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Adding a Larger Printer

When it makes sense to add a production level printer to your shop-- and why.

At some point, every shop owner asks, 'Do we need a bigger printer?' The triggers may be different, but if you’re experiencing longer turn times, have frequent machine breakdowns that impact deadlines, need to add another shift (at least on some days), or are outsourcing overflow capacity on a regular basis, you may want to look at adding a larger, production-oriented printer to your shop's mix.

Print providers need more than a gut feeling-they need hard criteria to determine if a large production machine is right for their shop. What follows is an array of criteria that can help graphics providers match up their shop's needs with a new and larger printer.

Taking on more 'payload'

When your shop is considering the addition of a larger printer, one option might be adding a machine that’s referred to as a 'production-level' printer. Print providers often hear this term touted about the marketplace, but it remains a bit fuzzy. The only thing about production-level printers that most of the marketplace agrees on is that they are super wide and meet some 'industrial' level of performance-but after that, the definition isn't clear. The term generally involves three aspects of the printer: width, heavy-duty frame or capabilities, and production speed.

Roland, for instance, defines a production-level press as 'a 72-inch or larger printer that achieves a print speed of at least 500 square foot/hr at 360 x 360-dpi resolution,' says Rick Scrimger, vice president and general manager of Roland’s Color Products Division. He also notes that the printer should feature piezo printhead technology or better.

Meanwhile over at Mutoh America, Brian Phipps, western sales director, admits that 'production-level press' is an ambiguous term, but defines it as a printer that "is a minimum of 64-inches wide, holds large rolls of media (around 200 pounds), and has the capability of running more than one shift.' He likens the difference between a production and a 'regular' press to the difference between a light-duty Ford F150 pickup and a Ford F350 super-duty truck. 'They’re similar but one is more expensive, will last longer, and holds more payload.'

A production-level machine, says Christopher Howard, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Durst US, 'is a printer designed for continuous-printing or high-volume-printing situations, which offers a high level of 'real' productivity. Measuring print speed is just one part of the productivity equation. What's important isn't how fast a printer runs-it's how much saleable output shops can produce and ship at the end of the day.'

And efficient production depends on a number of factors, including equipment reliability and support, the media-handling system, how intuitive the user interface is, and the image-management software. 'These are all critical aspects of an efficient, productive workflow. And they all work together to create a true 'production-level' platform,' says Howard.

'Production-level devices are typically defined in the customer’s mind by print speed and targeted monthly production volume,' says Oscar Vidal, worldwide marketing product manager, graphics and imaging business for Hewlett-Packard. 'Production printers are not purchased based on price, but on total cost of ownership or return on investment (ROI) analysis.' Vidal also notes that among the most important factors defining production level are print volumes, productivity levels, and duty cycle.

Advantages of a bigger press

Beyond defining just what a 'production press' is, you need to know which machines will actually produce on the floor in your shop.

When you add a bigger and better printer, it will probably add several things: more speed, width, and output; the latest printing technology; new capabilities to your shop's mix; and the ability to bid on a wider variety of jobs. Keep in mind, however, that it also will bring with it an increased outlay for machine lease, a larger footprint and space requirements, the re-training of staff, the possibility of new finishing equipment, and perhaps an investment in wider media for use by a single machine in the shop.

No matter what the issues related to moving up to a large-format machine, shops are doing it every day-but may have benefited from doing it sooner. 'Many businesses take a conservative approach when it comes to investing in a larger printer, even when confronted with a production workload that either requires more time on the press or exceeds their capabilities in terms of format and media options,' says Roland's Scrimger. 'Many print providers facing these issues run a second shift or outsource certain applications when, in fact, it may benefit their business to add a second printer or upgrade to a more capable device.

'A printer already running two or three shifts with 15 to 20 employees in production can easily justify adding equipment and capacity. It’s more difficult for a two-person shop to decide when to invest in a production-level device.'

In determining when to make the jump to a larger printer, shops need to think about not just their regular job volume, but also their client's ''burst rate' production-the customer's most demanding requirements for peak volume and fast turnaround. During this timeframe, shops need the high productivity of a larger press. 'Much of the conversation we have with our customers revolves around the capacity they have to meet these peak client demands, and then matching their needs to the appropriate product in our portfolio,' says Durst's Howard.

Other grand-format advantages include the ability to accommodate wider-width applications, such as outputting a billboard in a single sheet. In addition, the super-wide printers often can image onto two rolls simultaneously-doubling output.

Criteria to use

The tipping point that makes the decision for many shops may, unfortunately, be the breakdown of your current printer, says Phipps of Mutoh, but what to buy isn't necessarily as clear-cut. 'I relate it to a small family that outgrows their little car after having several children. They need to decide whether to buy a minivan or an SUV to haul everyone around. But there’s no definitive solution.'

When facing that decision, here are some specific criteria to help you decide which printer is right for your workflow:

* Outsourcing: If your shop is outsourcing more than 30 percent of your output, you might need to look at a larger printer, says Roland. When outsourcing to a wholesaler, shops 'soon find that they’re giving the local wholesaler printer enough business to offset a lease payment on a new printer if they kept the business in-house,' says Phipps. 'Printing the jobs in-house would also increase their turn-around times to customers and add more control to their workflow.'

In addition, when you outsource the job and then mark it up, 'profit margins are not nearly as good,' notes Randy Paar, display graphics product manager for Oce North America. 'When demand (or opportunity) justifies the ROI for a larger printer, it's the right time to consider purchasing.'

* Larger widths: Look at how many jobs require fabricating wider graphics from narrow prints. The cost of labor and added time will eventually dictate that it’s more cost-effective to purchase a larger printer. And some clients may demand seamless graphics that mid-range machines can’t produce.

