printer
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Avoid Major Pitfalls in Buying Commercial Printing Equipment. An Absolute Must Read for Entrepreneurs New to the Print Industry.

Wide format inkjet printing is a lucrative business. There are many industries and individuals who need wide format prints. The applications for inkjet prints are endless and this demand translates into an excellent business opportunity. But entering this business and making it run successfully, is not easy. There is a knowledge barrier that restricts competition in the inkjet printing sector. You require specialised knowledge to run a print shop. And the good thing is, specialised knowledge in any field, leads to enhanced profitability. Don’t get me wrong. I do not claim that running a Print-for-Pay business is rocket science. But it does require some level of expertise and know-how. One cannot just walk in, throw large sums of money on a huge, technologically advanced piece of equipment and expect to turn a profit from day one.

I have been in the print industry for a decade and a half now and made a ton of mistakes in my business. Some of them, very costly. There is hardly a type of printer that I have not worked with, run into the ground, broken and repaired (or failed to). While my knocks came at a price, they also gave me a lot of experience in this field. And this post is all about sharing that hard-earned (and sometimes tear bringing) experience. 🙂

The owner of a digital print shop, like any other business, needs multiple skill sets. He needs to be proficient in the use of computers, be familiar with design softwares, have a head for marketing and accounts and let’s not forget HR. But the real hero of a print bureau is obviously the wide format printing machine and the applications that you can run off it. You need to have the ability to make the most out of your biggest capital investment.

So, if you are planning to get into the digital printing business, I cannot emphasise how important it is, for you to invest in the right inkjet printing machine.There are scores of big brands out there all selling a variety of inkjets based on different technologies. Make the wrong choice from among this vast selection, and there is a good chance that your budding business will fail even before it gets a chance to take off. I really don’t want to scare you. As I said in the first line of this post, wide format inkjet printing is a profitable business. Play your cards right and soon your biggest worry will be about which destination to pick, for your third annual vacation 🙂

But a word of caution before you jump in. Industrial inkjet printers are expensive. They work beautifully for their intended application. But if this application does not match up with your needs and business goals, you will find yourself in the proverbial deep-end without a rope. Even large, well established companies have been brought to their knees by making the wrong capital investment in machines. And that is why I have crafted this post to highlight the pitfalls while making a purchase decision about the wide format inkjet, best suited to your business. Through this post, you’ll not just be getting insights and tips to buy a wide format inkjet printer, but also how to start an inkjet printing business.

the questions that arise in mind when you go to buy a wide format inkjet printer

Three disclaimers first. If you are reading this post, it means that you are looking for advice on how to buy the right kind of printing machine for your business. So I will make the following assumptions:

1. You already know what inkjet printing technology is and have a fair understanding about how these machines work. But if you prefer to brush up on your knowledge, do jump to this post here on what is a wide-format inkjet printer, its applications, and ink types. It’s the first part in this 2-part guide on understanding wide-format inkjet printers and printing, and how they are a vital part in a digital printer’s arsenal today.

2. You are aware of the fact that different inkjet printers use different ink chemistrys. And the inks determine the end use and applications that you will be able to cater to. I need to repeat this because I feel this fact is important and often overlooked by first time buyers of production level inkjet printers.

Different inks have different strengths and limitations. Based on its strengths, a production level printer is suited for certain commercial applications. But There is no single printer model that can cater to every wide format printing application under the sun. 

Let us for example, assume that you buy an inkjet whose prints are rated for indoor use. You obviously cannot use this machine to print outdoor hoardings and banners.

Inkjet inks are mainly available in 5 different flavours: aqueous inks, solvent inks, eco solvent inks, latex inks and UV / Ultra Violet Inks. If you need to remind yourself about the advantages, limitations and technical differences in these inks, do read this post here

3. Finally, this post does not review any particular printer model. It tries to do something better. It lists important parameters against which you can evaluate every wide format printing machine in front of your eyes. I have also added in some tips about the print for pay business in general. On reading this post, you won’t just get insights into buying an inkjet printer, but also on how you can start and run your own printing business.

