Epson has updated its solvent signage printers but how much of an improvement are they? Nessan Cleary went to find out.
Earlier this year Epson replaced its range of SureColor SCS solvent printers with brand new models - all 1.6m wide roll-fed machines. There are a lot of small improvements designed to increase the overall performance and productivity of these printers, such as LED lights inside to make it easier to see the images as they are printed.
But, more importantly, this new range also represents a shift in the way that Epson approaches the solvent printer market. Where before Epson wanted to talk purely about the quality of the images it could achieve - a throwback to the proofing and fine art heritage of its aqueous ink printers - now it wants to compete more openly on productivity as well. So this month we’ve tested the middle of the range SC-S60600, which uses two printheads and two sets of CMYK. There are two other models in the range: the S40600 has a single head; while the S80600 has two heads but takes nine colours plus an option to use either white and metallic.
The S60600 is likely to be the most popular because of its productivity. It can produce up to 29.4m2/hr on vinyl or 52.3m2/hr on banner materials. It’s aimed firmly at volume users and is suitable for various applications such as vehicle graphics, exhibitions, POS and outdoor signage. It comes fitted with a dryer on the front, which is an optional extra on the other models, but necessary to allow the printer to run at the higher speeds.
These new printers use Epson’s latest PrecisionCore printhead, based on the thin film micropiezo technology that has characterised all of Epson’s printheads. It has two rows of 360 nozzles each, capable of producing drops as small as 4.2 picolitres. It’s a greyscale head that can produce three distinct drop sizes, which can be combined to produce several levels of greyscale, depending on the print mode and profile in use.
Epson has also added a shield either side of the printer, an overdue feature that should help protect the heads from damage. Paul Restarick, Epson’s pre-sales technical specialist for large-format, says: “The head guard directs the air around the head rather than underneath it, which leads to more accurate dot placement.”
There’s a new UltraChrome GS3 inkset that is said to be quick drying with very low odour. Restarick says that this printer uses less ink than previous models, explaining: “Because the inks are packing more pigment in each droplet they do not need the same amount of ink to achieve the same level of saturation.”
Epson has taken a different approach to producing halftones, which it calls PrecisionDot. Dom Fowler, Epson’s European product manager, explains: “We would give out the halftone information to let people produce drivers. That meant that different vendors had their own approach. We have now given all the screen technology to all the vendors so the drive mode is identical across all the Rip vendors.”
In the UK and Ireland, the printer comes with an Onyx Rip, but Epson has also worked with other vendors including Caldera and Shiraz.
Epson has also created a new EMX file format, which contains all the ICC colour profiles for the media in use as well as the machine’s hardware settings for things like drying. ICC profiles already include much of this information but the new format allows Epson to add maximum ink density information, which is needed because of the way the printheads work
Restarick adds: “All the profiles are uploaded to the cloud so the customer can buy the media and download the profiles and away they go.”
Machine maintenance has been automated, a feature normally only seen on more expensive printers designed for high volume environments. There’s a Fabric Wiper, which wipes the whole face of the head with a synthetic solvent cleaner so that there’s no need for the operator to do this any more. Restarick adds: “It wets the area around the head so that any foreign matter will be attracted to this area and not the nozzles.” The result is that it only needs a few minutes maintenance once a month just to wipe around the channels.
The Fabric Wiper itself is a consumable item, which costs £70 (plus VAT) and should last for around six months depending on how heavily the machine is used.
Epson has also improved the media feeding system, which uses an auto-tension control system to control the motors on the feed and take up rolls. There are new feed rollers, which give more control over the media as it runs through the printer, and new electronic sensors that control the amount of pressure for handling the paper.
The printer itself costs £15,495, which includes delivery and a day’s training at Epson’s demo centre. There’s a two-year warranty, which can be extended up to five years and covers the printheads, though Restarick says the heads should last the lifetime of the printer.
The inks cost £74.07 (excluding VAT) for a 700mm cartridge, which is a significant drop in price from the previous generation. In addition, we found that the printer did use relatively less ink on our standard test than other printers that we’ve tested in this series so that running costs should be relatively low.
We carried out this test at Epson’s main demo centre near Hemel Hempstead, and used an Onyx Rip, printing to Metamark MD5 self adhesive vinyl.
Our standard test is to print two charts - one of mainly solid Pantones and one of mainly photographs. Both charts are A0 size. We have each printed at the highest print quality available - in this case Maximum Quality with 1440 x 1440dpi and 16 passes - and at a typical production speed - for which we used the Speed mode at 720 x 720dpi with four passes.
Epson says that these modes will print at 6.8m2/hr and 25m2/hr respectively.
For our test, the speed mode took 2.44 minutes to print the mainly photographic chart, using 8.13ml of ink, and three minutes for the Pantone chart with 12ml of ink. The Maximum Quality mode took 10.02 minutes to print the photographic chart and used 9.02ml of ink. This same mode took 10.15 minutes to print the Pantone chart, using 13.49ml of ink.
The 16-pass Maximum Quality mode has delivered excellent image quality, with plenty of tonal detail, no sign of any banding and smooth transitions from light to dark areas. The text is just about legible down to 3pt though 4pt is more comfortable to read.
The four-pass Speed mode prints have similar colour depth to the 16-pass but with some horizontal banding on the solid Pantones, dark backgrounds and the Reflex Blue gradient, though this is quite faint and not noticeable from a metre away. The images and the text are still sharp.
It should be noted that Epson also suggest a slightly slower six-pass Production mode, with a slightly higher resolution of 720 x 1440dpi, but for most people the faster four-pass mode is likely to be more than adequate.
The standard colour profiles are designed to mimic the colours that you would expect from an offset press, so they give a very accurate rendition of the intended colour. But Epson also has a wide colour gamut mode that uses the full colour gamut the inks are capable of. The result is considerably more saturated, which may prove more suitable for many posters and general signage work.
The printed results are excellent and it should be possible to print jobs meant to be viewed from a modest distance with the relatively fast four-pass Speed mode. In addition, there a lot of small improvements, from the easy loading to a flat surface on top of the machine to leave a laptop or coffee cup, that should make the S60600 a very easy machine to live with.