I believe labs have a lot to gain from the popularity of wide-format inkjet printers, one of the fastest-rising segments of digital imaging. While many photographers want to own their own printers, others prefer an outside source to do the job for them. These individuals just want to shoot photos, hand their files to the lab, and say, "Give me the prints."
But before bringing a wide-format inkjet printer into the fold, a lab needs to stop and ask some important questions. If you don't start out on the right foot, you may find yourself losing the competitive edge that you hoped to gain from your new investment.
Quality Is Key
First of all, it's essential to buy a wide-format printer that exceeds the existing quality of your traditional lab equipment. The majority of wide-format machines being installed today are inkjet. Wide-format inkjet printing technology is available today at a fraction of the cost, and the odds are that it offers better quality output than the equipment now in your lab. If your new printer isn't capable of delivering better output quality, then you're really only offering your customer a mediocre print on media 24 inches or wider.
It's great to have a wide-format printer that produces amazing photographic quality, but that's still not enough. The world is full of beautiful wide-format prints, but few can ever be sold in the real world. You need a machine that creates brilliant photographs that last and are truly archival. To the dismay of your customers, they may find those gorgeous images you sold them fading in a relatively short period of time. If you make the right choice for your lab, you'll be offering your customer something really special-not just prints that look good but prints that actually last. For example, Epson's pigment-based UltraChrome inks are water resistant and offer lightfastness ratings for color images up to 100 years.
Your wide-format printer should also produce prints on a wider range of photographic papers than you have today with your lab equipment. If you already provide luster, semi-matte and high-gloss photographic papers, your new wide-format printer should do the same. Customers should be able to get the same paper options in wide format as they do in small format.
With the right printer, you can take media handling even further. Your new wide-format printer should be able to produce photographic prints on almost any media type-including nonphotographic papers. This allows you to extend your product offerings beyond what your traditional lab equipment can deliver, like canvas, fine-art papers or even specialty materials like back-light film. As a result, your lab will expand its overall product range and will have even more products available to the customer.
Does It Fit Into Your Workflow?
A key concern, of course, is software compatibility with your existing workflow. Make sure the new printer is a good fit with the vendor of your front-end and workflow software. You want to consider a printer that's a leader in its category and brings the support of many other third-party organizations.
Cost is no longer a barrier to buying a new wide-format printer for your lab. The prices are now so attractive for these printers that even the smallest lab can invest easily in them. If you position the product appropriately to your customers, that investment will pay back very quickly over time. Before you make your decision, you should seriously think about how you're going to let customers know you have this new product and service. You can't just buy a printer and expect customers to immediately realize their need for archival, wide-format prints. Your clientele may not yet be aware that large-format prints are available at your lab. Once you spread the word about what you can produce with this technology, it's a great way to differentiate your lab from another down the street.
Ease of operation and use must also be a serious consideration when you buy a printer. The printers that are most successful in wide-format photography are the ones that can easily handle roll and cut sheet in the same printer. Cut sheet paper handling is crucial in a machine like this. It also should be easy to swap out ink cartridges and require very little maintenance other than replenishing ink and media as needed.
No matter where a lab positions itself digitally, it should understand that wide-format photography is on the cusp of becoming mainstream. More than any other target market for a wide-format printer, labs have the most potential for growth in this area. The key is to find a wide-format printer that fits the right criteria and promises to be a good investment. If a lab does it right, a new wide-format printer will help round out your print offerings and meet the needs of customers, with sellable print quality that lasts for years to come.
Mark Radogna is the senior product manager, Professional Graphics at Epson America, Inc.