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Buying Used Printing Equipment: Essential Factors to Consider

Before you can decide if buying used equipment is the right choice, you need to determine what your true objectives are.

By Mark A. Coudray, President, Coudray Graphic Technologies

Over the years I've owned a dozen automatic presses and of those I purchased three of them as used machines.

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  • I've also sold all of them into the used market and have dealt with a wide range of experiences related to those sales. In addition, I've moved half a dozen presses to new locations as we increased our operations and moved into new facilities. This process goes well beyond the obvious of adding more production capacity to your shop, but that's a good place to start.

    Before you can decide if buying used equipment is the right choice, you need to determine what your true objectives are. By this, I don't mean saving on the front-end purchase of the equipment. This is the easy answer, but more often than not, it isn't the right answer in the long run. There are two common paths printers take in making the choice to go with used equipment.

    Moving from Manual to Automated
    The first one is the need to move from a manual shop to an automated shop. The difference in productivity is tremendous, especially in multicolor six- to 10-color jobs. Going automatic puts you in an entirely different league, one that most printers aren't really prepared for. The differences between the manual and auto can be like night and day.

    There's a big difference between the mechanics of the machines. Manual presses are very forgiving, easy to work on and not very complicated. Automatics are a different story. They can range from fairly easy to troubleshoot and repair to extremely complicated requiring a visit from a trained tech to resolve the problem. Often the problems you face are hard to diagnose because there are compound causes. Electrical or control code failure of an IC board or output module can affect the cylinders and print action of the machine. Likewise, transient switch or sensor signals can make it very difficult to diagnose random machine behavior.

    Generally, I recommend buying an entry-level press new for your first shot out the gate. They are factory installed. They come with basic training. There's no wear and tear or stressed out parts. They come with a warranty. These are all very important elements when you don't have the experience or knowledge with the equipment. This will give you a chance to learn the machine while all the key parts are under warranty. You can learn from the install as it is being done.

    If you decide to purchase used, make sure the operator's manual and electronic schematics are available with the equipment or from the manufacturer. If you can't get them from the current owner, call the company and ask for them by serial number. The manuals change all the time and the serial number of the machine you have will determine what version of the manual you'll need. This is critical. If this is your first automatic purchase, you'll also need to learn how to read schematics. It's part of the process unless you want to be bringing in a tech every time the press goes down.

    Another strong point of consideration is if anyone on your staff has extensive experience with autos. Not experience, extensive experience. Ask them to give you examples of the kinds of things they have worked on and how they were solved. This can be a major advantage for you and shorten the learning curve considerably. It's easier to find people today who have worked on autos in the past and are familiar with them.

    Finally, if you purchase used, I would recommend you have a factory-authorized tech do the install from the beginning.

    They are familiar with all aspects of the machine and can alert you to some of the common areas you can expect to watch for maintenance and mechanical failure. They can also check and recalibrate the forks and registration of the machine.

    Adding Existing Automatic Production
    The second major reason for buying used is to add to existing automatic production. For the experienced automatic operator or for the shop that is looking to purchase their second or third (or more) machines, it's a different story. This kind of shop knows what they are getting into. They know the machines and how they operate. Even so, there are factors to consider. Interestingly, of all the machines I have sold, only one of them went to a shop going from manual to auto. That machine was a 6c American Arrow Multi-printer, the most forgiving of any press I have ever worked with and perfectly fitted for someone's first machine.

    In addition, I did the disassembly and install for the client so I could walk through everything with him. When I arrived, he put the machine together by himself and the main fork locators were 180 degrees out of alignment. We spent the first day taking the machine apart, leveling it, and putting it together correctly. Great lesson learned for both of us.

    Hidden Factors
    From the initial contact, you need to know some key things about the press by asking yourself the following questions:

    • Why is this machine for sale?
    • Is the shop closing?
    • Was it a bankruptcy or repossession?
    • Is the title to the machine clear (UCC-1 Filing?)
    • Can you talk to the current owner?
    • Is the machine represented by a reputable broker and will they provided a limited guarantee on the machine?
    • Has this machine had more than one owner? If yes, how many?

    The issue of clear title can be a problematic one. This is especially true today with the number of shops who have closed due to the economic times. If the business is in bankruptcy or about to go bankrupt, you are at risk purchasing the machine. Depending on the laws in your state, the bankruptcy referee can demand that the monies received and assets sold within one year of closing be returned to the court for distribution to the creditors. Can you imagine what that would mean if you paid for the machine, received it, and then had to return it and wait for your money (if you could even get any of it back)? I am not an attorney, and this is not legal advice, but I would highly recommend you consult with your attorney if this applies to you.

    At the very least, you want to check with the Secretary of State in the state where the machine is located to make sure there are no liens or holds on the title. You will want to know the full legal name of the owner and the business to make the check. You will also want to know if the person selling the machine has the legal right to do so. A lien means they cannot without the knowledge and authorization of the lien holder.

