When a wide-format printer breaks down, print firm owners need to make a decision: Do they fix it, or do they replace the device? An older printer that has produced a lot of images is sort of like an old car with a lot of miles on it. Change the oil every three months, rotate and change the tires, and it probably can run for a very long time if "it's not overly beat up," said Bob Flipse, partner at Grafx Network, a national network affiliation of wide-format service technicians. (See "Maintenance" sidebar.) In this analogy, tires are like printheads, he added, which can be replaced for between $950 and $1,700 depending on printer make and model (Canon, Epson, HP, Mimaki, Mutoh, and Roland, for example).
Ultimately, the decision should come down to return on investment (ROI), said Flipse, a 20-plus-year industry veteran and former owner of a dealership selling equipment, supplies, and service. Due to the industrial nature of wide-format equipment, "repairs can be expensive," he acknowledged. "You might have to spend upwards of $6,000 to rebuild a printer, but you'd have to invest $20,000 to buy a new one." Owners need to do the math. If, for example, you're paying $22 per thousand on a five-year lease, "in nine months you'll realize ROI on repairs," Flipse added.
"Although this is part of the cost of doing business, most people never plan on maintenance for their printers and typically only have work performed when the unit breaks," Flipse wrote last year in the SGIA Journal. "Often, they compensate for degrading print quality by slowing the printer down, manually perform more frequent maintenance cycles, or—worse—deliver sub-standard work to their customers."
He went on to tell us at Wide-Format Imaging, "If your old printer is too slow, then repairing it may not be enough in the overall equation." In the back of every wide-format print firm owner's mind is this thought, added Flipse: "If I wait and can stick it out another 18 months, something better and cheaper will come along." And at some point, even a trusty old Chevy can begin to nickel and dime you to death. Most people, whether they're car owners or printer owners, reach the point where they want something new.
Purchasing reconditioned equipment is not a viable option for large-format printer users because the upfront cost of a new device is a fraction of what, say, a new HP Indigo digital press runs. Three-year leases at $110/month are common, or you can buy large-format outright for $12,000 cash. "A shop running 20 jobs a week on a Designjet T7100 can break even in one year," said Eric DuPaul, HP Designjet business development manager for the Americas.
So how old is too old? HP has been told that it "builds 'tanks' that last forever," said DuPaul, but he added that such product durability is a mixed blessing for owners/end users. He suggested casting a critical eye on older equipment, asking basic questions such as, "What computer/PC operating system do they run? Mac, Windows, Linux [Oracle]?"
OEMs support their large-format products with parts and service for a set amount of time. In HP's case, that support life date is five years, noted DuPaul. During that period, firmware is updated to take advantage of new software. "We get a lot of complaints about print drivers," he explained. "For example, someone will call and say they have no RIP printer drivers for [Microsoft] Windows 7 – but then, we come to find out that their printer is 13 years old! Operating [older] machines like that on a daily basis becomes a challenge."
Large-format printing "has become a technological speedway," DuPaul continued. PSPs with devices seven years or older may want to consider upgrading to a newer printer, such as HP's Designjet T series that came on stream in 2008, as opposed to repairing what they have. Why? Because you can save on cost per square foot, DuPaul said, adding the win-win that newer printers' faster production times require less man hours. "The bottom line is you can get to market faster and secure more business," he concluded.