Definitive forces create an evolution in the large format space. The economy, demands for eco-friendly products, and consolidation across the boards change both the way we print and the speed products arrive on the market.
Every industry feels the effects of the current economy. MACtac views a couple of shifts in the market. "As the advertising spending goes, so goes our customers’ businesses, so I think everyone is finding it a bit challenging, and I’d expect it to continue to be challenging for at least the first half of the year," states Mary Ann Kucera, product manager, digital, MACtac.
"Everyone is looking hard at economics," adds Kucera. End users are asking, "Are we buying the product that’s right for this application? If the job is going to be up and down in six months, do I really need a four or five year product? What kind of laminate is appropriate? Can I get away with a liquid lam? Will this be used indoors? Can I use a product less expensive that a typical vinyl lam?"
Kucera says customers find much more competition in their markets. "We have to keep them ahead of their competitors by getting new products such as our Enhancer metallic laminates, RAYZor matte laminate for vehicle wraps, and our wallNOODLE removable/repositionable wall graphics media. They need as much dazzle in their application arsenal as we can provide, to keep them on top of their game."
"Typically, in presidential election years, we see a boost in our business prior to the primaries, then again in the months preceding the general elections," notes Kucera. "Philosophically, the mood of the country is influenced by what we think of the people in the White House, and as that mood improves, so does consumer confidence and spending, which has a direct effect on what advertisers spend promoting their products."
"There’s a lot of economic bad news everywhere you turn—whether it be in print or on TV," notes Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA, Inc. "I think we’re just at the beginning of this process. I think it’s going to slow down dramatically."
How has the economy affected the product development timelines of market suppliers? "It’s fun to use the economy as a scapegoat, but in reality, development timelines were compressed for years," explains Kucera. "We all want to have the latest and greatest in the market, but we need to balance that with demonstrated performance and careful end user recommendations so our customers are well served. We’ve moved our Enhancer metallic laminates into the market rapidly, for example, but we did a ton of internal testing and testing with select customers. This all helped to ensure they would perform well in the intended end use."
While Urmano shares that Mimaki’s product development plans have yet to slip, the company is seeing some sales slowdown. "We are seeing the most impact in sales on our higher-end products," notes Urmano. "JV33’s are selling like crazy," he adds, while sales of JF UV flatbed’s are decreasing.
The color green is on the top of the trend charts in fashion, home décor, and automobiles. Now, green is extending beyond dress shirts and Volkswagens, becoming symbolic of a cross-industry movement to produce more eco-friendly, biodegradable products.
Many see "green" talk more as marketing hype at this point. "I think it’s kind of a work in progress. I think a lot of people are just paying lip service to this issue," states Urmano. He says a lot of the push for "green" remains with the customer. They need to choose whether the public image of going "green" outweighs the economic gains of using solvents. "It’s gotten to a point where things are just faster, better, cheaper," Urmano says of the solvent market.
Beyond the outdoor quality of a Mimaki printer, Urmano says the "green" factor draws customers to Mimaki as well. The company offers ES3 ink—a standard Epson eco-solvent ink. "Most people buy a Mimaki for the standard solvent, which is like a mild solvent. It doesn’t really have the carcinogens. It’s a low volatile organic compound (VOC)."
The financial investment in developing "green" offerings is a heavy weight. "The biggest challenge we face, though, is economics," says Kucera. "‘Green’ materials tend to be more expensive, sometimes a lot more expensive, than standard products. It will take a strong commitment from end users to move these types of products into common usage. In the long run, though, as demand increases, I expect that prices will decrease, due to competition, technology improvements, and, of course, regulation requiring that this type of product be more widely used."
Kucera tells us MACtac is attacking the "green" issue on several fronts. "First is the manufacturing side, by using products with minimal affect on the environment. Those would include polypropylene films, water-borne adhesives, and recyclable liners. Polyprops were historically used in the roll label market as printing substrates, but are infrequently used in ours due to limited exterior durability. Suppliers are evaluating additives to enhance durability, but the market’s still a bit away from having a robust solution for an exterior media."
MACtac is also evaluating biodegradable materials—a difficult task Kucera notes, as the factors which enhance biodegradability limit outdoor durability. "One promising path, though, are films which anaerobicically decompose. That is, they decompose in oxygen-deprived environments like that found in landfills."
Environmentally driven products are streaming into the print world, but there is always room for improvement. "One product may be a bit more healthy to breathe, but as far as disposal goes, you still have issues there," notes Urmano. Recycling of ink cartridges and media is an area for "green" expansion, notes Urmano. "There’s probably room in the market for recycling. We do have customers asking for it."
Vendor consolidation was a clear presence in the last year. "We have less competition as far as the number of entities out there," says Urmano.
"Consolidation is always a good news/bad news sort of a situation. Because larger, stronger customers generally command more aggressive pricing, products become commoditized and therefore less expensive," notes Kucera. "On the other hand, commoditization tends to limit the creative process, because materials are developed with cost in mind. Ours is still a very creative market, and out-of-the-ordinary materials are still very much in demand from those of us on the supplier side."
Urmano thinks it is too early to tell if recent consolidation will impact product offerings. "Most of the consolidation that’s occurring right now is happening on the UV side of the market from my perspective." He notes that the 2007 SGIA show seemed to stand out largely as a UV show. "It just seems to me there’s a lot more UV product offerings than buyers."
This doesn’t seem to turn Mimaki away from UV product development. In fact, Urmano says Mimaki will add to their UV line this fall with a release planning to launch at SGIA in October.
New technology entries change the large format landscape. With the cost of some printers, it may take a few years for the newest devices to hit the shop floor and replace older equipment.
"I think we’ve gone where we need to go on the printing side of it. To drive the product cost down, we need a good UV curing system. I think you’re just starting to see that open up with UV-curable inks, cold-curing ink, and also with media," states Urmano.
"I think UV print technology is really where the growth is going to be. And that in itself can be a ‘green’ technology. So I really see that as the turning point for the market," he adds.
Kucera notes a few technologies shaking up the large format print space. "You’ve probably heard more than you want about direct to substrate, which affects the mounting film business directly. And, of course, liquid lams can be a cost effective replacement for laminating films on the low end of the durability spectrum."