The first wide format printer was created by Graham Nash (of the band Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) with help from Disney color engineer and programmer David Coons.
Nash was a photographer in addition to his time with the band, and he wanted to be able to print large runs of large photographs to display. So, the two of them spent $126,000 to purchase a large format proof printing machine from IRIS Graphics. Since the printer was designed to print just proofs, and not final images, the prints were not made to last. Graham and Coons would spend the next few years adapting the IRIS printer before opening Nash Editions LTD, the first wide format printing company. Now there are many companies that produce wide format printers, and wide format print shops are popping up all over the world.
Sign and decoration shops use wide format printers to print full-color, no minimum designs on different types of rolled media, like vinyl, canvas, stickers, and clings. Graduation banners, “Fatheads,” vehicle wraps, and canvas prints are just a few products that can be printed using a wide format printer. The rolled media used for printing is typically anywhere between 18”-100” in width and can be printed to nearly any length. While there are several different types of printable media, there are also different quality grades and effects for each type of media. Banner material has different weights, stickers have different adhesion strengths, and posters and canvas can have a gloss or matte finish. These are just a few examples of what the decorator and customer must consider when printing a custom order. With the right media and artwork, a wide format printer can produce beautiful full color images like what you would see at a gallery or on the street.
Wide format printers are essentially inkjet printers for large media, capable of full color prints without minimum orders. Like direct-to-garment and sublimation printers, wide format printers use CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) print heads to create full color designs. The majority of wide format prints are on white media, however some wide format printers are capable of printing white onto clear media and now even have the ability to print with white ink. Many wide format printers can also cut the media into whatever shape is desired. A great example of this is Fathead, a company that prints large wall clings, typically of athletes in action. Wide format printing also made inroads into the signage industry, offering versatility and photo-quality prints that would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive.
In addition to the previous examples, wide format printers can also print wallpaper, stickers, window clings, and vehicle wraps, another product that has grown in popularity recently. Certain media does require finishing outside of the printer. For instance, banners might require grommeting or trimming and signs may need laminating. However, this is far from the laborious processes like screen printing or direct-to-garmenting printing. The ease of use, variety of printable products, and speed of wide format printing have attracted several new businesses to the market and will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Speed and price are two of the most important factors when it comes to customer satisfaction, so the strengths of wide format printing match up well with the market.