By Melissa Donovan
Every year, Digital Output invites market leaders in the graphic arts to participate in the state of the industry. Insightful commentary from these vendors provides a glimpse at the current business climate. What products are trending now? How are they influencing what digital print effects next? The consensus is technology introductions will pave the way for wide format digital print to penetrate into new markets.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the textile industry, which many agree has not yet reached its peak. Dynamic digital or electronic signage continues to make headway and more print service providers (PSPs) are open to adapting this service.
PSPs continue to learn and grow as successful business owners, notably with the help of user groups, which allow them to share information in open, friendly forums both in person and online.
Perhaps this surge of information sharing has sparked an uptick in innovative applications, because this year’s annual Application of the Year awards was one of Digital Output’s most well received yet.
Nominated and voted on by peers and industry notables, this year’s winners are the ideal cross section of what is possible in digital wide format. Congratulations to 54blue Communications Inc. and SlyFox Creative for winning in the Indoor and Outdoor categories, respectively, in the 2014 contest.
Learn more about these PSPs, as well as their fellow winners online at www.digitaloutput.net throughout August. Each article details the winning applications, products used, and background on the companies. Search keyword “DOAPP1408” to read more, but for now enjoy the images from the winners, which highlight the great work they are outputting
New Products Trending
New software, hardware, and media continue to affect the graphic arts and the direction it takes. Each introduction—and whether it maintains a presence—is influenced by a number of factors.
In the software space, Dean Derhak, product director, SA International, points to cloud-based licensing and services as “the biggest recent game changer.” As he explains, today’s PSPs would rather not pay thousands of dollars upfront for software and upgrades. “Their production managers don’t like falling behind using older version software either. Subscription software is here to stay because it meets the needs of more competitive-minded PSPs,” adds Derhak.
While the cloud is the new kid on the block, workflow technology is a familiar—albeit friendly—face. It experiences resurgence as vendors make great strides to educate PSPs on the benefits of a true workflow solution. Steve Bennett, VP sales – North America Central, Esko, admits that the current situation is not the print provider’s fault. “We, as vendors, did not explain the benefits of rules-based workflows as well as we could have. A rules-based workflow for error-free production is a major way to preserve margins,” he says.
Integration of print and the Web provide endless opportunities. “Digital printing’s faster turnarounds, lower cost short runs, unique capability to personalize every piece in a print run, and easy integration into workflow for producing digital media from the same files makes it the preferred technology for many jobs,” suggests Andrew Copley, president, global graphic communications, Xerox Corp.
On the finishing side, multifunction solutions that handle any number of substrates are an important trend. “A wider range of media can now be printed than ever before. There is a clear need for true multifunctional finishing systems that can handle any media including fabric. The major technology for this has been the addition of CO2 laser alongside a traditional router and knife cutting tool, so that any media a printer can use now can be cut on a single system” explains Nikolai Mikkelsen, president, MCT Digital.
Printers are experiencing an increase in production speeds and enhanced image quality. “The ability of digital presses to address longer run jobs is a growth portion of the market overall, as is meeting the needs of the end user for quality—the quality aspect has reached a level that incremental improvements are helpful but additional productivity is what is driving new business,” advises Christopher Howard, SVP sales and marketing, Durst Image Technology US.
Enhanced image quality derives from improvements in printhead technology. “The market is demanding a higher print quality without sacrificing speed. Variable drop technology, jetting drops as small as 3.5 picoliters, has made its way to the forefront as the industry standard,” says Jim Peterson, director of national accounts, CET Color.
Three-dimensional (3D) printing is a specific disruptive technology. “People that see it are excited about the possibilities. The important aspect is to figure out the applications you can address with your customers and the return on investment associated with that application,” explains Larry D’Amico, VP, digital imaging, Agfa Graphics.
Brian Phipps, VP/GM, Mutoh America, Inc., says 3D is still searching for the right market, citing medical applications, automotive, manufacturing, food, guns, and even homes as contenders. “The problem is, the technology is very slow and still in the early stages of development for most markets—especially mass production beyond prototypes. Pricing is all over the map from a few hundred to upwards of fifty thousand dollars,” he adds.
Canon Solutions America (CSA) developed a process on its Océ Arizona flatbeds to print Braille and other tactile features, which is essentially based on 3D printing. “This in itself is not technically new, but is a new application for the technology that is now finally getting substantial attention in the commercial sense,” shares Randy Parr, senior marketing specialist, CSA.