* Same media: If you run multiple narrower-format machines, outputting to the same material on all of them, one bigger machine running that same media makes more sense, says Roland's Scrimger.

* Volume of work/multiple shifts: Analyze your typical jobs to determine your shop's volume and the cost of running multiple shifts. If you run multiple shifts using a narrow-format machine, a larger, faster format printer could cover production in just one shift.

* Service contracts: When printers age, they cost more to maintain. Evaluate the costs of the service contracts on all of your printers. That money might be better spent if consolidated in a single, larger, and faster printer.

'Bottom line: If your shop is employing these and similar practices to keep up with the workload, it's time to review the situation and strongly consider an upgrade,' says Scrimger. 'If you're asking yourself whether it’s time to upgrade or expand capacity, you’re likely feeling the pinch'-and it's time to buy. 'What’s not so obvious is how urgently you need to act to make this investment pay off with additional revenues and profits.'

When trying to make that buying decision, one key is calculating the bottom line and ROI for the printer. Take into account your estimated annual total production in square feet for this machine, the number of shifts it will run, and the cost of consumables, and calculate in set-up time and some down-time. On the upside, calculate what your shop can charge per square foot and estimate the new business it might spawn.

Lean on the expertise of your dealer or OEM to help calculate ROI for a machine, based on you printing applications. 'The cost of operations is calculated by Agfa in all wide-format sales projects using the customer's application and commercial data,' says Julian Robledo, general manager, inkjet solutions, Agfa Graphics North America. 'With the cost of ownership determined, sales reps and dealers can sit down with a customer and determine if a new machine is a good financial decision or not.'

Once you've made the decision to buy, carefully look at your options. Don't buy too big of a printer, but do plan for your company's growth and buy a big enough machine to either accommodate growth or to grow incrementally with your company.

More to think about

You've made the decision to buy and possibly even picked out the model, taken a test drive, and kicked its tires. But before signing on the dotted line and taking delivery, there are issues of space and logistics to consider and resolve, or risk being surprised on the back end-and it's not the kind of surprise you'd like.

Here are some issues you should think through:

Physical space: Not only will the larger printer take up a significant chunk of floor space, but so will the area for input of media and output of printed graphics. In the case of a large flatbed printer, it may require 10 to 20 feet on the front for input of materials, and another 10 to 20 feet on the back to retrieve the printed graphics-plus a few feet more just to make it easy to lay-down and pick up the media.

Even if it's a rollfed printer, most load rolls in the back and off-load the printed graphics in the front-again requiring extra space all around. And moving the media from inventory to printer to finishing to shipping will require more space because the substrates are larger.

The new printer may also require a ventilation system or air scrubber. If so, not only do you need to add a ventilation/air-treatment system, you might also need to house the printer in its own room. New inksets may also bring regulatory requirements; consult with your dealer or OEM for help.

Media inventory: In addition to the printer itself, the media-roll and rigid-will be bigger. The longer and potentially heavier rolls need to be stored somewhere. And these will probably require a forklift to move from inventory to the printer, and then to finishing or shipping. Also, if you move to rigid, your old supplier(s) may not carry these media, so be prepared to shop for a new or additional supplier.

No matter which format (rollfed or flatbed) you go with, you may struggle early on to predict how much media your new printer will use, and how much to have on hand. While many print providers work closely with distributors to attain a near-zero inventory, others like to have some on-hand for quick job turn-around.

Finishing: Once the graphics have been produced, many will, of course, need finishing-whether that means sewing in pole pockets, grommeting a banner, contour-cutting rigid media, or laminating wide graphics. If your shop doesn’t have superwide-format finishing equipment on the floor, you'll have to purchase additional hardware unless you're willing to outsource. You’ll need lots of floor space for the finishing equipment itself, as well as clearance on either side to input and output graphics. Additionally, you may need to build large or long tables to hold the printed media so it can be sewn or grommeted more easily, plus lots of empty space to lay out super-wide and super-long banners so they can be welded.

Upgraded shipping department: If you’re printing large rigid sheets, you’ll also need considerably more space in shipping. Other shipping considerations include the capability to produce sturdy shipping crates, the room to accommodate bigger trucks to deliver the finished products, and a good loading dock so the trucks can pick up your crates.

Train personnel: Whenever your shop invests in a new machine, it only makes sense to invest a little more in training your employees to understand the technology, use the equipment correctly, maintain it properly, and utilize it in its most efficient manner. Each printer operates slightly differently and operators should be trained in efficient, safe operation. If the new machine operates with a different ink technology, personnel must be acquainted with safe handling and printing procedures, as well as disposal processes.

Sales training: Production staff will have nothing to produce if the sales staff has not sold jobs onto your new printer. While some jobs can be quickly moved to that printer, if the new hardware is a large-format flatbed, sales may need a refresher course in appropriate jobs, pricing, finishing, and shipping details for these rigid jobs. Additionally, the new printer should be able to pull in some new jobs from new customers-going after those jobs will speed up ROI.

Waiting for the next shoe to drop

You've acquired a new printer, your employees are producing marvelous prints on new media, and customers are happy. Your quality and turnaround times are attracting new customers. I think you know what's coming next-you have to start looking for your next new machine. Seriously. Unfortunately, shops can't afford to begin looking only after they have the need for a new printer. The information-gathering and testing process takes so long, you must begin when you see the first glimpses of the need.

As you attend tradeshows, look at machines that you might be interested in purchasing soon-but also stretch a bit and examine machines that might be your next purchase beyond that. Think one or two machines beyond your current capabilities or needs. That's the way to stay on top of your business and remain one step ahead of your competitors.

Peggy Middendorf is managing editor of The Big Picture magazine.

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