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Maximize your equipment efficiency

Features, Graphics | August 30, 2009 | By:

When to upgrade and when to buy a new printer: A guide to increasing your efficiency on a tight budget.

A downshift in the economy doesn’t necessarily have to mean a downshift in profits, and one of the most important aspects to consider when examining the financial side of your printing business is whether your equipment is giving you the most bang for your buck. Often, businesses can save a significant amount of money by making adjustments to their equipment, whether it means upgrading an existing machine to make it more versatile, choosing a machine with fewer bells and whistles, or purchasing a new machine that can do more than one task.

We spoke with some of the industry’s most experienced product developers, manufacturers and distributors about increasing efficiency in these trying times. They provided a wealth of information about planning for a successful future in today’s ever-changing printing business.

Do your homework

The first step that a company should take when considering to upgrade or purchase new equipment is simple: Do some research.

“Planning is everything when investing in equipment,” says Marie Friemann of printer manufacturer Mimaki. “Before a purchase is made it is important to research your market. Planning to accommodate a broad range of needs is a good idea, but knowing what those needs are is very important.”

Friemann and others caution against purchasing something with too much unneeded versatility. She says that this can be easily avoided by examining your market and calculating a return on investment (ROI) figure. “The 80/20 rule always applies in business, and filling a niche can establish your business as a leader and give you a head start on the competition,” she says. “The most important thing to remember about ROI is that a machine that is not running is not making money. Plan a long-term strategy with short-term goals.”

Mutoh America product developer Jeff Springan agrees that doing some simple math before making any purchases can save businesses a lot of money and hassle in the long run. “Take the time to do due diligence,” he says. “Part of that process is sitting down with your sales rep to calculate your ROI. If the numbers work and make sense, make the purchase. If you can’t make the numbers work on paper then stick with outsourcing. Always revisit your business plan and make the purchase when the numbers make sense.”

Many suppliers offer a complimentary consultation, and speaking with someone who is familiar with the ins and outs of product upgrades can be extremely useful. Dan Barefoot of Graphics One, a distributor of printers and inks throughout North and South America, says that his company is accustomed to working with its customers from start to finish. “As part of our sales process, we do a consultation with people to help them understand what’s really needed and what it’s going to cost, and why they should do it,” he says. Barefoot adds that many suppliers have detailed information about their equipment and services on their websites, so research can be done from home before any contact with a supplier has been made.

In addition to calculating ROI and researching online, Missy Miller of Let’s Get Graphic recommends going to a trade show to check out the equipment first hand. “Visit booths that are not on your list,” she says. “You may find that even though a machine is not compatible with your needs, it may have characteristics in its operations that you prefer. You may also find that in talking with different sales people you will have a better sense of what is important to you and your company when making a decision.”

When to upgrade

Sometimes, when a shop is considering ways to increase efficiency, it’s possible and more affordable to build on existing pieces of equipment rather than to purchase an entirely new machine. Barefoot says that an upgrade can be as simple as purchasing a new piece of software rather than using the software that came packaged with your printer. When considering efficiency, he says that software is one of the first components that his company examines.

“We look at the software that they’re using and ask, does that give them the efficiency, or the capability to match colors, or does it have the workflow that will make them more efficient,” Barefoot says. “Some of the software that’s bundled with the printers today is very basic. There are products, such as from Wasatch, that allow you to do what’s called variable data. For example, let’s say you’re printing a baseball jersey and you have a team with numbers and names. Instead of going in for every specific piece of apparel that you’re printing, Wasatch is an Excel file, and you could have 25 names and 25 numbers and the file is already ripped. It just pulls that data, and you don’t have to make 25 separate files.”

In addition to purchasing more useful software, there are upgrades that can make printers more versatile.

“Most printers can print on a variety of substrates without doing anything more than changing the media,” Friemann says. “For example, a solvent printer can print on vinyl, coated paper, treated fabrics and magnetic material. Similarly, a sublimation printer can print on paper, synthetic fabrics and treated natural fabrics.” Learning about the full capabilities of your printer and testing it on new media can expand your horizons. However, Friemann warns against making too many changes to your existing equipment, as some upgrades can be costly.

“There are cases where people want to simply convert the machine they are using to a different type of ink altogether,” she says. “This process can be difficult and expensive depending on the conversion. A printer that is currently using aqueous-based inks can be flushed out and converted to solvent inks. But if the machine is set up for solvent and needs to convert to aqueous, then the machine must have the heads, lines, dampers and inks changed. This process costs thousands of dollars and is not recommended.”

It is important to research the costs involved with upgrades and to make sure that the changes made will be cost effective. If an upgrade is too costly, it may be wiser to purchase a new piece of equipment, which is a different process entirely.

Purchasing a new, more versatile printer

When shopping for a new printer, there are several points to consider in terms of efficiency, including speed and cost, and whether it’s better to have multiple machines for multiple purposes or fewer machines that are more versatile.

“Efficiency equals speed and quality,” Friemann emphasizes. “If a machine is run at a faster speed, the clarity of the image normally suffers. A high-quality image equals a higher sale price and more return business.”

Similarly, it’s important to avoid being distracted by a machine’s bells and whistles when its versatility may not actually be useful for your business. Michael Terlizzi, vice president of sales for supplier ITNH Inc., stresses that the needs of every print shop are unique, and should be considered when making a major purchase.

“I suggest to my customers that they make a priority list when shopping for a printer package,” he says. “This list is twofold: the first is printer specs and the second is applications.” Terlizzi says that printer specs should include considerations like print quality, print width and number of colors. Applications include the products that your shop needs to produce (i.e. nylon flags, street banners or trade show banners). Prioritizing your shop’s needs will help a printer salesperson to determine the machine that is best for you and your business.

Terlizzi warns against buying a machine marketed for its versatility rather than choosing something based on your customers’ specific needs. “Overextended versatility usually leads to inefficiencies and to a lack of commitment to any one application, and that can limit success,” he says.

Roy Chism of The Chism Company also stresses finding a piece of equipment that can fit in with your current shop setup. When buying new equipment, he says the most important aspects to consider are “ease of operations, operator-friendly features, a minimum learning curve for new operators, minimum setup and preprocessing time requirements.”

“Buy the piece of equipment that you feel comfortable operating,” agrees Mutoh’s Springan. “If it is too complex, you will find yourself spending too much time keeping the equipment running. Make sure a piece of equipment is capable of doing the jobs you intend. If a piece of equipment is ‘oversold,’ you may find yourself with a lot of downtime due to maintenance.”

All of our experts, whether they work as salespeople, developers, manufacturers or printers, stress the importance of taking your shop’s needs into consideration when making a major purchase. While salespeople and distributors can be great resources in terms of product knowledge and industry savviness, only you know what’s most important for your business and your customers. With enough research and planning, a few small changes to your shop’s setup can save a significant amount of money and ensure that you’ll be printing for years to come—whether in a recession or not.

Andrea Swensson is a freelance writer from Minneapolis and an editor at City Pages.

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