One of globalization’s well publicized impacts has been the off-shoring of manufacturing to Asia—among other regions—where labor costs are low and the regulatory environment is loose to non-existent. The same forces that drove down the price of a DVD player to under $20 have also brought large format printing media prices down dramatically.
For end users, this influx of competition has broadened their options for less expensive media, not simply from off-shore suppliers, but from name brands as well. Many companies have responded to the competition by introducing new value-oriented product lines to retain the price conscious. They have also put renewed emphasis on differentiation—through service, deliver times, breadth of supply, quality of paper, and new applications—to keep customers coming back.
"The market [for inexpensive media] was not underserved, but we needed to play there," states Gabriel Maxwell, director of marketing, Arlon Graphic Films. The company will expand its line from one to six films in the promotional range by the end of the year and bulk up its promotional scrim vinyl from three to as many as eight products, he adds.
"We have diversified our product to include a sub-brand, Océ Options, for value buyers," states Dan Halkyard, director of marketing, Océ North America. In that brand, the company sells a scrim vinyl geared for aqueous printers running pigmented inks for producing outdoor signage without lamination. "It gives us a price point advantage," notes Halkyard.
MACtac has also responded to the price competition by introducing a two-year and under print vinyl, says Kristi Young, product manager, MACtac.
The proliferation of lower cost media from Asia was, "initially detrimental to people who supply higher-end product," says Lorna D’Alessio, president, Ultraflex Systems, Inc. But a funny thing happened on the way to the full-blown price war—customers started coming back.
"This holds for us and our competitors," D’Alessio says. "I think as [print providers] began to realize the shipping constraints—the inconsistency of the media—customers started coming back." Shipping in particular hurt overseas suppliers who couldn’t match the demanding turnaround times of printers, she continues.
To push back against aggressive pricing, D’Alessio says her company began to add value to its existing products by increasing technical support and customer service, and doubling inventories so media could be stocked and ready for speedy shipping. The company also added economical lines as well as diversified its products to include printable carpet and wallpaper to help print providers find higher margin compliments to banners and billboards.
Companies who primarily sell coated media for aqueous printers have been more insulated from overseas competition, suppliers say. "We haven’t seen the offshore competition to be a big problem," says Ed McCarron, director of marketing, InteliCoat Technologies.
"There hasn’t been much price erosion for us," seconds Kevin Shimamoto, worldwide marketing manager, Kodak.
Besides, McCarron adds, "very low prices are attractive to a limited audience, when you consider the delivery times and minimum ordering requirements" entailed by overseas supplies.
"Price drives things to some degree, but it’s not the best way to look at it," offers Regan Dickinson, marketing communications specialist, LexJet. "As a provider, you want to base your print prices on value, not cost."
"Ultimately you get what you pay for," Halkyard states. Going cheaper can cut out a host of important support such as ICC profiles, next day delivery, and knowledgeable tech support, he adds. "For someone new to digital printing, that support is extremely important."
"We have invested a lot of time in researching the compatibility of our media, building out our ICC profiles, and providing an extensive range of technical support," Shimamoto adds.
Helping end-users improve productivity is another way to appeal to the value-conscious. GBC is focused on microporous polyester media to speed dry times and make the print-to-lamination workflow more efficient, notes Cindy Pilch, senior product manager, GBC. "Everyone is focused on productivity," she adds. "They want the media to print correctly the first time and dry quickly so they can get it laminated."
Engineering media top-coats to use less ink and thus print faster is a focus for Neschen Americas, notes Eric Tischer, director of sales, Neschen Americas. "That’s the differentiator—the top-coating," he says.
For Sihl USA, manufacturing its own product with little third party sourcing is a way to reassure customers that the company stands behind what it sells, says Philip Hursh, president, Sihl USA. "Every time a product changes hands from a factory to an intermediate brand owner, there is a transaction cost eventually paid by the printer, and a dilution of accountability," he says. "Know your source."
Experience counts, observes Max Bowers, owner, BF Inkjet. Knowing the chemistry behind inkjet coatings enables the company to transition its chemistry as new technology emerges as well as handle custom work for large volume clients, he adds.
In The Field
Professional photographer Alan Maltz is no stranger to the booming market for fine art. His work is in demand at the highest levels—former President Jimmy Carter’s home and the presidential library in GA both display Maltz’s work. He is also the official fine art photographer and official wildlife photographer for the state of FL. He established his eponymous gallery in 1999 in Key West, FL to reclaim creative control over printing his own works.