10 Tips You Have to Consider Before Buying a Wide Format Inkjet Printer

1. Work out the True Cost of Printing a Job on the Printing Machine You Plan to Buy

A wide format inkjet printer is a capital investment. You will be working with this asset for years to come. And so, getting your budget right is perhaps the most important thing you can do, before committing yourself to the project. I have seen so many print house owners make a purchase decision based on just two considerations…

  • The cost of the machine.
  • The cost of running the machine. By this I am referring to consumable costs like inks and spares which need to be periodically changed

But your ROI (return on investment) calculations will be heavily skewed if you do not factor in a lot of secondary / hidden expenses associated with a print shop project. In addition to the cost of your eco-solvent printer and its running costs, a prospective entrant in the printing business also needs to factor in the following expenses, in his budget:

  • The cost of funds. Even if the machine is financed from money out of your own pocket, you need to add in a notional figure of bank interest in your calculations.

  • The cost of electrical power needed to run the printer. This can become significant in some machines. Especially the ones fitted with internal heaters. Your monthly power bill will impact your bottom line.

  • The cost of backup power. If the power supply at your place of operations is erratic, installing a UPS and scores of batteries becomes mandatory. A UPS will protect the sensitive electrical components of your high end print equipment.

  • Add in the monthly rental for the workshop to your cost sheet. Even if you own the place.

  • Monthly salary for the operators is another expenditure that you need to account for.

  • Machine Breakdown Insurance: Perhaps the biggest expenditure in running a print shop are the contingencies that nobody can foresee. But trust me. S*** happens. Machines break down. Printheads jam and have to be thrown away. Circuit boards and PCBs short circuit. And the cost for repairing or god forbid, replacing these parts is sky high. I have seen print providers slave away on their machines for a year to eke out a profit. And then seemingly out of the blue, one major part of the machine blows and they are back to square one. So buy machine insurance and buy yourself some peace of mind.

  • Budget for design softwares. Your customers will be sharing files in a variety of formats. Obviously you will need the requisite design software to process these jobs.

  • Budget also for air conditioners, exhausts and environment control systems like dehumidifiers. Inkjet printers need controlled environments to work efficiently.

Include all the above points in your project feasibility report. Then and only then will you be able to arrive at a meaningful selling price for your print products.

2. Pay Attention to Printers With Enhanced Capabilities

Look for a wide format printer that will enable you to deliver varied applications to your customers. In the printing business, the more media and substrates you can print on, the more end-uses you will be able to cater to. Every printer can print on large rolls of flex and vinyls. And make no mistake. Vinyl posters and flex banners are going to be a large part of your annual turnover. 

But the outdoor hoardings and indoor prints market is heavily saturated. The margins on these products are wafer-thin. Your print shop needs to differentiate itself from the competitors by adding value to our services. So when you are looking at prospective brands of printers, focus on models and technologies that have enhanced capabilities.

  • For example, Roland, Mimaki and HP companies all have high resolution wide format printers in their stable. But they also have variants which offer print and cut (kiss cut) capability to the machines.
custom shape cut vinyl stickers digitally printed and cut on the edges with one of the labels being raised by a hand

UV printers are able to print on uncoated substrates. Which means that armed with this machine, you can offer prints on exotic media like leather, cloth, metal foils, wall paper, curtains, wall blinds, etc.

  • Some wide format printers can be equipped with additional inks over and above the standard CMYK configuration. White inks help in producing beautiful glass films. Clear/transparent inks are used to print premium grade stickers with a 3D embossed effect.

Additional functionality on the same equipment definitely makes you more competitive and helps you access new revenue streams. But this functionality comes at an added cost.

UV inks are significantly costlier than aqueous and solvent inks. Print and cut machines are almost twice the price of their print only counterparts. How much of a premium to pay, for the potential profits that come from specialised jobs, is a call every print shop owner will have to individually make.

3. Check If Third-Party Bulk Ink Feeding Solutions Are Available

The biggest cost in running a car is obviously the petrol it consumes. Likewise, the money you pay for the inks that your printer runs on, will affect your bottom-line and will also determine how competitive you are, in the market.

Every printer recommends a particular brand of inks for use with his machine. And most print manufacturers also manufacture the inks. For example, HP claims that its  printers are designed to work best with HP inks. Likewise, Roland, Canon, Mutoh, Mimaki and every major brand of printer manufacturers also sell their own ink formulations for use with their machines. 

Original inks come filled in an ink cartridge that slots into the machine. And as the ink gets over, you have to buy a new cartridge from the parent company to replace the old one. Each cartridge is also fitted with a special chip to counter duplication. The print machine initialises only after reading the chip fitted on the original cartridge supplied by the manufacturer. 

But there are a whole lot of companies that manufacture only inks. Moreover these inks are compatible for use with most of the major brands of wide format printers. The inks are fed into the machines via specialised feeders which bypass the original manufacturers’ cartridges entirely. 

