If you're in the business of creating high-resolution images on banners, posters, architectural drawings, trade show graphics, circuit schematics, or even vehicle wraps, chances are, you've used a wide-format plotter. These devices help us visualize and create the nuts and bolts that hold our world together. Essentially, wide plotters are printers that rely on vector graphics to create output that emphasizes solid, accurate and easy-to-read lines over rich, photorealistic prints.
What is a plotter?
Regardless of whether they're blueprints for a new townhouse development, production diagrams for your company's latest widget or a graph-laden poster for a scientific conference, it all starts onscreen. Chances are, sooner or later, it will end up on paper to be worked over by a group, shown to company outsiders or checked over. That's where the plotter comes in.
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A plotter creates large prints of your firm's designs or demanding technical material. It works equally well at displaying complicated graphs or intricate designs, such as production plans for an upcoming product.
Wide-format plotters 101
Instead of emphasizing beautiful, bitmapped images with rich, saturated colors that are formed on a conventional wide-format printer a pixel at a time, plotters are based on vector graphics. That way, they make precise and readable lines, making a plotter perfect for anything from a complicated chart of the company's sales regions for a board meeting to a floor plan of where the firm's new production machinery will go on the factory floor. [Interested in wide-format printers? Check out our best picks.]
While a conventional printer's output might have a jog in a critical line here or there, this doesn't happen with a plotter. Every line is straight, unbroken and pops from the page.
The reason for the higher level of accuracy is simple: These prints are often the basis of building anything from a mobile phone's display to a retirement village. Need to know how wide a roof of a building design is or its pitch? Go ahead and measure it right off the print with a ruler. That's because a plotter's output is so accurate that professionals use it to directly measure anything on the sheet.
Plotters have been around for a long time and excel at putting continuous lines and geometric figures onto paper. Once the mainstay of architects, designers and engineers, plotters started as devices that literally drew the print a line at a time. An arm on an articulated x-y axis would pick up a colored pen and move it around on the sheet of paper to trace the needed line directly on the paper. When done, it dropped the pen off on the side of the plotter, ready to pick up another pen to draw the next line.
What is the difference between a plotter and printer?
The primary difference between a plotter and a printer is the file format used. Plotters use vector images; typical file formats for vector images include but are not limited to AI, EPS and PDF. Vector images are based on mathematical formulas that create point-to-point nodes, connected by precise lines and curves. Vectors, and thus plotters, are resolution independent, meaning images can be scaled to any size without sacrificing quality.
In contrast, printers produce raster images; file formats include but are not limited to JPG, PNG and BMP. Raster images are made of small dots known as pixels, placed in fixed locations on a rectangular grid. Since rasters are printed in relation to specific locations and color values, enlarging them distorts image quality.
The end of pen-based plotters
Due to the inherent slowness, low resolution and limited ability to completely fill in solid areas, physical pen plotters have fallen out of favor. Today, they are dinosaurs, though a few models are still for sale.
Pen-based plotters have been replaced by wide-format inkjet and laser printers. That's because the latest generation of wide printers have a resolution so high and minimum line widths so small they outdo pen plotters.
For example, Epson's SureColor T5270 uses the company's PrecisionCore TFP printhead to precisely produce 2,880 x 440 dpi resolution images with inkjet nozzles that pump out dots as small as 3.5 picoliters. This translates into lines as thin as 0.2mm, with an accuracy of 0.1%, easily exceeding the typical pen plotter's 0.35-mm line width and 1,000 dpi top resolution.
Able to use 36-inch wide media, the T5270 has a built-in cutter, holds up to two rolls of printing media and can move between them in an instant. It's fast, with the ability to print high-quality, 24 x 36-inch CAD design prints ready for the construction site or factory floor in less than a minute. The single-roll T5270 printer sells for $3,995, while its double-roll cousin goes for $5,995.
This type of wide printer-plotter has a big bonus as well for small businesses that need flexible equipment capable of fulfilling many roles in the organization. The prints are created with five aqueous UltraChrome XD inks: matte and photo black as well as cyan, magenta and yellow.
While it can't touch the photorealistic image quality from printers that use upward of 10 inks, it's faster and should be more than enough for most commercial needs – like creating posters, banners and point-of-sale material – as well as allowing the printing of a design's plans alongside an image of what it will look like.
In other words, it can print technical material alongside marketing materials for a small business, making it a jack-of-all-printing-trades.
Benefits of a wide-format plotter
A wide format plotter offers several benefits, including:
- High quality prints. Wide-format plotters are commonly used for images that contain a combination of graphic and text elements, and they can print both with stunning clarity. Inkjet printers and multifunction printers simply can't compete with the print quality of a wide-format plotter.
- Fast print times. While you can always go to your local print shop, you'll have to work with their schedule and turnaround time, not to mention the trouble of going to the store and picking up your materials. If you print on your own wide-format plotter, you have your prints in a matter of minutes.
- No rush fees. No matter how well you plan ahead, you may find yourself suddenly in need of a fast turnaround. If vendors accept rush jobs at all, they typically charge an extra fee for doing so. Using your own wide-format plotter eliminates those charges altogether.
- No printer vendors. If you have access to your own wide-format printer, you won't need to deal with printer vendors. You can easily print and make adjustments to your images without having to go back and forth with someone, or paying those extra associated fees.
If your business requires the printing of high-quality, scalable graphics, a wide-format plotter could be just what you need.
Sean Peek contributed to the reporting and writing in this article.