The Difference Between Wide Format Printers and Plotters

Printing is critical to most business operations, with printing needs varying among industries and the businesses they’re made up of.

While standard office printers can handle many letter or legal-sized print jobs, those that require oversized stock — like advertising posters, banners, architectural or engineering plan sets, and more — require a large format plotter or large format printer to meet size requirements.

However, it’s easy to get confused by the names. A wide format printer performs slightly different functions than a wide format plotter. Let’s untangle the differences.

Wide Format Printers vs. Wide Format Plotters

While they can be a great marketing tool, both wide format printers and plotters are pricey to own, so it’s best to be clear on the differences and uses of both before purchasing one for your business.

Wide Format Plotter

Plotters are the original wide-format printing machine, with a history that goes back to 1959.

Wide format plotters are widely used in design, engineering, map-making, and construction industries where permanent ink in drafting-style pens is used to print vector-based line art on oversized plan sheets.

Modern technology has made many changes to the way wide format plotters operate. For example, rather than using pens, modern plotters can make use of thermal, electrostatic, inkjet, or laser technologies to lay down ink.

And, a vinyl plotter can use a blade rather than a pen to create simple, but impactful, colored signs in vinyl and other fabrics.

The length of documents created through plotter printers can be anywhere from two to six feet, and the plotter generally lays down rather than sprays the ink onto the page. These machines are more costly than wide format printers, but they provide excellent image quality for graphics with exquisite detail.

Plotters typically work with image files with an .AI, .DWG, or .CDR extension that have been created by programs such as AutoCAD, Flexi, and Adobe Illustrator, among others.

Wide Format Printer

A wide format printer, on the other hand, is normally an inkjet-based machine (although it can also use LED, copy press, thermal transfer, laser, and electrostatic technologies) that can produce anything from a vehicle wrap to a magazine spread.

It can handle two-foot or wider media that can include paper, vinyl, glass, cloth, and wood — up to around 2” in thickness.

Wide format printers use raster (grid and pixels) images rather than vectors (lines) to produce printed images, so changing the scale of the image when using a wide format printer can interfere with print quality.

These printers are designed to read the kind of images most commonly produced on desktop software, such as .JPG, .BMP, .TIFF, and .PDF files. These files are easily manipulated on programs like Photoshop and other image editors.

Printer or Plotter — Which is Right for You?

Because both wide-format plotter and printers can both take advantage of several styles of printing technologies, from laying down print with inkjet to thermal bonding and others, the major difference you need to consider is the type of files you most often work with.

If you work with raster image files, a wide format printer is better for your applications, while vector files print more crisply on a wide format plotter.

However, some designers find their high-detail graphics are better served by a plotter rather than a printer, simply due to the image quality.

DOCUmation — Your Source for Wide Format Printing

So many businesses can benefit from access to wide format and production print capabilities regularly.

Marketing agencies, engineering companies, landscape and architectural design firms, and construction businesses all require the expansive print capabilities of wide-format technology.

As you can see from the myriad differences between these two print options, the process of acquiring this kind of sophisticated technology can be difficult, with the smallest of details contributing in major ways to the outcome of your project.

At DOCUmation, we can help you determine whether purchasing a printer/plotter is right for you or support you with our full-service print shop if you decide to wait on investing in in-house production equipment.

For more information on our wide format printer and plotter selection and our in-house capabilities, connect with a DOCUmation expert today.

January 3rd, 2020