Most importantly, and here is where things get interesting, third party ink solutions are available for a fraction of the cost you pay for original ink cartridges purchased from OEM suppliers. (Original Equipment Suppliers)

So one of the most important questions you need to ask your printer manufacturer is whether his machine will accept third party bulk ink feeders. Remember, an answer in the negative will significantly impact your profit margins. Some print manufacturers void the warranty on their machines if they discover that third party inks have been used on the same. So you need to seek clarity on this issue as well, before you make your purchase decision.

4. Printhead Maintenance and Replacement Cost

technician cleaning the inkjet head of a wide format printer

Perhaps the single most costliest component in your wide format printer is your print head. A machine running 4 colors (CMYK) might be equipped with 4 print heads. One for each color. Larger capacity machines have 8 heads, two for each color, and so on. My WIT-Color Challenger solvent inkjet printer has got 8 Konica Minolta printheads installed in it. With multiple heads, this beast of a machine can easily process a 1000 plus square feet in an hour. But on the flip side, each of these printheads cost a lakh of rupees. And this is the potential loss I face when even a single head goes bad and needs to be replaced.

Now, printheads have hundreds of microscopic nozzles in them. The inks jet out of these nozzles. But very often, these nozzles start jamming or misfiring. And when this happens, the machine’s print quality seriously deteriorates. 

Different machines require different levels of maintenance. In most aqueous printers, with the inks made of water, all you need to do is wipe the nozzles with a wet cloth. Solvent ink printers on the other hand need to be continuously dipped in solvent to keep from drying up. UV machines are kept constantly powered on. The inks are forever cycling through the ink systems because there is a danger of them drying up.

So when you are buying an industrial printer first verify the cost of each printhead. I pray to God that you never have to replace them. But you still need to be aware of their replacement cost. Also, check how good, the engineering on the machine’s ink systems are. There are scores of printers which are cheap knock offs of the more well known brands. But maintaining and running them is a nightmare.

5. Check If Engineers and Support Staff Are Readily Available

The best equipment in the world becomes a  useless piece of metal when it breaks down and there is nobody around to fix it. Wide format inkjets printers are complex machines. Printers sold by even the well-known brands will break down occasionally. And you will need company engineers to come over to your place and fix the issue. Your job in this scenario, is to then minimise machine downtime and the consequent loss in productivity.

printer technician repairing a wide fomat printer

So check with your print supplier if qualified engineers are readily available to help you, in your time of need. I know of a printer manufacturer who has got just 6 engineers to service machines throughout Maharashtra (excluding Mumbai). What do you think happens when a machine breaks down in far off Jalna? I am guessing that the poor vendor must be tearing out his hair in frustration, while waiting for the service guy to turn up.

Most of the big printer brands like HP, Canon, Roland, etc. have their own offices and authorised service centers at numerous locations. But if your printer manufacturer does not have a proper support team in place, do not buy the machine from him, no matter how good a deal he offers you on the same. 

6. Beware of Marketing Hype Surrounding Industrial Inkjet Printers

beware of marketing hype

Salesmen are generally very enthusiastic about their products. They tend to over sell their brand. And I do not blame them. These guys are after all, just doing their job. But some marketers are down right shady. And these crooks very often misrepresent the products they are selling. I have come across marketing guys who have:

  • Overstated the capabilities of the machine
  • And failed to disclose the shortcomings of the printer
  • The worst ones downplay or even hide the real costs associated with the printer

When you are out buying a new machine, it is your job to talk to as many salesmen as possible. I even recommend that you request machine demos from the marketing representatives of the company. These interactions will after all, help you weigh the pros of one printing machine against the other.

But at all these sales meetings, I want you to be a bit of a cynic. I want you to take the company’s claims with a pinch of salt. 

For example, if the salesman says that his machine outputs a 100 square feet in an hour, jot down a speed of 80, in your notes. If the cost of inks is shown as Rs.10/- per square foot, assume Rs.15/- in your profitability calculations. 

Again, I am not saying that their claims are lies. The salesmen will have some logic in place to back their statements. But that logic tends to very often break down, in the real world. All I want, is for you to be conservative in your projections. Keep a buffer before buying a machine and you will be cushioned against rude surprises later on.

There is one common tactic that I have seen many printer salesmen use. They start by giving me a reference of a big print house whose name is well known to everybody. They then proceed to give examples of how the said print house made lakhs of rupees using only their machine. Many salesmen become so persuasive in this vein that listening to them makes me think that all I have to do is invest in the goose they are selling. What remains, is for me to then sit back and wait for the bird to lay a golden egg every day.

