Wide Format Plotters Vs. Printers – What Is the Difference?

Printing technology displays a fantastic breadth of capabilities which range from the ability to print on different surfaces, to the use of specialty inks to produce amazing visual effects. However, printing also serves many industries in practical and critical ways. Nowhere has this been truer than with wide format printers and their closely related cousins, the wide format plotters.

Wide format plotters are not nearly as common as they once were, but it is a term which still occasionally appears. Discover what a wide format plotter is and the role it plays in printing today.

What Is a Wide Format Plotter?

A wide format plotter is a very specialized type of printer which generates printed documents ranging from two to six feet wide. Businesses which design or construct things have historically used a plotter rather than a traditional printer because only plotters were capable of unparalleled degrees of precision. Today, wide format printing has caught up technologically, making plotters less common than they used to be.

Printing with a Pen

Inkjet printers use drops of ink mixed on the paper. While laser printers use static electricity and heat to fuse toner to pages. Plotters do neither – historically, they used an actual pen to draw the output. This pen was attached to a metal arm which moved according to a set of hyper-accurate coordinates given by a computer running CAD software. This made it capable of producing sophisticated drawings with a high degree of accuracy.

Vector Not Raster

The nature of pen plotting meant that it rendered drawings in a vector file format rather than the pixelized raster, or bitmap, which is common in digital graphics today. Pen plotters made dots along coordinates which were then connected with a line. The result was a highly scalable image which did not lose clarity or detail as it was enlarged — this is a critical advantage of vector. Industries which demand precision need to be able to print in vector.

Who Uses Plotters

Plotters emphasize accuracy and clarity over beautiful, highly saturated images. Therefore, they have traditionally been common in industries which design or construct things. It might still be possible to find a plotter in:

  • Architecture
  • Construction
  • Product design
  • Mapmaking
  • Manufacturing
  • Some craftsmanship

Choosing Precision with Modern Technology

Pen plotters did have a few drawbacks, which led to their ultimate demise. First, the pen needed to be capable of drawing the entire output in a single session. If the pen ran out of ink, the drawing had to be redone. Second, pen plotters were notoriously slow and had an almost nonexistent ability to fill solid areas, create gradients or different line shades. Pen plotters have primarily disappeared today as a result of these deficiencies, although it is still possible to find them.

Additionally, printing technology has evolved to the point where laser printers can deliver the same precision. Indeed, modern plotters take advantage of laser printing technology to produce printed documents at higher speeds. Wide format plotters and printers have gradually begun to look more alike — to the point where many firms, which may have once used a plotter, now opt to use a wide format printer instead.

Wide Format Printing

Today, wide format printing delivers the same high-precision printing that architecture  and manufacturing industries rely on to build accurate, sound products. Furthermore, wide format printing introduces greater flexibility because it is capable of running other print jobs as well.

This makes a wide format printer much more valuable in the day-to-day operations of an office. Not only can a wide format printer produce the blueprints which drive creation, but it can also bring a greater range of printing needs back in-house.

Wide Format Printing for the Next Generation

Wide format printing is not optional for businesses which produce blueprints, layouts, or any other highly technical document which governs manufacturing or construction. Historically, these industries have relied upon devices known as plotters because they were able to deliver the precision needed to ensure stable, accurate development.

However, advances in printing technology in the last decade mean that wide format laser printers rival plotters in their ability to deliver high-quality blueprints. Plotters have been gradually replaced in favor of this faster, reliable, and more flexible technology.

RJ Young specializes in helping architecture and engineering firms select the best wide format printer for their unique needs. Contact an imaging specialist today to get started.