Fabric materials are inundating the graphic arts; from overseas providers to those manufacturers partnering with homegrown mills to create textiles specially optimized for digital printers in the U.S. For example, Jeff Sanders, digital fabrics sales manager, Pacific Coast Fabrics, points to new and enhanced textile coatings that allow for better print definition while using less ink.
Hardware used for textile printing is evolving to work with these substrates. “While digitally printed textiles have been around for years, a lot of the equipment used to make them has typically been adapted from models developed for solvent or other applications. The proliferation of new hardware designed specifically for both dye-sublimation (dye-sub) and direct textile printing is incredible,” points out Andrew Oransky, senior director of marketing and product management, Roland DGA Corp.
Mark Radogna, group manager, commercial imaging, Epson America, Inc., explains how in the past, producing high-quality polyester graphics was cumbersome, with most of the process including complex imaging solutions requiring significant maintenance. “As a result, most graphic designers did not take full advantage of the capabilities and possibilities in polyester-based fabric imaging.”
“With inks becoming more stable, we’re seeing this process come back for clothing, banners, flags, and trade show signage,” agrees Bob Elliott, product manager for lamination equipment, GBC, an Acco Brands Company.
With the buzz surrounding digital textile printing—both direct and dye-sub—it is astounding the market share numbers are so low. “Seeing the developments in Europe, where they are way ahead of us in this, it amazes me that a recent study by one of our resellers shows that fabric/dye-sub still represents only seven percent of the U.S. wide format market, with a growth rate of 11 percent per year and higher margins. We have only just seen the beginning,” advocates Dan Cantrell, national sales/channel manager, Zünd America.
Similar to textiles, there has been a broader adoption of superwide magnetic material, according to Jim Cirigliano, marketing manager, Magnum Magnetics Corp. “American-made superwide magnets only hit the marketplace for the first time this year, making the material accessible to North American shops that hadn’t wanted the hassle of importing from Asia before. Magnetic signage has caught on as a cost-effective and labor-saving way to change up retail stores or restaurant menu boards.”
Various films are getting less use as other products make their presence known.
“Inkjet printable polyurethane wraps are gaining attention in the marketplace for their durability, flexibility, and ease of application. 2-mil white and 2-mil clear polyurethane films replace cast vinyl wrap films when longer durability is needed. These films will continue to grow in popularity as the market gets educated on their advantages,” recommends Robert Rundle, viscom market manager, Ritrama Inc.
Other media trends surround sustainability. Improved product performance presents less of a concern over using a “green” versus non-green media. “The adoption of more sustainable materials is clearly tied to performance and cost of use. As application performance and total cost of use continue to improve, the use of more sustainable materials continues to increase,” according to Jennifer O. Kigin, marketing operations, 3M Commercial Solutions. More options are now available to PSPs.
“The rise of PVC-free materials began to take shape more over the last 12 months than it has any other time in the past. I believe we are now to a point where having a PVC-free media in your stock to print on and laminate with is going to be a common occurrence,” hypothesizes Craig Campbell, market manager – graphic products, ORAFOL Americas.
The Next Market for Digital
Digital print is continually introduced into new verticals. As noted prior, a heavy focus has been placed on fabrics for apparel and décor. With products in development that the public may not see for years, the next market digital will tap into and influence may be a mystery to us but a so-close-I-could-touch-it reality for researchers.
“Trying to predict the next new market is problematic, because the next hot area always seems to come out of left field. It is a lot like duct tape, where you believe you are designing a product to meet the needs of a specific application only to discover that the marketplace may take that same product and use it in ways that you never imagined,” admits Sanders.
Chad Russell, director of sales, U.S., Arlon Graphics, LLC, believes in a future evolution of digital printing for environmental design. “Imagine taking a low-cost sign board and covering it with a brushed metal textured metallic vinyl that has a digitally printed portion. Designers can now create spaces with a higher impact at an affordable price and improved durability.”
The recent interest in environmental graphics and in many ways the architectural community comes on the heels of many designers realizing digital’s potential. “The current view is that digital printing is mostly for advertising purposes and not necessarily aesthetic. More designers will start to specify more digitally printed graphics so they can achieve one-of-a-kind elements to their overall design concept,” says Campbell.
With the use of digital in commercial décor growing, Rick Moore, marketing director, MACtac Distributor Products, sees the consumer market as the next untapped resource. He believes that since digital printing is still relatively unknown to the average consumer, new areas of innovation are possible for in-home décor usage.