There is another reason I find the ‘successful run in a big print house’ argument specious. The owner of a big print house already has a ton of experience, loads of manpower, a lot of goodwill and a whole lot of customers at his doorsteps. So he is bound to turn a profit whether he uses the marketing guy’s machine or any other similar piece of equipment.

Limited Period Offers

Salesman offering ‘huge discounts’ only for a ‘limited period of time’ is perhaps the oldest trick in the book. Wide format printers, unlike oil and natural gas, are not finite resources. New and better printers are being launched every day. So, if there is a huge discount on a particular model, it is there to stay and probably will not be rolled back. A discount is a good thing but low pricing should not be the sole influencer of your ‘buy’ decision.

You should in fact ask yourself questions such as:

  • Why is this model being deeply discounted?” 
  • Is it being phased out?” 
  • Is there a better version being launched?” 
  • Or God forbid, “Does this machine have some major drawback?

7. Follow the ‘Rule of Ten'

I have formulated something known as ‘Orchid’s Rule of Ten.’ This rule states that only after a printer model is successfully installed at ten other print shops, will Orchid even consider buying it. 

Wide format printers are continuously evolving. New features and capabilities are added in every version. And new printer models are generally launched with a lot of fanfare. Do not get carried away by this. Just like software, new iterations of digital printers come with their own set of bugs and design errors. So wait for a model to settle down and prove itself in the market. Source reviews from other users and only then put down your money on the machine.

8. Ensure That You Have Finishing Equipment in Place

A wide format inkjet printer is not a standalone solution. Sure, it will generate the prints which is what your business depends on. But these ‘raw’ prints will need some finishing before it becomes a final product that can be sold across the counter. 

For example, an oven will bake your pizza for you. But you will still need a packing and delivery section to push that double cheese pepperoni into a box and bring it to your client’s house.

Similarly, depending on the end application, there are a whole lot of print finishing machines available. And while you need not buy each and every one of them, investing in the ones suitable to your setup, will make you that much more efficient and competitive. Here is list of some ancillary equipment that you will need, to convert your raw prints into finished products:

<Show finishing equipment photos here>

Seaming Machine: Large hoardings are not printed out of a single piece. Rather, they are composed of multiple tiles all joined together. For example, let us assume that you have a 10 foot wide, wide format printer. This means that the maximum width of print that your machine can generate is 10 feet. So, lets see what happens when your customer walks in with a 30 feet hoarding job: 

  • First you need to break the artwork in 3 parts of 10 feet each.
  • You then print each of these three, 10 feet tiles, on your printer separately.
  • Finally, you need to seam / join these discrete tiles to create one continuous hoarding print.

There are specialised heat seaming machines available that glue large prints together. And to process large hoarding jobs, you will have to budget for one such machine in your print shop.

Large Lamination Machine: Vinyl prints need to be laminated with a protective layer of film on top. In simple words, laminating means pasting a plastic sheet on top of an existing print. This film protects our print from water, fading in the sunlight, dust, scratches, daily wear and tear, etc. Vinyl prints also need to be mounted on thick sheets of sunboard. Sunboard or foam sheet, essentially adds rigidity and thickness to our flexible prints.

In either case, whether you need to mount a print on a sunboard or laminate it with a protective film, the job is too large to be done by hand. You then need a specialised hydraulic press to do this for you. Laminating machines are typically 5 feet in width and can easily handle prints hundred of feet in width.

Large Cutting Table: Let us assume that you have a number of print jobs of varying sizes. Some artworks may be of size 2 feet, others 3 feet, 4 feet and so on. To save media costs, you then club these various jobs on one large 5 foot roll of vinyl. The printer then spits out a single print of 5 feet width having multiple artworks nested within. Obviously you cannot hand over this large, unfinished roll to your customers. What you then need to do is cut the large print into its individual components. 

Further, if you use hand scissors to do this, the finished job will end up having crooked, shabby looking edges. To overcome this problem you need a large cutting table in your premises where the prints can properly be trimmed with cutting blades.

Grommeting Machine: This is a nifty piece of equipment that fixes eyelets or grommets on your banners. End users can then loop ropes through the holes in the eyelets to string the banners in place.

CNC Router: Some specialised jobs need rigid boards to be cut in various shapes. Product display stands and shape cut standees especially, are difficult to finish by hand. A CNC cutting router greatly helps, in this case.

