Superman was famous for his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Print service providers (PSPs) can earn their own modicum of fame, and perhaps fortune, by wrapping them. Demand for building wraps is expected to enjoy healthy growth through the end of the decade.
“We estimate that the building wrap market will grow 15 percent between 2006 and 2010,” says Ziki Kuly, director and GM, large format industrial solutions, North America, Hewlett-Packard (HP).
The reason for the success is as obvious as the application itself. On a crowded street or jammed stadium parking lot, the bigger the print, the more attention it garners. Wraps are part of the booming outdoor advertising market—$7.28 billion a year—in North America, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.
“Advertisers are looking for non-traditional ways to promote their message,” explains Tim Boxeth, marketing manager, 3M Graphics Market Center. “Traditional advertising is no longer as eye-catching. Digital video recorders hurt TV advertising. We’re seeing growth in non-traditional advertising, like wraps.”
Agencies are attracted to wraps because “they’re unexpected,” explains Jim Clark, president, Blind Society, an AZ-based ad agency. “It’s a lot different than a billboard. Most consumers try to avoid advertising. They’re not expecting a building to be a large scale ad—it comes at them from nowhere.”
Building wraps do more than promote products, they disguise construction blight and, in some cases, promote art and local community projects. Forward-thinking property owners integrate external graphics into building designs. One such owner worked with bluemedia, a sign shop out of Tempe, AZ, to create an exterior fixture displaying grand format graphics.
“The owner read the local ordinances very carefully,” recalls Jared Smith, co-founder and president, bluemedia. “You could place large graphics on a building if there were no words. It wasn’t considered advertising. So the owner decided he would feature large graphics from local artists, and rotate the wrap two or three times a year—which was fine by us.”
Supersized graphics are also found in arenas and stages, shares Randy Crow, president, Source One Digital, Inc. The company recently completed a stage backdrop printed entirely on speaker mesh. The material is porous enough to let audio pass through unencumbered, while displaying an eye-catching graphic. It’s also lightweight, easy to fold, and thus easy to ship, Crow adds.
Weighing the Pros and Cons
For PSPs, offering building wraps delivers several positive returns. “At the end of the day, printing is a square foot business, and wraps give you a lot of square feet,” shares Smith.
“The benefit of offering building wraps is that it allows PSPs to diversify offerings and capture new customers,” Kuly observes. “By adding building wrap capabilities, PSPs are able to support the growing outdoor advertising market and offer customers another alternative to traditional advertising methods, one that captures a great deal of attention and is highly visible.”
For shops looking to provide customers with a soup-to-nuts campaign, grand format applications like building wraps are a must, advises Layne Morey, VP of marketing, Lithographix, based in Hawthorne, CA. Having added grand format printing into its capabilities just four and a half years ago, Morey says the company’s sales ballooned. “We thought we would be printing some banners, but we’re doing everything. Grand format printing is a God-send, it differentiates us from other commercial printers.”
Given size, cost, and complexity, wraps aren’t often the mainstay of a print shop, but they do provide an entrŽe to other work. “A limited client base requests building wraps. But we use wraps to leverage other applications,” Smith explains. Grand format prints are also the perfect promotional vehicle for a shop’s capabilities.
Wraps do come with their fair share of challenges. Providing a full-service solution requires a significant investment in facility space, finishing equipment, and qualified installers. A grand format printer is not an inexpensive purchase. “To get the return on investment (ROI), you really need to keep that machine printing,” suggests Crow.
Building wraps often have an uneasy co-existence with a town or municipality. The same elements that attract advertisers—size and boldness—can often run afoul of local ordinances. Careful preparation and coordination is required by a building owner, ad agency, and the PSP. “Sometimes you need a city council meeting just to wrap a building,” jokes Smith.
Trusted partners are also essential to building wraps. Not every PSP can afford to staff qualified installers, or have them at every job site. Finding reliable, quality partners for installation is crucial. Using qualified installers limits a company’s liability, notes Morey. They understand permits, which is a crucial—if overlooked—element to successfully executing a wrap. “You just can’t roll up to most buildings in a bucket truck,” explains Crow.
Even firms with qualified staff occasionally need to sub-contract some installations with unique requirements or height challenges. “Our operators are certified to work up to 125 feet, but just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should,” advises Smith.
Due to the expansive size of building wraps, PSPs who offer these applications typically restrict themselves to 118-inch machines or wider with production throughputs. The larger the printed panels, the less stitching and welding is required during the finishing process.
The result is faster, on-time production and, if need be, the ability to quickly deal with challenges that arise along the way. The flexibility of a printer is also a critical component when deciding if a machine is appropriate for building wraps.
“For our customers, productivity, versatility, and durability provided by HP large format solutions are the most important factors considered when purchasing a large format printer,” explains Kuly. “Versatility is also important because it allows the PSP to create a wide variety of large format applications for customers.” bluemedia utilizes a HP Scitex XL1500 three-meter printer for its quality and productivity.
Given viewing distance, color fidelity is not an immediate concern when producing wraps. But if you work in an image-conscious market such as CA, the look is everything.