Packaging and prototypes present major opportunities in the digital space. “People don’t realize how large an impact packaging in wide format could be. And the best thing about packaging is that it’s not supplanted by digital forms of content like the Internet or television,” adds Bennett.
However, PSPs need to be prepared for the various requirements from flexible packaging to corrugated or folding cartons. “For companies to be successful on this journey, it is critical to have a high level of vertical integration, providing the flexibility to adjust the different components of printing to meet industry requirements, like cost per square meter, durability, food compliance, and duty cycle,” advises Xavier Garcia, VP/GM, large format sign and display division, Hewlett-Packard (HP).
Ken Hanulec, VP of marketing, EFI, specifically points to corrugated, which he says requires an exceptional technical offering. “Corrugated board warps easily, and warped board not only creates wasted prints, it can create costly printhead strikes. The media path on hardware needs to be refined to make digital corrugated packaging successful. Additionally, LED is a game changer in this space because it eliminates the heat that causes boards to warp in the first place,” he continues.
Related to packaging is display or point of purchase (POP) standees created out of graphic display board material. Kelsey Smith, marketing manager, MultiCam Inc., explains that new software products make it easy to design and create POP, kiosks, indoor signage, and furniture out of structurally sound material and cut at a high quality. These POP displays are seen as the next focus for digital, according to Smith.
“Specialty markets will continue to grow. More trophy and engravers and specialty print shops that traditionally incorporate routers, vacuum presses, or other techniques for creating finished products are seeing the value of digital print when considering creativity, cost, ease of production, flexibility, and installation,” suggests Phipps.
Dr. Christophe Bulliard, commercial director, Sensient Imaging Technologies, expects several industrial printing applications to see a higher degree of digitalization. “There are two factors governing this—the more traditional advantage of lower cost for smaller series like sampling and design, and the cash flow advantage of producing just-in-time exclusive models that are selling in the exact desired quantity,” he shares.
While digital is ideal for personalized or one-off projects, Oransky foresees capable hardware driving run sizes up to the point that stock items will be produced digitally. “The transition is already starting in the ceramics industry, and we predict that even flooring, furniture coverings, and laminated countertops will be produced on digital equipment soon.”
Cantrell argues that is it not a new vertical that will play home to all things digital, but instead all verticals will be influenced by customization. “People want personalized, custom products and they want them immediately. Whether one offs, variable data, or any other method to make products standout and create a more immediate, personal connection, this is ideal for digital printing and finishing,” he continues.
Sébastien Hanssens, VP marketing and communication, Caldera, agrees, citing that the diversification into new markets is fueled by consumers looking for more personalized products. “They want less mass produced things such as a decoration. Inkjet technologies make small series production easy and affordable.”
Opportunity in Dynamic Signage
PSPs are eager to standout from the competition, offering unique services such as dynamic digital signage. There continues to be interest in adopting this technology, despite the slow rate of implementation.
Moore says this is partly due to consumer attention and rigidity in addition to initial cost and ongoing maintenance. “You might question how digital displays can be rigid, as they are inherently dynamic. But it has been proven that consumers don’t have the time to engage and offer their full attention. We want it fast, now, and quick—which is why static displays and creative campaigns win.”
“One reason for slow adoption among traditional sign manufacturers and dealers is adapting the current model to a non-tangible, aftermarket consumable. The current model ensures some degree of consumable revenue after the initial hardware is sold—ink, media, service, consulting, etc. While content control revenue with messaging is available with some systems, the business model is not yet universal,” shares Paul McGovern, regional sales manager, Dallas technology center, Mimaki USA, Inc.
E. Tyler Reich, director of product development, Qué Media, Inc., blames slow adoption on electronic signage competing with backlit films. “There is a reason why installations use substrates other than backlit film. Some substrates have a different look and feel, which portrays the subject of the marketing material in a another light. Depending on the marketing campaign, different substrates may be used to give the viewer a new feeling when gazing on it.”
Dynamic signage’s relevance to the print industry is apparent. “There is a huge opportunity for most print shops to sell digital signs to exactly the same customers they sell static signage and other printed products to,” explains Oransky. Roland is one company offering more tailored, turnkey products to PSPs versus those products geared toward professional A/V installers.
Hanssens says many print providers currently working with electronic signage are using “mono” content, such as a PDF, “whereas digital signage means video, flash, motion design, and other animations,” he continues.
Retail customers in particular enjoy the flexibility of dynamic signage. “They like the ability to change displays more often and incorporate video that up sells products. They also see competitors installing screens and don’t want to get left behind. It’s natural for them to go to their wide format PSPs for a solution,” says Derhak.
