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Trends in Large Format Media

By Thomas Franklin

Media for wide format printers is more versatile, durable, and capable of displaying higher resolution graphics and images under greater environmental stress, according to media manufacturers and distributors. These changes, married to a competitive market, have driven down prices, opened up new markets, and put the task on digital printers to continually stay abreast of an ever-expanding array of buying options.

"Cost of media has dropped dramatically across the board," says John Ford III, CEO, Charrette LLC, a media distributor.

Despite the drop in price, quality expectations remain stringent. "Scratch resistance, color pop, and longevity aren’t options, they’re mandatory," says Randy Carone, digital media manager, Beacon Graphics, a media distributor. What has spurred much of the cost reduction has been the embrace of solvent and eco-solvent printers, which inaugurated a shift from coated to uncoated media, Carone adds.

Kapco Graphic Products offers an extensive line of large format media and substrates. And although solvent has surfaced as a popular print technology, the company continues to focus on water-based products. "A lot of companies are walking away from water-based, not realizing that its still a huge area. Yes, solvent is growing, and we will continue to provide solvent products, but water-based has not gone away," states Mike Popovich, Kapco Graphic Products.

"There is not one way of printing that will solve all issues. Yes, solvent is popular for a good reason, but water-based will always be necessary," Popovich continues. "We are also highly focused on the lamination end of the business, since it crosses all platforms. It’s a service that can be sold and utilized, no matter what print technology is being used."

Another seismic shift has been occasioned by higher resolution wide format printers and improvement in pigmented inks. Suddenly, applications like fine art reproduction, with its exacting color, resolution, and expectation of longevity, are within the reach of digital printers—and the artists themselves. "HP [Hewlett-Packard] and Epson really alerted this industry to the possibility of fine art reproduction," comments Ed McCarron, marketing manager, InteliCoat.

Dye-based printers, which typically struggled with longevity issues, have benefited from improvements in swellable media, says Mark Radogna, group product manager, Epson Professional Imaging.

Artistic Growth
Media suppliers agree that, thanks to improvements in coating technology, fine art and photo reproduction are the hot markets where dollars are increasingly invested. In fact, a multitude of broad-line large format media vendors have concentrated on building a portfolio dedicated to the digital reproduction of fine art and what Phil Hursh, president, Sihl Digital Imaging, calls, "not so fine art"—artwork that would be mass reproduced for hotels or other businesses.

"In this business there’s always a focus on niche markets, but they tend to go nowhere," says Kevin Shimamoto, worldwide marketing, Kodak Graphic Communications. Fine art is an exception, he adds. "Fine art is promising."

"There is a huge opportunity in this market," says Andy Wood, co-founder/CEO of Squirt Printing, LLC. Wood began Squirt Printing as a way to provide a volume-oriented solution to artists, while maintaining the highest quality standards. "We want to take the black cloak off this field. We believe the art stops once the brush leaves the canvas. We treat this like manufacturing."

Thanks to a system from HP, which combines high resolution light capture and color-matching software with the company’s printers and media, Wood has been able to create a system to offer artists on-demand fine art printing.

The next step for the industry is to work with clear coating companies to hone the finishing requirements for fine art papers, says John Gowan, director, HP Supplies, Large Format. InteliCoat’s McCarron adds that he’s seen an increasing demand for, "inkjet-receptive canvas."

One giant leap in media capability has been in the realm of longevity, Gowan adds. As paper makers target the fine art market, they have begun to advertise wall-life of up to 150 years using certain combinations of paper, ink, and printer. This longevity, "vastly exceeds," what the average fine art customer is expecting, says Dave Edmondson, a solutions manager in the HP Supplies Large Format division. "They’re happy with 75 years."

Artist Susan Manders concurrs, stressing that for the artistic community, ensuring a work’s longevity is a key factor in their printing decision. Manders reproduces her own work using the HP Designjet 130 and Designjet 5500 large format printers. Manders says the decision to bring printing in-house followed a decades-long search for technology that would, "broaden my accessibility and affordability."

When bench-marking paper longevity, Edmondson says HP submits its papers to Wilhelm Imaging Research (WIR), an organization that tests papers and inks for durability. WIR’s standards are not universally accepted by every paper maker, however. Kodak’s Shimamoto notes that this lack of uniformity is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing, provided the customer has access to fine-grained data on test methods.

Demand has been growing for a greater variety of media options now that solvent printing on vinyl media has become so commoditized, McCarron says. "It’s like bond paper now." He adds that most media for solvent printers will work as well—if not slightly better—on UV printers. "The UV cure is a forgiving print technology."

Phil Hursh of Sihl Digital Imaging cautions that his company, "was already fielding calls from UV printer owners," with complaints about their output. The problems were typically the use of very porous media, which can soak up the ink before it cures.

While traditional applications are expanding, the types of media are as well. There’s no longer just vinyl and paper but also wall paper and textiles to consider, says David Wierengo, president, Gregory, Inc.—a media distributor. InteliCoat’s McCarron also notes that his company was examining packaging materials, such as cardboard, which printers could offer as proofs and prototypes.

In an effort to expand her business, Manders is examining the feasibility of reproducing her work and designs on new media, such as silks and cling vinyl.

