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Repair or Replace: Weighing the Options for Your Wide-Format Printer
By Bob Flipse, CEO/Owner, Grafx Network
As a service repair company, we receive calls everyday for repairs of wide-format (typically solvent) printers. Due to the industrial nature of this equipment and the inherent costs of operation and maintenance, many of these repairs can get quite expensive, as our bills attest. 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. 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.
When you reach this point with your printer, you need to make that all-important decision: Do I fix it or do I replace the printer?
At the entry level of solvent printing, there are two main printhead technologies, each surrounded by different ink systems and sub systems. These printheads range in price from just under $1,000 to more than $2,500. Clearly, proper care of these printheads (many units have more than one) is paramount not only for optimum printer performance but also for reducing long-term maintenance costs.
Though the equipment sellers rarely, if ever, discuss service costs and intervals with their customers during the initial sales cycle, all such printers need periodic preventive maintenance (PM). Without any new printheads being part of the mix, the cost of standard PM can run from $1,000 to $2,000 for time and materials, plus the technician's travel to their site. Typically PM will include parts such as dampers, pumps, capping/maintenance stations or individual caps, various belts and so on.
In fact a full bill of materials for PM may vary widely from model to model. However, we have seen that the overall maintenance costs are similar from model to model - for the $2,000 PM, the printheads are more expensive variety, but the PM often "holds" longer than for the $1,000 PM model before additional PM is required, and the heads tend to be more durable. The printheads are typically far more sensitive on the $1,000 PM machine and far more prone to damage and clogging if the printer is offline. Although some industry players say that these heads can be recovered, we have had far more success with more rugged industrial heads on the pricier PM units.
Return on Investment
You have a printer that costs you around $30,000 initially. We often see four- to six-year-old printers in this price class now selling for around $5,000 if they are in less than stellar condition, which is likely why you are looking to have it repaired in the first place. Let's say you have budgeted the same $30,000 for a new printer and will try to sell the old unit on your own. For the most part, dealers are burdened to take in used equipment on a trade, so the sale of your old printer will be on you.
That gives you a net cost of $25,000 for that new printer, which on a five-year lease will run around $580 per month plus tax and will put your monthly payments at around $625 per month (this rate will vary somewhat depending on your credit rating and other factors).
Now let's factor in the costs of some of the preventive maintenance jobs mentioned above. Although most people wince at the $1,000-$2,000 price tag, as they have no choice they generally will jump in on these figures with little hesitation, but balk when installing new printheads enters the discussion. With new printheads in the mix, the bills can easily get into the $3,000-$4,000 range, and we have had some full system rebuilds with as many as four heads, bringing the final bill is $6,000 or more.
Going back to ROI, isn't it informed decisions that make your business flow more smoothly and most importantly, profitably? The math is actually very simple - for the $3,000 fix, your ROI is less than five months; for a $4,000 fix, less than seven months. Remember, should you choose to purchase new equipment, you will still be on the hook for the rest of the five-year lease term, but with the repair you are done and can begin to "fill the hole" immediately and will be ahead of the game in a relatively short period of time.
As good as that sounds, it is not always that simple as other factors often come in to the decision-making process:
On the surface, it may be hard to argue with any of these points, but let's quickly analyze the impact of each.
And what about the inevitable learning curve when it comes to new technology? There is a cost in down time during training as well as inefficiencies as your shop gets up to speed with the new equipment.
Not uncommonly, new ink technology also has its own set of issues. There's proper adhesion to your favorite materials, UV fade resistance, formulation stability, touted flexibility in the case of UV curable inks, dealing with temperature extremes, and even water fastness or other chemical resistance.
Even with all of the testing that manufacturers do, there is no way they run the gamut of possibilities that exist in the field - and their third-generation cyan may not match the first, so the wrap panel you suddenly have to reprint may not match its neighbor anymore, for example.
As your prior equipment aged, you likely have realized lower costs of operation - first of all with no lease payment and secondly with ink costs, which in many cases decline as printers have been on the street for a while. While there are cases where new ink technologies carry significant benefits such as no VOC's, some of this new ink technology is quite expensive when using the dollar per square foot formula. After all, the ink is the Holy Grail for the equipment manufacturers, and quite often, high ink costs come with the new technology.
Now, if this new technology is much faster and you can put it in the same footprint in your shop, or if it offers significantly lower ink costs through a bulk inking system - those are compelling arguments to consider in your decision-making process.
Your Old Printer is Giving You Problems Too Often
Steps to avoid falling into this trap:
If the equipment is really toasted (major electrical repairs, multiple issues, etc.) the decision to repair is not a good option. If you don't repair and simply unplug the unit it may lose any value it had, as printheads dry out and other systems fail along with it.
You Weigh the Options and Choose to Replace
If you want to get $8,000 for your printer, why put $4,000 into it when you could possibly sell it for $4000 and let someone else worry about the repairs? This is especially the case when selling it through a dealer or repair company, either of whom could repair it at "wholesale" for the parts and labor. We run into this all the time. We have just repaired a printer for someone and they now wish to sell it. As a perfectly working unit, it is now like a low-mileage car worth far more than book value because of the functionality it now has, but you may never get what it's really "worth."
Whatever you do, move as quickly as possible and find out from your technician what is needed to keep the unit functional so the self-maintenance routines can run to protect the printheads. As we constantly tell people, it is all about keeping the heads wet in a solvent printer.
The Importance of Regular Maintenance
The bottom line: This is no longer a fledgling industry and the technology has begun to stabilize to a large degree. There is always the bleeding edge of new ink technologies, higher speeds, etc., that can cause some issues at the outset. However, with proper care and maintenance, most of today's wide-format solvent printers, if properly cared for and maintained, can give you years of dependable, reliable and profitable service.
A 20-plus year industry veteran, Bob Flipse is a partner at Grafx Network, a national network affiliation of wide-format service technicians. Flipse was an early innovator in digital printing starting in aqueous and now going all the way to super-wide, grand-format solvent. In addition, he is the former owner of a dealership selling equipment, supplies and services, and has a deep understanding of the equipment, materials and applications of wide format. -firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, May/June 2011 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2011 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.
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