While other advertising and marketing industries are suffering in a tumultuous economy, large format print—particularly, point-of-purchase (POP) signage—continues to thrive. As marketers determine how best to distinguish their products at the point of sale, print suppliers are investing in digital technologies that enable more than just better, faster, and cheaper print; they’re buying hybrid and true flatbed machines capable of fulfilling their customers’ lofty visions.
Large format, UV flatbed printers are enabling POP printing in two ways, according to Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA, Inc. First, POP displays are no longer confined to long runs. In fact, they can be produced in true one-off fashion, and even include some level of personalization. Take a supermarket chain, for example. POP displays can be customized to reflect nuances of each store’s market.
UV flatbed printers are also enabling POP designers to get as creative as they want to be, with graphics printed on "about any rigid stock the ink will stick to," Urmano suggests, including metal, wood, glass, foils, polycarbonates, Fome-Cor, Gatorboard—virtually any material the designer’s heart desires, and the print buyer expects to help distinguish their products from others on display around them.
A New Breed
"For several years, what you had in the hybrid and flatbed market were machines that I consider to be entry-level, recalls Stephen Cutler, business development manager, Agfa Inc.
"What we’ve seen in the past few years from several of the digital print manufacturers is a new breed of printers coming to market. It’s a rather easy-to-define trend. These printers are what we would consider to be industrial strength. They’re double the weight; they can handle much more volume, and they offer high quality, with resolutions up to 1,440 dpi. And they’re generally listed at less than $125,000. That’s a huge trend going on right now—investing in a printer that’s going to last for three to five years," Cutler explains.
Accommodating Any Job
"I believe we’re the first SIGNARAMA to invest in a UV flatbed printer," notes Rodd Casperson, owner of the Milwaukee, WI-based franchise. He speaks of the latest addition to his stable of printers, an RP-720 UVZ from Raster Printers, which complements two other digital devices—a GERBER EDGE 2 and a Mimaki JV3 solvent-based printer.
"We don’t do any screen printing. We don’t really have any need for it. If we happen to get a long-run job, we can usually find plenty of wholesale screen shops to take on the project. But with the three digital printers we have now, we can usually handle any job that comes through the door," Casperson notes.
The SIGNARAMA customer base is predominantly local, but the franchise also supports a few nationwide customers, as well, with POP jobs representing between 15 and 20 percent of the shop’s workload.
The new Raster Printer hybrid may, in fact, enable SIGNARAMA’s POP business to grow, but that wasn’t the primary motivation for the installation, according to Casperson. "The POP volume we do may grow—it will grow—but the way I approached it was to think of the investment as more of a way to ensure that the work we’re already doing will be more efficient and more profitable," he confides.
"We work with a number of local McDonald’s, about 40 stores in all," Casperson adds. "Obviously, for any of the mass-market or really long-run POP and signage needs, those restaurants will go through McDonald’s corporate supply chain. But for really quick-turn jobs—signs or POP displays they may need immediately or within a few days—they turn to us."
The RP-720 UVZ accommodates a range of media—both flexible and rigid—up to 73 inches wide, including Fome-Cor, PVCs, aluminum-plastic composite sheets, and plexiglass.
While Casperson says that he hasn’t seen a spike in customer requests for POP signage on more exotic materials, fabrics are becoming more popular.
"Most of the POP work we do is printed on fairly standard-grade substrates—PVC materials, corrugated plastics, and so forth. But we have been doing some really intriguing things with fabrics now that we have the flatbed," he reports. "We’ve even printed directly on short-nap carpet. It’s safe to say that textiles are becoming much more important to our customers—and therefore, for us."
"With any new piece of equipment, there’s a learning curve to some degree," he acknowledges. "With this new technology, we’re dealing with a lot more types of substrates, more variables. And, of course, it took us some time to learn the nuances of the media, how the inks would apply and adhere, and so forth. We even took the time to write our own print profiles based on each substrate, condition, and situation a job may require."
While Casperson’s SIGNARAMA franchise may infrequently call upon some other local screen-printing suppliers to help with the jobs better suited to that process, adding the digital flatbed technology has enabled the company to become a wholesale supplier itself.
"When we got the UV flatbed, we broadcasted it to all the sign companies in the area, and we provided them with wholesale pricing. That part of our business is growing. In fact, we just picked up a couple of new sign shop customers in the past couple of months," Casperson proudly remarks.
Raster Printers has nearly 60 U.S. installations of its RP-720 UVZ, according to Rak Kumar, president and CEO. "It’s an ideal solution for a sign shop like SIGNARAMA," he suggests, because they do a lot of POP work, with about a 50/50 ratio between flexible and rigid media.
"We make a habit of talking to our customers about the changing dynamics of their businesses, and we were starting to see a real need for a highly optimized, versatile and flexible, true flatbed printer. And that’s how the Daytona T600UV was born," Kumar notes.
