If your company designs anything from the nuts and bolts that hold our world together all the way up to trains, planes and automobiles, you either already use a wide-format plotter or need to. 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.
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 on screen. 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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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 can 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 faithful 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.
End of the dinosaurs
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 with few models 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 can pump out dots as small as 3.5 picoliters. This translates into lines as thin as 0.2 mm with an accuracy of 0.1 percent, 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.