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Blueprints are a classic historical icon of the construction industry. For some more seasoned AEC professionals, blueprints bring back nostalgic memories. For other, younger people, a blueprint (or blueline) drawing may be best viewed in a museum, not at a job site.
But, the fact remains, printed construction plans are still used regularly (I know this because companies still buy a lot of plotters from us). And, while digital files and applications are wonderful to work with, having a set of paper plans available onsite is still useful.
This still leads companies to purchase new plotters or MFPs. And when exploring options, you have probably wondered, “should I get an inkjet or a toner plotter?”
This question has forced me to examine everything known and preached for the past 20 years in favor of toner technologies. After much thought and analysis, let's just say he future is bright, colorful, and primed for inkjet.
The Toner Plotter Legacy
Back in the day, it was easy to justify investing in a toner blueprint printer, meaning a wide-format printer or multifunction system. They are printing beasts designed to print thousands of square feet per month. The sheer volume produced by these machines validated expenses through economies of scale.
The ROI (return on investment) could happen quickly – sometimes in months. Typically, the break-even point happened at 2,000 square feet per month. Therefore, it was common for a toner plotter to be less costly in the long run.
The abundance of inkjet plotters installed nationwide showcases the popularity of these systems. After all, they are less expensive than toner machines, are easy to use, and allow you to print in full color.
Historically, the cost of ink jet printing was an obstacle, it was considerably higher than toner. It was safe to estimate that inkjet printing costs per square foot compared to the $0.095 per square foot of toner. This assumes all printing costs – ink or toner, paper, and a service contract fee.
Given these numbers, the price delta could profoundly impact a higher volume. But, as mentioned earlier, people are not printing as much these days. Today, a single set of plans is sufficient when 10 sets were needed for the same job in the past.
Tides have turned for ink technologies. In addition to lower demand, the actual cost of printing with ink has fallen significantly. Today, the operational cost of inkjet printing is usually less than $0.10 per square foot (for line drawings) – which is now less than the average cost of printing with toner.
How the data was compiled:
Total Cost of Operation for both systems: equipment, service contract, and supplies
Equipment market prices were used for the analysis (PlotWave 3000: $16,000, Canon TX-3100 MFP: $10,500)
Both wide-format printer systems for are configured as 2-roll multifunction units including printer, scanner, and controller PC
As you can see, there no longer is a split where it is more cost effective to use toner plotter. Ink jet systems have improved so much that the lines no longer cross.
Based on our own analysis, we find that the operational costs of ink jets tend to hover around $0.093 per square foot, while the cost of LED toner averages $0.117 per square foot. (This includes all monthly service charges and printing supplies).
At least with Canon wide-format equipment, it is possible for an inkjet plotter to produce 4 D-size (24x36) sheets per minute. That is crazy! Learn more: Check out the new TZ-30000.
Ready to make a change?
Historically, ink jet plotters are only designed to last a few years. This is a tough concept for some people to accept, but it is legit. Research this and you'll find that ink jet plotters, regardless of manufacturer, usually do not offer an extended service plan past 3 years.
On the flip side, the price for a replacement ink jet plotter today is less than half of what they used to cost. So, it becomes justifiable to buy a new ink jet plotter or MFP every few years to keep up with the technology changes.
But that is not to say that you can’t get more life out of them. I have plenty of customers who have used their inkjet machine for over 5-6 years or longer, in some cases.
Toner-based plotters for blueprints, on the other hand, are much more durable systems that are made to last for many years. For example, the estimated life expectancy of a Canon PlotWave system is seven to ten years on average.
So, if you are comfortable purchasing a solution and using it for many years, there could still be a justification in a toner-based printer.
Traditional ink jet plotters were not designed to handle large print volumes (duty cycle). However, many improvements have been made regarding the latest versions and depending on the inkjet model, they can produce up to 10,000 square feet per month – which is a lot by today’s standards.
But, on average, the small entry-level units are only rated for about 3,000 square feet per month. Anything more than that is considered “outside of normal operating parameters.” But given that most companies today only print about 1,500 square feet per month, the smaller duty cycles are not a problem.
Toner-based plotters, however, can easily handle many thousands of square feet of printing per month. For instance, the Canon PlotWave 7500 can produce 25,000+ square feet of printing per month. That is 4,167 D-size sheets – an amazing number by today’s standards.
Inkjets are now faster than ever. A big reason for this is the increased onboard processing power. Many units now come with a powerful PC processor, more RAM, and an onboard Hard Drive to help spool prints.
Still, toner machines are generally faster. But, with average print volumes dropping, many people find that modern inkjets are more that fast enough for them. For example, a Canon TM-305 prints about 2 D-size sheets per minute, the TX-3100 about 3 sheets, and the TZ-30000 can do 4 per minute.
HP PageWide - Single Pass Plotter Technology
In the past few years, a newer ink jet technology emerged - single pass ink jet. This is known by a couple of different names, Memjet and HP PageWide, but the process is the same.
Unlike standard ink jets that use a traveling print head, this new single pass technology relies on a long, stationary print head that jets ink onto a traveling media underneath. Thus the "single pass" of the print head over the print material.
If you haven't seen it, this type of printing is certainly impressive. An inherent benefit of single pass printing is speed. In fact, it is possible for some of these machines to print up to 16 D-size pages per minute.
Additionally, manufactures of single pass printers are promoting a lower operational cost of these systems, but be warned, these new devices are not for everybody. There are some limitations to consider.
They are large - Most high-speed ink jet systems are designed as commercial printers and are not a good fit for traditional office environments. Their excessive mass can make them difficult to install, presenting challenges regarding doors, tight turns, and standard size elevators.
They are heavy - Generally, single pass printers weight more than 1,000 pounds. This can be challenging for locations who do not have concrete or reinforced floors.
High speed may not be necessary - Realistically, most Architectural and Engineering offices today average 1,500 square feet per month of printing output.
This figure has shrunk over the years as companies digitize some of their workflow and utilize their large format printers for more color-centric duties. So, as the demand lowers, so does the need to print a lot of sheets quickly.
Lots of changes have occurred in both the AEC and wide-format plotter industries in just a few years. Lower print demands, the need for more full-color drawings, and better technology have completely disrupted the traditional models.
In the past, LED toner plotters where championed as far superior to their ink jet counterparts. However, that is no longer the case. Today’s inkjet systems are powerful units that can print larger volumes, quickly, and inexpensively.
Ultimately, companies need to be smart about their wide-format technology investments and consider all the factors before deciding on a system.
What is your technology of choice?