Considerations when Purchasing a Large Format Printer

February 14, 2022


While researching for “large format printer”, you will very often get terms like “wide format printer” or “plotters”. These terms are often used interchangeably in the industry, but the meaning remains the same.

Till mid-1990s, we used to have pens plotting on paper to create drawings. Over the years this has been replaced mainly by inkjet technology but the legacy terminology of plotter is still the accepted norm in the industry. The terminology plotter is nowadays used for two types of equipment that perform entirely different functions namely wide format printing and contour cutting (vinyl cutter). For all our further discussion we will refer to only the printing plotter or popularly known as inkjet plotter.

These are basically printers which can print on media greater than A3 size, usually A1 or A0 or even bigger like 44 inch or 60 inches. These are used to print large scale images of CAD drawings, engineering plans, GIS images, posters, enlarged photos, big canvas prints and much more.

So the next obvious question is “Who uses Large Format Printer?”

Architects use these printers to create blueprints and site design for projects, engineers and manufacturing firms use them to print their technical drawings, while photographers use them to create massive high-resolution prints of their work. Another place where it finds application is creating large colourful advertisements, posters and proofing. They have wide acceptance in verticals like manufacturing, designing, advertisement, education, photo & digital studios, offset printing and at quick print shops.

If you are in any of these segments and need to take large prints, there comes the daunting task of choosing the right printer. The information below provides a checklist of some of the key questions you may wish to ask when purchasing a large format inkjet printer.

Print Application

The most important question is to ask – what am I going to print? If one is an architect or from an engineering, manufacturing or construction company, he will most likely print technical drawings. The most important consideration will be on accuracy of print and not so much on colour reproduction. He may at times print posters or GIS / 3D renderings and will look for a CAD plotter.

On the other hand, if one is from photo community or advertisement field, he will be looking more for wider colour gamut, better skin tones and vibrant colours. In short, they will be looking for large photo printer. There may be some overlapping areas also where one requires fair amount of both the aspects.

All manufacturers have two distinct range of solutions – technical and graphic line of printers. The technical printers normally come in four or five colour configurations while graphic models usually have eight to twelve colours.

One of the things one jump at is whether to go for inkjet for LED (toner) based technology. Over the years colour prints have been growing and today all inkjet large format printer have colour capability. If one still has high volume mono requirement, they may evaluate LED option as well.

So, defining the right print application that you wish to print is the first step in choosing the correct model.

Print Size

The second biggest important consideration is the print size. As stated earlier, these printers are designed to take media width of more than A3 size. (Office prints are normally A4, legal or A3 size). Typically, an architect, design firm or small photographer print a max of 24-inch width (A1 size), while engineering firms normally print on 36-inch width media (A0 size). However, there are applications where you may have to print 42/44 inch or even 60-inch-wide prints.

Normally technical prints are done on 24-inch or 36-inch wide media, whereas graphic prints are on 24-inch, 44-inch and 60-inch media. Thus, the selection of A1 size printer or A0 size printer or larger.

Media Handling

One big difference as compared to home / office printers is that large format printers can print on varied medias like plain or coated paper, clear film for backlit, vinyl, some fabrics including canvas and much more.

Start preparing a list of various media and media thickness that you would use and check with vendors whether those are supported on the recommended model.

If you need to frequently interchange between various media types and or size, you may check for dual roll support from various OEMs. Note: Dual-roll options are generally in high end models.

If your applications warranties use of wider and thicker media, pl. check on ease of loading the media roll on the machine.

Print Speed and Multifunction (copy/scan) Functionality

One of the important things is to estimate your print volume. Is there going to be a handful of drawings per week or hundreds of prints per day? More importantly is average batch size – there is a difference between 100 prints in a day with each batch of 5 prints and doing 100 prints at one go in an hour. Obviously, higher print speed machines come at a price.

Having established above points, one must answer if he requires in-house scanning facility! One may fall in one of the below brackets

  • No Scan Required
  • Low Scan Volume – The question is whether to rely on repro house or have in-house capability (maybe due to security reasons or convenience)
  • Reference Scanning or Professional Scanning – If the scan is just for reference, one may opt for entry level MFP printer. However, it is for high-fidelity reproduction and electronic storage – reach out for high resolution scanners. High end multifunction printers can do batch scanning at higher DPI.

Ease of Use and Support

Having narrowed on broad aspects, one gets caught up in features and specifications and forget the importance of ease of use and after sales support.

The printer is supposed to bring convenience and some questions that may help in determining ease of use are:

  • Is the printer’s control panel easy to navigate?
  • How easy is it to load and unload the media? Do I need to frequently go round the machine for changing media?
  • Do I need to call engineer every time to replace consumables like ink cartridge, print head and waste ink tank / cartridge?
  • What security features and connectivity (LAN, Wi-fi etc) are with the machine?

Usually, an overlooked aspect is the technical capability and support structure of your vendor. Be clear with your supplier what support and response time is he committing to. This becomes more important esp. if you are in remote locations.

Happy Printing!