Wide Format Printer Versus Plotter: What’s the Difference?

Printing revolutionized our world by enabling the creation of perfect copies of all manner of documents. In the past 100 years, we have seen numerous innovations increase the scope of materials, inks, and projects which printers can handle. From wide format printers to highly specialized printing devices, printing technology has evolved to meet the exact needs of various industries.

The wide format plotter came out of that evolution. Once a common device in industries which value precision, they are not quite so ubiquitous today. However, they occasionally appear – and are even still used. Here is exactly what a wide format plotter is, and the role it plays in some industries today. 

What Is Wide Format? 

It might be helpful to break down wide format plotter by first focusing on wide format. Wide format is, simply, printing which occurs on paper sizes larger than the standard computer paper size, or 8.5 by 11 inches. 

Wide format printing enables the creation of things like posters, maps, blueprints, charts, or other materials which would benefit from larger sizes in order to be read clearly. Critically, wide format printers cut paper from a roll rather than using pre-cut sheets. This introduces even greater flexibility in the dimensions of print projects that this printer can run.

Wide format printers feature heavily in graphics design and some photography businesses which need to print beautiful graphics at larger sizes. Likewise, architecture and engineering firms also benefit from larger paper sizes but require ultra-precise lines and legibility.

This precision was once only achievable by plotters. Though no longer common, it is still possible to find them in use today.  

Plotters, Pixels, and the Art of Precision

A wide format plotter is an extremely specialized type of printer which, at first glance, does not look like a printer at all. Rather than mixing droplets on the page like an inkjet, or using a statically charged drum and toner, plotters use a physical pen to draw the designs. 

This pen was attached to a metal arm which moved horizontally across a bar capable of moving vertically across the page. All of this, in turn, was guided by a computer running CAD software which fed coordinates to the arm. The output was a highly accurate, sophisticated drawing which yielded unparalleled legibility and definition.

Underlying this technology was the nature of plotting itself. The pen connected coordinate dots along a smooth line which made the entire drawing scalable without losing clarity or detail – it was, essentially, an early iteration of vector graphics. In contrast, inkjet and laser printers both print using raster or bitmap, which becomes pixelated when enlarged. This represented a significant difference between printers and plotters, which is what made them so popular in industries that demanded precision. 

Where Were Plotters Used?

Plotter printers are purely functional – they emphasize accuracy and clarity of detail over aesthetics. As such, industries which design or construct things most readily adopted this technology. This included:

  • Architecture
  • Construction
  • Electronics Engineering
  • Interior Design
  • Product Engineering

Likewise, some craftsmanship such as mapmakers and pattern makers have historically used plotters. Today, however, printing technology has largely caught up. Modern printers can deliver the same level of accuracy minus the critical disadvantages which plotters had.  

Why Wide Format Printers Took Over

The plotter had advantages, and its disadvantages quickly led to their retirement once printing technology caught up with the ability to deliver equally precise images. There were three major disadvantages which plotters exhibited: 

  • The drawing had to be done in a single session. If the pen ran out of ink, the plotter had to start over.
  • Plotters were slow. It sometimes took a plotter over eight hours to do what a wide format laser printer could do in 20 minutes.
  • Due to the coordinate system, pen plotters could not do gradients, different line shades or fill solid areas. 

With the maturation of laser printing, modern plotters began to use this technology. Today, modern wide-format plotters and printers look very similar and are capable of producing near identical outputs. As such, many firms which once might have used a wide format plotter now opt for a wide format printer instead.  

Plotting the Future: Tomorrow’s Wide Format Printing

A wide format printer is a quintessential element to many types of firms today. Both reliable and capable of a wide variety of print jobs, they make a valuable addition to printing fleets. 

Today, wide format printers have all but taken over in industries which produce hyper-accurate blueprints. The history of printing shows that this technology is constantly evolving. As it does, wide format printers will continue to deliver increased value and functionality to the companies which choose to leverage it.

Office Technologies is an expert in specialized printing devices. Get in touch with us to start a conversation about generating value in your organization through the use of a wide format printer.