Most technologies follow a predictable curve, and wide format printers are no exception. What is initially an expensive piece of hardware employed by a select few businesses, eventually and inevitably widens to incorporate a variety of businesses and applications as the technology improves and competition drives costs down.
Wide format printers, defined as those capable of producing output from 24 to 100 inches wide, are today being deployed by sign shops, service bureaus, commercial printers, prepress firms, and even in-plant printers for producing posters, tradeshow graphics, and retail signage.
When Scott Snoyer opened his FASTSIGNS, Inc. franchise in Nashville, TN in 1994, "there was no wide format to speak of." The company purchased electro-static equipment in 1999 but has since moved to an inkjet environment. Today, the quick print company owns several wide format printers from HP and Seiko. The firm’s most recent purchase was a VUTEk QS 2000 UV flatbed by EFI, Inc. in the Fall. The company invested in the QS 2000 for its, "speed and capacity," Snoyer relates.
The foundation of Snoyer’s franchise is real estate signage, but he also specializes in tradeshow graphics, banners, dimensional letters, laser engraving, vehicle graphics, and full color digital displays.
Springfield VA-based Imaging Zone describes itself as, "a fusion of printing and high technology." The company provides an array of printing services—including offset—to designers, agencies, design and marketing firms, photographers, illustrators, corporations, and, since it services the Washington, DC area, government agencies. According to president Mounir Murad, the firm had always relied on outsourcing wide format output to a printer directly next door. "It didn’t make sense for us to bring the equipment in-house because of our relationship with this neighbor," Murad says.
That company, however, was forced to merge and relocate in the wake of financial difficulties, leaving Murad with a choice—find a new partner or bring wide format capability in-house.
"It would have been a difficult task to continue outsourcing," without the neighborly proximity, he states. So instead, Murad went shopping. "What I was looking for was a device manufactured by a reputable company with a service track record, used eco-solvent inks with excellent image quality, reliable heads, a reasonable price, and the ability to handle indoor and outdoor graphics."
He purchased an Agfa Sherpa Universal 90 in 2005 on the tradeshow floor of Graph Expo. Since then, he has been using the printer for a variety of output including wallpaper. Murad plans to promote his new capabilities aggressively. "We know that the demand is quite good in the Washington metro area as evidenced by the growth of competing companies. As a result, we will be employing in 2007 an outside sales staff for both offset printing and large format," Murad states.
For Jerry Manikowski, partner, Digital Imaging Resources, Inc., flexibility was paramount when choosing a wide format printer to expand his business beyond its core architectural design customer base. "We made a conscious decision to go after the color market," he says. "We needed the machine to do a lot."
After an exhausting ten-month search, the company centered on the Rho 600 flatbed from Durst. Among its attractive attributes, says Manikowski, was its ability to print white, to print on glass, and the ease with which it handled a variety of substrates.
Syracuse, NY-based Photomedia Revolutions brought a Roland SOLJET XC-540 into its family-owned business to augment its one-stop-shop positioning, says president Neil Kampas.
"My father had four large format digital color printers from the time he went digital in January 1993," Kampas states. The company purchased the first XC-540 available in the U.S. in July 2006, as an alternative to costlier solutions. "There is a great deal of competition in the graphics industry. It makes more sense to add a second and a third 540 to increase our productivity, rather than expensing a six-figure unit," Kampas adds.
Necessity was the mother of invention for Rex Jobe, president, The Color Place, in Dallas, TX. A business that began in the late 1970s as a photo lab has been transformed into a comprehensive, "manufacturer of digital graphics," according to Jobe.
"We now have four output centers, using different technology," he adds. The first is wide format, employing HP Scitex solvent printers. The second is a photographic process for high resolution point-of-purchase. The third is UV printing onto acrylic, Gator, foam board, etc. and finally, there is a traditional four-color printing business using an HP Indigo.
The company’s next purchase will be a dye-sublimation attachment for its HP Scitex XL Jet for fabric printing. "We have client demand for it, but it’s also our first chance to do dye-sub in larger widths at faster speeds," Jobe states.
Ron Breton, co-owner of SunCoast Graphics Factory in Odessa, FL, has seen digital printing explode in just four years. "When we started, were we doing 70 percent screen printing and 30 percent digital. Today, it’s reversed," Breton says. "Screen printing has its uses, but it's just older technology."
Breton credits the dramatic growth in digital to the purchase of a Mimaki JV3 a little over a year ago. "It seemed like, as soon as we got the printer, the jobs came," he says.
A Wide Range of Applications
How are companies leveraging wide format? Most businesses are embracing a two prong approach—using the printer to create efficiencies in its core business and also to break into new markets.
"The capabilities of the technology have allowed us to use graphics in ways we’ve never done before," Jobe says. One novel, if slightly morbid, new niche that Jobe’s firm has capitalized on is casket wraps. The Color Place has a contract with a firm that offers a variety of pre-set graphics for use in decorating their metallic coffins. The firm prints these designs—typically religious themes—on adhesive-backed vinyl.
The Color Place has also taken the vehicle wrap to the high seas—and lakes. With the popularity of competitive bass fishing growing, sponsors are clamoring for space on the hull and The Color Place has been enjoying a brisk business in wrapping bass boats. "Everything gets laminated and we use a good adhesive that can keep the graphic secure," says Jobe. The process, he explains, is just like a vehicle wrap.
