Proper printer maintenance can make or break your ROI.
By Maura Keller
Most fabric graphic shops and end product manufacturers don’t have a problem remembering to maintain a clean environment to house their textiles. But when it comes to keeping their printing equipment clean, they are the first to admit negligence. Take a look at a fabric printer and you’ll often see dust coating printer heads or lint gathered in the machine’s crevices. But it doesn’t require much effort to keeping your equipment as the efficient, profit-generating machine that it can be. With ongoing maintenance, and even subcontracting projects, you can avoid idle machines and impact your bottom line.
Cleanliness is paramount
As the fabric graphics industry continues to grow, more and more industry experts realize the important role every part of the printing process plays. And proper printer maintenance is no exception. In fact, fabric graphic printers are realizing that the perfect product isn’t completely based on the inks and textiles used, or the quality of the printer at hand (although that is often paramount for a successful end product). Rather, keeping a printer running efficiently to avoid work slowdowns is vital to see a return on your investment.
“If a machine is running, it is making money,” says Marie Friemann, marketing representative at Mimaki. “Our machines are made to run continually. A machine that is in continual use does not have clogged heads or lines because the ink is always moving.”
Michael Terlizzi and the team at ITNH Inc., a distributor of wide-format digital printers and industrial UV-curable applications in Manchester, N.H., help customers select the right printer and marry it with other necessary tools.
“We ensure that when they buy the printer, they have everything they need to make sellable products, according to their specific applications,” Terlizzi says. “But keeping everything clean is the key to efficiency.”
Terlizzi explains to his customers that printer maintenance requires one simple thing: diligence. “It doesn’t require that much effort,” he says. “Sometimes we will have a customer call and say that their printer isn’t working, When we arrive, their machine only requires a bath. They’ve neglected to clean it on an ongoing basis. The most important thing to maintaining your printing equipment is to control where the ink has been and where it’s going, and to control the lint and the dust.”
So what does a print shop or end product manufacturer need to do to keep their printers running efficiently?
“Proper maintenance is daily maintenance,” Friemann says. “Every day clean the machines, and conduct a nozzle check and alignment check. Plus, once a week, the heads should be checked and wiped down. Capping stations should also be checked for wear, and once a week, oil the y bar with 3-in-1 oil.”
For Ken Holsclaw, president of Phase 3 Media, a design and printing company in Atlanta, Ga., incorporating the correct type of printer into your business also is paramount to keeping the machines running efficiently and effectively. “When you get a piece of equipment, it is very important that you research and purchase the right type of equipment for your needs,” Holsclaw says. “When you look at a printer, there are different classes of printers, the more expensive typically means the faster it is. But you don’t want to over pay for speed you don’t need.”
That’s especially true if the majority of your applications don’t require the speed that some high-end printers provide. For example, if you own two printers for different applications and one is used considerably more than the other, you may want to evaluate your equipment portfolio.
“The more they run the better they are, but when you have them sit and not run, that’s when you may start having maintenance issues and problems,” Holsclaw says. “It is key for folks like us to make sure that you follow the recommended maintenance procedures from the manufacturers. You have to be disciplined to do that.”
Indeed, as Terlizzi explains, when his customers are getting into a printer application and not keeping the printer busy, he recommends that you don’t just let it sit idle, every few days print out a test job or a couple of images to keep the ink fresh.
“Once you’re busy you don’t have to worry about the neglect,” Terlizzi says. “You just have to worry about the ongoing maintenance.”
According to Randy Anderson, product manager at Mutoh America in Phoenix, Ariz., the Mutoh Value Jet 1304 and the 1614 series require about five minutes of physical cleaning twice a week. The five minute physical cleaning includes cleaning the wiper, the capping station seal, the band around the head for a good seal on the capping station, and the two ramps—one on each side of the head on the carriage that protects the head.
“During idle cleaning cycles there is actually very little ink that is consumed, but there is some build up if the physical maintenance is not done, so we recommend flushing the machine if it is not going to be used for more than two weeks,” Anderson says.
Ink and head considerations
Experts point out that maintenance needs vary according to the types of ink being used. “The difference is between solvent and aqueous inks,” Friemann says. “The maintenance is the same on a daily basis, but if you are using solvent inks you need to be more watchful with the heads and lines because the nature of the ink is to eat into substrates. So it can do more damage if not properly maintained. The most important thing is the daily check. If someone is using high-quality ink and the machine is not getting knocked around, they should be in good shape.”
Anderson adds that different ink sets and specialty applications have their own specific maintenance needs that usually require more frequent physical cleaning than Mutoh’s standard Eco-Ultra Ink Set. Some may require daily cleaning.
“The head is good for some eight billion droplets, but the head life can be reduced by head strikes (media making contact with the nozzle of the head itself) and inadequate cleaning,” Anderson says. “The capping station and dampers are effectively consumable products that will need to be replaced approximately every 18 months or so, depending on application.”
To reduce the chance of head strikes and avoid costly maintenance damages, insure that media is loaded correctly, the head height is set properly and temperatures are set correctly.
At your service
For more serious repairs, experts should be called. “In our case, the customer would call the dealer first,” Friemann says. “If they have a maintenance contract with the dealer then the dealer must be notified to try and resolve the problem. If the dealer cannot resolve the problem, then they need to contact us so that we can have authorization to fix the machine.”
According to Marisol Vargas, marketing assistant at Mutoh America, Mutoh authorized dealers can service any issues regarding a company’s printer to help the flow of productivity (e.g. an ink gutter, cylinder, unwinder/winder 100 system). “The authorized dealers can train the end user to learn the functions, tips and tricks, such as indicating that the ink gutter is positioned under the printing path collects all ink not absorbed by the textile,” she says. “The additional cylinder assures a perfect equal tension on the fabric during printing. And the unwinder/winder 100 will offer perfect media tracking and straight winding of finished prints.”
And while no one wants to incur the expense of replacing machines before the end of their proposed lifecycle, when the nozzles in the head do not fire or the lines become blocked, it may be time for a replacement.
In the end, it pays to maintain your machine, especially when you are trying to delay replacement costs. While the life cycle of most printers will be between three to five years (more for higher-end models), experts agree that frequent maintenance will ensure your printers provide the greatest return on investment. And remember, while creating a cleaning schedule is sort of a moving target because some shops are busier than others, try to develop a maintenance program to which everyone in your company adheres. You’ll be glad you did.