Me & my... Roland Soljet Pro4 XR-640
Thursday, February 7, 2013
For a small signs business with just one printer-cutter machine running flat out, reliability, quality and speed are all critical components
"We are a funny-sized business, I think," ruminates Steve Hems, owner of Sidcup-based Signpost Signs. The company employs eight full-time staff, so is one of the thousands of micro-businesses operating in the print business, and yet Hems believes that if you took a look at his workload, you’d think it was both a bigger and a smaller company, depending on what jobs you happened upon.
"We take on very large projects, such as education work, while also completing a lot of walk-in work on top of that," he explains. "It means we can be going from a £50 job to a £30,000 job and everything in between. So our workload can sometimes not really fit the size of company we are, we really do push ourselves."
The business has been operating in its current set-up for seven years, since Hems took sole control of what was a partnership. Five years ago it moved to its current Sidcup location and bought a Roland XJ-640 as a moving-in present from supplier PrintMax.
"Like most small sign firms, when we started my partner and myself did everything, from the printing, to running the business to getting up the ladder to change light fittings," he explains. "We are still a small firm, but we have grown in the past few years and now our roles are more defined. I am able to spend more time running the business and seeing clients, and then we have two art workers and two fitters, two minders and an accounts person. So, though still small, we do have more definition in roles now than we did."
As to what the company prints, it is a mix of large-format work, says Hems. "We do large-format banners, but we also do other work, such as large-format photoboards for schools and colleges," he says. "We have always done this on Roland machines, then mount and wrap onto Dibond composite."
Up to December last year, the Roland machine in question was an XJ-740. However, Roland released the Soljet Pro4 XR-640 in 2012, and Hems found himself tempted.
"Although the XJ-740 was a good machine, it was 10-year-old technology," he explains. "When the XR-640 was announced, we were really pleased as it was everything we wanted in a machine. Interestingly, we had told them when we bought the XJ-740 that we wanted a machine that printed at the speed and width of the XR-640, but with a cut facility. A year later it appeared, although I don’t think we can take credit for it!"
The Soljet Pro4 XR-640 operates at speeds of up to 49.1m2/h and at a maximum resolution of 1,440dpi. It can take media of between 315mm and 1,625mm wide with a thickness of 1mm with liner. The high quality is delivered, says Roland, because of the machine’s use of dual printheads, which fire droplets of seven different sizes to "optimise image quality". As well as CMYK, light cyan and light magenta, the printer also has the capacity for a new light black ink, as well as metallic silver and white (to a maximum of eight colours). For the metallic inks, there are two print modes: blend, which enables natural metallics; and layer print, which produces deeper colours by covering silver with translucent CMYK.
A cut above
The machine also incorporates integrated Roland Print and Cut technology, enabling automatic contour cutting of images into any shape within the same workflow as the printing. Roland says this means printers can create point-of-sale displays, floor signage and stickers quickly and easily. For cutting, substrates can have a maximum thickness of 0.4mm with liner and 0.22mm without liner. The maximum cutting width is 1,600mm and the cutting speed is 10-600mm/s.
Signpost Signs’ machine was installed two weeks before Christmas. Hems says that once he saw what the XR-640 could do, and because of his history with Roland, he did not need to look at what was else on the market.
"When we bought our first digital machine five years ago, we did extensive research into what was available, as we were relatively inexperienced in digital print," he explains. "It came down to a choice between Roland and Mimaki. What swung it at the time was that Mimaki eco-solvent printers at the time needed extraction, whereas the Roland did not. That swung it in Roland’s favour, as there was not a massive difference between them other than that.
"Second time around, my knowledge of digital print is better and I know what is out there regarding flatbeds, hybrids and roll-fed. So this time I knew immediately that this machine was ideal for us as soon as it was announced and so we made the deal with PrintMax."
Hems particularly likes the print and cut facility, explaining that it is incredibly useful for turning around work and simplifying the process. He also praises the light black ink, explaining that it has improved quality substantially.
"Compared to the older machines, the quality is a massive improvement," he explains. "While some of our clients don’t notice the improved quality, the design firms we work with have noticed, and though they had no issues with what they used to have, they can see the benefit of the machine. For instance, the gradients are smoother and so are the flood coatings. There is a visible difference."
Full speed ahead
On speed, too, Hems says there has been a noticeable impact using this machine. On banner materials, he explains, they never used to be able to print at full speed because quality would dip – on the new machine he says there is no quality compromise made when printing at full speed capacity.
"We are much faster now than we were," he reveals.
Since installation, the machine has been reliable, too. The machine has a year’s warranty and Hems says it has not yet been called upon, not that he expected to.
"We have run Roland machines for five years and never had any real issues," he explains. "Reliability has been excellent. That’s one of the reasons we have not shopped around.
"We run one printer here, and if that goes down we have lost our print facility. This makes the supplier and the machine integral to our business. The support and back-up of Roland is essential, then, and they have always been a great business partner for us. I think small businesses need a closer relationship with all suppliers than larger firms may do. The actions of our suppliers directly impact our performance. It is crucial that they know us as a business and how to serve our needs."
Despite all the positive comments, however, he concedes that the machine may not be the best fit for everyone. He believes that if you are running a VersaCAMM currently and you are only using it three days per week, then there would be other machines that would better suit you if you wanted to step up.
"The XR-640 needs to be printing every day because of the cost of the machine and the cost of the consumables," he says. "We do that level of work so it suits us, but if you don’t then I would look at other options in the range."
As to whether he would buy another, he explains that it depends whether Roland continues the tradition of "improving the cost and the quality and the specs of the machine every four years or so".
As an expanding business, though, it may be that Signpost Signs may wish to upgrade to larger machines. However, Hems says that to step up from being a micro-business to a larger SME is a much bigger jump than many may assume.
"I think to take the business up to the next level in terms of turnover, you seem to need a disproportionate jump in staff and administration facilities," he explains. "Although we are naturally growing year on year, I think we will hit a certain level that we cannot go above unless we get bigger premises with bigger flatbed machines and more HR and admin support. It is a big leap to make."
And it is a step Signpost Signs currently does not need to make. With its XR-640 meeting all its requirements and a good mix of work coming through the door, Hems says things are going rather well just as they are.
Based in Sidcup, Kent, Signpost Signs has been going for 15 years, but has been trading in its current set-up for the past five years. It offers a comprehensive signage service from concept to installation to a wide client base including local authority purchasing deptartments, schools and colleges, architects, designers and end-users.
Why it was bought…
Owner Steve Hems has always been a fan of the Roland machines and has used them since he bought the company outright seven years ago, taking sole charge rather than working with a partner. When the XR-640 was announced, Hems believed it to be the perfect mix of quality and speed and at a price that was "accessible". He part-exchanged his Roland XJ-740 for the machine.
How it has performed…
Hems says the quality is a big improvement on his former machine, with the light black particularly important. He adds that speed has also improved as he can now print at full capacity without any quality sacrifice. He says reliability, too, has been excellent.
Max print speed 49.1sqm/h
Max resolution 1,440 dpi
Cutting speed 10-600mm/s
Max substrate width 1,600mm
Max substrate thickness 1mm with liner for printing; 0.4mm with liner and 0.22mm without liner for cutting
Inks CMYK, LC, LM plus light black, metallic silver and white (max eight colours)
Contact PrintMax www.printmax.co.uk 0800 567 7676