One of the challenges of using dynamic signage is generating enough content to make each display profitable. Kevin Murphy, president, ONYX Graphics, Inc., points out a benefit of electronic signage is its ability to display a message for a short period, close to the time of the event.
“A current sale at a local retail outlet, a television program or sporting event occurring that evening, these are examples of the immediacy benefits of digital signage. However, the people selling this advertising are usually compensated less for short-term digital advertising than for a dedicated billboard. Understandably, they will spend their time where they are compensated the most,” adds Murphy.
Graphics are also a concern. “Finding a working business model is a difficult proposition. This is related to the cost of refreshing the graphics that are displayed. Much of the cost of any campaign is far more weighted to creative versus the actual printing of a graphic. A dynamic display requires a higher budget to support the additional graphic content, which is the promise of dynamic signage for the retailer,” recommends Howard.
The concern that dynamic signage will overshadow print is serious. “We believe the two will co-exist. However, if what you print can be displayed in a PDF, that application is in danger of shifting to digital signage,” cautions Jim Halloran, VP sales and marketing, Lintec of America.
In truth, D’Amico makes a point that many fail to realize the possibilities when print and digital are combined. “There is more impact and sophistication. This technique is successfully used in airports and lobbies of large corporations,” he continues.
Paar expands on the comment above, saying dynamic signage should not be considered a replacement for print, but an extension of what print already does—communicate to the intended viewer.
“Large scale, rapid adoption of electronic displays will require the demand from brand owners and agencies, and done in conjunction with communications/media companies, which have economy of scale to develop and sustain a national network of electronic displays, access to the content, and relationships to keep it relevant,” continues Paar.
Similar to print, regulations and rules on where dynamic signage can be placed, for how long, and how large plays into just how far this type of signage will succeed.
“With this increase of digital display signage in the market, the government and other regulators are imposing rules around digital signage, specifically around usage on highways, to ensure that this is a safe advertising media. I believe this increase in regulations will taper the growth,” admits Elliott.
Communication Between Peers
In recent years, affinity or user groups in the U.S. have experienced a rise in popularity. Attendance at annual meetings continues to grow.
Hanulec points out that in the past, much of the networking and education derived from user groups was limited to franchise networks. “It is still a new, emerging territory in large format graphics. It you look at the two most popular, vendor-affiliated print user groups in the U.S., neither of them began with large format inkjet as a focus area. But now, more digital, large format companies attend each year because they see the benefit,” he shares.
The sudden surge of interest exemplifies a PSP’s acknowledgement that it can gain from these groups. Radogna lists some of the advantages, such as bringing multiple people together that share a common goal—which enables PSPs to understand customer needs and address pain points. While working with a user group provides a broader view, it also helps uncover new revenue opportunities.
“PSPs want to be connected, understand which new applications and technologies are at the forefront, learn how they can further develop their business or improve their operation efficiencies, and partner with other companies to develop new projects and opportunities. These groups and communities are becoming a powerful platform to achieve all of this,” explains Garcia.
Murphy believes the shift in popularity boils down to economics. Affinity groups were popular before the economic downturn, but with the ability to access and share ideas via the Internet, this cost-effective method eclipsed them. With business improving, according to Murphy, PSPs are willing to spend money to experience a human connection.
Social media works in hand with in-person meetings, or as Phipps says, serves as a launching point. “With more like-minded people able to reach each other over the Internet, we can all share beneficial information. It was more difficult to find each other in the past. Now you can just go on one of the many social networks and find people and the next logical step is to meet to discuss more openly how to be successful in business,” he continues.
Today, there is a tremendous interest in sharing knowledge. “In many ways, companies realize that cooperation can be as beneficial to long-term survival as competition,” suggests Cantrell.
The Best of Times
With another state of the industry come and gone, it’s interesting to compare 2014’s compilation with the article from 2013. Textile printing, packaging and prototypes, and décor were hot button topics last year. While all three reappear in this discussion, they are further studied at new levels in the areas of customization and personalization.
The hardware, software, and media used to propel these applications evolves with more efficient printing devices utilizing advanced printheads, all-in-one finishing tools that conquer all types of media, true workflow software to minimize errors, and films and fabrics becoming ever more optimized for digital.
It is one of the most innovative and enjoyable times to be a part of wide format digital print. As evidenced by the growing number of sign shops—of all sizes—joining the ranks, the graphic arts is poised to make moves into environments we have yet to foresee.
Aug2014, Digital Output