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Print Seen as a Growth Industry

Newcomers Want In

By Steve Aranoff & Robert FitzPatrick

There are bright spots in the print industry despite sales woes. In our June column we discussed the opportunities presented at the ISA Expo. This month, we’d like to expand on the topic of growth opportunities by studying digitally printed products from the viewpoint of manufacturers outside of the digital printing industry that see emerging print products as a chance to continue growing while their own industries slow.

Why are so many jumping on the digital print bandwagon? Statistics show that the number of flatbed UV printers sold in 2007 is virtually double the forecast in 2004. Although it is still a relatively small number, approximately 3,750 units were sold in the last year. Add over 4,000 roll printers of three-meter width or wider and this number is even more attractive. For many outside manufacturers, these are large numbers. Many know about the proliferation of available large format digital printers in the marketplace. Printers now cover every conceivable size, speed, quality level, and price point of interest to print service providers (PSPs).

One reason for such continued growth is that print speed and color image quality is so advanced that it is no longer competitive for a PSP to continue using printers that are more than two years old. One digital shop replaced an older UV flatbed with two new units because it couldn’t sell competitively off the first unit anymore. More so, it simply wasn’t worth keeping as a back-up printer.

A second reason for the print industry’s growth is its involvement with new advancements in short run finishing. The combination of print and cut makes it easier to attract new customers and provide different variations of work existing customers might need. Some ideas for allied jobs and reasons newcomers are entering the digital print industry include woodworking and engraving, sign making, packaging/sample making, short run design, and doming.

Making In-Roads
What do woodworking and engraving, sign making, packaging/sample making, short run design, and doming have in common with digital printing? Each is on the periphery of print, providing something similar, but quite different in manufacture.

Woodworkers and sign makers saw opportunity to provide their current customer base with more support by incorporating print into their list of service offerings. In purchasing a wide format printer and laminating to rigid materials, the sign maker or woodworker now has the ability to print letters or designs rather than route or engrave them. Since the woodworker is no longer starting from a blank sheet, it is necessary for the sheet to be cut out, and he has to accurately route the edges of the sign to match the printed background. This varies from the previous process of cutting out letters or engraving images out of blank stock. Digital offers more creativity, but it changes production workflow and requires knowledge about new technology.

With packaging and sample making, people once created cardboard or corrugated package/carton samples, but these are now printed in one pass and finished, creating a realistic sample.

Short run design is a lot like sample making. Rather than create by hand, designers have the software to create and print all kinds of specialty graphics. Digital print offers the ability to produce high-quality, in-house products, down to a quantity of one. Add the ability to deploy finishing methods and it is no wonder that short run design is responsible for the digital print industry’s growth.

Doming is a different process from printing. Plastic drops from nozzles in the proper quantity and location to fill in a graphical object. Common domed figures include automobile emblems and new car dealer decals. This process—although different from printing—is an alternative add-on for existing businesses. A printer may consider adding doming capabilities to complement their services. Likewise, domers may consider adding digital print capabilities.

Involved in the Industry
If you think about it, each of these newcomers have their own suppliers and these suppliers must figure out how they can keep servicing their current customers. This means suppliers are also forced to enter the print marketplace. It is easy to recognize the robust, projected growth of wide format digital printing. These newcomers and their suppliers are also seeing an increase in the kinds of materials printed on—from narrow format through wide format digital. This adds to the need for new devices.

Those looking to make in-roads can walk the aisles of trade shows such as drupa, ISA, SGIA, and other digital print venues. There, they can see the excitement of vendors and users alike. The shows are full of opportunities to move product strengths into this new and growing arena.

Past and Present
In the sign business, customers insisted upon adding print. Some old sign vendors, such as Gerber Scientific Products, Inc., recognized this as an opportunity to keep its base, but strove to provide them with new digital printing capabilities to go with their woodworking routers. Now on their second generation printer, Gerber also purchased a finishing company, Data Technology, adding additional strength to their selling ability. Printers were the way of the future for Gerber, but they didn’t forget their finishing roots—they strengthened them.

Next to the market came packaging companies doing simple sample making. With packaging going off-shore to follow the manufacture of goods, opportunities arose for short run trials through digital printing and finishing. They’ve now created new product marketing opportunities that allow their output to be sold, rather than just being a cost center. Some big packaging companies own superwide digital printers and are busy looking for new ways to use their expertise in digital print.

Recently, we studied a small format digital printer printing on a variety of materials for badges, ceramics, name plates, and more innocuous products. A closer look at the capabilities of this printer revealed that it seemed like a great fit for pairing with small format cutting tables and office environment lasers. A low-cost digital printer with an office capable digital cutter now makes it possible to give designers true short run capabilities for testing packaging and smaller point of purchase displays and getting customer sign off before releasing for larger production runs. Most of these concepts are still in the works, but suffice it to say these printers will enter the market later this year and further the opportunity for the small PSP to grow.

Watch It Grow
In the end, the rapid growth of digital printing products continues to spawn new businesses and encourage older ones to continuously upgrade technology. The result is more marketable products available to digital printers.

However, this opportunity also creates challenges. Many of the printing and/or finishing companies just entering the market are not yet proficient. They want to sell machines into a new market, but not necessarily solve production and workflow problems. These companies need to choose from available industry standard solutions to wrap around their products. Pricing the product correctly is one step in the right direction. If the company provides new business opportunities, but allows these capabilities to be exported into the mainstream of business tools, it is also a good opportunity.

As usual, the market requires your due diligence. Don’t get caught short by letting others suggest solutions you are not sure will meet your needs.

Oct2008, Digital Output

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