When you choose a new wide-format printer, it’s natural to think about the obvious physical attributes of the device in question – roll-fed or flatbed design(or hybrid), width or format, how many ink colours (including white and/or metallics), (eco) solvent, UV-curable or latex inks, the range of supported substrates, resolution and print modes and speeds. High volume users, especially with flatbed printers, may want to think about automation options for unattended operation and multiple-shift working.
But what the purchaser of any new wide-format printer should also be thinking about is the type and quality of job information that the device can capture and pass on for production management and analysis. Even if that one printer is going to be the totality of your printing business, you will need to integrate it with your production and business systems to maximise the value you can achieve from it and to minimise the costs of its operation and maintenance.
As well as providing an audit trail for quality assurance purposes, automatically gathering accurate and detailed production information allows wide-format print service providers to see exactly what each job costs, not only in terms of substrate and ink usage but more importantly, in operator and machine time. Many wide-format print service providers rely on ‘per square metre’ costs that often assume rather idealised working conditions.
During busy periods operators are unlikely to take the time to log or record their activities but unforeseen manual intervention is an unpredictable and often costly factor in production that can make the difference between profit and loss on a particular job. Re-running jobs due to un-noticed faults in incoming files, for example, is a sure-fire way to lose money on a job.
The more this aspect of operations can be captured and analysed, the better the understanding of true production costs that can be achieved. This information helps to identify profitable types of work – and customers – so that these can be actively pursued, while providing earlier warning of problems that cause delays and escalate production costs, whether caused by supplied artwork or by internal practices.
The functionality of different manufacturers’ products varies in this respect but ideally a wide-format printer will be able to record and communicate for each job its dimensions or linear meterage, the substrate used, the resolution and printing mode (single or multiple-pass, for example) and colour management settings, machine status (printing, idle, offline for maintenance or fault conditions), operator input, and ink and media usage. For roll-fed devices, a ‘media remaining’ indicator is also extremely valuable in planning work.
Capturing and communicating data of this type involves both the printer and the RIP, so the degree of integration between the two and then onward from the RIP to a production workflow system and/or MIS are important factors to ask about. Although many RIP/front-end systems have a facility to output data in simple common file formats such as CSV or Excel-compatible spreadsheet, automatic data transfer will reduce the potential for error or delay. If operators have to carry out additional processes to capture or transfer this information, it is less likely that it will be done, especially at peak times when it is perhaps most important to know exactly what’s going through the shop and how long it’s taking.
To get the most out of your next wide-format printer, make sure you add ‘integration capabilities’ to your checklist.