    You can still purchase the equipment, even if a lien is present, but you must deposit the proceeds into an escrow account so the funds can be properly disbursed and the lienholder's rights are protected. This usually happens when there is a financing or property tax issue with the equipment.

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    If a leasing company, bank or other financial interest shows up as the lien holder, you will need to have this released before the machine can be disassembled and moved. At the very least, you must receive instructions from the lienholder on how the funds will be handled. You also want to make sure the current UCC-1 is properly released on the transfer of the title.

    Everyone knows who the big players are in the market. They have extensive service departments and trained field tech mechanics. Any high-end machine from one of these companies is going to have a service record history on file with the company based on the serial number of the machine. This is very helpful. I recommend checking out the history in advance of purchase. Machines with a history of electrical or registration problems can be very frustrating to work with, for example. Be wary of machines that have had multiple PLC, master controller, or output controller replacements.

    Look at the number of machine impressions. Most modern machines are good for five to 10 million or more impressions. I consider the first million impressions the break-in period. With this knowledge, look at the wear points on the machine. Things like the registration forks and registration locator bearings. Also, the main ball screw or servo drive shafts. If the machine is an oval versus round, make sure to check out the transport channels. The oval machines typically have larger pallets for all-over printing and the whip of the heavier weight pallets can leave major stress wears on the transport channels. All of these areas should be well lubricated and free of any metal filings or mechanical wear.

    If the machine you are considering has been abused and covered in spray adhesive and lint, you need to be a bit more careful. Built-up adhesive can be a big enemy. When mixed with dust, lint, grease and metal filings, it acts as an abrasive grinder. Every time a bearing or fork locks in, it's ground with all this gook. The difference between a clean, well-maintained machine and one where the adhesive was allowed to build up can be huge.

    If at all possible, seeing the used machine in operation is highly desirable. Not only will you be able to see the machine run, but you can hear it as well. Telltale squeaks, chirps and grinding are indications that something is binding or out of sync. This can be important for machines using servo drives. The synchronization of PLC signals with the timing of the machine can change over time. Electrical surges, line noise, and a host of other electrical factors can cause embedded programs to become corrupt. In turn, the corrupt programs will either fail to send the appropriate signals, or the signals being sent can be out of sync.

    Many machines today use servo-driven ball drives to advance the pallets. A careful inspection of the ball drive shaft and the ball drive bearing for wear and "slap" can be an indication the machine was repeatedly and abruptly stopped with the emergency stop button. While the manufacturer warns every company not to use the emergency stop unless it is a true emergency, operators routinely use it when the press advances before they're ready or if there's a chance something is on the pallet before it goes to the first head. These sudden stops can severely damage the ball drive bearing necessitating early replacement. This is a big expense replacement.

    Most machines with PLCs will have a backup battery supply to make sure the programming codes are protected in the event of a power outage. These batteries are good for about a year and are only used when the machine is without power. If the machine you are purchasing has been connected to power for more than a year, and the batteries have not been replaced, do not disconnect from the power supply before new batteries are installed.

    New batteries before you move the machine will save you much grief on the reinstall when you discover all the programming code is gone and the PLCs need to be factory reloaded. This is a field install, but requires a field tech and a laptop download.

    When it comes to disassembly, crating and transport, you have more factors to consider. I highly recommend you have a company or experienced independent technician assist in the breakdown of the machine. It really helps to video the teardown with close-ups and digital pictures as each head is removed from the machine. There is a specific sequence on how to do this and it's not recommended to try it out on your own unless you have done it before.

    Finally, if you plan on moving the machine more than about 10 miles, make sure you use a truck with air ride shock absorbers. Electrical connections crystalize over time and become brittle. The shock of a rough ride can cause these connections to break. I purchased one scanner for $40,000, moved it across town, and it never ran again because there were so many stress fractures in the circuitry. It was a very expensive lesson.

    There is one other recommendation I would highly endorse. Purchase all-risk special insurance to cover everything from the disassembly, loading, transport, unload, and re-install. This will cost a few hundred dollars but is well worth it if a forklift operator drops the load or the circuits crack. This has happened to me twice (dropped loads). Fortunately, we were covered both times.

    The bottom line is that you can save 25- 50 percent off the cost of a new machine by going used. This should only be considered the base starting point. There are almost always problems in making a move from one location to the other. I recommend adding an additional 10 percent to the cost of the purchase to cover these contingencies. If the final price is within 15 percent of the price of a new machine, go with the new machine. You may even be able to negotiate some of that difference away. The more experienced you are, the greater the likelihood of your success in buying used equipment. Good luck!

    Mark A. Coudray is a respected and well known industry innovator and strategist. His works have been published in more than 400 papers, columns, features, and articles in every major publication in the US and abroad. Coudray has been an active member of the Academy of Screen Printing and Digital Technology since 1989 and has been involved in SGIA for more than 30 years.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, April/May 2013 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2013 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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