Maltz prints on an Epson 9800 and 9600 using BF Inkjet canvas media. For Maltz, it was an issue of finding a suitably white canvas that gave him the "look and feel and image performance" he was after. He coats his matte canvases with a Daige laminate for a satin finish and to defend the print from the elements. Finding the canvas, he notes, was the easy part—Maltz credits his canvas with being 98 percent color accurate and consistent. "It was a tough road to find the right coating," he relates, "we went through a lot of materials."
On his wish list is a canvas media that he wouldn’t have to finish. "A lot of companies say they have it, but you really still need to laminate them."
Signs By Tomorrow owner Jim Hare switched to digital printing three years ago with the purchase of a Mimaki JV3. Since then, "every year we do less cut vinyl and more digital." He sources his media primarily from Arlon, alongside 3M and Avery. "I go way back with Arlon, I’ve had a long relationship with them," Hare notes.
Arlon’s cast laminates allow him to do "a lot of vehicle wraps" and full color site signs for auto-malls and the local AAA baseball team. Hare is leveraging his close relationship with the company to overcome his color management challenges, he adds.
Hare has done plenty of experimenting, testing out media for a variety of applications and mixing and matching where appropriate.
"I’m doing more testing than ever; we’re looking for niche applications to make us more competitive," he says. Though, he adds, "we don’t do a lot of re-evaluating for our standard vinyl."
While the firm is enjoying double digit growth, Hare wants to push into better margin work as more competitors adopt digital. That, and "the price of doing business in CA is high," he sighs.
Jon Ninmer, graphics supervisor, Derse Exhibits, uses LexJet’s satin paper and TD film for its tradeshow and exhibit printing business, in addition to media from Charrette, a division of Pitman, and glossy vinyl and mirrored backlit from InteliCoat.
Before considering new materials, Ninmer says he puts it and the supplier "through their paces. I get quotes, evaluate the costs, and see how quickly my orders can be turned around. That’s a measure of whether they take you seriously. I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle." The material is also tested extensively, he says.
"I see if they stand behind their materials," Ninmer adds. He has had calls from LexJet warning him of a batch of media that may have had an issue before the company had a chance to use it. That proactive and communicative posture is crucial, he says. "Communication is the key."
Derse has just brought solvent in-house as well and will continue to closely study its performance. "It was driven by cost," Ninmer notes. The company is using solvent to print on adhesive-backed vinyl for window films on buses and for exhibit displays.
"The amount of media available for solvent has increased quite a bit since we first considered the technology two years ago," Ninmer says. He adds that he finally added solvent because of speed and comparable print quality to his existing aqueous machines—HP 5000s, among others.
Any printer, ink, and media technology "has got to be perfect; there is pressure on us to get the best results," Ninmer states. When anything new is added to the mix, "I can’t be offering less quality than before; I can only improve."
For Derse, canned profiles are insufficient to its color-matching needs. "They’re good enough to get you started, but we find it’s better to build your own. That way you account for your environment," continues Ninmer.
Philip Sheesley, owner of Haverhill, MA-based Image Express, made the jump into large format printing in 1996 when he realized the slide imaging business was collapsing in the wake of PowerPoint. The firm now boasts three 60-inch printers from HP and a 64-inch Seiko ColorPainter 640.
The firm specializes in tradeshow graphics and event signage for corporate accounts. The challenge for Image Express, Sheesley explains, was finding a media that could boast the color gamut of a dye ink using pigment technology for its longer life. The solution, he says, was a line of Océ’s media recommended by his supplier which allows him to enjoy the longevity of pigments without sacrificing the color.
"It lets us get more ink onto the paper and get closer to the color gamut we need," Sheesley states. "There were photobase papers and microporous papers but that didn’t give us the kind of saturation we needed with our print heads."
He adds that he is also a "big microporous user as well." Sheesley notes that after some experimenting, they had "tamed the beast" and found an ink setting on his HP printer that produced excellent results on
Océ’s microporous papers with no banding.
On the solvent side, Sheesley says he was impressed—"shocked"—by the quality of the output they were able to achieve. "We were using a rather mild ink set, not eco-solvent, but not the most aggressive ink. It rivals my dye aqueous inkjet."
He is now printing more scrim vinyl banners and vehicle wraps, thanks to the solvent. Sheesley says that he was looking at the increasing range of specialty media to feed his solvent machine.
"A failure to standardize media and inks results in duplicating brands for the same application," Bowers says. "This produces inconsistent results compounded by additional variables such as frequently changing ink brands. As often as not, people do this to save money upfront, but in the end, the time expended and loss of consistent workflow obviate perceived gain."
Ralph Waldo Emerson once dismissed a "foolish consistency" as the "hobgoblin of little minds"—and sure, there’s no need to be foolish about it, but consistency in media counts. Consistent performance roll-to-roll is crucial, but internal consistency is important as well.