Gigantagram vinyl cutter and banner printer with solvent inks vs Western Graphtec JX Series plotter-printer.

Sign shops face lots of tough decisions in this digital millennium: abandon vinyl cutters and go to full color wide format inkjet printers? Or find a halfway solution, namely the Varitronics XL3000 Poster Printer from Brady or the Gigantagram Instant Vinyl & Banner printer from Lazer Images which can print with multiple colors.

The Gigantagram poster and banner printer is a clever concept. The uncoated vinyl is much much cheaper than the coated media required for inkjet printers. The printer prints at an acceptable speed. You can print in several colors on the same vinyl, a tough assignment for an old-fashioned vinyl cutter.

The pleasant people at the Lazer Images booth at both PMA and Graphics of the Americas trade shows (February 2001) indicated that thousands and thousands of people bought their systems.

However let's look at the wider world of sign making. For Ma and Pa neighborhood sign shops, this or a vinyl cutter of Variatronics poster printer are okay. But your competition is already gaining clients with a full-featured true large format inkjet printer. So before you plunk down x-thousand dollars, carefully consider the alternatives.

As far as I can ascertain the Gigantagram vinyl banner system can only paint solid predefined colors, namely the precise colors of the magic markers. I do not see any means of mix and match colors. In other words, you can't mix one color on top of another (yes, you can paint over perhaps, but the result would be unpredictable). Thus this system cannot actually print a photograph of anything, because that would require dots, as in a printing press or dithering software as a true wide format printer. Thus when you see photographs that have Gigantagram lettering, that is simply a Gigantagram print on top of a photograph that is preprinted by screen press or true large format inkjet printer. So just be sure you don't have a hope you can print actual signs, posters, or banners with real pictures. No, you can't, indeed I am not even sure the Gigantagram can accept TIF (TIFF) images from Adobe Photograph, which is the digital imaging software used by 99% of the digital imaging professionals in the world and the #1 software for generating photographs for true wide format digital printing on an actual wide format printer.

Digital imaging has not been very kind to outmoded technologies of the 1980's. Pen plotters have already been overtaken by inkjet printers in the CAD market. Vinyl cutters are still being sold by Gerber, Mimaki, ANAgraph and many other companies but we have seen other sign shops where the vinyl cutters are being pushed into the back room as Encads, Rolands, Hewlett-Packards, and ColorSpans are being moved into the main room.

The Gigantagram probably has a faithful following. Thus we look forward to learning more about the capabilities of this unique printing system. Perhaps we can find out features that make it worthwhile even in the modern digital. Later this year we will consider adding non-digital traditional sign making equipment to find out what features of these older sign making vinyl cutters and poster printers still are worthwhile for specific jobs even in the digital era. Although the inkjet printer is rather versatile, it can't yet do everything, and some kinds of simple lettering may indeed be more cost effective with a Gigantagram. So far we have seen the Gigantagram only at trade shows, so will need to get some firsthand practical experience with it. Since it's evidently been made since 1988, the printer should be relatively well made by now. Inkjet printers advance their technology every 16 months.

Why worry about production cost if your clients are willing to pay extra for the superior quality of a true inkjet print. In other words, update your mindset from the days gone by. It's a digital world out there. Besides, you can get a Western Graphtec SignJet Pro JX 2150 or 2100 which can do inkjet printing as well as cutting, so you can have the best of both worlds (we do not recommend the clumsy NovaCut nor the Graphtec version JX 1060 or JX 1130). But we have inspected the newer Western Graphtec JX 2150 and 2100 models. They are excellent printers for a sign shop who still needs some vinyl cutting as well as full quality inkjet printer capability.

In Summary: Gigantagram Vinyl and Banner printer or Western Graphtec cutter-plotter?

Yes, Gigantagram solvent ink on vinyl will hold up outdoors, but what about the health hazards of solvent inks? Solvent inks are banned in Europe, even at tradeshows, without full exhaust system (which costs more than the printer). Encad had a solvent ink printer under development the year 2000. Encad stopped development due to the new laws, especially since California is also now getting tougher on solvent inks. So that new Encad printer never appeared. The Roland SolventJet has failed in the market because its Epson printheads can't hold up to the chemical reactions of the aggressive solvent inks.

Nowadays plenty of media works with the Graphtec SignJet Pro which is water-resistant. But the main reason to select an inkjet printer over a pen plotter is to enter the real world. If you are stuck with a pen plotter or vinyl cutter that is all you can do. Nothing more. If this is all you ever intend to do, then yes, the Gigantagram is what you should consider. But if you aspire to grow and get more clients, go for a real digital printer. The Graphtec is much much faster than the Roland. Just be sure not to get the earlier Encad model. The model that is considerably better is the model we have inspected at two tradeshows, Graphtec JX 1060 and 1130. Neither are on the Internet; actually there is more on these printers on the FLAAR website than on the Internet.

For additional information and for help making your decision, ask for the FLAAR report on "Which Wide Format Solvent Ink Printer is good for Sign Shops." Comparative reviews, pros and cons of each technology.

In case you need to print on atypical substances, consider asking for "Inkjet Printers for Thick and Rigid Materials." This is a public service of our university; there is no cost.

While you are at it, you can also ask for the "FLAAR report on wide format inkjet printers for signs, posters, banners" (specify whether for indoor signs with normal inks or outdoor signs in the rain and sun with solvent inks on vinyl). If you are unsure which, then just tell us what you intend to print, whether this is your first (or second) printer, and what kind of help you need.

You can also ask for the report on "Media and Inks for Sign Printing with Large Format Inkjet."

If this will be your first printer, then we have a special report that holds your hand and leads you through all the basic questions that will assist a first-time buyer of a large format printer. Purchase the FLAAR report on "RIP + Help." This explains what RIP software is, why this is useful, and includes tips, warnings, information, and help for a wide range of matters for a newbie. Here you will really appreciate that FLAAR is based at a university; Professor Hellmuth has plenty of experience writing in a manner that explains what you need, and why.

No, we can't save you from printer problems that we don't know about, and yes, even the worst printer has some redeeming usefulness. Thus you need to make the final decision yourself. But at least we can provide plenty of helpful tips and warn you about the more subtle kinds of bait-and-switch advertising. We have seen printers advertised as "photo realistic" when in fact a photographer would be embarrassed to see his or her images on that printer. The slowest printer of all is flagrantly advertised with hype claiming it is the absolute fastest. Our tests also demonstrate that the output is so pathetic that you would throw the prints in the trash. You would also lose your clients if you attempted to charge them for such awful output.

On the subject of unusable output, if you wish to learn which inkjet printers won "worst in show" category, ask for the FLAAR evaluations of large format printers at trade shows: DRUPA, Seybold, Photokina, PhotoEast+SGIA, The Big Picture SHOW, and others.


Most recently updated November 31, 2001.