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Printer pointers

Features, Graphics | March 1, 2007 | By:

Your guide to asking the right questions before you buy.

There are numerous factors to consider before making the decision to by a new printer.
First, does your current printing operation have excess demands that can only be met by labor working overtime? If the answer is a resounding yes, then update your business plan to include your current balance sheet, new equipment description, market analysis, and so forth. Meet with your banker and make sure you have correct financial information and justification for the “purchase or leasing” of a new fabric direct inkjet color printer.

Second, if you are considering printing on new fabrics for either indoor or outdoor applications then it is essential that you investigate all the factors and angles. If your market is for an outdoor color printed product, then you have to consider exposure of the product to UV light and weather conditions. For interior printed fabrics, you must meet fire codes. In both cases, some type of coating is necessary to meet fire codes regulations or to withstand outdoor exposure for an extended period of time. In a nutshell, do you have a customer who is going to pay for this printer through orders?

Now, what are the specifics for a decision to purchase a new printer? There are two major categories of fabric direct inkjet color printers. They use inks that are either “pigment” based or “dye” based. Both pigment and dyes have choices within their categories. Your selection would depend on the variety of products you manufacture based on a fabric choice. Optimum results are not realized unless the pigment or dye is matched with the fiber content of the fabric.

Questions about multiple ink sets

Think wisely when told to purchase a printer with multiple ink sets (aqueous, solvent, disperse). You have to inventory each ink set whether pigment or dye based. Be prepared for down time on the changeover from one ink set to another. You will need to completely flush all ink lines and recharge the system for each ink change. This will be an additional cost to your operation that you have to consider. Ask these questions.

  • What is the minimum amount of ink loss during a change over (50ml, 70ml, 90ml, etc.)? Note: Head cleaning also consumes a vast amount of ink that is never recovered and never applied to a saleable product.
  • How much ink is used in a routine cleaning cycle?
  • What are the costs of cleaning fluid for flushing out the ink lines and the cost of maintenance tanks and/or pads?
  • What are the daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance issues for this specific printer and the obligations of the buyer to keep within warranty? Can these maintenance procedures be performed by the operator with or without training?
  • What is the cost for a technical support person to perform the maintenance tasks (travel time, work time, plus parts)?
  • What is the cost of the print head replacement? Can an operator change out the print head or is a technician required?
  • Are the print heads are adjustable for fabric thickness?
  • What about toll free 24/7 technical support and web access downloads on documents?
  • What are the electrical, ventilation, and space requirements?

Questions about selection of ink set

Another complex issue is the selection of ink set (systems) for your printer. Inks are sold in cartridges of different sizes per color (110ml, 220ml, 440ml, etc.) or in bulk quantities (500ml, 1 liter, or larger). Some ink cartridges are non-refillable while others can be refilled by the operator. Most manufacturers will only recommend their inks. This recommendation is tied to the warranty of the printer. Bulk ink systems are available for most printers. Investigate any claims that are made. A wrong decision for your situation will be a cost that cannot be recovered. Here are some tips.

  • Ask the printer manufacturer if a third party ink cartridge can be used.Verify the information.
  • Ask the printer manufacturer and the ink supplier if the printer can be re-supplied with ink during a printing operation (continuous ink system).
  • Ask the ink cartridge supplier if a chip resetter is necessary and how to use it.
  • Ask the ink supplier about their specific ink color system (including non-cymk color specifications, i.e. Red, Golden Yellow, etc.) and how to load.
  • Ask each manufacturer about their toll free 24/7 technical support and Web access downloads on technical documents.

And what about a RIP?

The next critical decision is the purchase of a RIP (raster image processor) software that enables your designers and operators to communicate with the printer. Some software RIPs allow you to print to variety of printers with only one RIP. RIPs allow you to send native files such as PDF, vector graphics to a printer. Stay clear of hardware based RIPs as they are really
a closed-loop system with RIP software loaded on a dedicated computer. A hardware RIP in most cases can only print to the purchased printer. If you have multiple printers, determine if the new RIP can print to a 4-color, 6-color, 8-color, and 12-color configuration. Most fabric printing companies use RIPs. Consider that a RIP is essential when purchasing your printer, but still ask the questions.

  • Can the RIP print to multiple printers and different color configurations?What are the output resolutions for the printer?
  • Can the RIP software be loaded and operated on a Macintosh or Windows operating system?
  • Does the software have calibration functions, ink restriction capabilities, and linearization tools to determine print quality and to build color profiles?
  • Can the RIP connect to the printer through USB, firewire, and be networked for accessibility?
  • What are the costs of upgrades, technical support contracts, toll free (24/7) technical support, web access to print drivers, and support FAQs?

Ask the experts

Yes, there can be a lot of confusing issues. Do yourself a favor and visit a national trade show exhibiting the various digital inkjet direct fabric printers. Plan on spending several days observing and discussing with the manufacturers, dealers, and their clients on the various capabilities of each printer with its unique ink set. There is always a balance between printer speed versus printed image quality. We suggest that you take a previous job file (graphic file with a wide color gamut) and have it printed at various resolutions on the equipment you are considering (printer, ink set, RIP, etc.). Then compare the results against each printer you are considering including the costs to operate. This is not an exclusive list of questions, but will get you started.

Phil Age is an associate professor and lab coordinator in the Digital Printing, Imaging and Web Technology concentration at Eastern Illinois University. Dr. Age holds professional memberships and leadership positions in numerous industry associations including SGIA, DPI, IFAI, FSCT, and PIA/GATF. Jean K. Dilworth is a professor at Eastern Illinois University teaching textile print and apparel design, and visual merchandising that includes interior and exterior signage. Dilworth serves on state and national standards committees for textiles, apparel, interiors and furnishings.

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