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The WIDE World of Service Large-Format Printers Add Big Profit Potential

31 Jul, 2006 By: Steve Geishirt imageSource

The WIDE World of Service Large-Format Printers Add Big Profit Potential

Over the past year, I’ve had a chance to talk to many copier/printer service
providers who are considering servicing large-format printers, the most common
of these being the HP Designjet. They tell me they are seeing an increase in the
number of large-format printers popping up in the office setting and are getting
calls from customers looking to buy units from them.

Concerned about the inability to provide support for the units, service
providers are often forced to turn customers down. This, however, does not seem
to deter customers who wind up purchasing a Designjet on the open market and
then call back later to ask if they can provide service. In other words, the
customer will still purchase the large-format printer and will still require
your service.

You use to see large-format and wide format printers/plotters only in classic
businesses such as architect offices or copy shops where CAD drawings were done.
Now they exist almost everywhere, and with good reason. There continues to be a
shift to bring print jobs in house with cost being the largest factor. First,
it’s expensive to send work out of house to be printed. Just ask your front
office or marketing department what it costs for a simple flyer to be printed
through an outside service. The second expense factor is the lower cost of color
units. The costs of color laser printers and multifunction units have become
more economical, and the prices on large-format printers have also been
dramatically reduced.

The Profitability Factor

Let me give you a good example from my employer, Parts Now! We recently
purchased an HP Designjet 500 for a Designjet repair course we began offering in
June. In working with the unit, our Marketing Director noticed the awesome test
prints we were outputting with the unit. She talked us into doing some print
jobs that required the larger size paper; a print job she would normally send
out of house. The prints looked great and she began asking if they could use it
for future jobs. She figured she would have paid up to $400 to outsource the
print job we did in house. The cost to us was 22 feet of paper at $16 and likely
$10 in ink. The Designjet 500 that we purchased has a simple 24-inch wide paper
path and sells for $2,095 on HP’s website. Once the marketing department uses
the printer five to seven times on jobs that typically would be outsourced, the
unit is paid for. HP Designjet prices range from $700 up to $30,000, depending
on what requirements are needed.

HP is no longer the sole provider of these large-format printers. Canon has
recently announced a line of large-format printers while others such as Xerox
also supply them. This is clearly telling us something about the market. Large
OEMs don’t decide to get involved in something that is declining or

All of this has prompted questions from people who are not currently
servicing large-format printers, but can see the potential for revenue. Most
aren’t comfortable enough to make a decision on whether to service large-format
printers or even know where to go to obtain the knowledge that’s needed. If
someone is going to spend $2,000, $5,000, or even $20,000 on a unit, it will
certainly pay to know how to have it properly serviced. This is clearly a niche
market but also a growing and profitable one. By understanding the makeup of the
large-format printer (in particular the HP Designjet units) you can learn to
identify some of the "gotchas" that could potentially cost you a good customer
if you are not careful.

The HP Designjets are essentially large inkjets. According to Terry Meyers,
who recently co-taught a Designjet course with Parts Now! in Madison, WI, much
of the technology used in today’s HP DeskJets came from Designjet models.
Naturally, the Designjets are more complex than the desktop inkjets but that is
to be expected. The larger units obviously have more sensors, color
calibrations, and can use roll or cut sheets. Other similarities between the
desktop inkjets and large-format Designjets are that both have a carriage motor
and belt that move the printheads across the top of the paper so it can apply
the ink to the page. Both units have a service station that cleans and caps the
printheads so the ink does not dry out. Both units have an encoder strip that
allows the unit to know where the printhead is as it moves across the page.

Differences between the units are seen in the assortment of different paper
sizes ranging from letter size to the larger format rolls or cut sheets. These
rolls or sheet sizes vary from 24" to 60" in width. When paper is loaded the
unit will automatically measure the width of the paper with an optical sensor
located on the print head. Whether it is a roll or cut sheet paper, alignment is
very important. There is a whole procedure for aligning a new roll or sheet of
paper. This feature shouldn’t scare off potential service technicians simply
because they don’t understand the workings of the unit at first.

Designjets do have more complicated menus, service menus and tests. The more
complicated menus are actually a plus because there are multiple service tests
built in to help troubleshoot and diagnose these units. Service manuals are a
must as it is often a key combination that gets a service tech into the service
test area, but keeps the customer out.

Demystifying Service

Let’s talk about a couple of "gotchas." You know, those innovative new features
that seem difficult to understand at first. The initial or first "gotcha" in
servicing these units is the break out of the models. Let’s take the HP
Designjet 500 for instance. If you go to HP’s website, there are two models
listed. A 24" wide print version and a 42" wide print version. Both are
Designjet 500s. There is no letter designation in Designjet 500 names on the
front that denotes one from the other. However, the model number on the back of
the unit clearly indicates which model the customer has. If the carriage width
is different then so are some of the parts. The carriage belt on a 24" version
is obviously a little shorter than the carriage belt on the 42" unit. Other
parts that you would think would be interchangeable between the two carriage
widths are not necessarily so. It’s best to know the printer model and model
number from the back of the unit before ordering parts. This helps eliminate a
lot of confusion and wrong part shipments.

Another good example that requires the model number for parts is the very
popular Designjet 700 series. There are 12 different models in this series and
yet you’ll only see four different numbers on the front of the units. Some of
the numbers denote carriage widths of 24" or 36" while other numbers denote
upgrade models, in which case take notice as some parts from one model won’t
interchange with another. Service manuals, again, are a must to be accurate.

Another "gotcha" in servicing Designjets are the service procedures and tests
after the repair; even on adding ink to the units. Service procedures such as
alignment and color calibrations, mostly built into the service menu, must be
done when a part is replaced. This can include replacement of ink cartridges and
printheads. The newer units have separate ink tanks and printheads while the
older units combine them into one. Most printers need to be powered up when ink
tanks or printheads are changed. If you don’t follow these procedures, you can
damage printheads or cause them to have a shorter life.

All of these issues can make even the best technician overly cautious when
first approaching a large-format printer – it’s not just another laser printer
or copier. But isn’t that just what makes these more profitable service calls?
If these units were easy to fix, everybody would be working on them. The good
news is that once you learn the basics of these big inkjets, the knowledge
transfers well from one model to another. Is there profitability in servicing a
$20,000 unit? Yes! Not to mention the great reward of providing good service
that results in a winning situation for both the customer and you.

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