Many print buyers still require educating as to what the new technology can do. "This is new, not only to us, but the designers are just getting their arms around it," Manikowski says. "As there are more and more materials we can print on, we have the ability to educate our customers. We find ourselves playing the role of consultant, which is an opportunity for us."
Digital Imaging Resources has found itself printing on a lot of Dibond—an aluminum based material with a thermoplastic center—on its Durst Rho 600. "It gives designers a chance to introduce metallic elements into their designs," Manikowski adds.
Photomedia Revolutions’ Kampas explains that the company has produced a variety of diverse signage on its SOLJET. "We’ve printed and custom-cut thousand quantities of 2x2-inch intricate decals," he says.
"Most of our tradeshow output panels are in the 24x30- to 30x92-inch range," Kampas states. "At the other extreme, we have printed 4x30-foot banners in a single piece and 8x12-foot murals for museum and architectural design applications. We are just starting to demonstrate to our clients some cling film and floor graphic solutions to help enhance their branding and advertising," he adds.
For Imaging Zone’s Murad, the purchase of an Agfa Sherpa Universal 90 has seen the firm producing a lot of outdoor signage and banners. "The market for outdoor banner business and special application prints on specific media has been good for us recently," he observes.
All Substrates Great and Small
While UV technology has been discussed for years, many businesses are still wrapping their arms around its capabilities.
When printing on a variety of substrates, you have to carefully manage your colors, Jobe suggests. "We spend a great deal of time on color management, tracking inks and our printers to make sure they’re consistent."
FASTSIGNS’ Snoyer finds UV printing on his VUTEk QS2000 far more forgiving, color-wise, than solvent. "In UV, you can use fewer profiles because the ink is sitting on top of the substrate," he explains. However, UV printing is not without its own learning curve. "We’ve spent a lot of time learning what we can and can’t do with this machine," Snoyer says.
Specifically, since the company has been able to print directly onto a wide range of substrates, jobs are completed in a fraction of the time.
"We are learning how to make the most of our efficiency," Snoyer states. "We’ve had a 40 percent increase in our volume in the last two years and we’ve only added one extra staff member."
The company is also experimenting with the diverse array of media and trying to improve its prototyping. "We’re coming up with new things every day," Snoyer says.
He purchased the QS2000 in October and says that as yet, he has no plans to add another printer in-house. "Although," he laughs, "I said that a year ago, a few months before I bought the QS." He is shopping for a heat seamer to enable him to finish graphics coming off of the QS2000. "We’ve found that [facility] space is the biggest hurdle," when dealing in wide format graphics, he observes.
Finishing is also on the mind of Digital Imaging Resources’ Manikowski. After adding a Durst Rho 600 to its stable of printers, the company has since discovered that flatbed printing and cutting, "go hand in hand."
"It’s not an either/or proposition. If you get a flatbed, you need a router or a cutter," Manikowski says. "Only by effectively automating your finishing can you ensure that you don’t lose the efficiency gains brought on by wide format printing."
Eco-solvent inks were a significant attraction for Imaging Zone’s Murad. The company is employing eco-solvent inks in its Sherpa that are guaranteed for a three-year outdoor use. Murad was attracted to eco-solvents because they, "do not require the ventilation that solvent inks require and do not contain any cancer-producing chemicals."
While color management has been a challenge, integrating wide format digital printing into his business has otherwise been "a snap," says Breton of SunCoast Graphics Factory. Thanks to its new wide format capabilities, the company began wholesaling larger prints for local shops who couldn’t offer vinyl banners in-house. Vehicle wraps are also hot, Breton adds. "Everyone wants to treat their trailers and vans like rolling billboards."
SunCoast is looking to compliment its existing Mimaki JV3 with a second model to increase print speeds. "We’ll also likely get the JV5 as well," he notes.
While the worldwide market for wide format graphics hit a whopping $32 billion in 2006, according to the research firm I.T. Strategies, many wide format applications have eased into maturity. The well trodden paths of point-of-purchase and tradeshow graphics occupy the bulk of the market, and as such, the bulk of the competition.
The retail pricing of both POP and tradeshow graphics have declined, I.T. Strategies notes, but many printers believe there is still room for new growth within established categories.
Snoyer has been easing his FASTSIGNS franchise into POP with an eye toward a specific type of customer. "We’re addressing a niche customer who maybe owns a small store or chain and can’t afford the volume POP purchase," he says. "They don’t want big numbers, but they want high quality."
"In the past two years, we’ve seen the fastest growth in our wide format business," Jobe states. Vehicle wraps in particular are hot. People have embraced the concept of the mobile billboard," he adds.
"We’ve also seen increased demand in the retail and tradeshow arena for graphics on fabrics," Jobe adds.
One area of note is customized wallpaper for retail establishments and restaurants.
Indeed, according to I.T. Strategies, fabric printing, decorative advertising, and fine art reproduction represent some of the stronger growth markets within the wide format universe.
"We have seen clients ask for a greater range of materials" to be printed on, Manikowski adds.
Digital is not without its own competitive pitfalls, printers acknowledge.
"Everything’s competitive," Jobe concludes. "That’s the curse and beauty of digital—it has taken industries that used to be segmented and made it all one big pie. It has allowed us to compete in a variety of different markets, but you can no longer specialize."
The pace of technological change is also a growing strategic factor, according to Snoyer. "It’s getting faster and faster and more expensive to keep up."