Lithographix provides full-service commercial and grand format printing to some of the biggest studios in the business. They produce mesh wraps for Paramount’s Iron Mountain building in downtown Los Angeles, CA. From that perch, the firm promotes comic book blockbusters like Iron Man, Spiderman, and Transformers.
“We bring a commercial printing mentality into the grand format arena,” Morey explains. The company works with a variety of high-profile brands, such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Apple, and Gap. Retaining these high-profile clients takes an obsessive attention to color. The firm invested in EFI VUTEk’s six-color VUTEk 150, two eight-color VUTEk 3360s, four eight-color VUTEk 5330s, and two seven-color VUTEk QS3200 UV flatbeds. “With these printers we’re confident we can hit the colors we need to,” he shares.
Working in the entertainment industry means processing print orders fast. Clients are demanding and have high expectations. Printers need to keep pace. Lithographix’s VUTEk printers are pressed into service 24 hours a day, seven days a week creating output that includes building wraps.
Color was crucial in Source One’s decision to purchase a Jeti 5024 from Gandinnovations. Thanks to the 192-inch printer’s 30 picoliter printheads, Crow says he doesn’t have to explain to customers that image quality may be compromised the larger an image gets. “We are banishing the billboard mentality from our industry,” he explains.
After the design file is to specification and the site surveys are complete, a building wrap starts its journey from concept to concrete.
While eco-solvent and UV inks gain traction in smaller printers or in flatbeds, building wraps remain a predominately solvent-based application.
Thanks to a large install base, most building wraps are produced with solvent inks, explains Ruben Torres, sales manager, NuSign Supply. Large format UV solutions, however, are beginning to gain ground. “We just started carrying UV products, there is a huge demand.”
“We’re noticing more UV products sold for their environmental, or ‘green,’ appeal—especially in CA,” adds Tom Reilly, VP of marketing, Gandinnovations. With some towns slowly banning solvents for outdoor use, Reilly predicts UV grand format printers will only generate greater attention. This leads to advancements in media used for building wraps.
Heavier mesh, in the nine- to 13-ounce range, is the traditional media used for building wraps. Porous to admit airflow and rugged enough to endure the elements, it remains a staple of the outdoor market, shares John LoCicero, director of sales, Ultraflex Systems, Inc.
A newer media—textured surface film—is making its mark as an alternative to mesh for certain building projects. It adheres directly to surfaces, so a building doesn’t need to be fitted with cables or drilled into to affix a graphic, says 3M’s Boxeth. The film is used in more unique locations that may not be as accessible or as accommodating to mesh.
Surface film has roughly the same outdoor lifespan as mesh, but since it’s flush with a building, it stands no chance of blowing down. Being opaque, it reproduces a very colorful, vibrant image. However, UV inks are not appropriate for surface films such as 3M’s. “You need solvent inks, because when heating the film to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, UV inks won’t be able to conform without cracking,” adds Boxeth.
Mesh is compatible with UV inks and mesh wraps are much faster to install than film, argues LoCicero. “You can install mesh at up to 20 thousand square feet per hour, depending on how it’s prepped.” Unlike films, mesh is installed at any temperature and in humid conditions. Seeking to capitalize on the demand for green media, Ultraflex is preparing to launch a biodegradable mesh in early 2009, notes LoCicero.
bluemedia uses both mesh and film, to meet clients’ wraps needs. “We direct our clients to the right solution,” explains Smith. Choosing the appropriate solution “isn’t a price issue. Price doesn’t drive methodology. They tell us what they need, and we tell them the safest solution,” he adds.
Lighter materials for grand format graphics, such as PE-based media are also attractive to print shops because of their light weight and biodegradable features. Even unique media, like speaker mesh installed by Source One, is a profitable niche. “After we installed it on the concert stage, the buyer became our biggest advertiser,” Crow observes.
No matter what media or inks are used, finishing is crucial to the production of wraps. When Lithographix entered the grand format market, it imported finishers from the garment industry. A staff of 14 finishers at Lithographix wields mesh through a 105-foot welding machine from Miller Weldmaster Corporation and two industrial sewing machines from Consew. Source One, which currently boasts a single Weldmaster, is expanding its welding capability.
When printing on mesh, panels must be stitched or welded together using products from companies like Miller Weldmaster and Consew. Depending on how the wrap is secured to a structure, it may be necessary to stitch in webbing or pockets. For mesh wraps, the panels are typically seamed or welded together vertically. “There’s a temptation to hang one panel off the other to save time, but that’s a lot of weight for the top piece to carry,” cautions Smith.
Surface film requires an overlaminate prior to installation. Several tools are used to clean the surface and then the final product is installed into mortar lines using a heat gun.
Finishing a wrap can be challenging simply because the product is so big. “A 1oo-pound piece of vinyl can be cumbersome,” Morey observes. Proper planning and adequate floor space to lay out the final graphic helps ensure quality control.
With agencies looking to catch the eye of an increasingly fickle public, and as cash-strapped municipalities warm to the idea of permitting the use of public space for art or ads, building wrap graphics’ popularity is sure to grow. Capitalizing on these supersized prints takes a significant investment in time and money, but for the PSP willing to take the leap, the sky, quite literally, is the limit.