"You can build a pretty good hybrid machine," Kumar stresses, "but there are always some compromises you have to make—and those are usually in the way in which the machine handles rigid materials. Some hybrids work great when you’re printing on styrene or certain PVCs, but the moment you begin working with the trickier materials, like aluminum, glass, or plywood, it becomes difficult. If the media isn’t flat, or if it has a slight curve to it, or if it’s slippery, the pinch-roller systems in the hybrid solutions may have problems moving the media through. A vacuum system, such as what we have on the new Daytona, allows customers to keep the media stable and achieve absolutely fantastic registration—down to three-point type."
"In our opinion, that’s where the industry is moving—to pure solutions," Kumar continues. "Hybrids are great for many shops, but if a customer can afford the additional investment and needs to handle all those different substrates, we recommend they invest in a roll-to-roll machine—which they probably already own—and a true flatbed like the Daytona T600UV."
Quality is Still King
To say that ADJ Group, Inc. of Norwood, MA, has a diverse menu of large format print is an understatement. The company produces everything from banners to window and vehicle graphics, from awnings and flags to directional and real estate signage.
"We were probably the very first instant sign shop in the Northeast," recalls Ralph Pace, the company’s founder. "And then, back in the late ‘80s, all of the franchises started popping up, and it became difficult to compete against them. So we did the only thing any rational people would do; we made them our customers."
"We’ve always been ahead of the curve, choosing technologies that the average sign shop may not have," Pace explains.
"And that’s how we’ve grown the business, completely by reputation. We do no advertising, no marketing of any kind, and we have in excess of 2,000 accounts. We ship all up and down the east coast and as far west as TX and MI."
Pace is, himself, semi-retired, although one gets the sense that he still derives great passion from the print industry and may have more of a hand in daily operations than he lets on. He gives all the credit to his son, Anthony Pace, who literally grew up in the business and now oversees operations as GM and president.
Together, father and son can take responsibility for building an impressive and well-equipped digital pressroom. The company does not appear to have been ultra-conservative in its equipment investments. They’ve had quite a few digital print engines since those early days.
"We got the first SummaChrome DC model sold here in the U.S.," Pace recalls. "We did extremely well with that; it was a dynamite machine.
But customers quickly wanted higher resolutions, so we got into solvent printing."
The SummaChrome is still in limited use to this day, but ADJ also went through several generations of digital printers from manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard and Mimaki.
"We introduced a Mimaki JV3, and we were extremely successful with that printer. But it got to the point that the prices of that technology and other similar printers had come down so far that the average sign shops could buy those machines. That’s when we got the Mimaki JV5. It was the only solution that would allow us to stay competitive," Pace confides.
"We were also early adopters of Mimaki’s flatbed printer, the Mimaki UJF-605," he adds. "Again, we did extremely well with it, so we decided to the get the Mimaki JF-1631, a 5x10-foot flatbed."
Pace says he has only one gripe about the Mimaki 1631—it never has any down time. "We’ve had it for a little more than a month, and we haven’t even had any time to print samples! It’s running constantly, and we haven’t even told people we have it yet," he marvels.
ADJ’s team kept its eyes peeled on the development of digital flatbed printers before carefully making the initial investment. Pace considered a hybrid solution first—combining flatbed and roll-fed—but decided it wasn’t a viable solution for the type of work they hoped to capture. The flatbed, he says, truly enables him to differentiate the company in the prospering large format print market. And a true flatbed accommodates a wider range of substrates and media.
"We had one project that required us to print on a circular ring that was approximately 4.5x6 feet, and 1.5-inch-thick," Pace recalls. "The material was very irregular. It was the kind of job that you couldn’t do if you were forced to feed it and move it through a device.
"We had another POP job that had us printing on 80, one-mil sheets. It was a double-sided job. We ran it for a few days and never once had to reset the registration on the flatbed. We could go home at night, come in the next morning, put another sheet in, and off it went," Pace adds. "You can’t do that with a hybrid."
When choosing a large format UV flatbed printer, it’s important to consider several key specifications, according to Mimaki’s Urmano—size, media thickness, ink types, and the range of substrates you’ll likely use.
"A gantry-designed printer also provides the best registration, which is really important when doing white overprints [and spot clear coats]," Urmano suggests.
Ralph Pace says he has no qualms about sharing his knowledge of digital print with others, including competitors. "We’re pretty good at specifying equipment. And I want to see people with equipment at least as good as what I have, because then the market gets educated about the product, and I can compete on our core strengths—service, quality, and ethics," he notes.
Pace offers this insider’s tip: When buying a digital flatbed printer, consider pass count. He says it’s far more important a specification than speed.
"Ask manufacturers about pass count," he suggests. "The more passes, the better the quality, color gamut, adhesion, apparent resolution. Many flatbeds have four- or six-count as a maximum. We print nothing less than eight or 16 passes. Our Mimaki will do up to 64 passes. Of course there are extra costs, and we charge accordingly, but it costs our customers nothing to reject a job. Generally, we don’t even offer a lower pass count."
POP work remains a small percent of ADJ Group’s total volume, but that’s simply because the company does so many different types of jobs. Like all the genres of print produced there, POP sales continue to grow.
"We have a 12,000-square-foot facility that I thought would last us forever," Pace explains. "Next week, I’m meeting with a real-estate agent to look at a new 30,000-square-foot building. And probably, if things continue to go the way they’re going, we’re going to require three or four more of these flatbeds."