"We are starting to now see specialty solvent media for printing fine art using our JV3 solvent printer line, on fabric and photo paper from vendors Sihl and InteliCoat," states Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA. "Recently, we won a DPI award at the SGIA Digital Expo in Phoenix in December using the InteliCoat FAB 6, which feels like linen. We used the pigment 8 color hi fi color inkset on the JV22." He continues, "Adding to this trend, we are also seeing polyester fabrics for soft signage by Fisher Textiles, and more companies have emerged in this soft signage application area."

Making the Match
Buying media for large format printers can often seem a daunting task, with an influx of new and relatively unknown Asian suppliers, changing print technology, and improvements in coating technology, Charrette’s Ford states.

There are some basic rules that most printers are familiar with, he notes. The first stop is to ensure the media you’re considering is profiled for your printer. Then there are basic compatibility rules—aqueous inkjet printers require coated media, solvent printers can print on uncoated media, and UV-curable printers can print on just about anything.

That’s the conventional wisdom. But Sihl’s Hursh says users should scrutinize printer manufacturers’ claims closely before reaching for their wallets. Many complaints fielded by media companies about poor output are generally the result of a mismatch between the media and print technology.

The distinction, Hursh stresses, is not that they can print on a material, but whether it results in sellable output. "Some solvent inks, for instance, work well on uncoated vinyl but not well on uncoated paper and polyester for back-lit applications," he adds.

Before any media purchase, users must ask themselves a series of questions, Ford says. Where will the media be displayed (indoors or out) and for how long; what printer/ink technology will be used; what are the quality and viewing requirements for the output; and last but certainly not least, what is your budget?

Drilling through these questions will yield further generalized guidelines, Ford notes. Dye-based inkjet printers and photo glossy papers can tackle indoor applications with demanding resolution requirements, but are prone to fading. For high-quality photo applications, resin-coated papers are typically the gold standard with barrier- and clay-coating economical alternatives. For vehicle applications, cast vinyl is superior to less-expensive calendared vinyl, which can crack in high temperatures.

Many printers on a budget look to trim costs in media, Ford also adds, but wind up getting burned in the end. "We had a client produce thousands of color-intensive graphics on bond paper, which cockles when it receives that much ink. They wound up having to laminate it to keep it flat. If they had gone with a photo base paper, they would have saved the money on lamination."

In the fine art realm, distributors say that purchasers tend to put a heavy emphasis on paper weight, with the heavier, more expensive stock commanding higher prices among the art-buying community. Yet less expensive alternatives to 100 percent cotton rag, such as alpha cellulose, promise equivalent quality and archival longevity at a steeply reduced cost. In the end, the weight of the paper has less impact on the actual quality of the image reproduced but does offer some improved durability, according to distributors. The added heft also conveys the feeling of permanence.

"We choose a canvas based on the specific work," Wood says. Then the process is technical—with color profiling, taking a gamut map, etc.—but also intuitive, he notes. "There are split-hair types, but we have a sense of what will accentuate the artist’s vision."

Manders stresses that it is as much a personal, aesthetic consideration of, "how the art looks to the artists," than a strictly scientific one. "I’m a student of color; I teach color, so I have a sense of what works."

Shawn Allison, president, Think Big Solutions—a trade show and POP printer—says that he did what many printers tend to do after the purchase of a printer—stick with the same vendor for his paper choice. It was only after being dissatisfied with the consistency in the coatings that he wandered off the reservation. He began to source from Sihl Digital Imaging. Consistency was the crucial factor.

"When purchasing fine art media, there are four important considerations—material type, printability, finishing, and longevity," states Laura Wilson, product manager, Roland DGA Corp.

Many artists are concerned with the thickness, texture, and finish of the material. Accordingly, there are media products available for digital printing in most weights and finishes.

"When considering these products, printability is the most important factor. The media must feed properly through the inkjet printer and also must hold the inkjet ink well. Media should also enhance the color gamut of both the printer and software used for each printed piece," Wilson continues.

When printers get comfortable on their new machine and begin to branch out in search of novel media types or lower prices, it’s then that guidance is important, Carone says.

"People generally rely on word-of-mouth, but we always recommend seeing a printed sample from the media vendor," Carone notes. He says that a manufacturer’s discount fund allows Beacon to order print samples to send along to end-users. Media providers that embrace this liberal sample policy will enjoy customer loyalty, he says.

Finding a supplier you’re comfortable with and sticking with them is also beneficial, Allison says. "Color profiling is also very important for us and if you’re constantly changing media suppliers, you’ll disrupt that," he says.

Know Your Options
To aid in education and to help differentiate the company’s offerings, Kodak takes a two-step approach, says Shimamoto. The first is to provide the routine data as to compatibility, longevity, and applications. The second is to incorporate, "extensive technical data," involving everything from laminate compatibility to color gamut, white point, and archivability under a variety of environmental conditions. The goal, he says, is, "to take the guess work out of making the right printer match."

Wherever the end-user chooses to purchase media from, the key is education, education, and more education, according to vendors. Purchasing decisions are often prompted by word-of-mouth recommendations, user forums on Web-sites, or guided by the printer OEM, manufacturers say. Even in this environment, it’s important for printers to stay informed.

 Apr2006, Digital Output

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