Stretching Table: If you provide canvas prints, you customers might ask for them to be stretched on a frame as well. A stretching table, equipped with clamps, etc. might then be needed to deliver a professional job.

End-Point Pasting and Installation Team: End-users or buyers of your prints will very often ask for the prints to be installed on site. Transparent or frosted films need to be pasted on glass partitions in an office. Custom printed wall vinyls need to be installed on walls, sunboard and photo frames need drilling, etc. Some print providers choose not to get involved in end-point installation services. Others provide a full solution, ranging from the print to its final installation. If you opt for the latter, your organisation will obviously need a pasting and installation team on standby.

9. Gather Knowledge of Design Softwares

knowledge of design software is needed to run a print shop

A print shop owner needs to work with a variety of file formats. Customers provide artwork in Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw, Photoshop and even MS Office. You do not need to be an artist or proficient in designing, to run a print-for-pay business. But you must have a working knowledge of these softwares. There are some things that you need to be familiar with, at the very least:

  • You have to be aware of which file formats work with which design softwares.
  • You have to be able to use the basic tools in each software to make minor corrections, alterations and layout changes in your clients’ files, if needed.
  • Variable data printing is a value added service provided by digital print shops. Most design softwares have VDP modules built within them. Familiarity with these modules will greatly help you. In case you are curious, read more about it here.

<Show collage of design softwares photo here>

10. Understand the Market That You Will Be Entering Into. Do Market Research and Analysis.

Every business needs to be studied before you invest in it. And so, long before you make a down payment on your wide format printer, you need to study the market that you will be entering. Here are some areas that you need to research and tips that will help you in your analysis.

  • Check which brands of printing machines are most popular. If over half the people in the city have HP machines installed in their premises and only a minusicle have opted for, let’s say Roland, there must be a good reason for the same. Try to figure this reason out.
  • Find out which ink technology your competitors are using. If existing printers are running jobs off aqueous and solvent machines it means that they are already catering to the larger demand for indoor and outdoor prints. So it is going to be difficult for a newbie to make a mark here. But is the competition providing print and cut stickers as well. Who is providing the speciality services that can only be processed on a UV printer?

    Some examples of special jobs that only a UV printer could generate are white ink prints for glass films, clear ink prints for spot lamination or prints on unconventional media, like a roll of leather for furniture applications. The demand for speciality jobs is obviously going to be lower than mainstream jobs. But the profitability on the same is very high. So if your studies show that there aren’t many UV or print and cut machines in your city, this then becomes a niche that you might want to exploit.

  • Go to trade shows. Exhibitions are great sources of information. Exhibitors are willing and in fact waiting to impart invaluable knowledge about their machines. You also get an idea of the latest trends in the industry. I remember attending scores of print exhibitions all over the country before I started my print shop business. The two things I recommend you do at trade shows are:
    • Keep aksing questions, even if you think they are dumb. The answers you will clarify a lot of doubts and will help you gain insights on the print industry.

    • Go and stand at the stall showing the costliest most technologically advanced printers. You may or may not have the funds to buy this equipment. But that does not matter. You will gain a better understanding of what advantages these high end printers provide. You can then hunt for the same in lower end models that fit your budget. It’s like saying that I only have the money to buy a humble Toyota. But that does not stop me from checking out the cool features of a Ferrari.

  • Go out and buy prints (even if you don’t need to) from other print providers. And don’t do this online. Visit the physical locations print houses operate from. After all these vendors are going to be your future competitors. So it makes sense to check out their infrastructure, strengths, and shortcomings, if any.
  • Talk to the owners of the biggest print houses in your city. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. At most, you will be brushed off. And at best, you will gain invaluable pearls of actionable wisdom.

    To begin with, if you need even the smallest of advice when it comes to buying your next wide format inkjet printer, or how to set up your printing shop, get in touch with us. We, at Orchid Digitals, have a humble experience of over 10 years in serving not just the people of Pune, but the world with our printing expertise.

A Purchase Decision of a Lifetime

I hope that these 10 tips to buying a commercial printer help you in your quest. They are based on my own experience in the print industry and the challenges I faced while making purchase decisions. And if these tips steer you away from the pitfalls in the industry, if they help to turn a profit, I will consider my efforts well rewarded. Be confident, familiarise yourself with this guide to buying a wide-format inkjet printer and get to business!

Do let me know what you think. Add in your own insights and let me know which machine you finally purchased. Cheers and all the best for your new endeavour.

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