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It Keeps Plotting...and Plotting

When time for a new plotter, here's what you need to consider

By Jerry Mathel
Reprinted with permission from Sign Builder Illustrated

Back in 1992, when I decided to buy a computer vinyl graphics system, my main concern was price. It wasn't a philosophical decision. I simply didn't have much money to spend, and I needed to get by as cheaply as possible. Usually, when I approach something in this manner, I end up being sorry, but here I am seven years later with the same plotter, still running and working as good as the day I bought it.

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  • I wish I could say the same for the rest of the system, which hasn't done nearly as well. The computer is on its third hard drive, second monitor, second keyboard, and second surge protector. The scanner needed a new card, and the laser printer has been overhauled twice. But the plotter has been solid as a rock. I should probably upgrade my computer and software. I'm still using a 486/33 running a DOS version of Casmate Pro. However, I'm a strong proponent of, "If it's not broke, don't fix it." This system sounds outdated to a lot of users, but it still serves me well and does most everything I ask from it.

    The plotter I selected back then was a 20-inch, Roland Camm-1, PNC-1000. It was the least expensive plotter I could find at that time that would do the work I needed. A few days ago, a friend and I got into a discussion about plotters and how few problems we had with them. He has a 30-inch Ioline Studio 8 that he bought about five years ago that has never given him a minute's trouble.

    I began to wonder if other shops had been as lucky as we had. After all, a plotter is a pretty complex machine. My curiosity got the best of me, and I decided I would launch my own investigation into how well other shops had fared with their older plotters. I contacted most of the shops in my area and posted an inquiry on the Internet. The findings were sort of surprising. In almost every case, the old plotters still run well. A large number of shops continue to use the first plotter they ever bought, and a lot of them were eight or ten years old.

    Overall, the more expensive plotters have not stood up any better than the less expensive ones. The few failures I ran across were mostly electronic problems, and oddly enough these seemed to be in the more expensive machines. In a few of these cases, these electronic problems proved fatal, as the price of repairs exceeded the value of the plotter. A few of the users I talked to noted minor mechanical problems with some of the less expensive machines. But almost all the owners had their plotters repaired at minimal cost, or, in some cases, they repaired them in the shop with the tools at hand.

    There's one certain screw on my Roland that has a tendency to work loose. It's especially aggravating because the screw is in an almost inaccessible location, but a dab of mechanic's Lock-Tite(tm) finally solved the problem. The only money that I have spent on that machine in all these years has been for blades and an occasional platen strip, the Teflon(tm) band that supports the vinyl where the knife cuts. That machine has cut thousands of yards of vinyl. Dust is a major enemy of this kind of machinery and using a dust cover when the machine is not in use helps extend the life of the machine.

    A few people with whom I talked told me about a plotter that suffered major damage from lightning that caused power surges. A plotter is every bit as susceptible to voltage damage as a computer, so it wouldn't hurt to use a good quality surge protector to protect the money you poured into that plotter. The cheap ones won't get the job done in something as severe as a lightning strike. Shop around for surge protectors. They have improved in quality and come down in price the last few years. You can find a top quality one with a battery backup for under a hundred dollars.

    One thing that I didn't foresee in my original choice of a plotter was the availability of vinyl in certain sizes. I make a lot of banners and letter quite a few dirt-track race cars, and, as such, I use a lot of intermediate vinyl in wide widths. Back in 1992, intermediate vinyl was commonly available in 20-inch width, but now I find I have to go shopping to find it. Twenty-four-inch intermediate vinyl seems to be today's standard size. So, to simplify supply problems, I added a Roland 24-inch PNC-960 to my system two years ago. It now works right alongside the old 20-inch Roland, and they both see daily service. The new 24-inch model is a little faster and has more bells and whistles than the old one, but except for the width of cut, it does as much as the other older plotter.

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    Both of my machines are slower than some of the equipment available today. The older 20-inch plotter in my shop rates a Neolithic age in computer years. However, it continues to work, creates true and clean product, and does not slow down the work process. So, we keep it busy, and we couldn't be better served. The sales people emphasized speed when I bought my newer, second unit. But speed is relative to what the computer is doing with all its other products. That makes several people think that speed is not all that important anymore in the purchase of these peripherals. I weighed one thing against the other, and, for a one-man shop, I don't believe speed is a big factor. Either one of those machines can cut vinyl faster than I can weed and tape it. In a larger shop, with several people working on vinyl projects, speed would probably be more important.

    The difference between a tangential cutter and a swivel-knife cutter seems to determine the price of plotters. A tangential cutter actually steers the blade as it cuts, while a swivel-blade cutter simply drags the blade and relies on an offset blade mounted in a bearing to turn corners. There is no doubt that a tangential cutter is better for cutting small, detailed stuff, but it also comes at a much higher price. Some tangential cutters also make ponce patterns. Interestingly enough, one of the options, available at extra cost, offered by one tangential-cutter manufacturer is a swivel-blade cutting head. You'll have to decide for yourself if the added capabilities of a tangential blade plotter are worth the added expense. In the seven years I have had my vinyl cutting system, I've only had to pass on two or three jobs because I had a swivel knife cutter. I'm not sure I wanted to weed the 1/8-inch letters on those jobs anyway. Most of the plotters on the market will also cut sandblasting stencils, but you may have to buy a special blade.

    Some manufacturers offer attractive financing programs that might affect your choice of machines. You might also consider an equipment lease as an alternative to purchasing a plotter machine. Ask your accountant about some of the advantages of leasing instead of purchasing equipment. Leasing is not a good deal for everyone, but for some there seem to be tax benefits.

    I worried over the type of plotter I needed for the shop. The question of whether to buy a traction-feed or friction-feed plotter went around in my head for a few long days. The Roland happened to be friction feed, and, for the most part, it has worked just fine. Occasionally, it skews and ruins a piece of vinyl when I rush in preparation for the job and don't align the material correctly. On the other hand, a friction feed makes it much easier to use scrap pieces of vinyl. Some kind of organized storage system for scraps is a must if you are going to try to use them. It seems like I can never find what I'm looking for in my scrap bin.

    The friction-feed systems have improved over the years, and some manufacturers now have guide systems that help the problem of aligning the material in the feeder. Traction feed machines seldom fail to feed correctly and, again, are better for cutting small, detailed stuff. However, on the down side, you are limited to either 15-inch or 30-inch pre-punched material. Most suppliers seem to charge the same for either punched or un-punched vinyl.

    Let's face it. The vinyl cutting plotter has revolutionized the sign industry more than anything since the invention of the paint brush. That might not have happened if dependable and affordable equipment hadn't been readily available. Plotter manufacturers, in general, have done a good job developing quality machines with excellent reputations in the last decade. And overall engineering and quality have been, shall we say, a cut above average.

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