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Repair or Replace?

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.

Tech Speedway

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.

There are other cost savings to consider with new technology, HP's DuPaul noted. "Today's heads are smarter and less ink is used," he pointed out. "There are ways to [better] control the media through the printer versus eight or 10 years ago." Plus, image quality is higher, he added, with sharper lines and the ability to read 4-point text. Older technology does not have a lot of built-in security features, either.

DuPaul added that HP LF printers manufactured within the past 10 years, including the Designjet 4000 series, also feature embedded web servers that can track job data and export it to cost-analysis programs. This technology also monitors supplies, including ink and media usage statistics for operations and accounting purposes. "We can send automatic SMS text messages or emails regarding [device] status and problems," he said. Such built-in notifications even can alert owner/operators as to when printheads are close to the end of their warranties.

Even newer is HP's ePrint & Share technology. Rolled out about 18 months ago, the Cloud-based application expedites job submissions and changes. Ideally suited for the architectural/engineering/construction (AEC) vertical market, it is compatible with Apple's iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch mobile devices, making alterations on the go a virtual breeze.

Spare Parts

Printheads in many large-format printers remain in peak condition for only about a year of heavy use. Under normal usage, say 200 jobs per week, HP's heads are warranted for the amount of ink that runs through the printer—from 500 ml to 3,000 ml depending on the model, explained Eric DePaul, who oversees the Designjet line. Printheads are user-replaceable and relatively easy to switch out. While replacing them is not considered part of standard preventative maintenance (PM) procedures, these five key components should be changed out on a regular schedule, depending on device usage:

  1. High-pressure pumps for inks and solvents
  2. Ink dampers (change yearly or when repeated cleaning cannot improve intermittent gaps and lines in prints)
  3. Ink filters
  4. Capping/maintenance stations or individual caps
  5. Drive belts

Calibration also is important. "You want to align the jets so they fire at the right place and at the right time," emphasized Bob Flipse of Georgia-based service repair firm Grafx Network. As he reported in the SGIA Journal 11 months ago, "the cost of standard PM can run from $1,000 to $2,000 for time and materials, plus the technician's travel ...."

Drive motors are another important consideration, said HP's DuPaul, and their durability and performance are affected by humidity and temperature levels as well as usage demands. He added that it can be difficult to find replacements for servo-driven formatter boards.

But there comes a time when buying a new printer simply makes sense—and cents. "Often times, owners can reduce the overall cost of their contract by buying new," pointed out DuPaul. "They won't need to send out a [service] tech two or three times a year like they may for a 10-year-old machine."